Elsewhere, men in protective goggles welded a sign for a local chicken restaurant, while others punched codes into a computer-controlled laser-cutting machine. The foundry is not just a gymnasium of tools. It is a social center. Alex Bandar, who started the foundry after receiving a doctorate in materials science and engineering, has a theory about the rhythms of invention in American history.
Over the past century, he told me, the economy has moved from hardware to software, from atoms to bits, and people have spent more time at work in front of screens. But as computers take over more tasks previously considered the province of humans, the pendulum will swing back from bits to atoms, at least when it comes to how people spend their days. Bandar thinks that a digitally preoccupied society will come to appreciate the pure and distinct pleasure of making things you can touch. So what do we do? Actually talk to each other again? The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms.
People upload more than , hours of YouTube videos and million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose.
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After touring the foundry, I sat at a long table with several members, sharing the pizza that had come out of the communal oven. I asked them what they thought of their organization as a model for a future where automation reached further into the formal economy. A mixed-media artist named Kate Morgan said that most people she knew at the foundry would quit their jobs and use the foundry to start their own business if they could.
Late in the conversation, we were joined by Terry Griner, an engineer who had built miniature steam engines in his garage before Bandar invited him to join the foundry. His fingers were covered in soot, and he told me about the pride he had in his ability to fix things. That, to me, would be the best of all possible worlds. One mile to the east of downtown Youngstown, in a brick building surrounded by several empty lots, is Royal Oaks, an iconic blue-collar dive.
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At about p. The bar glowed yellow and green from the lights mounted along a wall. Old beer signs, trophies, masks, and mannequins cluttered the back corner of the main room, like party leftovers stuffed in an attic. The scene was mostly middle-aged men, some in groups, talking loudly about baseball and smelling vaguely of pot; some drank alone at the bar, sitting quietly or listening to music on headphones. I spoke with several patrons there who work as musicians, artists, or handymen; many did not hold a steady job.
Places like Royal Oaks are the new union halls: People go there not only to relax but also to find tradespeople for particular jobs, like auto repair. When an entire area, like Youngstown, suffers from high and prolonged unemployment, problems caused by unemployment move beyond the personal sphere; widespread joblessness shatters neighborhoods and leaches away their civic spirit. John Russo, the Youngstown State professor, who is a co-author of a history of the city, Steeltown USA , says the local identity took a savage blow when residents lost the ability to find reliable employment.
In Youngstown, many of these workers have by now made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency. The faith they lost in institutions—the corporations that have abandoned the city, the police who have failed to keep them safe—has not returned. But Russo and Woodroofe both told me they put stock in their own independence. And so a place that once defined itself single-mindedly by the steel its residents made has gradually learned to embrace the valorization of well-rounded resourcefulness.
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The evaporation of work has deepened the local arts and music scene, several residents told me, because people who are inclined toward the arts have so much time to spend with one another. Whether or not one has artistic ambitions as Schubert does, it is arguably growing easier to find short-term gigs or spot employment. Paradoxically, technology is the reason.
A constellation of Internet-enabled companies matches available workers with quick jobs, most prominently including Uber for drivers , Seamless for meal deliverers , Homejoy for house cleaners , and TaskRabbit for just about anyone else. And online markets like Craigslist and eBay have likewise made it easier for people to take on small independent projects, such as furniture refurbishing. Some of these services, too, could be usurped, eventually, by machines. But on-demand apps also spread the work around by carving up jobs, like driving a taxi, into hundreds of little tasks, like a single drive, which allows more people to compete for smaller pieces of work.
These new arrangements are already challenging the legal definitions of employer and employee , and there are many reasons to be ambivalent about them.
Today the norm is to think about employment and unemployment as a black-and-white binary, rather than two points at opposite ends of a wide spectrum of working arrangements. Most people lived on farms, and while paid work came and went, home industry—canning, sewing, carpentry—was a constant.
Even in the worst economic panics, people typically found productive things to do. The despondency and helplessness of unemployment were discovered, to the bafflement and dismay of cultural critics, only after factory work became dominant and cities swelled. The 21st century, if it presents fewer full-time jobs in the sectors that can be automated, could in this respect come to resemble the midth century: an economy marked by episodic work across a range of activities, the loss of any one of which would not make somebody suddenly idle.
But some might thrive in a market where versatility and hustle are rewarded—where there are, as in Youngstown, few jobs to have, yet many things to do. As Martin Ford no relation writes in his new book, The Rise of the Robots , this story might be apocryphal, but its message is instructive. Both are expensive and tightly constrained.
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But the decline of work would make many office buildings unnecessary. What might that mean for the vibrancy of urban areas? Would office space yield seamlessly to apartments, allowing more people to live more affordably in city centers and leaving the cities themselves just as lively? Or would we see vacant shells and spreading blight? Would big cities make sense at all if their role as highly sophisticated labor ecosystems were diminished? As the hour workweek faded, the idea of a lengthy twice-daily commute would almost certainly strike future generations as an antiquated and baffling waste of time.
But would those generations prefer to live on streets full of high-rises, or in smaller towns? Today, many working parents worry that they spend too many hours at the office. As full-time work declined, rearing children could become less overwhelming. And because job opportunities historically have spurred migration in the United States, we might see less of it; the diaspora of extended families could give way to more closely knitted clans.
But if men and women lost their purpose and dignity as work went away, those families would nonetheless be troubled. The decline of the labor force would make our politics more contentious. Deciding how to tax profits and distribute income could become the most significant economic-policy debate in American history. But to preserve the consumer economy and the social fabric, governments might have to embrace what Haruhiko Kuroda, the governor of the Bank of Japan, has called the visible hand of economic intervention.
What follows is an early sketch of how it all might work. In the near term, local governments might do well to create more and more-ambitious community centers or other public spaces where residents can meet, learn skills, bond around sports or crafts, and socialize.
Two of the most common side effects of unemployment are loneliness, on the individual level, and the hollowing-out of community pride. A national policy that directed money toward centers in distressed areas might remedy the maladies of idleness, and form the beginnings of a long-term experiment on how to reengage people in their neighborhoods in the absence of full employment. We could also make it easier for people to start their own, small-scale and even part-time businesses. New-business formation has declined in the past few decades in all 50 states.
One way to nurture fledgling ideas would be to build out a network of business incubators.
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Near the beginning of any broad decline in job availability, the United States might take a lesson from Germany on job-sharing. Such a policy would help workers at established firms keep their attachment to the labor force despite the declining amount of overall labor. Spreading work in this way has its limits. Eventually, Washington would have to somehow spread wealth, too. One way of doing that would be to more heavily tax the growing share of income going to the owners of capital, and use the money to cut checks to all adults.
Many liberals currently support it, and in the s, Richard Nixon and the conservative economist Milton Friedman each proposed a version of the idea. That history notwithstanding, the politics of universal income in a world without universal work would be daunting. The most direct solution to the latter problem would be for the government to pay people to do something, rather than nothing.
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It hired 40, artists and other cultural workers to produce music and theater, murals and paintings, state and regional travel guides, and surveys of state records. What might that look like? Several national projects might justify direct hiring, such as caring for a rising population of elderly people. But if the balance of work continues to shift toward the small-bore and episodic, the simplest way to help everybody stay busy might be government sponsorship of a national online marketplace of work or, alternatively, a series of local ones, sponsored by local governments. Individuals could browse for large long-term projects, like cleaning up after a natural disaster, or small short-term ones: an hour of tutoring, an evening of entertainment, an art commission.
To ensure a baseline level of attachment to the workforce, the government could pay adults a flat rate in return for some minimum level of activity on the site, but people could always earn more by taking on more gigs. Although a digital WPA might strike some people as a strange anachronism, it would be similar to a federalized version of Mechanical Turk, the popular Amazon sister site where individuals and companies post projects of varying complexity, while so-called Turks on the other end browse tasks and collect money for the ones they complete.
Mechanical Turk was designed to list tasks that cannot be performed by a computer. The name is an allusion to an 18th-century Austrian hoax, in which a famous automaton that seemed to play masterful chess concealed a human player who chose the moves and moved the pieces. A government marketplace might likewise specialize in those tasks that required empathy, humanity, or a personal touch. Mastering these skills requires discipline; discipline requires an education; and an education, for many people, involves the expectation that hours of often frustrating practice will eventually prove rewarding.
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