What Do You Do?: Reflections on The Future of Jobs

I’ve changed jobs several times since the cancellation of the NPR show I hosted, News and Notes, until early 2009. While my journeys haven’t been easy, they’ve been instructive and in many ways positive. I’ve begun to reverse a decade of weight gain, losing 35 pounds last year… many more to go. I learned more about what skills I have; which ones I don’t; and how to build teams for short- and long-term projects, like the award-winning set of radio documentaries I did about the 2010 midterm elections.

While doing a cable news hit yesterday about the elections, I had a powerful talk with a freelance staffer who told me she’d nearly lost her house — but had, unlike so many others, been able to take advantage of the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. The program has only served a fraction of the people who need it, but speaking to her was a great illustration of the ways in which government can help right this economy by addressing the needs of people whose income fluctuates, or plunges to zero.

One of the problems I see with the political discussion of the economy and jobs — including its refraction through Occupy — is that we have a symphony of different economic trends and we’re straining to hear each note.

  1. There’s the erosion of public employment. Private employment is rebounding but public sector continues to drop and to boost the unemployment figures.
  2. There are the ways technology is transforming the workplace, which is great for some (particularly skilled coders and entrepreneurs) but overall can exert a downward pressure on hiring in industries from manufacturing to healthcare.
  3. There’s the glut of college-educated people who find out the paper they’ve gotten is not going to win them a career or even a steady series of jobs.
  4. And then there’s the rise in people who are episodically employed, like the freelancer I met who nearly lost her home.

In the not so distant past, unless you had a catastrophic illness you could expect a certain consistency in employment once you’d reached a level of seniority in your field (i.e., past the “last hired, first fired” career years). With episodic employment, more people are building up debt or spending down their savings. Credit is harder to get, even for people who have good histories. Those factors make people more risk averse in the lives they build and institutions more averse to fund businesses and lend to homebuyers.

Then there’s the emotional aspect of work. In some countries, it’s impolite to begin a conversation with “what do you do?” In America, in many circles, it’s de-rigueur.

Perhaps in the near future, we’ll learn to turn that question around, and ask people what they are doing in their communities; in their families; in arts and culture rather than what industry they work in. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have work (and I certainly count myself in that number), the question “What do you do?” needs to be inverted, and our lives directed towards reflection about our larger purpose and goals.