It’s new economy week, and I’ve got a new op-ed in the International New York Times on the future of work that ran on Tuesday. It talks about my new research for the MacArthur Foundation on the new kinds of consumption and production that are developing. Hope you like it!
After the Jobs Disappear
By JULIET B. SCHOR
BOSTON — In Somerville, Massachusetts, just across the line from Cambridge, is an institution called Artisan’s Asylum. At 40,000 square feet, it says it’s one of the largest “makerspaces,” or community craft studios, on the East Coast of the United States. A nonprofit group, it hosts craftspeople, artists and entrepreneurs, analog and digital alike. In addition to classes in traditional fields like woodworking, fiber arts and metalworking, it offers coveted rental space for creative types.
At one end of the space, tech whizzes are building Stompy, a 4,000-pound hexapod — a six-legged robot. At the other is a “bike hacking” collective that repurposes old bicycle frames. In between are the folks who invented a 3Doodler, the three-dimensional pen — it extrudes heated plastic that can be formed into just about any shape. The 3Doodler raised $2.3 million on Kickstarter (far outpacing its $30,000 goal) and is on track to be the next must-have gift item.
Community fabrication spaces like Artisan’s Asylum are becoming popular across the United States and Europe. For many, they represent an appealing vision of the future of work.
Unlike in the classic industrial setting, where the manual and mental aspects of work are separated between blue- and white-collar employees, those tasks are integrated in these “makerspaces.” There’s a commitment to ecological sustainability. There are no bosses or even “jobs,” in the traditional sense. Value is generated, for sure, but as “livelihood” or, in the case of the start-ups, worker/creator ownership.
This shift from employment to livelihood, while far from prevalent, has become a necessity for many in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, which led to the loss of more than 8 million jobs in the United States. At the time, I and other observers predicted that these jobs — a victim of labor-saving technical change, globalization and financialization — were unlikely to return. Five years later, the employment-to-population ratio in the United States, 58.6 percent, is at its lowest since 1983. In much of Europe, unemployment has soared, especially for youth, even as aging populations place pressure on pension and other social welfare programs.
As jobs disappear, people have begun to carve out new ways to gain access to income, goods and services. This is evident not only in the “makerspaces,” but also in what has come to be called the “sharing economy,” which encompasses activities as diverse as car-pooling, ride-sharing, opening one’s home to strangers via Web-based services like Couchsurfing or Airbnb, sharing office space and working in community gardens and food co-ops.
Like “makerspaces,” the sharing economy is refashioning work, giving people new opportunities to earn money or to have access to goods and services. People are joining “time banks,” through which members trade services like baby-sitting, carpentry or tutoring. They are selling their labor for cash on platforms like Task Rabbit and Zaarly. They are renting out their cars, homes and durable goods, from appliances to lawn mowers. They are also giving away their stuff, via Web sites like Yerdle and Freecycle, rather than throwing it away.
The potential for the sharing economy to give work more meaning, autonomy and social impact is considerable. It has begun to reallocate value along the production chain, by cutting out middlemen, like hoteliers and landlords. What’s revolutionary is not the sharing — people have engaged in nonmonetary transactions for millenniums — but that the transactions are occurring among strangers. Digital reputations, including ratings systems on sites like TripAdvisor and Amazon, make such interactions safer than they were in the past. Many sharers also aim to reduce the carbon footprints of production and consumption, and stimulate local economies, though these effects are, so far, more hypothetical than proved.
In the sharing economy, people are returning, in a sense, to modes of independent production and self-provisioning that preceded (and persevered through) the industrial revolution. Technology — the growing availability of relatively cheap, small-scale 3-D printers, laser cutters and other fabrication tools — has made the sharing of equipment more affordable. Internet tools have significantly reduced the transaction costs associated with peer-to-peer sharing. More generally, digital technologies are likely to be one reason small and medium-size enterprises have become key sources of employment job creation.
Like most economic innovations, these trends promise their share of pain. New products like the 3Doodler take away market share from established sellers. Traditional service jobs in hospitality and transportation are threatened by services like Airbnb and Uber. Sites where people bid to perform tasks have the potential to create a race to the bottom, particularly in times like now, when the supply of labor in wealthy countries is abundant, and the demand is limited.
These trends won’t solve the most urgent economic afflictions facing the West — a shortage of jobs, soaring inequality and a fraying of the welfare state — but they represent one significant response to it. Low-income people don’t typically have the kinds of homes one can rent out on Airbnb. But they can participate in urban food growing, an increasingly popular phenomenon, and in collective initiatives like Growing Power, in the Midwest, and Co-op Power, in the Northeast, which provide participants with income, food and energy. As in the maker movement, the work in such projects is tactile, connecting creativity with the handling of materials.
If some of this seems fanciful, even naïve, consider the alternatives. Large corporations are more profitable than ever, partly because of the consolidation in industries from banking to aviation to book publishing, and a neoliberal political ideology, in the United States, Britain and parts of Western Europe, that continues to favor deregulation — even though it was deregulation that brought about the financial crisis.
So while they are no panacea, the emergent trends of community fabrication, self-provisioning and the sharing economy collectively suggest a future for work in wealthy countries that involves more making, sharing and self-organizing. There may be fewer formal jobs — but a more entrepreneurial approach to making money, one that emphasizes smaller-scale companies and collectively owned enterprises, more sharing, and less spending. As painful as the years since the crash have been, a more resilient, satisfying and sustainable way to work and live could be one beneficial consequence.
Juliet B. Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, is the author of “True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy” and a member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Connected Learning.