The Future of Work

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The Future of Work

The Role of Work in the 21st Century

Political instability, growing wealth inequality, and new technological innovation has left many feeling insecure about their current and future employment and the role of work in society. While insecurities about the state of politics, economics, and technology are not new, the past decade has seen unprecedented changes. The books on this list share a common theme of trying to understand the changes to workplaces and labor in the early 21st century which with we are currently grappling with and their future implications. The ways working life was enshrined in legal reform of the 20th century have proven inadequate in dealing with a newly emerging paradigm, and these books explore what changes we might expect and want to call for in this new century.

Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley From Building a New Global Underclass by Mary Gray and Siddarth Suri
When we use apps to order food, trek across town, find a date, or shop in the middle of the night, we often assume that the process of what happens behind the screen is completely automated and computerized. However, no matter how automated and algorithmic technology has become, there are countless microtasks that rely on the expertise and judgments of humans to make the system function. While the user end of such information technology focuses on ease and convenience, the back end is staffed by “ghost workers” from around the globe that make “smart” device and infotech seem smarter than it is. From flagging inappropriate content, copyediting, creating metadata tags, translating, transcribing, and all sorts freelance tasks, scores of workers outside the purview of traditional labor law are competing (and collaborating) to fill the gaps of technology with their valued and unique human skillsets. Written in collaboration by a media anthropologist and a computer scientist, the book explores the lives of the unknown people who make all of the revolutionary information technology of the past decade function and the varied reasons they do such work. The book challenges readers to think critically about the value humans bring to work, encourage labor law that is expansive enough to include “ghost workers” and the flexibility many of them prefer, and suggests consumers push for labor transparency of tech companies to reduce the grossest exploitation along the lines of the clothing industry and agriculture in the last few decades. To watch one of the authors, Mary Gray, speak in more detail about the book, click here

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
Starting as an intentionally provocative essay in a low circulation magazine that surprisingly struck an international nerve, social theorist and economic anthropologist David Graeber developed that essay into a book-length theory of contemporary work. Graeber begins his analysis with a prediction from early 20th-century Economist Alan Keynes' prediction that by now the developed world’s work week would be reduced to 15 hours while maintaining an increasing standard of living and affording lots of time to engage in individual and communal pursuits outside of work. Graeber posits Keynes is more or less correct about the amount of productive time people spend and need to spend working, so goes on to explore why people are generally working more and not less and are unhappy in well-paying jobs. Through survey results, more long-form qualitative examples, and social theory, Graeber traces the social, political, and economic histories that led to this situation where he calculates half of workers believe they have jobs--despite often being well paid--that provide no real value or are actively harmful to their communities that require very few hours of actual work from them each week. Because such work operates in an economic system that boasts efficiency while privileging such inefficient work, workers in such positions often find it difficult to express the ways doing work they know to not be meaningful or actively harmful can cause so much distress and alienation. Furthermore, as more people spend more time working in such jobs, workers who do more substantive and essential work are increasingly being squeezed for more productivity without fair compensation or protections. 

Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security by Louis Hyman
Temp provides a historical survey of the precedents for contemporary labor norms, seeing the gig economy as not a wholly new phenomenon of the 21st century, but emerging as early as the late 1950s after the first economic downturns in the post World War II American economy. Business and political leaders used setbacks of every recession since to call for more “flexible” and contingent labor and to shift the functions of large corporations from being bulwarks of stable growth and steady employment to financialized assets that privileged short term profit and favored an insecure labor pool. Temp helps place the current rise of the gig economy into a historical context going back many decades, and not just years.

Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work by Sarah Kessler
In 2016, almost a third of the American workforce had engaged in significant freelance or “gig” work, up from just 13% less than a decade earlier. Early proponents of shifting traditional workplace culture sold gig work as a cure for workplace alienation. Why submit to a traditional work structure with bosses, scheduled shifts, and all sorts of limits, when someone can live their life on their own schedule, fitting in gigs around what is important to them? Gigged shows how this pitch, while pointing out some truths about workplace culture, obfuscates much of what labor rights gains are lost and exploited in “gig-ification” of work. Following case studies of people engaging in gig work, Kessler offers a nuanced perspective on potentials and pitfalls of gig work.

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work did to Me and How It Drives Americans Insane by Emily Guendelsberger
On the Clock is an auto-ethnographic view of low-wage work in contemporary America written by a journalist trying to make ends meet after her previous employing newspaper shuttered. Working in three different low-wage work environments in three different cities (an Amazon fulfillment center in Louisville, a Convergys call center in North Carolina, and a McDonald’s in San Francisco), Guendelsberger brings to life the working conditions of low wage workers and explores the ways large businesses have shifted their practices as labor has gone from one of their largest expenses to potentially one of their cheapest. Like authors of Ghost Work, she recognizes that while big tech companies and consumers both often believe that full robot automation and AI are right around the corner, she argues that human workers will still for the foreseeable future be doing essential and demanding work that should be fairly compensated.

The Robots are Coming!: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation by Andres Oppenheimer
While other books on this list express more confidence that human labor isn’t going obsolete anytime soon and focus on how automation exposes some sociopolitical underpinnings to the nature of work in contemporary life, The Robots Are Coming! offers a wide survey of the implications of technological advances occupations once thought more immune to automation. Talking with dozens of technological experts and futurists, Oppenheimer demonstrates that jobs that are now seen as requiring a human touch, in fields like social services, healthcare, and entertainment, etc. can soon be performed with advanced robotics.