Educating for a jobless society
Alexander “Sasha” Sidorkin — 16 November 2020
In the midst of the Great Depression, in 1930, J. M. Keynes wrote an essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” He asserts that “in the long run … mankind is solving its economic problem,” and that the latter is “not a permanent problem of the human race.” He continues:
If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit.
In the last few years, serious economists began to wonder about the possibility of a jobless economy. Other economists believe that such worries are a version of the “Luddite fallacy.” While some jobs disappear, others develop, and eventually most people find employment. The results of the debate are not clear yet.
Human societies evolved to value one’s work. We may have millennia-old dreams of the age of leisure, but in fact, we treat the unemployed terribly, and the unemployed themselves often do not show great coping mechanisms. In education, the problem of jobless society presents itself like this: How do we convince kids to come to school, if in the future, there will be no employment for all or even most of them? What will motivate children and youth to stay in school and apply effort to learning? I will now consider three examples of the optional labour that education of the future may prepare for.
Prosumption (production + consumption) is a phenomenon made visible with the advance of Web 2.0. According to Ritzer and Jurgenson, early capitalism in the first two centuries after the Industrial Revolution was dominated by production. After WWII, developed countries’ economies gradually shifted toward consumption. Now we are witnessing the birth of a presumption economy.
Prosumers create content within the Web 2.0 framework. For example, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, twitter, Instagram, etc. contain content that people create for free for others. These are the active prosumers. A little more exotic subset of prosumption is when a person unintentionally produces value for others through the act of consumption, without actually intending to produce something of value. For example, every time we use Google, it learns something from our use, and updates its algorithms. Other prosumers create value mostly for themselves. This can be done either by exchanging a bit of one’s own labour for discounted prices (e.g. the IKEA warehouse, Home Depot and DIY culture, scanning and bagging one’s own groceries). This kind of prosumption still may feel like work, but it is experienced as self-serving work, where results are immediately consumed by the same person who acted as producer.
All the types of prosumption described above still do require a certain level of sophistication, including literacy, numeracy, and the motivation to consume complex products created by others. A good prosumer is someone who has the taste for life, the will to consume broadly and creatively, and does not mind applying an effort working to make their consumption more fulfilling.
As the jobless society becomes more real, we can tell it is not going to be filled with leisure. More likely, it will be a world with very few people holding very good jobs, while most people volunteering under moral pressure from and with intensive involvement by the state.
Such a world may look more or less appealing, depending on one’s values and fears. And yet it seems to be the natural evolution of power technologies that were exposed by Michel Foucault. His works demonstrated the expansion of the softer, less dramatic applications of pain among people. Contemporary volunteerism more resembles the medieval notions of service than waged labour. It is fueled by moral considerations, the sense of duty and honor.
What makes a good volunteer? It is someone susceptible to the moral pressures in the first place. A volunteer is someone moved by ethical considerations and is capable of empathy. At the same time, volunteers must be able to extract enough pleasure from their work to make it motivating. In other words, a volunteer is someone who is able to want to be engaged.
Boris Groys examines the problem of self-design in art, which means that the artist’s life is now the main art object, not the things she produces. The utopian thinkers of the past who imagined people of the future preoccupied with arts could not have imagined how right and how wrong they are. Arts of the future turned out to be not tapestry or porcelain, but exhibitionism which is also a profoundly democratic art of self-creation. The vanity of self-presentation was not, of course, something completely unknown to the old thinkers. The mass self-design presents itself through a new kind of activity on social media platforms. Facebooking a profoundly social activity, because each individual post or comment requires spectators, and is meaningless without the “like” button. The ecology of selective mutual liking consists of social gestures of approval or dismissal.
Facebooking or Instagramming are both species of a careful construction of self-image, primarily through three kinds of roles and associated with the activities. It is easy to see that the roles are difficult to distinguish, and they are merely directions, not separate categories.
Curators repost, an act of pointing to content created by others (news items, trivia, pictures, sayings, etc.)
Content creators produce original posts, blogs, jokes, photos, poems, observations, or comments on other’s postings.
Adventurers or reporters post about personal moments or experiences (e.g. birthdays, and marriages, birth of children, graduation from school, new jobs, illness and recovery, but also tragedy and catharsis, travel, new experiences, meals, and random encounters).
All three essential Facebook activities intermingle and weave one complex, highly intentional comic strip of one’s life. They seem to confirm Groys’ hypothesis about the shift towards self-design as a mass phenomenon. Indeed, active users of Facebook seem to be engaging in a life-long project, organized as a construction of an autobiographic multimedia narrative, with no other motivation than presenting it as an artistic endeavor.
prepare students for living in a jobless society,
we are better off thinking about it now
Alexander “Sasha” M. Sidorkin is Dean of the College of Education at Sacramento State University in California, USA.