Senator Sasse on the nature of future work

In a previous post I wrote about US Senator Ben Sasse’s (Republican from Nebraska) views on manufacturing jobs not coming back no matter what pressure President Trump puts on companies not to move jobs overseas or to whatever barriers we erect to trade because of automation. We recommended––and do so again––that you watch from about the 32 minute mark a presentation the Senator did for the Foreign Policy Initiative where he talks about the changes in the economy that are coming.

In this post I want to focus on his comments about how work is going to change, once again largely because of automation. Sasse explains in that presentation:

When hunter-gatherers became settled agrarian farmers that was pretty disruptive we didn’t have alphabets then so we don’t have a lot of record for what that looked like for the disruption for people. But the only analog we have for the moment in the transformation of work for this moment is the 50-75 year period that was industrialization.

And it was remarkably unsettling for people to go from almost everyone inheriting the farming job of your mom and dad and grandparents for generations to now migrate across the landscape and go to a city and have to get a totally different kind of job in a big tool economy. And as disruptive as that was – and it was, I mean it spawned progressivism in American politics that transformed both the Democratic and Republican parties under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It was big and disruptive. But once you got a new job? You tended to still have that job until death or retirement. What we’re going to have now is everybody losing their job every 3-5 years for the rest of their existence. We’ve never had 40 and 45 and 50 and 55 year-olds disintermediated out of a job and have to get a new job at age 55. By and large if you lose your job now at age 55 you never get employed again.

In the future that’s not going to work because it’s going to be all of us. And that’s hugely – there’s tons of human turmoil. We can talk about Charles Murray and we can talk about Robert Putnam, we can talk about J.D. Vance’s new best-selling book on the shrinking of all those mediating institutions, but we’re not talking about the underpinning of all of that, which is the transformation of the economy and the nature of work from stable, life-long jobs to unstable, occasional, part-time, flex jobs where everyone’s going to have to become a life-long learner. (Emphasis added.)

So in Sasse’s view––and he is not alone––we are not only going to see a big change in the kind of jobs and occupations that the economy of today and tomorrow will offer, but in the nature of work. So jobs increasingly will go from goods producing (manufacturing,  construction, farming, mining, etc.) to service providing. And jobs will go from stable and life-long––and I would add primarily full time with benefits for an employer––to unstable, occasional, part-time, flex jobs––and I would add far more working for yourself where you are responsible for benefits rather than working for an employer––where everyone’s going to have to become a life-long learner. In addition to “everybody losing their job every 3-5 years for the rest of their existence”.

Talk about a radical transformation! My instinct is the obsolescence of jobs and occupations will not be as quick as every 3-5 years. But it’s clear jobs, occupations, and industries are going to continue to be less stable everyday going forward. And my instinct is that more of us than Sasse predicts for quite a while will be employed in full time jobs for an employer rather than in the gig economy. But clearly more and more of us––whether we want to or not–-or going to have to work in the “unstable, occasional, part-time, flex jobs” he describes.

Sasse’s argument is that this change in the work humans will do in the future and the way work will be organized are being driven by forces stronger than policy. That government doesn’t have the power to stop these changes. That, of course, is a belief we share at Michigan Future. That globalization, and particularly smarter and smarter machines are mega forces that––no matter what our politics are––will continuously reshape the economy and work.

Sasse concludes with “And we’re not wrestling with any of those questions and neither political party has an answer.” Exactly! What we desperately need is for both parties to acknowledge that Sasse is basically right. That there is no way back to the prosperous American economy of the 20th Century. And to get to work on ideas on how we have a prosperous economy––with a broad middle class––in the context of the new realities. Where good paying jobs are going to be predominantly knowledge-based and jobs and occupations are going to be less and less stable. Where as we describe it career success is going to be far more like rock climbing than ladder climbing.

Yes this is really scary. All of us would choose the old, more stable economy than the one Sasse describes. But Sasse is right its not a choice we have available to us. Both trying to make the old economy work again and leaving it up to each of us to fend for ourselves in this radical transformation are almost certainly a recipe for most of us getting poorer. What we need is politicians from across the political spectrum advancing ideas as big and disruptive as those that in Sasse’s words “spawned progressivism in American politics that transformed both the Democratic and Republican parties under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson”. That policy response by both parties was essential to helping Americans thrive in the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We need the same kind of bold policy transformation to help us thrive in the transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy.

IMAGE SOURCE: © Gage Skidmore 

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