Opinion: The future of work, part IV

Change is psychologically painful. By definition, change is a disruption in the way that things are, a disturbance of our practices and expectations. Few of us, least of all yours truly, are immune to the anguish of transformation. I still have mental scars from about eight months ago when I traded my trusty “hundred-year-old” computer system for a new one.


Resisting change


As I type this column, I’m using a computer keyboard. It is the standard QWERTY configuration that we’ve known since the early days of the typewriter. Mechanical typewriters were machines that printed a character when the operator forcefully pressed a finger down on a key. The key activated a lever which would then fly up from a base and strike a ribbon which would stamp an image on paper. So, frequently-used letters of the alphabet were placed where their levers would be least likely to interfere with each other, causing the machine to jam.


In 1961, when IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter, the machine used a rotating ball, eliminating the “flying” levers, yet the keyboard retained the QWERTY configuration. Modern computer keyboards send an electronic signal that forms an image on a screen. Still, the order of keys on keyboards has not changed. Research shows that other configurations are more efficient, but habit is a powerful force that resists change.


Vested interest


The day after I graduated from high school, I was promoted from “carry-out boy” to “retail clerk” at Lucky Stores in Palo Alto, CA. At the time, there was talk about the food industry introducing a universal product code (UPC) on items. We employees used the power of our union to stop that from happening because we believed that stores would no longer need “checkers” to operate cash registers. Now, some supermarkets have a self-checkout area, as do other retail stores.


Margarine presents another example of how vested interest hampers change. The butter-substitute was invented in France in 1869. In America, states with a huge dairy-farming industry forbade the manufacture and sale of margarine. It wasn’t until 1950 that federal restrictions on margarine were lifted. When I was a child in New York, margarine was white, and it was sold in a sealed plastic pouch that contained a yellow ball of food dye. One had to knead the pouch to distribute the yellow color so that the product resembled yellow butter


Costs


Change often involves cost. When catalytic converters were first proposed for automobiles, they were opposed because of the cost that they would add to the price of a car. Catalytic converters contain precious metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which is also why they are often subject to theft.


Federal programs like Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (which has been replaced by other programs over the years), and Medicare were all opposed because they involve the expenditure of public funds (i.e., taxpayer dollars). And this brings us to the next issue regarding the future of work.


Guaranteed income


A great deal of “work,” especially the kind of work that involves repetitive actions, increasingly will be done by automated systems. One of the questions that dominate the agendas of contemporary “think tanks” is: What happens when we don’t need people to produce or distribute most of our manufactured goods?


Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, this work has been performed by people with no or little formal education. As society became more complex, educational requirements increased. For decades, many employers have required at least a high-school education for certain assembly jobs. Consequently, until recently, a high-school diploma was the “entry document” to a job that paid a “living wage.” But, as machines continue to take on these aspects of manufacture and distribution, we may be facing a future with no work available to significant segments of our population.


Moreover, the remainder of “low-level” work does not pay sufficiently for a full-time employee to live with dignity. A person who works 40 hours per week at $15 per hour receives a gross pay of about $2,400 per month. That person must pay about 8 percent (roughly $200) for FICA programs and an additional amount (depending on certain variables) for income tax. So, let’s say that the person’s net pay, or “take-home” pay, is about $2,000 per month.


The average rental cost per month in California was $1,488 in 2019. Last year, rental costs increased 13 percent in the state. So, a minimum-pay job gives the worker little disposable income for compulsory expenses and no discretionary income. This worker will have no health plan or insurance, will not be able to afford renter’s insurance or car insurance, and will have no savings. So, any emergency or unexpected expense can result in homelessness. This crisis was amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.


Economic experiments


In 2019, the mayor of Stockton, CA, initiated SEED (Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration) which provided $500 per month for two years to 125 randomly selected families at or below the city’s median household average. An independent study showed that the recipients found more full-time employment than a control group and had better financial, physical, and emotional health.


A similar experiment is being conducted now in Compton, CA. The Compton Pledge gives between $300 and $600 per month to 799 low-income families, including undocumented immigrants, with no strings attached. Both programs are funded by nonprofit organizations.


Similar programs have been started in at least two dozen other cities throughout the United States. The question that these experiments is designed to answer is: What happens when you give society’s poorest people cash and let them spend it as they choose?


The answer may be important in determining how our country deals with a future in which work may no longer be a possibility for a significant proportion of our population and how we handle the economic pain of change.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.