A Job Worth Having
According to a recent report, in 15-20 years, 47% of US jobs will be automated. And this prediction was made before the arrival of COVID 19, which we can expect to lead to an even quicker adoption of automation. Now that everything – including this class - has been forcibly automated, companies will hesitate to bring human employees back to the production floor at all. After all, not only do humans spread nasty viruses, they’re more expensive and you’ve got to provide them health insurance. And they complain.
Think about the career you’re aiming for, the career you’re in this class in order to achieve. Chances are very high that whatever that career is, it will be largely be automated in the near future. Consider what you’ll actually be doing when you get that job: you’ll probably be managing software, a database, or electronic files. Want to be a paralegal? That will be largely replaced by software. An architect? That’s largely computer assisted now. A doctor? Artificial intelligence will do that. And why shouldn’t it? A computer will be much better at diagnosing illness in the future than a human is. There will be no reason for a human to do that job. Perhaps you want to be a journalist? There are already articles appearing in major newspapers and news sites written and edited entirely by algorithm. How about teaching? Teaching in the future will be largely automated. This is already beginning to happen. Think about it this way – if the Minnesota State system could have one Ethics class across all of its campuses, with two thousand students and one teacher, all taught online, it would sure save them a lot of money. And what would the experience be like for that teacher? Think about your high school years – how many hours of class a week did you spend watching a screen? How many did you spend listening to a human being explain something? Clearly we’re moving to a model where the human teacher is less and less needed. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. More and more jobs will be replaced with automated systems. I mean for goodness sake, don’t even think about beginning a career as a long-haul trucker.
Should we do this? Do you want your teachers to be replaced with algorithms? Probably there are a few you’d be delighted to replace (from my point of view, I’d much rather see you all face-to-face, but I have plenty of colleagues happy to embrace the world of automated teaching). What do you want a career to do for you? What is the value of work at all?
Imagine a future where most jobs are automated, and where everyone is sent a basic subsistence check by the government, so you don’t have to work. Would this be good or bad? If you didn’t have to go to work, would you (and remember what the experience of work will be like for you in the future – you’ll be managing a database)? For those of you who think you’d still rather go to work, why??
In “Should Work Be Passion or Duty?” by Firmin DeBrabander, the claim is made that we should approach work as a duty – we have a duty to go in and fulfill our role to the best of our ability – not because it’s a calling, not because it’s a source of meaning or identity – it’s just a duty, and whether you’re a teacher like me, or a doctor, or lawyer or architect, you go in and do your duty. Just as we have duties as parents or siblings or friends or citizens, DeBrabander thinks we have duties to our profession, whether that profession is mail carrier or sales clerk or assistant to the system administrator.
But there’s an obvious objection to this argument: it’s one thing to speak of duty to the profession if you’re a nurse, but quite another if you pack boxes in the Amazon factory, if you’re a clerk at Target, or if you work from home sending electronic forms back and forth all day. Should we have a duty to go to jobs that don’t need to exist in the first place? Or think of it this way: large corporations would love for you to think of your work day as a duty. Why? Because if you’re motivated by a moral duty to be there, it will be much easier to lower your pay and deny you benefits. Think of the absurd situations that have unfolded in work places in the last couple months – for instance, meat-packing plants telling their employees they have a duty to continue coming to work, despite the risk of contracting COVID19. Not surprisingly, the meat packing industry has been a major source of virus transmission, imperiling thousands of people. Do meat processors have a duty to endanger themselves to go be the best meat processors they could be? Why?? Couldn’t we say exactly the opposite: they have no duty to go to this job at all, because this job doesn’t need to exist? Even if we think the meat needs to exist, would it be an absurd argument to suggest that it would be a better and more humane world if the whole process was automated and those employees were just paid to stay home? Likewise if you work at Target, or Starbucks, or any number of places.
In the article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, the claim is made that a great many jobs that we now have simply don’t need to exist. And not only that, but an economy that makes people continue to go to such jobs, just so they can afford to put food on the table, is a unique form of cruelty. So, have I persuaded you? Would it be a better world if robots did everything and we were paid to just stay home?
What jobs would have value, even if you weren’t paid to do them? You’ll all have your own individual answers to this question, but I suspect that your answers fit into one or more of only three categories. Jobs have meaning if:
1) They help someone
2) They create something
3) You learn more about your world while doing the job.