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Are Jobs on Their Way to Becoming Obsolete? And Is That a Good Thing?

Do we have it backward when we call for job creation? Could we instead radically rethink our economy to benefit everyone?
 
 
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Are jobs obsolete?

Media theorist and author of Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back Douglas Rushkoff ruffled some feathers this week when he dared, at CNN.com of all places, to ask that question. It seemed, perhaps, gloriously insensitive to the plight of unemployed workers, of union workers at the U.S. Postal Service, who are struggling like so many others to stay afloat in an uncertain economy while they're demonized in the press as greedy for wanting a decent job.

Yet Rushkoff also raises points worth considering, particularly for those of us trying to articulate, in the wake of massive failures of the economic system we've lived our whole lives with, some sort of alternative to the cycle of boom, bust, bailout.

He argues that perhaps we're going about it backward when we call for jobs, that maybe it's not a bad thing that technology is replacing workers, and points out that actually, we do produce enough food and “stuff” to support the country and even the world—that, in fact, we produce too much “stuff.”

He alternately harkens back to a past before jobs, when many people worked for themselves on a subsistence level, and forward to a future where we are all busy making games and books and communicating with one another from behind computer screens, with the hours we have to work dwindling.

It's an argument that recalls others being made today, as the economic crisis collides with the awareness of climate change, as people realize that developed-world lifestyles are unsustainable and perhaps there's a better way to do things.

It's utopian, of course, and there are plenty of problems with it. Rushkoff isn't the only one thinking this way— Jeff Jarvis, another media thinker and advocate for digital technology, argues in a post called “The jobless future” that “Our new economy is shrinking because technology leads to efficiency over growth."

Sara Horowitz, founder and CEO of the Freelancers Union, points out in an interview that for many the jobless future has been here for years. “On the one hand what you see is it's happening across the economy, but you could argue that for poorer workers this is the way it's been anyway. It's not like the bottom quintile people had full-time jobs with benefits because then they wouldn't be poor.” As more and more workers find themselves cobbling together gigs and part-time work in order to get by, she says, “This is part of the middle-class decline, that this is happening to people for whom getting a college degree meant you could have a sustainable economic future.”

Yet Rushkoff argues that we have more than enough to go around:

“[W]e are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.”

This is the question, then: How do we solve this problem?

The Jobs We Still Have

While Rushkoff rightly points out that many jobs have been lost to technological advances, whether it's robots in a factory or self-checkout machines at the grocery store, he does not mention that in the US we lost many jobs as well to outsourcing, as global corporations picked up and moved across the world in search of cheaper labor and fewer regulations on how they treat their workers.