Posted by: crudbasher | September 16, 2011

Are Jobs Obsolete? – A Reponse To Douglas Rushkoff

I love articles like this. Douglas Rushkoff posts a thought provoking question by asking are jobs obsolete.

I agree with the first part of the article but not the last part.  Still the question itself is quite interesting. We are living in a time where many of the fundamentals about our society are being called into question. Some of these fundamentals will be found to still apply, whereas some will need to be replaced or modified. So let’s examine the concept of jobs with education in mind. Obviously, getting a job is one of the biggest raison d’etre for the whole education system. If you don’t need a job, why do you need schools?

In the first part of his article Mr. Rushkoff talks about how technology is replacing jobs in our economy. This is one of the reasons that businesses are starting to make money again, and yet aren’t hiring any workers. I agree with this premise. Once robotics really kicks in later in this decade the process will accelerate especially in manufacturing. Have you ever seen the show Mad Men? It’s a guilty pleasure that I am currently indulging in. 🙂 Here’s a screenshot from the show.

(c) AMC

This is a typical office in the 1960s. Do you notice all the secretaries? While we still have secretaries in today’s office you have nowhere near as many. Labor intensive creations such as typing pools, mailrooms and telephone switchboards are all either eliminated or greatly reduced in scope because of the computer. This trend will continue.

The second part of the article talks about Mr. Rushkoff’s solution. To summarize, he wants food and shelter to become a basic human right. I assume he means these are to be given by the government. He also indicates that the Middle Ages were a pretty good time for workers in society. Of course he doesn’t mention the widespread poverty in that time. Still, I think what he means here is that people tended to work for themselves and not for companies. Barter was a typical form of trade.

So why can’t everyone just be given a house and food? As he points out, the government actually destroys food every year to keep the prices high. We are burning 40% of our corn crop in US to make ethanol so we have lots of stuff.

The problem I have with Mr. Rushkoff’s article is the fundamental truth about what is money. We can print money all day long. But we don’t. Why? Because money itself isn’t what has value. Time is. The economy really operates on units of time. Each person in the world is given exactly 24 hours a day to use. You can accomplish a certain amount of work during that time. If you need to accomplish more things, you can get someone else to give you their time in the form of work. Work is the process where you are using your time for someone else, and not yourself. Money is simply an abstract way to account for that time that is expended.

If I buy a house, it takes a lot of people using their time together to make it. Do they not get compensated for it? If everyone is entitled to a house, who is going to build them? I’m sure at some point robots will do it sure, but robots aren’t free. Houses will be lower cost, but they won’t be free.

The reason why there are fewer jobs right now is because technology is allowing people to become more productive per unit of time. If there is a finite amount of work to do, and people are becoming more productive, then you will need fewer people. The only way to employ more people is to either 1. Fight adoption of technology or 2. Grow the economy to require more work.

These are economic facts. We can question everything else in society but until we get more than 24 hours a day then basic economics won’t change. Mr. Rushkoff states that only a fraction of society would have to work to produce enough resources to take care of everyone else. That’s probably true to a certain point. The big problem is, who gets chosen to carry the load? If you go to work every day and have a house, and your neighbor has the same house but doesn’t work at all, doesn’t human nature come into it?

While I don’t agree with all of Mr. Rushkoff’s article I do applaud him for even asking the question.  We are entering a time where everything needs to be questioned.

  • Provocative thinking about jobs

    tags: jobs provocative profound economics money nell

    • The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology’s slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether.
    • We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit — at least in this case — is e-mail. People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did four years ago, opting for electronic bill payment and other net-enabled means of communication over envelopes and stamps.
    • New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures — from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do.
    • We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work.
    • But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.
    • I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
    • I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?
    • America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.
    • Jobs, as such, are a relatively new concept. People may have always worked, but until the advent of the corporation in the early Renaissance, most people just worked for themselves.
    • By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.
    • The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we’re in the digital age, we’re using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.
    • The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised.
    • We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do — the value we create — is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.
    • This sort of work isn’t so much employment as it is creative activity.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.



  1. The big problem is, who gets chosen to carry the load? If you go to work every day and have a house, and your neighbor has the same house but doesn’t work at all, doesn’t human nature come into it?

    I don’t think people will need to be chosen. I think they will volunteer. People will grow food and build houses because they think it to be fun work. (and allot of that can be automated, we just don’t do it jet because we need the jobs). They won’t have to do it all day, and they don’t have to in the amount that people do it today (40 hours a week).

    And if you really want to, you can give these people a salary as an incentive (although I don’t think it will be needed). This salary can than be used to buy (among other things) a bigger home than those who don’t do volunteer work. So human nature won’t come into it.

    Douglas Rushkoff doesn’t state that all entertainment should be free for instance (although most of it will be in such a system, because people like building free entertainment, as long as their basic needs are met) so entertainment could also be bought with such a “volunteer” salary.

    • The biggest problem I have with theories like this is it doesn’t take into account the concept of time. Money is just a proxy for time investment. It replaced the barter system as a way of accounting for time usage. Since lifespan is finite, we can each only do a finite amount of work in our lives. This introduces scarcity into the system.

      The other big problem I see is many tasks require more than one person’s involvement. How practical is it to start a group project when people may just leave at any time? Not only that, but who will be in charge? Today it is the person paying the rest, but how does it work when nobody is getting paid?

      I’m not saying you are wrong, but I still have questions. 🙂

      You bring some great points to the discussion Brian, thanks for commenting!!

  2. […] You can find this also posted here as well as more discussion from Doug on this subject here and a decent response to this article here) […]

  3. The purpose of education is not to get a job! Education has intrinsic value. It is an end in itself. A job is a means to an end (income, taking care of something that needs to be done). If there is a cheaper way to do that thing – why tie up a human doing it?

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