The American political elite are obsessed with jobs and how to make them, whether through direct government investment (stimulus), which is the cornerstone of the Obama Administration's recently released "American Jobs Act," or through indirect government investment (tax cuts to the supply side) which is the Republican response... and also a big part of the Jobs Act.
This concern on the part of our elected representatives should come as no surprise. The U.S. unemployment rate is hovering above 9% and actual unemployment, a more accurate number which includes people who are underemployed in part-time work or who have been out of work so long they've given up the search, is closer to 16%.
Some expect that problem to get a lot worse, and fast, as every year millions of college kids graduate holding a pile of debt and few options for employment. My friends at 1x57 point out that "a recent Rutgers University survey of 571 Americans who graduated from college between 2006 and 2010 found that only 53% held full-time jobs."
Demography is destiny, as they say. Hordes of roving young people out of work is a recipe for social unrest. This weekend, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg predicted Egypt-style youth riots if more jobs aren't created soon.
But there seems to be no good solution to the question of how to create paying positions for these people, which is what makes Douglas Rushkoff's recent essay on CNN.com such a welcome addition to the debate.
Says Rushkoff, technology creates efficiency and makes systems more productive; the result, more value but fewer jobs. No reasonable person can argue otherwise. Yet both the U.S. Congress and President Obama are trying to do just that. This suggests a huge disconnect with reality and poor foresight on the part of our leaders. In the next ten years, as technology and innovation accelerate, a lot more jobs are going to be rendered obsolete says Rushkoff. We can't plan for this reality until we accept it.
What's not obsolete in Rushkoff's view? Service to community, value creation, peer to peer transactions, markets made up of people exchanging goods freely, and work, which isn't the same as a job although we often treat it as such. The above are all things that we associate with formal employment but that actually exist independtly of having a job. The Internet is giving us new ways to have those other things without dealing with a big box employer who tells us what to make, how to sell it, and for how much. It's a hypothesis that Rushkoff broached in THE FUTURIST magazine a couple of years ago.
He explains it in more detail in this sit down with the Wall Street Journal below.
A lot of young people I know work hard, create a lot of value, and exchange that value freely in a myriad of ways. They contribute to open-source freeware projects, launch social media campaigns around issues they're passionate about, write music, film movies, and produce wonderful art. They make up the "freeter" class in Japan and the freelance class in the States. The problem with this lifestyle is that it lacks the security and the benefits that go with formal employment, like health insurance, retirement matching funds, a ton of tax write-offs, etc. Being a freeter isn't easy, but we can help.
What's your take? Are jobs obsolete? If so, should we shift at least some of our focus away from creating them toward making the futures of the working people who are jobless more secure and productive?