June 29, 2017

Source: Bigstock

With automation continuing to replace jobs we once took for granted, is the future of work just a long slog until we put ourselves out of business?

Artificial intelligence notwithstanding, the coming automation economy may not be the dreary dystopia dreamed up by fiction novelists. A new workforce of computer-savvy desk creatures is not our kismet, despite the wishes of some of our leaders.

“€œToday, the rapid shrinking of the industrial sector means that most of us have jobs requiring emotional skills,”€ notes journalist Livia Gershon in Aeon magazine. The “€œemotionally demanding work”€ will still entail physical effort, but it won”€™t require the cognitive-heavy technical know-how few can master.

And here’s the hopeful part: The rise of jobs requiring empathy and ardor will be more fitting for working-class people than for educated elites. Consider: Who is in a better position to work effectively with others? A man or woman who grew up in public schools and was forced to navigate choppy social waters without the backstop of wealth? Or a person cosseted by nannies and educated through private means?

That vision may be overly rosy, but it makes sense when you consider the cold, unbending nature of machines. Computers can”€™t replace the warmth of real-life caregivers. And no amount of college education or technical training can be a substitute for what Gershon calls the “€œnon-academic skills needed to calm a terrified child or maintain composure around a woman playing with her own faeces.”€

That should give solace to the growing number of people cut off from the digital economy. In commenting on small-business owners struggling to compete with megacorporations, the poet and conservationist Wendell Berry described the ongoing bouts as “€œlonely battles to preserve things of value that they cannot bear to lose.”€

To lose one’s purpose in life is to lose everything. An occupation is a small but crucial part of what makes a person whole. And it’s a small comfort to know that work in the near future will rely on what Tom Smykowski in Office Space angrily described as “€œpeople skills,”€ absent the violent outburst.

For the technologically incapable, there may be a chance.


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