On 3 needful jobs in the 21st C.


Today I’ll be doing one kind of speculative philosophy. I’ll be asking what kinds of jobs may be needful in the coming years. These will be jobs I’ve made up because they don’t yet exist. I’ll be basing my speculative inquiry on a number of assumptions about the present social world. (These assumptions may prove false or be unjustified.) It’ll be important to keep in mind that this speculative exercise bears an uncanny resemblance to a science fiction novel or a philosophical thought experiment, so it’s by no means economic forecasting.

I’d like to state my assumptions up front.

  1. Official unemployment in the US is now at 9%. Unofficial unemployment is undoubtedly much higher. Job growth in the US and worldwide remains sluggish.
  2. Conceivably, we may be approaching the end of economic growth. If this is true, then we can expect to experience a lean period.
  3. The Luddite Fallacy may no longer be a fallacy. The Fallacy states (a) that machines are tools used by but unable to replace workers and (b) workers who’ve been laid off due to machine innovation can be retrained to operate the machines that made their original line of work obsolete.  The questions the editors of The Economist posed recently in “Luddite Legacy” were whether we’ve reached a “tipping point,” a state in which machines are finally replacing workers, and whether “that technology is no longer creating new jobs at a rate that replaces old ones made obsolete elsewhere in the economy.” If this is right, then it challenges the assumption that worker P make the seamless transition from manufacturing to service or IT. That story–again, I’m speculating–may be wrapping up.
  4. Conceivably, we will need to become more self-reliant even as we learn to rely on (and ourselves become) more like generalists and less like technocrats, experts, and specialists.
  5. By my lights, we’ve already entered a period typified by the lived (!) “problem of the criterion.” We may know that such and such is the case, but we’re not sure why it’s the case. We’re awash in data but have no grounds for evaluating the data. We inherit categories of “better” and “worse” but we’ve no idea how to apply those categories to the particular cases. We know that we can live longer, but we’ve no idea how to live better. The problem stretches from what we should put in our mouths to how we ought to lead our lives. We haven’t the foggiest, I’d say. We can’t make up our minds.

3 Jobs

In short, I’m asking: what’s going on, what’s missing, and what do we do about all this? During this unsettled time, I can see that 3 kinds of persons may be of great use: the craftsman educator, the synoptic viewer, and the shepherd companion. These terms of art are kind of unpoetic, I know.

1. The Craftsman Educator. I’m imagining that the craftsman educator is the kind of person who makes things that possess the following attributes: (a) They are multifunctional; (b) they are built to last in virtue of embodying a number of adaptive  properties; and (c) they are made to be grasped, mended, worked on, and modified by the user who has purchased them. I’m imagining, then, that the craftsman not only makes the object but also, as a condition of sale, educates the user on the ways that it works in her life, on the value of good maintenance, and on the basic ways in which it can be mended, tweaked, and repaired. (Conceivably, this sort of object should also be open to other kinds of reshaping and recasting as well. Open to play.) You can see that what I have in mind resembles an on-the-fly master/apprenticeship relationship.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to compare Steve Jobs’ outlook with that of the 1970s Fuji Sports 10 bike manufacturers. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his recent New Yorker profile, “The Tweaker: The Real Genius of Steve Jobs,” Jobs was not an innovator but a “tweaker.” He saw good ideas that others like Xerox had already come up with and recognized how they could be refined and refined some more until they were workable. The myth, Gladwell states, is that Jobs was a visionary. The other point Gladwell makes is that Jobs purposefully kept the “guts” of his machines out of the hands of users because he thought they’d only fuck them up. Seriously. So if Jobs was a perfectionist, he was also a cultural pessimist. Apple’s products are meant to work elegantly we-know-not-how. This design principle is at the core of an ethic of specialization: Under the dominion of opportunity costs, we become specialists in X (web design) and hire specialists in Y (computer repair) and Z (car maintenance). We’ve crunched the numbers, and here’s how our world looks.

Contrast this picture with that of my 1970s Fuji. The bike was made during the second oil crisis in the mid-70s. It was advertised as a bike for the Everyman. It was priced at around $100, the frame was made of heavy duty steel, and the parts (Dia Compte bike calipers and so on) were meant to be tweaked and tinkered with by the bike owner. Indeed, that was expected and built into the design. You buy the thing with the idea that you know how to keep it going. It’s your responsibility. And it’s supposed to be “open source.” During the summer of 2009 before I moved to NYC, I worked as an apprentice with a guy in Fayetteville, AK, who, in the course of 20+ hours, showed me how to overhaul the bike I’d purchased on Craigslist Tulsa. In New York, my bike is my main form of transportation. For the past 2 years, I’ve been doing most of the bike repair and maintenance.

The only limitation in this example is that it doesn’t show the properties of adaptability and the multifunctionality that could be of vital importance provided that the picture I paint above is remotely accurate.

2. Synoptic Viewer. As a result of the superabundance of data, we’re beginning to see curators who can point us to the best information on certain topics. The Browser, I’d say, is the best journalistic curator on the web. In a recent article, I spoke with one journalist curator about

what he deemed the two temptations of our post-print era. One is getting mixed up in what he called the“information jungle.” The other is sitting complacently in a “filter bubble.” He suggested that the task of good journalism in the coming years will be to serve as a curator for the public, exposing citizens to, without overfeeding them on, information and ideas that challenge or deepen their firmly held beliefs. All right, but what shall we call it? How about “out-of-the-jungle, beyond-the-bubble Black Swan journalism?”

I then suggested that this style of journalism will be necessary but not sufficient. The reason it won’t be sufficient is that it’s based on the assumption that all we need is the gathering together of the best information and then it’s up to the reader to make sense of it. Um, ‘fraid this picture makes an unwarranted assumption about the split between facts and values, facts and opinions. Apart from that unwarranted assumption about the nature of mentality, it doesn’t touch the more vital task of giving us a synoptic view of the modern world. See again: the problem of the criterion.

Let’s take the case of Jerry Sandusky. Suppose I want to know, “What’s this all about? And what’s the best thing I can read to give me an overview of the Sandusky scandal?” What I don’t want to do is to get caught up in the nitty gritty details, the ticker tape parade, the ongoing reporting of Sandusky mania. I’m not interested in keeping up with it nor do I have time. I want to know instead what’s it all about in broad-enough terms. Well, for my money I’m going to turn to The Browser which will, in turn, point me to a fine piece at Sports Illustrated. The Browser does this curatorial task marvelously. I salute you, Browser.

But suppose my inquiry goes one or two steps higher because, in actuality, I don’t care that much about the Sandusky scandal but I do care quite a lot about why everyone cares so much about Sandusky and what this says about us. Here’s where the synoptic viewer comes on the scene. It’ll be her job, in 1000 words or so, in executive summaries, in meta-analyses, and so on, to give us a bird’s-eye-view of the modern world. In this case, she’ll have to link together a network of questions: (a) What is a scandal and why does that matter? (b) Why would pedophilia be so greatly feared? Why today? (c) What does it mean to have the courage to act in the face of moral wrongdoing? And (d) Why is hypocrisy the worst moral charge that we level at someone today? Making sense of the Sandusky case requires providing the reader with the requisite intellectual scaffolding. I wrote something about this a while ago here.

Or take the case of Greece’s debt crisis. The best economists who are writing for the general reader are trying to show us what impact Greece’s financial insolvency will have on the Eurozone and on the global economy. Great. I’ve read my fair share of good stuff on this subject. What I really want to know, though, is how debt emerged in the modern period (what problem did it solve?), what is the nature of a debtor society, and what it says about the breakdown in the political authority of the modern state. Synoptic viewer to the rescue!

3. Shepherd Companion. The fact that the elderly are living longer is creating lots of unforeseen problems. Their families aren’t taking care of them in the ways that traditional societies once did. The elderly–not our elders, mind you, but damned old people–are shipped off to nursing homes and residential facilities where they’re “seen to.” They need carers and caretakers, true. Nurses are important, very important, but, so far as I can tell, no one’s attending to the spiritual needs of the aged.

I see this as a larger social need that’s going unmet. Lots of people in life are going through all kinds of transitions, and they need “handy” men and women who can shepherd them through the hard times and over the rough patches. Shepherd companions have all kinds of moral virtues–approachability, compassion, friendliness, etc.–that make them good people to call on when you’re down and out. They’re reliable; they’re trustworthy; they’re neighbors; they’re Whitmans.

I can see us paying people to see us through the rough patches in our lives. People who help us to get us back on our feet and then  leave us in charge of our new lives.  The point of shepherd companions would be to give us the kind of guidance that we need in order to affirm our sense of autonomy. That may seem like a paradox but it’s not.

A Very Brief Conclusion

The First Principle of the marketplace should be dike: we must give to each his due. In principle, all 3 jobs I canvass are indeed needful and, as such, should be given their due. Part of giving someone her due, at least as long as the cash nexus holds sway, should be to pay her reasonably, fairly, and without resentment in your heart.