Rolling Rock Ramblings: The (Bleak) Future of Work

A worker is pained by his job./ Bussiness Insider
A worker is pained by his job./ Bussiness Insider

No one should place any bets on the future. But whatever value that advice has, it doesn’t stop us from a near constant wondering of what time holds in store for us. Take the future of work, for example. If I were to go against the well-worn advice, I would shore up a large bet against an equitable solution delivered to Americans from the hands of corporations who are leading the charge into our future. 

I have written previously about the pitfalls associated with work within the tech industry, but if you have strong communication and critical thinking skills, you’ll no doubt be able to scrape a career out of the soaking dirty dish of an industry. What is scarier to think about is the ballooning gig economy, the transient state of modern labor, and the unfortunate inadequacy of organizing efforts against forces which I am unable to classify in too many ways other than callous and indifferent to the plight of man. 

Today, a quickly growing percentage of young people are employed via contracted labor. This sort of work used to be heralded as an elegant solution for folks balancing creative endeavors with a busy schedule and proudly marched under the banner of a freelancer. While there are certainly still many people who are living the dream, most people who fall under this broad definition of work today owe their living to powerful and ever growing companies that deal in and around technology. These companies often pitch their employment opportunities as a great way to “be your own boss,” build your own schedule, and cultivate experience in an important industry. The reality which most people live in, however, depicts a much bleaker outlook for those employed through temporary, though often extensive, contracts. 

What we sit in now is a space between the bleak future and the waning visages of the alleged golden age of technology.  The fact remains that you could grab a bike or a car and make enough money to live driving people around the city or delivering food, groceries, or prescription drugs. And with the winners of the age old war against “mom n’ pop” small businesses emerging triumphantly, these sorts of employment opportunities are becoming an exceedingly common pathway for people without the credentials required to participate in the rat race of securing a higher income. 

The problem, as it has stood since these companies began laying their roots, is that these opportunities were always envisioned to be temporary. The battalion of companies that make up the gig economy, more often than not, operate in the red. They aren’t able to report any profit most quarters and they don’t need to. The pitch they have sold to investors is that eventually, all of the money being spent on advertising, paying people halfway decent wages, as well as researching and developing AI and self-driving vehicles will pay off. How? Well, once the technology gets good enough, it can begin supplementing the demand for labor. This will allow for a drop in wages that companies have been paying at a calculated rate in order to incentivize enough people to actually make their services work. At this point, these companies’ incessant advertising campaign will have built a large enough pool of consumers that the money will keep flowing in but without a large chunk of it going towards paying humans. 

This isn’t really news as much as it is a sober reflection on what we can do about it. We have seen numerous organizing efforts designed to give contracted workers bargaining power with their employers. We’ve seen laborers lobby for basic benefits like paid sick leave, worker’s compensation for injuries accrued on the job, or a consistent wage that accounts for the number of hours worked. We’ve also seen them stamped out. Proposition 22 in California allowed for large companies like Uber and Lyft to continue their practice of dodging their responsibilities as employers by declaring themselves to be first and foremost, technology companies. What they are selling is not food delivered to your house or a ride around town, they are selling the technology that is allowing for this. They are entitled to this definition insofar as in their ideal world, they wouldn’t have to hire any humans to begin with. But they hold this illustrious position built on their billions of dollars worth of market share while simultaneously being morally bankrupt. 

Confronting the bleak future of work means that we need to have an earnest conversation amongst ourselves and especially with the next generation of workers. We need to drill in the fundamentals of this reality: these companies are not your friends, they do not have your best interests at heart, and anything that appears to be a favor from them is only given with maleficent blueprints. We need to restructure our education system in a way that allows for young people to develop the skills needed to participate in this economy. If I had it my way, this economy would be thoroughly restructured from the bottom up. But being aware that this shake-up probably won’t be happening any time soon, we need to put systems in place for future generations to be able to have some dignity while they float amidst these uncertain and troubling waters.