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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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That requires a different way of thinking about the social safety net than what we've already got, not to mention a radical expansion of it. But once again, someone has to do the work of producing the food and shelter, and distributing it. That's where government should come in.

“Throughout Western Europe, provided you're a citizen, you have a safety net because you're a person, not because you're a worker,” Horowitz points out, arguing that the new freelance economy is difficult to navigate because we in the US conceive of the social safety net in terms of jobs. She says that the New Deal-style social safety net is based on the idea of workers in a long-term full-time job: unemployment benefits are only given to those who are laid off from a permanent position, and health insurance and sick pay only come to workers with employers who choose to provide them. We'll need a new conception of the social safety net for a post-job economy. 

Rushkoff's future requires a certain amount of work for the common good, producing the things we legitimately need, as well as an acceptance that we're all in it together—that food and shelter, health care and basic security are human rights. These are concepts not alien to many of us, but are almost unthinkable to actually mention in the current political climate. Yet workers around the country and the world may be moving ahead of politicians in search of new ways to support one another.

The Way We Share Now

As we search for a sustainable future, a way to navigate the present where too many of us have too little money, and adapt our lives to new technology, one trend has been emerging all over: sharing.

From the decidedly business-minded website of the Atlantic to YES! Magazine to to right here at AlterNet, it's been noted—people are buying less, and sharing more. Businesses are learning to cater to a generation of people who want access to things without needing to keep and own them forever. Our very ideas of private property are changing.

Car-sharing services like ZipCar and Philly CarShare allow people access to automobiles only when they need them, for a fraction of the price. Netflix streams video straight to your computer or TV for a small monthly subscription fee, and Spotify now does the same with music.

And as we buy less stuff, Juliet Schor notes, we lower our carbon footprint. And the less we work at jobs, the more time we have to do things ourselves, from spending time with our kids instead of paying babysitters to cooking at home and buying less prepackaged food. Which in turn, cuts down on jobs once again.

If what we have learned from the Great Recession is that we can get by with less stuff and produce what we need with less work, then the answer is, as Dean Baker and others have proposed, for all of us to work a little less. Work-sharing allows more people to get the benefits of a paycheck, and subsidizing those part-time checks with unemployment money, at least in the short term, keeps people able to pay the bills. What if we agreed as a society that we all ought to work less, and that we should be paid the same amount for fewer hours—or even more, in the case of the many who barely survive on multiple full-time jobs as it is?

Economists agree that the current problem with our economy is a lack of demand—that most of us don't have enough money to spend to stimulate growth, while those who have wealth consolidate rather than spending it. But is “growth” really what we want—do we have this equation wrong once again?