There have been a great number of articles about automation in the past few months focusing on when machines (aka computers, aka Artificial Intelligence, aka Killer Robots) will take our jobs. If you want a great roundup on many leading ideas in this area, check out Timothy Aeppel's piece, What Clever Robots Mean for Jobs in WSJ from last February which quotes Gartner Research and their prediction that one in three jobs in the U.S. will be automated within ten years.
I'm not interested in debating if Gartner is being sensationalist or which jobs will or won't be replaced. My kids are both almost teenagers. If this stat is even close to correct, it means they'll be facing a culture where more then thirty percent of their friends don't have jobs. Note I said, "culture" versus "job market" because while many advocates of automation talk about the bliss we'll experience when released from the shackles of labor, none discuss the two primary areas humans need to improve today to maximize our inevitable jobless nirvana:
Mental and emotional wellbeing.
What? Why am I not discussing the need for coding or programming? And I haven't used the terms, "Big Data" or "Internet of Things" at all! That's because if the discussion around automation doesn't include pragmatic plans to provide job assistance to the unemployed we'll all either be out of work or living in the midst of those who are. I'll leave thoughts around the economics of these issues to people like Martin Ford in his excellent new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and The Threat of a Jobless Future. In the book, Ford discusses how a Universal Basic Income could provide citizens of any nation the opportunity to have the income needed to pay for basic provisions, however automation pans out in the near future.
For my part, however, I'll ask you a simple question. Have you ever been out of work?
I have. A number of times. I used to be a professional actor, so being out of work was a normal part of my career. You learn early on as an actor to always be looking for your next job to hopefully avoid long stretches of unemployment. But whether through a show closing early (one off-Broadway musical I was in shut down after a crane fell and closed Times Square, for instance) or timing of auditions, there were a number of times where I'd go for weeks or months without a job as an actor. Now, as an author, speaker, and consultant, I face the same emotional challenges of unemployment as I did before.
It's scary writing about being out of work on LinkedIn. Can I just point that out? This is the forum where I should be demonstrating my business acumen to you, in hopes you'll hire me for consulting or offer me a job down the line. This is where I work to impress you with my expertise in emerging technology or wellbeing in hopes you'll have me do a keynote talk at your next big meeting.
But I do that all the time. As a consultant, I'm often giving away my greatest insights for free in hopes of getting paid. Maybe I'm doing something wrong. Maybe writing has been devalued so that my expertise is simply not marketable any longer. Maybe the people who say, "information should be free" are typically rich and miss the irony of their rhetoric. Whatever.
My goal for this piece is that I don't want you or your loved ones to experience the shame that comes from being out of work emotionally unarmed.
I'm a forty six year old man living in suburban New Jersey. While I love being a stay at home dad (my wife and I both consult and take turns being the breadwinner), I still struggle in dry periods between clients when I don't have work. When I'm out having breakfast, people often ask me on a regular basis, "got the day off from work?" While this is not a rude question, it denotes my presence is an aberration. My potential lack of work makes them uncomfortable.
While I see more guys doing the stay at home dad thing, even in 2015 the stigma of being a man not employed at a standard, 9-to 5 job feels really high. Especially among middle-aged guys the unspoken "man code" is a powerfully emasculating force when it comes to unemployment. I believe this stigma comes from a place of paralyzing fear for most guys. Culturally, since we were kids we've been taught providing for our families is our number one role in society. When we can't make money traditionally, even though we may be caring for our kids full time or doing our best to find work, we're ashamed all the time.
Shame sucks. And I'm tired of it. Sadly, most of us don't need training to know how to shame ourselves or others. But we do need education about newer science around positive psychology or emotional intelligence. If machines are replacing our work activities, we should amplify the human skills we have to help ourselves and others to fill the void. If we're evolving our attitudes around work to the point where we're automating ourselves our of jobs, can we also lose the castrating stigmas from days gone by?
Why Productivity is the Enemy of Positivity
Here's a big lie we need to address regarding the future of work. Productivity for its own sake doesn't lead to increased wellbeing in humans. If your work brings you a sense of flow or purpose, you may be busy or physically tired but fulfilling a role you feel you were born to do energizes and excites you. Checking items off a list and basing long term increase of wellbeing just on volume of activity isn't sustainable. So we can't move to a time where one third of our population will be out of work equipped solely with pithy aphorisms about their opportunity to pursue purpose. We need to universally train our entire population in areas of emotional intelligence and positive psychology as if were we training for a marathon. People need to understand the practices of gratitude, altruism, flow, and mindfulness so they're already practicing them before they potentially lose their job.
And note this training is as much about utilizing these skills outside the workforce as at our jobs. Typically education in Emotional IQ is focused on increasing ROI for a particular organization. Soon we'll all need to know how to effectively help our families, friends and neighbors during times of emotional upheaval around unemployment. This includes pragmatic realities of the rising costs of healthcare around increased depression rates or things like alcoholism. HR departments that begin to plan for this inevitability today will be much better equipped to help employees struggling with the third of the people in their lives out of work.
Today, productivity is largely focused on exponential increase of profits. It's about accelerating the bottom line of an organization versus increasing the wellbeing of the humans who work there. This is a moral and societal choice we have already made. I've talked about the lack of sustainability for a GDP focused mindset for years, but I'll put aside that soapbox to implore that as we aggressively pursue automation we assign some of our innovative fervor towards the human needs of our future selves. No matter that the third of people out of work can't afford to buy the products made by the companies automating them out of their jobs. Let's make sure that they are equipped to increase their wellbeing where possible.
Empathy Versus Entrepreneurship
My focus of this piece is to encourage us as a society to address the fact many of us will soon be out of work through no fault of our own. Let's say for the moment, that widespread automation is inevitable. Let's even say overall for humanity this is a good thing. Fine. But we can't face the perils of unemployment by just gritting our teeth and being told to "be entrepreneurial." We have to change the taxonomies around business speak when by definition we're removing over a third of the population from the workforce. Our advice for the future of work needs to shift to empathy when dealing with humanity because our algorithms are driven by emotion.
So let's make the focus of work on employing our emotional intelligence and positive practices to help others. This idea, unlike an automation economy where citizens can't afford what's produced, is sustainable. And for the time being, as humans we can't automate wellbeing. This is actually a good thing, as you have to actively work to increase it every day. And that's a job worth keeping.