The End of Employment

I’m a man. In US culture, that’s synonymous with “employed”. If you doubt this, go to a party, and introduce yourself to someone. The first question you’ll be asked is “what do you do for a living?” Humans interact with one another beginning with categories (male/female; my tribe/not my tribe; kind of work; religion, etc.), and proceed (sometimes) to individuality.

Therefore, if your answer is an individual one, you’re asking people to move to a level of interaction with you that they might not be comfortable with. There will be awkwardness on one side or the other. [NOTE: some organizations encourage this in the name of starting conversations that can be used for recruiting purposes, as in “I help ordinary people reach extraordinary goals,” which sounds on its face like a great thing, but is always, in my experience, either a financial services pitch or an MLM. As such, it has ruined that kind of answer for people for everyone.]

My situation is complex. I never know how to answer that question. Generally speaking, I list off the things I do in some sort of order and ask them to pick. It’s unsatisfactory, of course. The purpose of the question is to allow them to categorize me, and what I’ve done is said, “you can’t.” Am I a mortgage officer? A writer? A teacher? An opera singer? A director? A public speaker? You bet I am. I get paid to do all those things. They aren’t hobbies.

Robot-butler1There have been an increasing number of articles written about the transitional economy in which we find ourselves, where our technological achievements have made a number of fields of employment precarious, if not completely untenable. Manufacturing jobs everyone knows about, but more and more no industry is safe. Loan officering? Heck, a computer can do 80% of what I do, and it can do 100% of what some LOs do, faster, cheaper, and with fewer mistakes. Driving a truck? Carrying mail? Reading meters? Even things like writing novels, once thought to be safe because of the creative element involved, are under fire. Robots will replace most of the jobs we currently have. It’s going to happen. It’s happening. You, sitting at your desk? Don’t look back. Something is gaining on you.

The good news here is that robots are ridiculously cheap to run and that means that most of the things we’re paying for now will continue to fall in price. We won’t have to work as hard to pay for the things we want. There will be tremendous upheaval before we get to the point where people have to work only a few hours a day doing things that have to pay, but we will get there, and we’ll get there in my lifetime.

When that happens, the number of specialists is going to go way down. If you’re not in a job that simply cannot be done by a robot–and I’m struggling to think of what job that might be (possibly teaching)–it won’t make any Horse_Buggydifference what you went to school to learn to do. It won’t matter if you go back and get a different sort of training. When every job is a buggy-maker, what kind of buggy you’re making is irrelevant.

People will need to learn to decouple themselves from their employment. Think about the word, for a moment. Employment. It means that you’re a hammer, and someone has picked you up and used you for their purposes, whatever those are. It might be driving a nail. It might be clubbing someone over the head. Can the hammer object? Not really. It is being employed to do a task, the larger implications of which are not its business. Why we think employment is a good thing, then, is a little confusing to me.

Many people are going to have to learn to move beyond employment, to become post-employment workers. Don’t misunderstand me, work is critically important to people’s mental health. Working is good for people. Jobs, employment, are not necessarily the same thing. I’ve had jobs that weren’t work, per se. Haven’t you? But work is one thing, and employment is something else. To illustrate, I’ll use my own situation. I know it best, and I’m unlikely to sue myself for libel if I get something wrong.

I like work. I do as much work as anyone I know. That my work is pleasant, not physically taxing, fairly flexible in terms of hours, and sometimes non-remunerative is no reason to discount it. Quite the contrary.

The reason I can’t answer the party question is that I’m post-employment already. Hey, for the first time ever, I might be cutting-edge! How’s that for a degree in Classical Civilization!

Actually, it’s what you ought to expect from it. I got a degree in a subject in which there was no employment. I went to college to learn stuff (and to get married, I won’t lie), not to get a job. I wanted the piece of paper, not employment. I knew I could get a job if I wanted one, doing all manner of things, and that is precisely what I’ve proceeded to do. I got the costume piece that says “educated”, and gives me entree into the job market, entirely (hilariously) irrespective of the fact that my education has nothing at all to do with any specific piece of employment.

What I do in that market is sell myself. I can do almost anything. I can clean things, write everything that man can write (yes, even things like sonnets), teach practically any subject (I am right now teaching biology, anthropology, and astrophysics), analyze financial statements, tax returns, or mortgages, conduct choirs, sing, dance, and act. I can run meetings, motivate, create and brainstorm. Those are just the things I have already done. I can learn to do anything else. ANYTHING else (given time). And I’ll probably enjoy the process.

But here’s the kicker. I’m a whole toolbox in one, but I like hitting my own nails. I won’t be employed. You can ask me, and if I like the job you can hire me (please do!), but you’ll not put me in a position and keep me there.

It’s not for the faint of heart. But it will be, I believe, the wave of the future. More and more people will be performing jobs on their own time, their own schedules, contracting as they desire to, for whatever work they decide they want to do*. It’s less “stable” than a job at IBM; on the other hand, a staffing cutback at one of the schools I teach at would have no more than a transitory effect on my income. Not everyone will be able to (and many fewer will actually want to) make this transition. The need to, though, is already here.

Broaden your skills. Take classes in things you can’t see any use for. Approach the future of your work in terms of what you’re going to be so excited to do that people will be compelled to pay you to do it. If they do, you’ll be happy and fed. And then, if they don’t, you’ll just be happy. Either way, you win.

If you meet me at a party, I won’t ask what you do. Will you forgive me if, when you do, I give you a really odd answer? Maybe together we can come up with a better question, one that fits the way we’re going to be living from now on.

*A couple of things need to happen for this to become more prevalent. One is that government needs to get out of the bleeping way. Categorizing people as “employees” or “independent contractors” is ridiculous. Almost everyone falls into both categories. Federal regulations on this are just making it hard for people to find work, and restricting the number of companies that will hire the work done.

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