“The American people hold a deep reservoir of hard work, good ideas, and common decency. Redefining work can unleash that potential in ways that improve the lives of everyone.”
This vision of work in the future from Faye Park, President of U.S. PIRG, provides us important food for thought on how to reward critical labor as automation and technology displace traditional employment roles in our economy. Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.
Most of us flick our wrist and turn on the water without a second thought. But for most of human history, accessing clean water required a lot of work. To our ancestors (and far too many people around the world still), who needed to fetch water from rivers or wells, water flowing from a tap would be a miracle.
Improved technology allows us to satisfy basic human needs with decreasing amounts of labor.
As technology progresses at exponentially faster rates, we need to reassess what we will do as we can meet more human needs with less work. Fewer people will have traditional jobs to do, yet if we plan smartly, we have the opportunity for a higher quality of life.
Current public policies encourage job creation, whether or not those jobs actually serve to benefit society. As people have for centuries, we tend to value people, financially and socially, in large part due to the jobs they do. When we required enormous toil to meet any human need, this focus had a certain logic. However, that’s no longer as true today.
Thanks to the ingenuity of previous generations, we can now produce more than ever with the effort of fewer people. And things are accelerating rapidly – about half of all the activities that people are paid to perform today could be automated with current technology, with advances in artificial intelligence likely to replace even more human labor in the future.
Freedom from toil should be good news. But automation sounds like doom to workers who could be displaced by technology. The cloud of uncertainty hangs over not just truck drivers, but accountants, lawyers and a host of other professionals whose economic security and social standing are often determined by how much they produce at their job. A majority of Americans find technological progress threatening.
To improve the wellbeing of everyone as technology advances, it is time to redefine work, including by valuing the kinds of work that the market currently does not.
Work can be a source of meaning, purpose, and dignity, but it can just as often be a source of alienation. Many people spend 40+ hours per week on one job, which may or may not have much value to society, while the work that gives their lives meaning is the hours of volunteer work or passions pursued during their unpaid time.
Among the most important of that unpaid work is the effort we make to take care of one another. Currently, 40 million Americans provide unpaid care to a loved one, and as America ages, the number of people needing care will only increase. By 2050, the number of Americans above the age of 65 is expected to almost double, a phenomenon that has been called the “silver tsunami.” Because the contributions of family caregivers aren’t valued by our political or economic systems, people face a tough choice: stay home and care for an aging parent or young child and forgo a paycheck, or go to work so they can pay their mortgage, put food on the table, and hire someone else to care for their family.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With the greater prosperity that technology makes possible, we can afford to invest in the vital work that doesn’t take the form of traditional jobs. Public policy should shift to recognize the work of unpaid caregivers as valuable contributions to their loved ones and their communities. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. Ro Khanna are leading the way by proposing to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, to benefit unpaid caregivers.
The EITC was designed to encourage people to find a job, work, and contribute to society. But people contribute to society through work in ways that don’t yield a paycheck. Especially as we meet our society’s material needs with the work of fewer people, we should start considering other contributions to society. Home care is a great place to start.
The American people hold a deep reservoir of hard work, good ideas, and common decency. Redefining work can unleash that potential in ways that improve the lives of everyone. That might sound like a big task. But previous generations of sacrifice and struggle show us the way forward.
All we need to do is turn on the tap.