A consistent pattern in contemporary books about work is the emphasis on the expected acceleration of changes in the job market. They put forth a similar argument: advances in artificial intelligence and automation are sure to undermine existence as we know it, undermine the very fabric of our society, and spell the end of work as we know it. Usually, these volumes also include proposed policy directions which in many popular treatments rests on increasing government influence in the daily lives of citizens.
Ellen Ruppel Shell’s recent book, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, is another entry into this growing genre of book. The book has several main points that she navigates in succession: work is important, there is something wrong with work in the contemporary global economy, the job market is changing, and a collectivist response is the only reasonable answer to the problems.
The Job is divided into four parts. Part One outlines Shell’s concern for the expected changes in work as we know it. People are dominated by their jobs, she argues, and the job market is unfair. Her evidence is largely anecdotal, with statistics included when they support her point. Despite the dangers of overemphasizing our identity in our vocation, Shell rightly notes that work is a necessary good, so that the work-free future that some visionaries propose is more hellscape than Elysian field. Yet the nation is in danger because automation is coming for all of our work, and apps are going to replace the need for human thought and expertise outside of knowledge centers like big tech companies.
In Part Two, the author argues that increased options in work, with a heavier emphasis on finding work that ignites our passions, has removed satisfaction from work. Combined with that, the shift away from community emphasis to individual fulfillment has undermined some of the possibility of satisfaction workers can derive in meeting the needs of others.
Part Three discusses the ongoing focus on education and skills training. Shell points out some of the problems with the rabid pursuit of universal education at an advanced level. It trains people to devalue many manual skills and to anticipate a certain (typically white-collar middle class) outcome from life. This outcome is not universal, but the expectation of the outcome has led to a great deal of disappointment. Shell recognizes that different people have different abilities. She also notes that contrary to popular myths, the skills the United States lacks are those that enable hands-on making, rather than the high-tech skills (i.e., engineering and programming) that politicians are concerned about. Shell also concludes that even community colleges, often dedicated to skills that can be quickly outdated, should focus more on developing the human as a human—by enriching critical thinking and adaptability—instead of seeing last year’s job descriptions as the finish line.
Part Four shifts into Shell’s proposed solutions. First, she argues that we should adopt a form of the Finnish social welfare state programs especially considering their higher focus on social cohesion and cooperation. Second, we should encourage more humane corporate structures that have greater loyalty to people. Third, Shell recommends a rise in smaller manufacturers with a more localized focus. And, finally, Shell commends the power of unions, increased regulation, and permanent government programs to solve workforce disruption.
There is much merit in much of Shell’s analysis. The nation and the world should indeed be preparing for disruptions in the workforce. It is also unlikely, as Friedrich Hayek and others have noted, that it is possible for local communities alone to deal with the shifts in the market. As an essay discussing possible problems and beginning to mull solutions, The Job is a necessary volume. This is the sort of work that prepares the table for more thorough considerations later. To Shell’s credit, she does not promise easy solutions or even simple diagnoses. This book certainly does not offer them.
In her attempt to avoid simplistic responses to likely problems, however, Shell’s book seems to say too little. Part of this is driven by her journalistic format. The majority of the volume consists of anecdotes that Shell uses to make a broader point. Statistical evidence, when present, is either discounted as masking the real truth her chosen stories reveal or shown to directly support her case. This format is likely to be convincing to some, but more careful readers will often be left wondering what the rest of the story is and why only one side is adequately discussed. The tempo of the book drags on, with new characters introduced to support Shell’s point in each chapter, but little cogency to the narrative. The volume would have been much more powerful had it been more concise and focused.
This book offers little hope to those seeking permanent security and a promise that they can make certain economic choices that will prevent them from having to adjust in the future. It fails to note that adaption and some level of insecurity have been a consistent theme throughout human history. Shell seems to be arguing that our society has warped work so that we have difficult making meaning in it. She proposes that we redesign work so that we can more safely make the meaning of our choosing. What she fails to consider is that perhaps meaning is discovered, not made, and that the source of that meaning is not the human individual. That assumption ensures that even were the narrative style of the volume changed, its final suggestions would still be misdirected.
The Job will continue the conversation about the value of work. It illustrates why the faith and work movement is both necessary and good. There is general agreement from all sides that a significant workforce disruption is underway and will continue for the foreseeable future. The faith and work movement offers an alternative to the temptation to concede too quickly to despair by pointing toward the real value in work, due to the Creator whom it reflects, and the need to consider the careful balance between the needs and duties of individuals.
Andrew J. Spencer lives in Monroe, MI. He is a Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics and writes frequently at EthicsAndCulture.com.