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Wealth and Work

from the magazine

Wealth and Work

Our aim should continue to be an economy that produces both. The Shape of Work to Come 2017
Economy, finance, and budgets

In the old economy, generating wealth required physical work, and lots of it—often backbreaking, dangerous, dirty, and exhausting work. Consider General Motors, a company that creates wealth the old-fashioned way: by making things. Last year, General Motors employed about 200,000 people. After making 10 million cars, it earned about $42,000 in income per employee.

Compare that with the Blackstone Group, a publicly traded asset-management firm that last year employed 2,200 people and made $490,000 per employee. With a hundredth of the workforce, Blackstone makes more than ten times more per worker than GM.

With the impact that automation and robotics will soon have on manufacturing and retail, one can imagine all firms radically improving their productivity through technology. As businesses become more like Blackstone and less like General Motors, the economy will generate more and more wealth—and, many worry, less work.

This transformation seems to challenge traditional understandings of economic justice. In the old economy, justice was about a give-and-take. Prosperity required everyone to contribute as one could, and the idea was that those who help create value should receive a fair share of that value. Exactly what counted as a fair share was a matter of argument, but the general premise that there should be some proportion between contribution and benefit was the foundation of traditional conceptions of economic justice.

What happens, though, if creating wealth no longer requires everyone to pitch in? Does the logic of reciprocity still hold when the economy needs only a few hands? Some would say that, regardless of whether everyone contributes, everyone should share in prosperity. One version of this idea is the universal basic income—where one is paid, in essence, for being alive. The idea here is not reciprocity, but compensation for the bad luck of not having the rarefied skills that the new economy needs.

This kind of thinking has a certain logic to it, but it is based on a profound mistake. The new world of work, I believe, will not render most people’s contribution unnecessary, though the nature of that contribution will change. Work in the future will be (for the first time) both plentiful and human. The economy will no longer ask millions of workers to suffocate their imagination, creativity, sociability, and intellect and follow orders as if they were mules or machines, thoughtless and ready to haul, to lift, to dig, to pick, to plant. The old jobs—including the most brutal and monotonous jobs of the assembly line and the field—are disappearing (where they haven’t already); but in their place, new and better jobs are emerging. Massage therapists, personal trainers, and physician’s assistants are just three examples of the new jobs in the area of personal services that are springing up as fewer people are needed to do the backbreaking work of old.

It may take a while—a generation?—for us to adapt ourselves to this new world of personal-service work, and some will have an easier time of it than others. The transition is likely to require decoupling social insurance from the employment relationship—so workers don’t have to depend on a large employer for essential benefits—but not from work. Our aim should be—as it long has been—an economy that produces wealth and work.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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