Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Future of (Less) Work

Disclaimer: I almost feel like every post I write needs a disclaimer, but I think it's especially true when I talk about economics. I have no formal training, nor do I feel like I have a great understanding of economics. Which means I have one thing in common with professional Economists :-). So I'm sure I don't understand the full ramifications of any of what I'm about to write. But even with an imperfect understanding, I still think there's something important here, so perhaps it will spur some thinking somewhere.

The recovery from the Great Recession has been painfully slow. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, and most experts think those numbers are under-reporting the problem, due to some folks not even looking anymore and many more folks being underemployed. Yet corporate profits are doing quite well, and the various U.S. stock markets are all at or near all-time highs. What's going on?

Keeping in mind my disclaimer above, I think at least some of it is due to the changing nature of work. Corporations are able to have strong profits even while employing less people because those people are more productive. (For this post I'm going to avoid the whole 1% issue, but I do think that plays a part as well.) This is due to many factors, but clearly technology - both in the form of automation and in the form of connectedness - has played a huge role in this. And I think we are still just in the beginning phase of this transition.

As an example, let's look at just one near-term change that I think could have a profound impact: self-driving cars. I know some folks will scoff and say "yeah, right, where's my flying car they promised me?", but I think wide adoption of self-driving cars could be much closer than we expect. I think the biggest problems aren't technological or legal (although there are many issues still to be resolved), but cultural. President Obama, when he was Candidate Obama, was famously caught saying that Americans "cling to guns and religion." I would alter that a bit for this context and say that we "cling to SUVs and textbooks."

But even with the American preference to be in control of their own destiny - including when driving - I think self-driving cars are going to make quick inroads (pun intended) into our daily lives. It may take a generation or two for individual folks to accept them, but businesses (and cities) will accept them much quicker. When you combine that with the increasing number of people who work from home - or neighborhood coffee shops or startup incubators - this will have a tremendous effect in many areas.

So what will that mean in terms of employment? Well, first of all, think of how many truck, bus, train, taxi, and other transportation drivers we currently employ. Gone. Then think of many of the jobs that feed off of those jobs, including gas stations and the associated convenience stores. Gone (or at least transformed). Traffic will undergo major changes, which will require less new road construction and less road repair, so fewer construction jobs. We won't need as many police, fire, and EMT's on the roads. Streetlights and road signs? We won't need as many. Insurance adjusters? Emergency room workers? Lawyers (at least of the ambulance-chasing kind)?

And of course cars themselves are being assembled with fewer and fewer human workers. If I'm a venture capitalist, then I'm investing in robots, solar, battery technology, real estate (locations that are appropriate for charging stations, shopping and restaurants), and in-car grooming stations (make-up, shaving) and exercise machines (why not a rowing machine in your self-driving car - exercise on the way to work), and gluten-free food. (Gluten-free food really has nothing to do with this, I just want someone to make some gluten-free food for me that tastes good.)

I'm sure there will also be some job creation that goes along with this, but not enough to make up for the workers who are displaced. When you then multiply this times five, ten, twenty or one hundred similar employment changes due to technology (just think of all the jobs that will potentially be disrupted by the Internet of Things), then you have a future where perhaps there simply is not as much "work" as there is currently (at least not paid work).
These articles might be of interest.
Now, I'm nowhere near smart enough to understand the economic or social ramifications of this, but I do think they will be tremendous. Especially in the United States where the attitude of many is not that we "work to live" but that we "live to work." But for this post I'm mostly interested in thinking about what that means in terms of education. If our students will be entering a world that is both rapidly changing and also perhaps requires less human workers, then what do they need to know and be able to do?

I think that's a complicated topic, and certainly can't be answered in a short (or long) blog post. But one thing I think they will need is the ability to create. Whether that be creative in the sense of ideas, creative in the sense of solutions to problems, or creative in the sense of making things, I think it's going to be an integral part of the future of work (and play, and life). So let's look at our classrooms today, how often do students truly get to create? This varies tremendously by school, subject and classroom, of course, but overall I think it's still very little.

In my classroom at least the best they get to do is re-create. I don't think that's all bad; after all, in order to "stand on the shoulders of giants" you need to know a bit of what those giants knew. But I can't help but think that the direction we appear to be headed - more standardization, more "rigor" - is not a direction that's going to best serve our students.

If the future of work is really "less" work and perhaps more "creating", then what should K-12 education look like?

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