On the latest episode of Recode Decode, journalist and Boston University professor Ellen Shell joined Recode’s Kara Swisher in studio to talk about her latest book, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change.
Shell explained why some of the conventional wisdom about the future of work is misguided and offered pragmatic advice for people entering an increasingly automated job market. She warned that the most at-risk jobs are “mid-skill” ones that are expensive for employers, which includes most software developers.
“It’s not necessarily the low-level routine jobs that they’re most excited about automating,” she said of computer scientists. “They’re actually very excited about automating more high-level complex jobs because those people cost more. If you want your bang for your buck, you automate a high-level, expensive job, okay?”
But of course, currently safer low-skill jobs could go away if the cost of payroll catches up with the cost of buying and maintaining new technology.
“Flipping burgers at McDonalds … that’s such cheap labor, buying a machine is not worth it, right?” Shell said. “As the minimum wage gets pushed upward, those burger-flipping machines are going to look more and more attractive. This is something we have to plan for. I’m not scared of it. I think we should stop being scared of it. I argue, ‘Let’s face reality and deal with it and plan for it.’”
And she noted that planning for the future isn’t as simple as just saying, “I’m going to learn to code,” since becoming a new coder means throwing yourself into a job market where cheap outsourced labor is already abundant around the world. The so-called STEM “skills gap” has been promulgated by tech companies because those are skills they need right now, but not ones that will guarantee long-term financial security.
“There are plenty of people with STEM skills,” Shell said. “What social scientists have found just in recent years is what kids lack are what they call analytic skills. That is not problem-solving per se, but knowing what problems to solve … What homework is worth doing? Where should I apply my efforts? Kids who grow up in privilege have a lot more exposure to that than kids who grow up in poverty.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Ellen.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as the new host of The Apprentice — I forget what happened to the old guy — but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Ellen Shell, a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly. Her latest book is all about one of my favorite topics, the future of work. It’s called The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change. Ellen, welcome to Recode Decode.
Ellen Shell: It’s great to be here.
Thank you. I’m so excited to talk about this but first I wanna go into your history, because you’ve written a couple of books that really rivet and fascinate me. Talk a little bit about how you got to this, because you were a science writer. Is that right? Is that incorrect? You’ve written about lots of different topics.
My background, technically, way, way back when, is in science and biology and I’ve written a lot on science. But I try to bring the kind of rigor that we bring to covering science into other areas. In recent — at least the last decade — I’ve been focused on issues of economics which I think are very compelling, especially now.
Right, exactly. Talk about your background. Go through … I like where people come from because then you know how they made it to where they got.
Well, going way back when, as I said, I was trained in biology. Always had a great interest in public communications, also in film. I started off as a film critic. Not many people know that.
Wow. Where’d you write for?
Very long ago, Seattle, Seattle Times. Then moved on to longer form and, as you mentioned, I had a long affiliation with the Atlantic magazine in Boston. Now, I’m a professor at Boston University, have been for quite some time. I direct the graduate program in science journalism as well as write books.
You continue to write about science, right?
I do, now and again, yes.
What does the professor of science journalism do? Just in the journalism department as people are getting into that as a career?
My students are all graduate students and most of them have at least an undergraduate degree in a science and they’re interested in talking to the general public about issues in science, and a big part of their job is analysis. It’s not just reporting on science, it’s kind of unpacking science and explaining it, talking about its significance and its relevance to a general audience.
Right, okay. One of your first books was about — we talked about it just earlier — it was about the science around obesity and about fat and thin essentially, correct?
Right. I did write a book, wasn’t my first book, my second book. It was called The Hungry Gene and I was very interested at the time — that was the early 2000s — and I was really interested in the biological basis of behavior.
I had some questions about whether that notion that biology could direct our behavior was being exaggerated, but then looking at it carefully, I found eating behavior is something that is, to a certain degree, biologically directed.
The Hungry Gene is about the discovery of the OB gene in mice and later in humans, and people who lack that gene are uncontrollably hungry all the time. There are very, very few people globally like that but there is a constellation of genes that are involved in this process and some of your genetic background does determine how much you eat in a given environment. That was very interesting to me.
But then you moved on to Cheap. Talk about that, because you were very early to this idea of what discounting does. You don’t know this, but I wrote a lot about Herbert Haft, do you remember him? He was the one who had a discount drug store and it was a Supreme Court decision that allowed people to discount prices.
I know a lot about discounting.
Shockingly. But I had to learn. You were sort of early to this idea of what happens in this era where prices become … And one of the questions, I had Janet Yellen on stage at an event yesterday and we were talking about whether the presence of algorithms in Amazon has created a situation where prices are always the right price.
Talk a little bit about Cheap.
The so-called “perfect price.” Yeah, well, Cheap was an interesting journey for me because I did learn about the history of discounting and how it all got started, the white sales in the late 1800s. It originally was a really good thing. It made goods accessible to people who couldn’t afford them and it was meant to be the best of possible things. It also, interestingly, kept people employed.
Wanamaker, who was a department store guy, a famous one in Philadelphia at the time, would lose his employees, would have to lay people off after the Christmas rush, and he didn’t like doing that because he was a really good guy. What he did is he invented the white sale to bring people back to the stores in January to buy white goods, sheets, towels, stuff like that, so he could keep his people employed year round.
Originally, the so-called sales discount were a really good thing for employees and for workers. But that book came out almost eight, nine years ago, and at the time, I was really interested in what economists call the externalities of low price. What are the consequences of having such low prices? What I concluded was a lot of low prices come on the backs of workers.
How do you get prices so low? What do you sacrifice? Cutting labor costs is often the easiest and quickest way to lower prices. I was really interested in that and wrote a book about it and, of course, that led me to my next book which is about work. The Job is really about work in the 21st century.
In that ensuing time, technology has had both an impact on price and also on work.
Let’s talk about the origins of this book, The Job.
Sure. As I said, I had written this book called Cheap, and the corollary was the notion of cheap goods meaning cheap labor, right? I got really interested in that. As it turned out, it’s a very complicated issue, very interesting issue, lots of history and politics involved.
But you’re right about technology because technology has changed everything very, very quickly. In the 20th century, up until around 2000, technology increased the need for skills. People were all training up, madly trying to keep ahead of technology, all that stuff.
But what’s interesting is — and I don’t know how many people know this — but since around 2000, a little thereafter, the demand for skills has actually declined. Human skills has actually declined. This doesn’t mean we don’t need highly skilled people. We certainly do. At the top ends, we definitely do.
There’s lots of jobs there.
There are a good number of jobs, but the jobs that are most rapidly growing in number are jobs at the low end. That middle level job which requires skills has really been hollowed out and technology is doing that very, very quickly and we actually don’t know where it’s going at this point. This was a very interesting, challenging puzzle.
One of the things I always say and I sometimes just say things just to cause people to start talking about them. The other day, I was like, “There will be no stores in 20 years.” There just won’t be stores. You won’t have stores the way we look at them. Or you won’t own a car. It’ll be like owning a horse. Just trying to get the discussion going, which I think, directionally, is correct.
One of the things I say all the time is this concept of everything that can be digitized will be digitized. I’m talking about work. Any job that you can imagine being digitized, whether it’s manufacturing or lawyers or radiologists or something like that. Talk a little bit about the mechanics of what’s happened with technology included in that, that these are jobs that will be gone or …
Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting question. I think what you said is true. Anything that can be digitized, will be, if it can be done more cheaply and better than a human. No question about it. It remains to be seen whether things like the law and medicine as a whole will be done better by digital technology.
Certain parts will.
Certain parts, no question. Radiology already, document searches in the legal area have become … a lot of them have been outsourced and to some degree automated. Absolutely no question that that’s the direction we’re going.
It’s probably the direction we should go. We can’t really stop that, that notion that we’re gonna beat the machines is really kind of a lost battle.
We don’t churn butter anymore. We don’t do a lot of things we used to do.
We don’t wash our clothes with rocks in a river, right? It’s inevitable that this is the way we’re going now.
However, you mentioned stores. Good point. Are we not gonna have brick and mortar stores anymore? What has happened again is that hollowing out. We have actually more boutique stores than we have in the past. Boutiques are actually …
Because they’re interesting and experiential.
Interestingly, independent bookstores have seen something of a revival in recent years. They were really in rapid decline, now they’re sort of crawling back. It’s also true with a lot of boutique stores.
And discount stores are doing quite well. Those big discount stores and big-box stores are doing quite well. What’s losing ground are the department stores that your parents and my parents and I also used to go to. Those midlevel stores that offer some level of quality and some level of service, maybe not the fanciest stuff but good, durable stuff. They’re the ones that are really in trouble.
Talk about the mechanics of it. What happens? So you have jobs and they shift. Later, I wanna get into the idea, as you said briefly here, maybe they just should. Like, coal mining. Probably robots should do that job. Probably.
Good point. I like that one.
It’s not good for humans to do it.
Even though politicians say we’re gonna bring back jobs, I’m like, “Why would we want to?” I get that that’s their jobs, but maybe we need to get them to do something else. I wanna talk about where jobs are going, but talk about the mechanics of the hollowing out, of how that happens, because you’re right, there’s low-end jobs and the sort of piecework — it’s piecework of this day — and the high-end jobs. Talk about the mechanics of the hollowing out of the middle.
The hollowing out, we can think of things like travel agents. Was a mid-skill job, for many people, very interesting job, a desirable job, but it’s become automated, largely automated. We go online, we book our own travel. There still are travel agents but many, many fewer of them.
As we all know, we can name just dozens of job categories or scores of job categories where that has happened, where automation … Bookkeeping, for example. Many functions in accounting. All these things have been obviated by technology or almost obviated.
Toll takers, which actually was a very well-paying job on the freeways and the highways, that’s been very rapidly automated. These are jobs, no matter how we may think of them, that were actually jobs that were very desirable and people really enjoyed them and made a good living at them.
That hollowing out, as I said, is actually not inevitable. Those particular jobs, yes. Obviously, those jobs have been automated and they’re not gonna come back. There’s no real reason they should if a machine can do them better.
And cheaper, especially, absolutely. Machines are expensive, by the way, so no employer is going to invest in a machine and then also gonna have the same labor costs, right?
Once you put out for a machine, you hope it’s going to take away some of the need, certainly for the higher-priced labor.
Ironically, I think it’s really kind of interesting, I’ve talked to a lot of computer scientists about this. It’s not necessarily the low-level routine jobs that they’re most excited about automating. They’re actually very excited about automating more high-level complex jobs because those people cost more. If you want your bang for your buck, you automate a high-level, expensive job, okay?
Give me an example of that.
Well, like we mentioned, radiology, right? Looking at slides of cancer cells, things like that. It’s not perfected yet by machine and radiologists have to supervise the machines, but we’re getting closer and closer to diagnostics, automated diagnostics.
We’ve all heard of Watson and IBM. There are other places working on this. It’s something that’s the holy grail, can we automate the high … for fancy jobs …
Okay, and actually some of the lower-level jobs — say, for example, flipping burgers at McDonalds — well, guess what? There are burger-flipping machines, and they’ve been out there for quite some time. But that’s such cheap labor, buying a machine is not worth it, right?
Right. We got some new ones in San Francisco, in case you’re interested.
Some burger-flipping machines?
Yeah, there’s new ones.
There you go.
There’re new ones. They’re still at it. They’re going to get it.
Absolutely. As the minimum wage gets pushed upward, those burger-flipping machines are going to look more and more attractive. This is something we have to plan for.
I’m not scared of it. I think we should stop being scared of it. I argue, “Let’s face reality and deal with it and plan for it.”
And get technology under our control.
We’re here with journalist Ellen Shell, she works for the Atlantic, but her latest book is called The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change. I talk a lot about work, and I think a lot about how it’s going to change. One of the things that I’d love to get your take on is talk about … is it radical change now, is it very akin to farming to manufacturing, where do you put it? Put it historically, because there’s been …
This has happened several times in human history.
And will happen several times again.
Right, right, absolutely happened, and I think the mistake we’ve had is looking at history and assuming it’s going to repeat itself, right? So we’ve looked at history and said, “Yeah, well, you know, nobody makes buggy whips anymore,” that’s the cliché, right?
This is a Silicon Valley thing I hear all the time. Marc Andreessen and I had a big argument. “It’s like farming to manufacturing.” I’m like, “Is it?”
And then they don’t care about the… That’s another issue.
Whether or not they care about it, they haven’t thought a lot about it…
No. Not one second.
… because they don’t want to take responsibility for it. I understand, that’s not their job. It is quite different because, certainly, in the manufacturing era, what happened …
This is the transition?
Exactly, Industrial Revolution, physical work became automated, right? Physical work.
But the brain was still, kind of, a human thing and we didn’t have AI, we didn’t have machine learning, we didn’t have all those things that we have today, and so our intelligence, what made us human …
Wasn’t really … exactly, the cognitive aspect was not really under threat, right?
So it was just the physicality.
Mostly the physicality.
But it brought in an era of change because women could … lots of different people could work.
Absolutely, of course women have always worked.
Yes, of course, no I get that, but I mean in terms of the higher-paying jobs.
Right, right, so it did open access to all sorts of things that were available. But now that we can automate some cognition, okay, and we can’t … I don’t want to exaggerate what we can do, but we’re certainly on that trajectory, machines that can teach themselves. That’s a very exciting thing that’s just happened in the last few years, a machine teaching itself without needing a human to teach it. It’s pretty amazing stuff, right? So that changes everything, because what is left for humans? And we have to think very carefully about that, and all of us have some ideas. None of the ideas are very good yet.
But this is a new day and a new time, and the opportunity is here to take a close look.
I want to get to that in a minute, but I want to still drill down on the idea of how this compares to the last one, which would have been the farming to manufacturing, correct, is that …
What do you call this one and how do you compare it? Because you can’t compare it even if it’s not repetitive. It’s similar but not the same, right?
It’s not the same. Some people call it the Second Machine Age. There are all sorts of — Digital Age — there are all different kinds of names for it, all of them are a little not quite right.
But that’s what people tend to call it. And moving from agriculture, this is again extremely fast.
Compared to the farming to manufacturing, which was slower than people … fast and slow.
Look, just over 100 years ago, most Americans were farmers, right? The vast majority of Americans were farmers, worked in agriculture in some way, right?
So here’s the interesting thing: Most people didn’t have jobs. So this whole notion of having a job is a relatively new thing. You didn’t really want to have a job because that meant you worked for someone else. That means you were like a farm hand rather than a farmer who owned his own land, or who owned her own land. Or, you were a craftsman who owned his or her business, right? You didn’t really want to have a job.
So it was a more entrepreneurial culture?
It was more entrepreneurial. We don’t think of it as entrepreneurial because now we associate entrepreneur with Silicon Valley and folks like that, but actually there were many, many more entrepreneurs. People who worked for themselves, or worked for their family. That was the most common form of work. So the machine age brought with it this notion of a job and the sanctity of a job.
And you’re a cog, you’re a cog.
You’re a cog, but certainly since we think of it in the machine age, factory work, which by the way is very appealing to a lot of people because people work for different reasons, and I deal with that in several chapters in the book about the psychology of work, why do people do different jobs and what do they seek in a job. And that’s different for everyone, right?
So when people work in factories, often really relish the kinship they get in a factory job and the stability that they get in a factory job. That’s the priority for them. But the machine age brought with it those kinds of challenges, those kinds of new things of showing up for work every day, and it also brought this whole notion of unemployment. So that could be taken away from you.
Okay? And that was devastating. And again, that’s new. Before, your job really couldn’t be taken away from you. Maybe you had bad crops and that wasn’t good, but the next year, you’d try again. So this handing over the power of your work life to an employer is actually a relatively new thing.
So what is now happening? Is that going back to entrepreneurial? Because one of the things I talk about a lot is if we do educate people to be entrepreneurs again, we are getting nowhere with this next stage, because if you’re not entrepreneurial, you are almost unemployable, you know what I mean?
Well, there will be jobs where, “Do this, go there,” but there’s fewer and fewer of them.
Absolutely. I think that’s a really good point and I think we need to expand our idea both of what it means to work — working is not just a job, a job is a subset of work — and I agree with you that we need to expand on our idea of what it means to be an entrepreneur, because we’ve kind of perverted that idea and made that idea just, again, associated with tech, or bio-tech, or certain things.
But being an entrepreneur means doing things of your own volition, starting something of your own or having a portfolio that you own, whereas your job might be part of it, or your work might be part of it. Other aspects of your life might be part of it, but preparing for work in the 21st century, you’re absolutely right, being an entrepreneur in the broadest sense is pretty critical.
Right, so talk about what that looks like, what the landscape looks like in the next five, 10, 15 years?
Well, no one can predict that, right? And again, computer scientists have all sorts of predictions, they go all over the map on where they think this is going to go, but people pretty much feel over the next, say, three decades, things are going to change very quickly and very radically, whether it’s, obviously, autonomous cars and 10 million people in the United States make their living driving vehicles, that’s huge.
And then there’s the residual. When we’re talking about that, it’s always like the truck drivers. What about the carpark people, what about the gasoline station? What about the mechanics?
I always do that with my kids when I see a pay phone, if you ever find one anymore. I did find one the other day, it was like, “Whoa, look at you,” and there was someone who serviced this, there’s someone who built this. There was an operator on the end, there was a this, and they don’t do this anymore. Nobody does that anymore, which was really interesting. So it has iterative characteristics to it.
So, autonomous car.
Iterative is absolutely right. So in the book I go to Moraine, Ohio, which is where — there was a large automobile plant, and the place was empty. It was a ghost town. And not only the plant, which had thousands and thousands of workers, but all the … as you said, it’s a domino effect. The people who made the seats, the people who sold the sandwiches, the people who were janitors. So that area was absolutely devastated by the closing of those plants.
And you’re absolutely right, how are we going to prepare for that, right? Instead of wringing our hands and complaining and saying, “Let’s bring back the coal miners,” which I was also in Kentucky, and I can tell you a lot of people whose families worked in coal don’t want to get near it. The young millennials, the last thing they want to do is to do what their grandfather did, right?
So we don’t necessarily want to go back there. We probably can’t go back there. We probably shouldn’t go back there. So how do we go forward, understanding that that’s just an unrealistic and very naïve and nostalgic — to me, boringly nostalgic — kind of whim?
So where do we go from here? And that’s, again, I discuss that.
Although nostalgic, but it does have a hold on it because that kind of not knowing leads to populism, it leads to all kinds of things. I was also in Kentucky and they were like, “We want to bring back our coal mining jobs.” I said, “You’re not going to have them.” And they said, “Well Donald Trump said he would.” and I said, “Well, he’s lying. You’re not going to have them.”
And I had a huge argument with a whole bunch of coal people, I’m like, “I don’t care what you say, you’re not having these jobs.” I said, “Your bosses are going to hire the robots and trust me, they’ll hire them in two seconds to replace you. Two seconds. It won’t even take them two seconds, it’ll be like a millisecond, because they don’t care about you, and if you think they do, you’re completely stupid.” And it was a really fascinating discussion, it got a little difficult at one point, and they were like, “Well, what do we do?” I’m like, “I have no idea. Sorry, goodbye.”
Is that what you said?
No, I didn’t know. I’m like, “I don’t know.” What do we do?
Okay, I have some thoughts on that. And one of the thoughts is actually, the New York Times has done a series of articles which I don’t agree with and that is, let’s bring coding schools to Kentucky, and their governor who is a staunch Republican is a big fan of this.
“Silicon Holler,” I know.
Silicon Holler, and we have to think, “Okay, so we’re going to train people up as coders in Kentucky.” First of all, what does coding even mean? Most people who promote that sort of thing don’t even know what they’re talking about when they talk about coding. Coding is a huge, big, generic term. Okay, coding goes on in Asia and in India in particular.
Yeah, it’s cheaper.
And faster and already doing it.
Exactly. Do we really want to compete with people in India to code? Do we want to spend money, public funds especially, or have people spend their own hard-earned dollars on learning to code when those opportunities can be easily outsourced? And that’s not going to change.
So when I was in Kentucky I spent a good deal of time there, roaming around in the Appalachia and the other parts, and there’s a tremendous amount of stuff going on in Kentucky that’s indigenous, that’s local. What do people do there? Well, there is farming, there are crafts, there is alternative energy — big, big movement in alternative energy. Things that are growing out of Kentucky itself, out of the state, rather than imposing this sort of international function on the people of Kentucky. What’s special about Kentucky? What’s special about their heritage? How can they capitalize on what they already have? And they have a tremendous, tremendously rich history.
I spent time with the mayor of Berea, Kentucky, who had talked to me about the incredible history they had in dance and the arts and all these things, and how he was hoping to bring this to bear on tourism and bringing people into the state. At the same time, developing, as I said, these alternative energy systems. Bringing broadband in so they could both communicate this and sell their stuff internationally. And that’s great. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s not everyone learning to become a coder.
It’s looking at which one of each of these areas have to offer, and how can we build on their strengths?
How do we do from a … who is responsible, if you have tech creating these jobs? And I want to get to, sort of, the Uber-like jobs and things like that.
And one of the things you’re writing about soon is something I’ve actually talked about with the new governor in California, Gavin Newsom, a lot, is how you change what employment is. The designation of it. Could a state do it? Because the government certainly is not doing it, the federal government isn’t. From your perspective, who is responsible? Is it the government? Is it citizens? Is it the tech companies that have created these inventions and have created these problems? Or is it educators? Where does it begin to be solved?
Okay, so I don’t like to ascribe blame, because we’re all culpable, right?
Not on everything.
Okay, yeah, I’ll agree with you on that.
I didn’t do Facebook and I didn’t make any money from it, so I’m not going to take the blame and neither should you.
No, no, okay, I won’t take too much responsibility, but I am a fan of tech. I use it, and I’m not pushing back on it.
But I don’t think it’s necessarily a tech job to solve this problem, but nor should we cede it to them. We should not say, “Okay, you guys can handle it. We won’t think about it.”
One of the things that I felt was true in both political parties is they kept hammering away at this idea that people should educate themselves out of the problem. It’s up to us as individuals to solve this problem on an individual level.
Which is very American.
Which is very American. One of the things that really got me going on this book was this idea that was put out there that “average is not good enough.” I thought, “Wait, anybody who has a math background knows, average is most people.”
Right? So if average is not good enough, we as a people are done for, right? Because we’re average. Most people are average, so what are they talking about? And so there’s this idea out there that you have to constantly retrain, you have to be phrenetic and frantic and always be one step ahead of the other guy or he’s going to beat you out. That’s a mantra that gives a very, very negative and very hopeless situation.
And, again, one of the reasons I wrote this book is I told you I teach at Boston University, I teach 20-somethings and they’re literally getting depressed about this. How can they always beat out their roommate and their friends and their cousins, right?
And for everything they try to do. So I think that’s partly responsible. I’ve seen candidates on both sides of the aisle promulgate that idea. “What we’re going to do is we’re going to train people and more people are going to go to college, and more people are going to learn, and more people are going to be …” I don’t think that’s a wise decision. For one reason, the vast majority of jobs going forward as they project into the mid 2000s are not going to require a college degree.
The vast majority, 75 percent. So the idea that we’re training people up in these arenas, what? For more competition?
Not a good idea.
So people need to think more creatively.
Right, about what they do. I was talking to my kids and my son is a really good cook and I said, “You should be a chef. That’ll not be replaced easily.”
It’s a creative job, I was thinking any creative job. And I told my other son, I was like, “Be a plumber. That’ll work out well for a long, long time and you’ll make a lot of money.”
Well, I have to tell you that computer scientists were trying to … there’s a guy, I think, at Columbia who’s actually working on digitizing chefdom.
Yeah, it’s harder. They’re not going to get to that one. There’s so many others in the way.
It’s like outrunning the bear. The chef will not be dead before the lawyer.
You’re right, and if he’s a great chef and that’s what he enjoys …
No, but I literally was like, “The lawyer’s going to get it first, and then they’ll get to you.”
Well yeah. I hear you.
Ellen, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about this government shutdown and jobs, because it’s making people think about jobs and there’s so many stories about the impact of jobs and people living paycheck to paycheck and this idea of employment is a fresh one. How do you look at this? Because it’s depressing me to look at it. We’re seeing the TSA people …
Yeah, the government, right, right. Well, thank goodness I flew here from Boston, and the wonderful TSA people, each of whom I thanked personally …
… were terrific. You’re absolutely right, and I think what this has really brought to light in a very dramatic way is how many of these government workers are really living from paycheck to paycheck.
That is shocking. I think there is a couple of things. One of the things I mentioned before, that people seek jobs for different reasons. There’s kind of this idea that everybody seeks challenge on the job. That’s completely false. Some people seek challenge on the job, but many people seek — more people, actually — seek stability.
Government workers, on average, seek stability in their job, so confronting this is a real shock for them. They figure, “Look, I’ve given up a lot to get this steady job, and I expect that paycheck every single week.” Well, guess what, the paycheck’s just been pulled out. For them it’s a very dramatic shock.
In addition, what this has revealed is, as I said before, how many government workers are not earning a terribly good living. Many of these people are contractors, and the federal government actually employs more people at low wages than any other entity.
Right, mostly as contractors. These people basically, they just had the rug pulled out from under them. Suddenly, they have to go to food banks and things like that, whereas many people wouldn’t, they’d have a cushion for a month or two. These folks are really on the edge.
Getting into that idea of a contract, this gig economy. The people that are working for themselves. They’re doing Uber or whatever they happen to be doing, Airbnb, different things.
Is there a movement to change the idea of what a worker is going forward?
That’s a really good question. In the book I write, “So what does it mean to even be employed?”
Right, and a gig, what does that even mean? The idea that people who work one hour a week for Uber are counted as employed is pretty bizarre to me.
Right. They’re not part of the unemployment. Part of the reason our unemployment level is so low right now is because so many people have an hour of work here, an hour of work there, but it doesn’t sustain them, right?
No, it doesn’t.
Again, when the gig economy got all this, huge amounts of publicity, say in the early 2000s, the last century and the beginning of the 21st century, we were all cheering it on. We thought, “Wow, this is great. You’re going to have complete freedom. You can do whatever you want when.” As it turns out, as I said, most people seek stability in work.
They want to get up in the morning, know what they’ve got in front of them, know that they’re going to get paid for it. This is very important to the vast majority of people. This gig economy doesn’t work for an awful lot of people, and a lot of people are not doing it because they want to do it. They’re doing it because they don’t see a choice.
Even if they want stability, can they have it anymore? Do we have to change the way, like I was saying, do we have to just say, “That’s the way it’s going to be”? Are there things that legislators or others can add on? Obviously, health care’s got to move with people, different things, benefits and things like that need to move with people?
Absolutely, absolutely. You’ve made a very good point. Health care absolutely should not, and that was a very old idea that came in, that health insurance would be provided by your employer. That came around at a time when health care was actually quite cheap. In those days, it wasn’t a big deal for employers to provide health care.
And also it wasn’t a huge big deal, actually, for people to pay out of pocket for health care because it was cheap! It was much cheaper. Now, of course, most of us can’t afford to pay for health care out of pocket, so it has to come uncoupled from our employment situation.
I think that most, many, many people believe that there’s … Medicare-for-All has become much more popular just in recent months. This whole idea that seemed very radical just a few years ago is now being taken up by a lot of people really in the middle, right?
I mean, not just radicals, because we’re seeing this … So yes, we need to uncouple our job from all the things that go along with a job.
Or work or a job, right?
Well, work, think more broadly in terms of work.
Exactly. You have work. Work has many different components, one of which is your job, maybe or maybe not. Going forward, you need to have a lot of different outlets, a lot of different ways to find purpose in your life. If you sink it all into your job, there can be some really sad repercussions, and those are becoming increasingly the case.
How does that work getting people mentally? Obviously, education is one and like how we educate people. I can’t stand the education system. Oh, wait, I’m a bad employee, which is why I don’t like working for people, which is why I’ve designed my career in a way that I really don’t…
Define bad employee.
I don’t like bosses. I don’t like them. I don’t like talking to them. I’m rude to them. I just can’t help, like I can’t believe I don’t get fired every day of the week. That’s because I know I provide something of value, and so I can do that, not because I can do it. What I did is at one point in my career when I was working for big newspapers, I was like, “First of all, they’re going downhill.”
I could see the economics of it.
Then I was like, “I got to put myself in a position where I don’t work for anybody.” I’ve thought about it very carefully because I realized it was not working out for me particularly. What was interesting about that when I was doing it is there are ways to work without working for people, but you have to provide … I have to constantly provide something of value to the people I’m working for, and so they leave you alone. I was thinking, it’s really hard for most people to do that, because it’s much easier to not worry about it. What does the work look like then? For the vast majority of people, what do we have to do in the education system to get people to that?
Sometimes I’m with my kids, for example, and I was like, “Don’t do that homework. It won’t matter at all.” I’m the bane of teachers. My kids are like, “Really?” I’m like, “You can do it. I don’t care what you do.” Because it won’t matter. And then some of the things I’m like, “Oh, no, do that because that’s team building, that’s this, that’s this.” It’s a really interesting thing. Where from an educational point of view do we have to get to? Does there have to be radical ways we train people?
I think that’s really interesting you should say that. I don’t know if there are any children listening to this show, but if there are, they’re all going to want you to be their mother.
Homework, you suck.
So good for you.
Homework, you stink.
Yeah, homework, you stink, great, great. Clearly, we’re very different mothers. Look, I don’t think education needs to be reinvented. Look at education and look at how rich people educate their children, right?
I think it’s really interesting. Rich people educate their children, many of them, at private schools, where they still teach things like Greek and Latin, where they teach the classics. They teach you how to think.
Yes, I agree with that part.
One of the things I found out that was really interesting in researching this book was I thought to myself, “Well, people are talking about the skills gap, the skills gap, the skills. What skills are actually lacking?” Well, we’re told these computer skills, a lot of economists I talked to.
Or business oriented.
There was just a story in the Times about this, like all these small humanities colleges closing.
In fact, when you talk to people and find out what’s really missing, it’s really not, there’s not a lack of computer skills. Every kid knows how to use their cellphone. Every kid knows how to use these apps, every kid, almost every kid. Those kinds of STEM skills, you know what? There are plenty of people with STEM skills. What social scientists have found just in recent years is what kids lack are what they call analytic skills. That is not problem-solving per se, but knowing what problems to solve.
Kind of the thing that you’re talking about yourself, what problems are worth solving? What homework is worth doing? Where should I apply my efforts? Kids who grow up in privilege have a lot more exposure to that than kids who grow up in poverty. Poor kids start at a very big disadvantage because they haven’t been exposed to choices and decision making. Oftentimes, they’re just told what to do, whereas rich kids are given all sorts of choices and options and problems to solve in their everyday life.
In terms of education, I don’t believe in job training because I think it’s very limited. You train someone up for a job, and that job is either flooded with people or gone very quickly.
Right. I believe in a great liberal arts education for every kid through high school. High school should possibly be a terminal degree, a decent terminal degree. If it’s done properly, kids will know basic mathematics, communication skills, reading skills, all those things that will prepare them, really will prepare them to learn on the job because most of us — as you know and I know — learn on the job.
I mentioned I’m trained in biology, and here I am, a professor of journalism, right?
I never took a journalism class.
Well, journalists don’t need any training.
Well, ooh, careful.
I teach at journalism school.
I went to Columbia, please.
There you go. Well, I’m sure a lot of your colleagues at Columbia would disagree with you.
I learned almost nothing there.
I wish I had that money and invested it in Apple. I’ll say it right now.
I would’ve been on my island and enjoying it very nicely.
In any case, most of us train on the job. We do. And the idea … Part of what employers are doing now is they’re saying, “I don’t want to train you anymore. I want you to … what they call plug-and-play, hire you to do a job. Right now, you walk in the door, you could do it, you could make me money, and guess what? When your skills are a little bit out of date, you’re out of here,” right?
“We’ll get the next bunch.” Don’t want to participate in that. There’s a reason why technology industries and other industries want to put out the idea that there’s this skills gap, meaning a certain kind of skill that they’re looking for right now. In the book, I disseminate the idea, I take it apart and I look at it. If there’s a gap, it’s in basic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic, calculation. Those things we really need to encourage in schools.
Does this have a gender or/and racial element, too, of how this is working out?
To some degree. Obviously, the people who dominate the conversation tend to believe that the rest of the world is like them. When I say most people actually don’t necessarily look for challenge in their job, that’s kind of apocryphal, because all the people in power, of course they look for challenge.
They are competitive.
They were the irritating people in high school.
They’re the leaders.
Right. I always say, “Student body vice presidents who didn’t win.”
Right, the idea that everybody should be a leader. When my kid was interviewing for preschool, they talked about leadership qualities in a 3-year-old!
No, they said that to my kid.
They were saying that, “We need your kid to have executive function.” I was like, “I need to get up right now and leave.”
Absolutely, that’s what I did.
Like, “What are you talking about with this craziness?”
I want to finish up, I have to finish up. In this technologically fast-forward age, there’s no answers. You can’t give me perfect answers, but what are some of the things that are critical going forward when you think about work? Like, if you’re a young person, you’re like, “What the hell do I do? I can’t Instagram my way to fortune.” Some of you will.
Some of them can.
Obviously, I’m going to say what you already know. That is, to develop a portfolio. First of all, don’t wait, don’t assume that your job is going to be your passion. Your passion can be anywhere in your life. It can be any number of things. Your job can be a way just to make a living while you do other things that are important in your life. That’s a possibility that should be honored like any other. That’s one thing. Get a good basic education and take it as far as you feel it’s benefiting you. Don’t push yourself beyond, don’t force yourself to go to college if you’re not interested in ideas.
Right. Do you want to get out there and you’re an experiential learner? College may not be the place for you to go.
You and Peter Thiel.
That saves a lot of money.
Right, absolutely. Those are things I would advise. I’d say don’t invest everything in your first job. One thing I did is I wrote a little essay for the Atlantic that came out in a lot about work and its meaning, and a ton of millennials wrote me saying, “I’m so miserable in my job. I did everything right. I’m a professional, and my job sucks, and so I’m working harder and harder at it because I’m obviously not putting enough into it, and it’s making me more and more miserable.” No, bad idea.
Diversify your interests. Maybe you need to keep that job to make a living, but pull back emotionally from it and find other things that will keep you centered and fulfilled because a job is not there to keep you fulfilled. No matter what your employer tells you, your employer cannot make meaning for you. You have to make meaning for yourself.
Then any training that people should do or just not?
Obviously, if you want to be a dental hygienist, you need to be trained as a dental hygienist.
Yes, I hope all you dental hygienists get trained.
Absolutely, and we want our cardiologist to be trained. Training, of course, if you have something that you want to do. I also advocate, the fastest-growing job category in America is nursing assistant.
Right. Personal health care assistant. I believe those people should be certified and trained and have more education than they do now.
Until the robots replace them.
Ooh, but robots will not be replacing those people. There’s been a lot of work on that.
I know that. One of the things that MIT, when I was visiting there, were doing some of those robot caregiver people. I know. They couldn’t get the eyes right. That’s what they kept saying, “The eyes freak everyone out.” Someday they’ll get the eyes right. You know they will. Not today.
I have a colleague who’s an expert in this area. She’s an expert in aging in place, right, and robotics, and she has a technology background. She feels very strongly that home health care aides will not be automated.
Yes, yeah, again, lawyers first, then chefs, then home health care.
They’re down the list.
Down the list.
They’re down the list.
No, but it was interesting, it was the eyes. The person who was an engineer, wasn’t meaning to say it, it was like, “The eyes freak them all out.”
Were you at the robotics lab there?
Yeah, exactly, and they can’t get it right. People are always scared of robots. But one of the things I’m always with robots, I’m like, “Why are we trying to make robots more human? Why don’t we make humans more robotic like as they go, different capabilities?”
Very last, the idea of robots taking over or that we will not have jobs. Do you imagine that ever happening?
I think we will always have work, and there’s always more work to be done. The notion of jobs, as I say, is a pretty short-lived one in history. It’s only a couple hundred years old, and maybe we’ve outgrown it, and we’ve moved past it to a certain degree.
UBI for everybody.
Right, well, we’re going to have to be imaginative. This book is to some degree disruptive of everyday thinking about this kind of clichés that people have thought, that people have.
You know what? The truth of the matter is things are changing. We have to address it. We’re not just going to be a lot of people in the technology world, we’re saying, “Well, robots are just going to be our pals. They’re going to be our work pals, and we’ll have just as much work.” That is not accurate. Robots are going to take some of the traditional jobs.
They already have, and they’ll do more. There’s no limit to work that needs to be done. We have to prioritize the work we want to be done and the work we want to do and make sure it’s compensated fairly.
Yeah, if that’s the case. You seem very positive then.
Oh, I am. Oh my God, I have two kids. I’m very positive for them, absolutely.
Yeah, like, “Ah, good luck. I’ll see you.”
No, it’s a transitional time. It’s a little scary for all of us on a lot of levels, but I am very positive and optimistic.
The next era is like Star Trek, right, after this really bad year. Is that what’s going to happen?
You know what? I can’t speak to Star Trek.
Just go explore, be … no money.
Because I don’t remember enough about Star Trek.
No money, explore, and funny-looking beings.
No, I don’t think there’s not going to be money. I think the money will persist, but I think that the next generation coming up is coming into a new reality, and they’re not going to say, “I want to be a coal miner.” These folks, these young people are not saying that. They’re not looking back and being nostalgic. They’re looking forward. This is the world they were born into, and they’re going to be equipped to deal with it.
All right, Ellen, this is really fascinating. It was great talking to you. Thank you for coming on the show.