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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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If the rest of his piece is to be believed--he does call for fairer distribution of wealth--that's not what Rushkoff wants, to be sure, any more than it's what we want. But how do we make sure the work that does need doing gets done?

The Freelance Economy

Here in the US, we've shifted from a manufacturing economy to the so-called “knowledge economy,” where most of our jobs are not making things but acquiring and transmitting information. Reporters, teachers, media theorists and even Wall Street financiers fall into this category—remember the justification for giving fat bonuses to the executives who tanked the economy was that they were the only ones with enough knowledge to fix what they'd broken?

As the knowledge economy grows, so does the freelance workforce—those people who don't have a full-time job but make a living doing various types of freelance work. Horowitz argues in an article for the Atlantic:

“This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven't seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this "freelance economy." Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work. While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects.”

And Rushkoff writes:

“This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another -- all through bits instead of stuff.”

One supposes, in his new society, that the Wall Street tycoons simply don't exist anymore, their “work” being neither the necessary production of things we all need (food, water, energy, shelter) nor actually something that people would do for the pure pleasure of it.

Teachers will no doubt always be necessary. But artists, writers and musicians are struggling mightily in the new economy, where their work can be distributed immediately to larger audiences than they'd ever dreamed of, at far lower cost. When once records and books, magazines and paintings were scarce and thus commanded a price that got handed on to the creator, now people download music and expect to read the news for free online. The problem of scarcity has been solved in part for this type of work, but the larger problem of how the artists continue to eat and pay rent while making the art we all enjoy has not been solved. Sara Horowitz points out that these workers are struggling with a scarcity of economic resources, of fair compensation for their work. “We're sort of turning the idea of what the economy is for on its head. This part of the workforce isn't looking to get rich, they're looking to get by,” she notes.

Rushkoff assumes “we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff” but doesn't explain how we get that money.

He does make the point that “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.”