Is the Era of Work Over?

Even as President Obama presented his jobs plan, I found myself thinking about Greyhound. The bus line, that is. Stick with me. A few months ago, I went to the South Station bus terminal to buy a ticket and found all the kiosks devoid of tellers. In their place, signs at every desk said “closed.” Noticeably confused, I attracted the attention of a young guy in Greyhound duds, propped up on a bar stool. “Buy your tickets here,” he said, gesturing to a bank of computers. His job: retraining bus travelers to buy their tickets from a robot. Oh, yeah — and refilling the robots’ paper.

The new economy is about servicing machines, explains CNN correspondent and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in today’s piece “Are Jobs Obsolete?” And the new world needs fewer of us to do this. Meanwhile, we are living in a surplus economy. While many of us are smarting financially, we still have an embarrassment of riches, relatively speaking — cheap food, modern conveniences, clean water. He writes:

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that’s even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high.

Almost one-third of the American population is obese, and for eye-popping stats, check out this CDC animated map. Rushkoff continues:

Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.

Rushkoff posits that trying to grow the jobs sector is like pining for the horse-and-buggy. We’ve technologized ourselves out of service (mail a letter lately?) and need to acknowledge that shift. His nebulous conclusion is that we should all enter the creative technology sector (create games, write books, “educate and inspire” each other) instead of just looking busy. I’m all for it, especially if the new world order renders jobs obsolete while permanently deleting rush hour.