A Future Where None of Us Will Have a Single Career

Pacific Standard has been publishing a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University called “The Future of Work,” where business leaders, labor activists, journalists and more are weighing in on how the workplace is changing and evolving.

In the project’s latest post, “We Have Been Here Before,” Stanford forecasting teacher Paul Saffo writes that our current fears about how work is changing is part of a historical cycle where jobs get lost and are replaced by new kinds of work:

Reality stubbornly ignored 1930s and 1960s expectations. The robots of extravagant imagination never arrived. There was ample job turbulence but as Keynes forecast in 1930, machines created more jobs than they destroyed. Boosted by a World War, unemployment dropped from a high of 25 percent in 1933 to under two percent in 1944. And the hoped-for 1960s leisure society never arrived because the diffusion of information technologies created unprecedented demand for Drucker’s “knowledge workers,” and fueled the arrival of the service economy.

We should not be worried about the jobs we are losing, Saffor argues, but the jobs that aren’t being created by those who have accumulated resources:

The drama of jobs lost is irresistible, be it elevator operators in the 1950s, telephone operators in the ’60s, longshoremen in the ’70s, or truck drivers facing robot competition today. But if the wild card of a jobless future arrives, it will be because of jobs never created to begin with. Consider Facebook: when it went public in 2012, it reported annual gross revenues of $3.7 billion ($1 billion net), accounted for 12 percent of Internet traffic (more than Google), was adding 1.5 million users per day — and had barely 2,400 employees. The same pattern can be seen across cyberspace, from Airbnb to Twitter and Uber. The global population is growing — merely keeping the jobs that already exist isn’t going to put everyone to work.

What we should be worried about, says Saffo, is that the jobs we have will be less secure; the workforce will consist of a large portion of “unwilling independent contractors” and, vividly, “the notion of pursuing a single career will seem as quaint as receiving a gold watch upon retirement.” The question at hand: Knowing this, what will our society do to address the situation? When you find out, let me know — you will be able to find me scooping Soylent into bowls in the Alphabet cafeteria.

Photo: JD Hancock

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