After a century of insisting that the secure, benefits-laden job was the frictionless meritocratic means of rewarding society’s truly valuable work and workers, today we find that half the remaining jobs are in danger of being automated out of existence. Of the 10 fastest-growing job categories, eight require less than a college degree. Over 40 percent of college graduates are working in low-wage jobs, and it isn’t in order to launch their start-up from the garage after the swing shift at Starbucks: The rate of small-business ownership among the under-30 crowd is at the lowest in a generation.
In short, the same tide that swept millions of Americans out to precarity over the 20th century is lapping at suburban doorsteps in the 21st; like that other inconvenient truth, this one can no longer be outsourced to somebody else’s kids. How few “real jobs” have to remain before we can admit that most of the world’s work has always been done under other titles, by different rules—and so take this opportunity to re-consider how we organize and reward it?
Indeed, if there is anything to be celebrated in the current jobless recovery, it is this opportunity at last to assess the job as a social contrivance, not a timeless feature of the physical universe. A dose of historical perspective helps: the job, it turns out, has only recently been considered fit for polite company, let alone transformed into one of the chief desiderata of public life. In contrast to its more venerable cousins “work” and “labor,” “job” is the red-headed stepchild in the family of human action: Prior to the 20th century, in English the term connoted fragmented, poorly executed work—odd jobs, piece-work, chance employment.
By the 17th century’s financial revolution, it also carried the moral taint of chicanery: a “jobber” dealt in wholesale securities on the nascent London Stock Exchange, the classic middleman—implicitly unscrupulous and parasitic—who connected brokers beyond the view of the public. The job knew its place: Samuel Johnson defined it in 1755 as “a low mean lucrative busy affair; petty piddling work.” And yet today the job is mourned in elegiac tones, as it flounders off into obsolescence like the exhausted polar bear swimming after a retreating ice floe.