Future Jobs – Questions to Ask

Nearly every week there seems to be a story on the topic of “will robots take my job?” – that is an interesting question but there are more important questions to ask before that.

In my view the more important issue is not so much jobs but being able to make a living from the job you have. I’ve blogged here before about earning power and the decline of the middle class – see the Elizabeth Warren video for example.

Like some of you I have had a read of the Thomas Piketty study  and even though I have a book of essays on that it is not an easy read. New Zealand does not have the same level of inequality as the U.S does but most of the issues affecting jobs and public policy are very much the same.

Jobs and employment absolutely influence social mobility and our ability to do well or not. We need a prosperous middle class who are able to afford high living standards. Public policy thinking needs to be debated and actioned in a way that builds a virtuous cycle rather than one that dismantles it.

The best writing and thinking on the inequality / jobs connection is without a doubt Robert Reich.

Back in 2010 Reich wrote a book called Aftershock  – The Next Economy and America’s Future which was reviewed in the NY Times.

Caught between rising aspirations and stagnant wages, Reich says, middle-class Americans have gone through a series of coping mechanisms. First, women joined the workforce, giving families a second income. Then husbands and wives put in longer shifts, creating a species of family called DINS — “double income, no sex.” Finally, families went into debt. In this sense, inequality helped to stoke the credit bubble.

That book was made into a documentary film called Inequality for All.

What I like about the documentary is that tells the story of how the U.S economy got to where it is and puts that in a historical and economic context that is easy to understand.

As the Guardian noted about Reich and about the documentary:

He is an intellectual heavyweight, a veteran policymaker, a seasoned political hand, and yet he also has the delivery of a standup comedian. His ideas were the basis for Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign slogan, “Putting People First” (they were both Rhodes scholars and he met Clinton on board the boat to England; he once dated Hillary too, though he only realised this when a New York Times journalist rang him up and reminded him). And they were still there at the heart of President Obama’s inaugural address last month. America could not succeed, said Obama, “when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it”. What Reich, basically, has been saying since the year dot.

What’s extraordinary is how, somehow, these ideas have been translated into a narrative that shows every sign of being this year’s hit documentary film. It certainly shocked Reich. He says he was amazed when Kornbluth first pitched the idea of a film. “He came and said that he’d read my book, Aftershock, and that he loved it and wanted to do a movie about it. And I honestly didn’t know what he meant. How could you make a movie out of it?”

But Kornbluth has made a movie out of it. A really astonishingly good movie that takes some big economic ideas and how these relate to the quality of everyday life as lived by most ordinary people.”

I recommend you watch the film and consider the implications for your society. I wish we had politicians in New Zealand who had a fraction of the insight that Reich has.

If want learn more about the documentary here is an extended clip of Q & A which follows on from the film. It includes excerpts from the film and questions from a student audience.

Yes jobs are important but the arguments are bigger than that and we need to make sure the jobs that we have contribute to a more equal society and that the economic thinking is fair.

Another important and related post is:  The Future of Work: Why Wages Aren’t Keeping Up by Robert Solow in Pacific Standard.