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Will the Future of Work be Virtual?

There is an interesting discussion going on the in tech scene right now. Jeff Jarvis got the ball rolling by writing a post at Buzzmachine about the Jobless Future we might be facing. Other tech leaders like Paul Graham and Jason Calacanis then joined in the discussion. Earlier that week Jarvis changed his upcoming talk at South by South West accordingly.

This is of course a topic that can’t be covered in one single blog post or by one single person. There are too many factors that led to the point we are at today. It seems as if we have reached what I would call “peak employement”. No more jobs are being created though more and more job seekers, old and young are entering the market. Why didn’t this happen earlier you might ask.

One of the reasons I see is that we live in relative peace and prosperity for over 60 years now. World War I and II together with pandemics like the Spanish flu in 1918 killed tens of millions of people and though it might sound sarcastic, it had its influence and actually regulated the job market. If you get back further in time you had even more wars and pandemics, Black Death for instance killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population and left entire regions deserted, without any survivors. In other words for most parts in human history there was more work available than people.

As a second reason, we must consider that until the industrial revolution there has always been a substitute for workers to go to. When people moved from rural parts into cities, they found work in new industries as all of these needed lots of man power. The windmill did not kill jobs, it probably even created them as people were able to produce more flour than before. Therefore they needed more farm worker for bigger fields, people who get the wheat to the mills etc.

But the moment a machine gets more productive than workers this ecosystem breaks down. Today two people are working on the field during harvest. One of them is driving the combine harvester (which in itself is the substitute for two former jobs: the harvester and the thresher) and the driver of the tractor.

If you combine those two factors, growing population and replacement of workforce by increasingly effective machines you have the basis of Marx’s Communist Manifesto on the one hand, and on the other hand a huge problem to deal with today. What kind of jobs are we going to create to not only allow people earn their living but also do something meaningful?

As we are in the picture of farm work already, let’s talk about Chinese prison workers, sweat shops and the phenomenon of gold farming. In May the Guardian published an interesting piece on Chinese prison workers who were forced to play World of Warcraft by night in order to create virtual goods and currency which then has been sold to gamers on the network. The same exists for popular games like Farmville where workers take care of the virtual farm while the owner sleeps.

Although the circumstances leave me with a disquieting feeling it becomes clear that in some parts of our society virtual goods and currencies are very real already and therewith they have value. Owners of virtual farms are willing to spend real money in order to grow their virtual estate and there seems to be enough of them to turn it into some kind of a gold rush including illegal activities to satisfy the increasing demand.

Up to today our school system is still preparing the next generation for a world in which most graduates would work in plants, bolting together cars, assembling TVs or sewing clothes. The problem is that those jobs have either been outsourced to developing countries, are taken by machines or are completely gone as the products themselves don’t exist anymore. And even those workers in China and India have to fear for their jobs as we were recently able to learn from Foxconn which is planning to "hire" one million robots.

While it is of course true that technology will create new jobs in industries that don’t even exist today, those however will only be a substitute for the jobs dying. There are lots of highly qualified people working in the oil industry today. People with the same skill set are going to work in the sector renewable energy or Cleantech a decade from now. But what will be the substitute for people with skills in manual labor, those who worked on the fields and later built cars and television sets?

As I wrote last week I believe that basic programming and / or skills in graphic design need to become part of every child’s education. While I don’t think that new technologies can offer jobs for everyone those skills will be a minimum requirement to at least get the chance of a job interview.

Similar to the opportunities that colleges offer you can take a look at the league of professional WoW or Counterstrike players around the globe. This is already an interesting option for talented teenagers today to become a professional e-athlete and earn serious money. It is the 21st century version of going to college and becoming a professional football or basketball player.

Picture: Abel Grimmer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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