Finding Meaning and Purpose in Work in the Age of AI
By by Ethel Shepard
The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change
By Ellen Ruppel Shell
Published by Currency (2018); Hardcover $30
If you are looking for a book to increase your understanding of jobs and their importance to our individual sense of worth, purpose and livelihood, The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change, by Ellen Ruppel Shell, is the one book you should read and keep for future reference.
Ms. Shell begins by explaining the 16th-century origins of the word “job,” meaning “to rob or cheat.” During the industrial age the term “job” was broadened to engulf “work” as a subset of “job.” However, the two words are not interchangeable; there are differences.
Shell writes, “A job, no matter how good, can turn on us, while good work, I think most of us would agree, never does. Work, gives us our identity, and a sense of purpose and place in the world. And yet work today as we know it is under siege.”
Shell is a journalist based in Boston. She is a journalism professor at Boston University and a correspondent for The Atlantic and a contributing writer to Scientific American and to The Washington Post book page. She has written articles for numerous other publications including the Guardian, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe.
How can we make work more meaningful when today most people don’t like their jobs? How will work remain meaningful when AI, or artificial intelligence, appears to threaten the future of many types of jobs?
In “The Job,” Shell interviews some of the nation’s leading experts in business, science, engineering, academia, and other areas to present a fact-based analysis on the state of finding work today and how we can better prepare tomorrow’s workforce to meet the demands of technological innovation (such as AI), global competition, and institutional change. She looks at some of the main problems faced by our work force today: income inequality, job stability, low wage and contingent work, and asks what the alternatives are.
She talked with economists, scholars, and manufacturers to find out the barriers to finding enough skilled workers to fill job openings. She uncovers misconceptions about the skills crisis—lots of job openings but not enough skilled workers to fill these positions. Shell says, “The problem is not that workers lacked skills but rather that employers could not find enough workers even with the most basic skills willing to take their low paying jobs.”
I found Shell to be a fascinating storyteller. She captures and interweaves data with compelling stories that illustrate the far-reaching personal, political, and economic effects of today’s tough job market. She examines countries and companies that are providing workers with meaningful work. She travels to Finland to see how that government’s investments in prenatal care, childcare, and education have changed it from being a backwater country to one of the most productive and innovative and inclusive nations in the world. She visits Cleveland, a city that has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs. There, she interviews business owners who have established successful cooperatives, and their employees, who are sharing the wealth and prospering through collective ownership.
The challenges accompanying the digital age and technological inventions promise to create even fewer opportunities for skilled jobs that pay a living wage. With technology replacing work previously done by humans—tasks ranging from performing heart surgery to flipping burgers—what type of job opportunities will be available for a growing pool of workers?
Shell believes that the future of sustainable and worthy work will not depend solely on education and technical-skills training, but on innovation, trust, and collaboration between people in business, government, education along with the general public. The time when business owners, shareholders and management collect the biggest share of profits based on the hard labor and sweat of workers are numbered.
Potential solutions she discusses include cooperatives that invest in training their workforces, worker ownership of businesses, and equity pay. She also looks at entrepreneurship, and at the advantages to increasing public support for innovation hubs (tax breaks, subsidies for power and investing in real estate). She shows how the willingness of consumers to purposely ‘buy local’ can help create more and better opportunities for workers.
“The Job” presents possibilities for a win-win future for business and workers if we can be more open and allow ourselves to take risks. “The future is at our doorstep and if we can muster the political will and trust, the doors to a meaningful and purposeful life will open.”
This is a big “if,” especially in light of our nation’s current political climate. It’s hard to imagine what incentives will be enough to enable the collective will to trust new initiatives, and sacrifices for the public good, sufficiently to bring these worthy objectives to fruition. Nonetheless, discussing such aspirations is worthwhile, and is part of why “The Job” is such a worthy effort.
Ethel Shepard, a public relations consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with corporations and nonprofits, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.