I was lying on my back on the picnic table on my deck. It was Earth Hour, which means many people (including me) had turned out their lights from 8:30-9:30 pm. The stars looked brighter than ever without the light pollution from nearby homes. The clouds parted just enough to allow me to identify Draco, Orion, and the Big Dipper. As I lay there, my husband put OK Computer onto the turntable in the living room. It felt like 1999 again, as I laid in the dark listening to Radiohead.

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy….

I realized two things as I sat there listening to the muffled lyrics flow through the open window. First, the world I am living in is not the same world that existed when Radiohead wrote the lyrics to “No Surprises”. Second, the hippies of Asheville have largely failed to notice this.

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The culture of Asheville has some people boasting that they don’t have a job. They don’t sit in a cubicle all day, and they are very proud of this. They sell raw cocoa at parties or rub crystals on your feet to cure diabetes… and they’re escaping “the rat race” by doing so.

(I picture The Rat Race as a reality show in which a bunch of people in suits run from a larger person in a suit who’s wearing cat ears.)

But they also escape a lot of other things, too. Health insurance. Homeownership. A level of sanity that comes with being able to afford repairs to your car. They don’t realize the level of hustle they’re putting into this life that’s supposed to be easier. They don’t realize how much more they could get in return for their struggles if they just allowed themselves to apply these skills to something more people valued and needed.

I have an office job, I own a home, I can fix my car when it breaks, and I have great health insurance. I don’t have a ton of debt and I don’t feel like a slave. I love the work that I do, but according to 90’s counterculture (and present-day hippy culture), I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to. I sit in a chair all day, I don’t work for myself, and I’m indoors a lot. I should be angry, depressed, and lying on the sidewalk in tears at the end of every day. But I’m not.

So, what defines a job that slowly kills you? What jobs were so prevalent and unenjoyable in the 1990’s that people were rejecting the idea of professional work altogether?

Remember Office Space?

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The folks in this movie were miserable because they were not respected or appreciated. Their work was not connected to something meaningful. And the people they spent the most time with, day in and day out, were not the greatest.

It’s a job that a trained monkey could do. A job with no personality- only canned responses. A job with no creativity- only policies to conform to. A job with no autonomy- only an oppressive hierarchy. In other words, it’s a job without YOU: a real human being with incredible, unique things to bring to the table.

When everyone has to be the same in order to succeed at work, everyone is miserable. And that’s when selling homemade candles for a starvation wage at the farmer’s market starts to look appealing. Because at least you have yourself, even if all of your basic needs aren’t met.

These jobs, the rat-race ones that motivate people to run away and never return, have largely disappeared because they have been automated.

People still want their employees to smile, but they take a different approach. Think about a company culture of “Smile… or else.” vs. “How can we make our employees so happy, that they can’t help but smile?” Millennials aren’t putting up with abusive workplaces anymore. The previous generation called putting up with abuse “growing up” because they had no other choice. Their ability to deal with misery led them down a path of stability at a time when you had to choose one or the other, either meaning or income.

We’re choosing and creating work environments that are more egalitarian, transparent, and enjoyable. And we’re working harder because of it. We’ve figured out how to have our cake and eat it too.

White collar and blue collar jobs alike are being replaced by robots. Jobs are being automated, and this is nothing new. “We’re now on the brink of what economists are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one in which robotics and artificial intelligence will again accelerate our productivity,” points out Abigail Ronck.

Just as we previously mourned the loss of elevator operators, human calculators, and horse and buggy drivers, we now need to start mourning the loss of coal miners, bank tellers, and truck drivers. And we can do this by accepting the fact that none of us individuals are immune to the consequences of the march of time. People lost their jobs in the past, and it made our lives better. In the end, they lost the worst jobs, and in shedding that skin we were all able to stretch and grow. It’s our turn to let go of our stable, miserable jobs. We need to go through the rough adolescent patch of the collapse of industries and livelihoods so our children can enjoy the full maturity of the upcoming economic landscape.

But who is “we”? Who is going to suffer the most in this transition?

“And what is especially tricky about a world without work is that we must begin building the social institutions to survive it long before the technological obsolescence of human workers actually arrives,” says Ryan Avent.

In the US, where the poor stay poor and the rich get richer, where safety nets are thin or non-existent, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is ominous. The conversations are personal and emotional. The images it conjures up are elderly people with no modern skills who are no longer able to support their families. This vision needs to be replaced with images of what the job landscape will look like when it’s made up of only creative, empathetic, meaningful roles. As difficult as it is, we must not succumb to the dead-end of doomsday predictions. We have to decide where it is we want to go.

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of movies come out about the dangers of AI, because our vision of the future is so pessimistic. In the past, things like Star Trek dared to dream of a world close to perfection thanks to automation. We’re headed toward a world without money and inequality, where the biggest moral dilemma is whether or not a computer deserves legal rights to a book they wrote. That’s a future to look forward to… if it’s the one we decide to build.

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So far, we’re acting like mass layoffs and chaos are inevitable. If the past industrial revolutions are any indication of what’s to come, we’re heading for a little of that, but mostly we can expect great things. It will take a lot of hard work on our part to make sure the benefits are spread around to everyone, but we can do it.

We fought for weekends, eight-hour workdays, and the end of child labor. Now we will fight for paid leave, healthcare coverage, and a higher minimum wage. And for work that is real.

Like any child growing far too much far too quickly, we will experience growing pains. But that’s no reason to try to prevent this growth from occurring. In fact, it cannot be prevented. It’s time to accept the future that is coming whether we like it or not: robots will take our jobs. Robots will make our jobs easier. Robots will either enhance our quality of life or they will increase inequality and suffering. But it’s up to us which one of those occurs.

 

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