Can Work Be Dignified in an Automated World?

EdSurge Podcast

Can Work Be Dignified in an Automated World?

By Sydney Johnson     Jun 11, 2019

Can Work Be Dignified in an Automated World?

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

What do water, the history of slavery in the United States, and the future of work all have in common? A lot.

At least, that's the foundation for a new center at the University of Michigan called the Center for Social Solutions. It's a place where researchers are delving into topics around race, the global environment and how to prepare changing societies for new technology and the workforce.

Steering the project is professor, historian and author Earl Lewis. EdSurge sat down with him at this year's ASU GSV summit, a gathering of thousands of education investors and entrepreneurs hosted by Arizona State University and GSB, a venture capital firm.

We talked with Lewis about how the center is using research to tackle some of the biggest challenges our world faces today. Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: I'd love if we could start off talking a little about the center that you run and how this got started.

Lewis: The center is brand new. A year ago this time it was a concept—it did not exist. I had just finished my term as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and I realized I had during my time as president of Mellon suggested we focus on grand challenges. And I thought well, it's one thing for me to suggest it, what if I actually go out and do it? And I thought, someone should create a Center for Social Solutions, identify a handful of challenges and try to work on them over the next decade.

So, I took my own advice and followed through with that and returned to the University of Michigan where I'd been on the faculty from 1989 to 2004. There were four pillars of work that we could pursue over the next decade at the center having to do with diversity and democracy.

Demographers say that by 2044 the U.S. will have a non-white majority for the first time in its history. How do we make sure that we then position all of those individuals to be contributing members of society?

Second question. I'm a historian, and 2019 marks the hundredth anniversary of the importation of the first 20 or so African peoples into colonial Jamestown that began the system of chattel slavery. It was bonded labor to begin with, but it started chattel slavery, and I thought 400 years later for a system that dominated American history for 250 years, 60 percent of our history, it's time for us to confront it and talk about our slavery past, which was one of the two original sins I would say of this nation.

Then the third question is about water. Now returning to Michigan, I always have to tell people, it's not Flint. The water issue we're concerned with is one that has global implications. We're trying to figure out, Can we come up with a regional design that can be scaled nationally and exported globally for moving water from flood-prone areas to drought-stricken areas. The engineers keep telling me it's not an engineering problem. We have the technology to move this water. But in most floods, think of Nebraska a few weeks ago, we still use sandbags. Eighteenth century technology in the 21st century world. Why? We want to actually try to answer that question and come up with solutions.

And then finally is the dignity of labor in an automated world. McKinsey predicts that somewhere between 400 million and 800 million people will lose their jobs by 2030 as a result of automation. In the United States it is an estimated 54 million—one third of the contemporary American workforce. That requires us to think in a new way about how we deal with the future of work. And it's not just about the introduction of a universal basic income. I think that's necessary but not sufficient.

You're of course a historian by training. What does history tell us about the future of work, and how long have we been having this conversation?

The conversation is old. Think about agricultural labor. It’s really human intensive—people out in the fields, plowing early in the morning, often times all the way to sundown, trying to figure out how to get a better yield. And then in the 20th century we add to that mechanization and chemicals. So, we improve the yield, but we also move from agricultural labor to industrial labor, and it requires the new people to learn new skills and the craftsman was replaced now by the person who worked as a cog in the machinery of industrial labor. And then workers fight for their rights and make sure they weren't killed in the coal mines of working on to out in automobile plants.

That history is important because it says two things. First, work is important, and being able to answer the question of “what do you do.”

The second part history can tell is that macroeconomic changes can be missed if we don't begin to put humans in the center of the story. The advent of machines and machine technology itself is old. There is this famous piece of African American history of the character of John Henry, who is trying to beat a machine as the story goes. John Henry is digging through a mountain, and he actually beats the machine. But it kills him at the end. And so, this is sort of parable, that we can work against change but maybe to our own detriment. Even if we win in the short term we may not win in the long term. So, how do we figure out how to make sure we win this time as we deal with automation without it killing us?

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I want to go back to your first point about why work matters to us. What is the current employment landscape looking like, and how are you thinking about ways of injecting more dignity into that?

Dignity can be self defined or defined by others. And so, we've begun to work on trying to figure out how people self-defined aspects of dignity. And so, to give a concrete example, one of my colleagues at the University of Michigan who is a sociologist spent 10 years interviewing and talking to people. They were in their 20s and 30s when he started, and now they are in their 30s and 40s. A lot of these folks were saying they wanted the job like their grandparents had. A job that provided them with some modicum of security and there was a working middle class job so that they had wages where they could buy homes, where they could go on vacations and they could send their kids to school. They could have health insurance they could have some sense that they belong.

But these young people realized that world had passed them by. They couldn't see the future in the world that we're entering now. And in fact, when he talked to them, they wanted to return to the past. Because they didn't believe that this new world of modest wages, inadequate health insurance, seasonal but not always guaranteed security, can provide the elements of dignity.

In the research that we're leading, we'll be trying to ask people, “So how do you define dignity? How do we begin to help you then to really secure the kind of dignity that you want?”

If you were to craft a curriculum for all the futurists and entrepreneurs walking around this expo hall right now, what would be a few items at the top of that list?

I would start with a whole section on human development. Reminding us that we have a common human ancestor. And so, I would take them back to ancient Africa and do a whole piece that actually has them travel around the globe, to see how humans move from one place to another over time. And in part that’s to teach us that we created myths about ourselves. How do we get back to that piece that we share a human origin, we also share human destiny. We created these myths about difference that may or may not be so important in the end.

Then I would delve into why would those myths and some of what they look like. And the third piece is to say that every generation had its futurists. So how do we begin to double down on the things that should be doubled down on and also not be so distracted by the things that aren't.

These are exciting times and they are scary times. I was in a camp in Fargo, North Dakota a couple of years ago. And I was talking to this cabbie who had grown up in eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota much of his life. And we were talking about driverless cars and he looked at me and he says, “Oh, those things won't work.” And I said, “Yeah they will.” And he looked in the back and goes, “That scares me to death.”

I realized how many people are afraid of the future because we in higher education and elsewhere haven't given them a good reason to believe they will be part of the future.We have to actually move beyond the community of folks who are already privileged enough and say to the vast majority of Americans and the world, “You are part of this future, one way or another, we're going to figure out a way to make sure that there's not a greater divide between the haves and have-nots.” We need to figure out how to create a world that only has the haves.

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