by Tim Weinhold (originally published July
Over the last few years, and especially of late, there is a swelling chorus of concern that we may be on our way to a future in which there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. Not just a shortage of good jobs, mind you, but a shortage of jobs, period. In fact, more than a few thoughtful economists, and other experts, foresee a future in which highly-skilled, well-paid jobs exist only for a shrinking minority. For everyone else, there will be low-skilled, poorly-paid jobs for some, and no jobs at all for an ever- expanding portion of our citizenry.
Of course, ‘the sky is falling’ warnings about a jobless future have been voiced many times before, most notably by the Luddites . . . and been proven wrong in every instance. This time around, however, there may be good reason to take the pessimistic predictions seriously. Actually, three good reasons.
1) Capitalism, Distorted
Since the 1980s, American business has largely believed that maximizing the wealth of shareholders is the true and ultimate purpose of a corporation. In practice, this has translated into a belief that the priority objective is to ratchet up share price as quickly as possible.
In parallel, CEO compensation has changed dramatically. In the 1970s and before, CEO compensation was comprised almost entirely of salary, and CEOs were typically paid approximately 30 times the level of their average worker. Today the large bulk of most CEOs’ compensation comes from grants of stock and stock options and, in total, is more than 300 times that of their average employee.
In turn, CEOs quickly realized that cutting costs, rather than making investments for future productivity, was the quickest and easiest way to boost profits, share price, and their personal wealth. And since people are a big part of the cost structure for most businesses, a great many CEOs have come to view cutting jobs, and reducing compensation levels (often by transferring jobs offshore, or to lower-paid ‘contractors’), as among their most important priorities. As a result, the share of U.S. economic output that flows to workers began to fall steadily in the 1980s and now stands at the lowest level since the government started keeping track in the middle of the 20th century.
2) Empirical Evidence
But the real evidence for a jobless future is that hard, empirical data suggests that future is already well under way. Under normal economic conditions, economists have long believed that men in the prime-age years of 25-54 — at the peak of their abilities and less likely than women to be primary caregivers — should almost all be working. Yet fewer and fewer are. Instead, the share of prime-age men who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the late 1970s. As senior editor Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic in “A World Without Work:”
All in all, about one in six prime-age men today are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether. This is what the economist Tyler Cowen calls “the key statistic” for understanding the spreading rot in the American workforce.
Partly this reflects the offshoring of manufacturing jobs that began in the 1980s and continues to get worse. In fact, the U.S. lost 5.7 million, a full third, of its manufacturing jobs in the 2000s. This is a rate of loss unprecedented in American history — worse even than the rate of manufacturing job loss during the Great Depression.
But the increasing bleakness of our employment picture is hardly limited to manufacturing, or to those without college degrees. Six years into the recovery, the share of recent college grads who are “underemployed” (employed in jobs that historically haven’t required a degree) is still higher than it was in 2007 — or, for that matter, in 2000. The underlying reality is simple: in the face of fewer good jobs, college graduates have had to recalibrate their expectations downward. As Derek Thompson notes, “the job market appears to be requiring more and more preparation for a lower and lower starting wage.” In fact, over the past fifteen years real wages for recent college graduates have fallen by 7.7 percent. As a result, we now have a well-established ‘boomerang’ phenomenon — college graduates returning home to live with Mom and Dad.
3) The Role of Technology
More than a few thoughtful observers believe, however, that the most important factor propelling us toward a jobless future is not our fixation with shareholders, but with technology. Some thoughtful observers, however, believe that the most important factor propelling us toward a jobless future is not our fixation with shareholders, but with technology. More specifically, with digital technology.
The U.S. labor force has been shaped by millennia of technological progress. Agricultural technology birthed the farming industry, the industrial revolution moved people into factories, and then globalization and automation moved them back out, giving rise to a nation of services. But throughout these reshufflings, the total number of jobs has always increased. What may be looming is something different: an era of technological unemployment, in which computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work, and the total number of jobs declines steadily and permanently.
This idea is argued especially persuasively in a recent book, The Second Machine Age, by two MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They write that the first machine age replaced muscle power with machine power, especially as a result of James Watts’ steam engine. This had two very profound effects: a great increase in production and prosperity, and a great dislocation of jobs — agricultural jobs disappeared in favor of industrial jobs. Some workers suffered, of course, but the overall effect was decidedly positive.
Now, they argue, we are approximately thirty years into a second machine age transformation, this one a digital revolution in which, rather than brawn, it’s human brain power that is being replaced. Computers, and computer-driven machines (robots), are increasingly taking over jobs that had previously been done by skilled humans. But there are reasons why this second machine age transformation may be different, and more troubling, than the first.
The long-term effect of machines replacing human brawn was that more and more individuals had opportunity to be employed because of their brains instead — they became workers in the new knowledge economy. And because these knowledge jobs were more interesting and better paid than industrial jobs, the loss of manufacturing jobs didn’t seem as serious as it might have otherwise. Now, however, we face a more challenging question: What happens when machines are better, and cheaper, than humans at many of the ‘brain’ jobs as well?
Far-fetched? Not according to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, who showcase how thoroughly computers and robots are invading the knowledge jobs that were once assumed to be the exclusive province of humans. A few examples. It used to require a veritable army of skilled specialists to help Americans prepare their taxes. Not any more. Despite the fact that the tax code grows ever more complex, most Americans now find that software programs like TurboTax make filling out and filing their returns a relative breeze.
Here’s another skilled job that has essentially gone extinct — travel agent. Now a variety of online tools allow individuals to book their own travel arrangements faster and more flexibly than was ever possible with human agents. A similar phenomenon plays out at the airport: more and more travelers get their boarding passes downloaded directly to their smartphones rather than from a human ticketing agent.
The future, according to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, holds more of the same. They argue that as computing power continues to grow exponentially, our future is inevitably one where more and more of our jobs will be performed by machines rather than humans. Others agree. In 2013, Oxford University researchers forecast that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades. Their study notes that the most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk, together employing over 15 million people — and that each is highly susceptible to automation. Even in highly-skilled occupations like physician and lawyer and therapist, computers are making substantial inroads.
One might hope that, like with the industrialization that happened in the first machine age, as computer technology destroys some jobs, it will simultaneously spawn plenty of new jobs — at least for those with the right skills. But that may prove to be very wishful thinking. Just five percent of the jobs generated between 1993 and 2013 came from high-tech sectors like computing, software, and telecommunications. As Derek Thompson notes:
Our newest industries tend to be the most labor-efficient: they just don’t require many people. It is for precisely this reason that the economic historian Robert Skidelsky, comparing the exponential growth in computing power with the less-than-exponential growth in job complexity, has said, “Sooner or later, we will run out of jobs.”
Jesus and Jobs
All of which makes me suspect Jesus had more on his mind than he gets credit for in his parable about a vineyard (business) owner who hires more and more workers (Matthew 20:1-16). Jesus’ story is generally interpreted to mean that all converts — those who come to faith at a young age, and those converted much later — receive the same eternal-life reward. The parable implies, as well, that regardless of variations in the service and sacrifice of Jesus’ followers, eternal life results from the generosity of God’s grace.
This is certainly the primary point Jesus is making. But Jesus’ stories always reveal more than just a single lesson, or a simple moral — in part, because the activities and behaviors of his characters are consistently behaviors of which Jesus approves (except when they are clearly described as wrong, e.g., as in the parable of the wicked husbandmen).
In the parables of the talents and minas, for example, Jesus clearly approves of the investing activities of the good servants. If he didn’t see investing as an appropriate activity, he wouldn’t have implicitly endorsed investing by telling these stories. Similarly, in the parable of the prodigal son, the father consistently behaves in ways that are entirely at odds with the patriarchal norms of his day, yet Jesus clearly approves of the father’s behavior (not surprising, of course, since the father in the story is a stand-in for our heavenly Father). Or consider the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Even though Jesus himself did not have a home, he obviously considers the desire to build a home perfectly appropriate. If not, he wouldn’t have legitimated that impulse by telling his story.
In his parable about the vineyard owner, Jesus has his business owner consciously choose generosity, not the market, as his guide for compensation. That by itself represents a radical break from business norms. Yet Jesus portrays an owner who is more radical still. Jesus’ business owner is not looking to get the most work done with the fewest possible workers. Just the opposite. Jesus depicts an owner looking to provide generously-paid employment to as many workers as possible. It’s as if Jesus’ owner simply hates to see people go without gainful employment.
This business owner clearly knows what we all know — that for poorer, less-skilled workers, lack of work devolves quickly into privation. Notably, Jesus has his owner acting on this knowledge. He portrays the owner behaving as if thinking to himself, ‘Jobs are the pressing need for so many poor, unemployed workers. I am blessed to be the steward of a business engine that creates jobs. So the more people for whom I can use my business to provide employment, the better.’
Let’s note the obvious. Most business people instinctively believe the actions of this vineyard owner are radically unbusinesslike, even reckless. But permit me one reasonable caveat about the business owner that Jesus has placed before us for consideration. Let’s assume Jesus’ owner is not simply generous, but prudent. He knows full well that he cannot employ so many workers, or pay them so generously, that his business becomes unprofitable and fails. After all, should that happen the number of people he can employ falls to zero.
We can reliably assume, therefore, that Jesus’ owner, just like other business people, absolutely strives to run his business profitably. Nevertheless, he doesn’t operate on the belief that maximum profitability should be his ultimate objective. Rather, Jesus gives us a business owner whose priority, above some reasonable level of profitability, seems to be maximum employment, not maximum profits.
Jesus clearly finds the jobs-maximizing behavior of his vineyard owner appropriate. If not, he wouldn’t have told the story. Jesus means his parable, therefore, to give business people a window into a particular understanding and practice of business that he finds commendable. In fact, Jesus means his story to provide a divine perspective on the essence of business purpose: profit is necessary, but people are the true priority.
That all said, it’s important to note that in his parables’ implicit endorsements, Jesus is being suggestive, not prescriptive. Jesus is not saying, for example, that all fathers must act similarly to the father in the prodigal son story. He simply presents favorably the father’s loving and gracious behavior for our consideration. Similarly, Jesus is not saying that any business owner who does not maximize employment is behaving inappropriately. Rather, he simply portrays for us an approach to business that he finds admirable. He then leaves it up to those with ‘ears to hear’ to respond appropriately.
Some time back I had opportunity to hear a presentation by Alan Barnhart, President of Barnhart Crane and Rigging, about what it has meant for he and his brother to run their company according to the biblical conviction that God owns everything, including their business. As noted in a prior column, one practical consequence is that the company allocates 50 percent of each year’s profits to underwriting evangelism and economic development in the developing world. The company currently gives away well more than a million dollars a month to such efforts.
In the Q&A that followed his presentation, I asked Alan this question: “Some people believe businesses can do good in the world only instrumentally — by using their profits to fund good work. Others believe that companies can do good intrinsically — that their business model itself can accomplish real good. By giving away 50 percent of profits each year, Barnhart is clearly doing good instrumentally. But how about intrinsically — do you see your business model itself as a potent engine for blessing?”
“Absolutely,” Alan responded. “I believe the two great needs of every human being are for Jesus and a job. Barnhart’s charitable giving funds a lot of efforts to tell people about Jesus. But our company also provides over 1,200 people with good jobs. That’s one of the most important ways our business creates blessing and, thereby, serves God’s good purposes in the world.” To which Jesus’ vineyard business owner would offer a resounding, ‘Amen.’
We live in an economic world where more and more business leaders view employment as the enemy rather than the objective, and where technology as well seems to be pushing us toward joblessness. Before it’s too late, therefore, let’s hope business people take to heart the particular lesson Jesus means his vineyard owner to have for them — that good jobs are among the most important of the objectives, and blessings, of business done God’s way.
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