While the majority of the columns printed on the New York Times’ op-ed page seem intended to energize the reader by alerting him to some impending social, economic, or political evil shortly to be foisted on the country or the world by the Republican Party or some other sinister force on the right, the contemplated disaster is usually less disturbing than the political and philosophical imagination that conceived it.
A column by Thomas L. Friedman last summer proved the exception to the rule. In this isolated case, I found myself in agreement with both the author’s prophetic perception of coming reality and the moral context of his response to it, even while his suggested solution left me cold. The substance of Friedman’s thesis, indeed, has occurred to me repeatedly in the past few years. It is that the headlong technological revolution that has been transpiring over the past few decades, and that seems now to redouble its momentum every few years, is altering social, educational, and economic institutions and circumstances with a relentless logic and stunning rapidity that makes obsolete all traditional notions of a lifelong career, and the fact itself, impossible.
The current popularity of jobs-retraining programs suggests that the insight is hardly a new or an original one, but Friedman put the matter clearly and forcefully. It is unrealistic, he argued, for young people contemplating a career to assume that the career they embrace will be their only career—just as, I suppose, it would be equally naive to assume that their adored fiancé(e) will be their only spouse. Instead, they should expect to pursue serial careers in the course of their working lives, as one after another of these is made redundant and terminated by the technological “progress” that reconfigures society, the economy, and the workplace every decade or so, sweeping away certain once-secure jobs or professions and creating in their place new “opportunities” for “entrepreneurs.” I am pig-ignorant of the digital industry, but from what I read I gather that digital engineers in early middle age are being dismissed by their employers in preference for a new generation of engineers familiar with a cutting-edge technology that seems to cut deeper and faster every year. Even those lucky, or adaptable, enough to stay off the unemployment lines seem likely to do so only by identifying a career in some other field, albeit one to which the skills acquired in their previous work are applicable. Friedman, believing human nature equal to the challenge, perceived certain benefits in the situation he described. “Up to a point” (as one of Waugh’s characters says) he may be right. Beyond that limited point, however, I think he is dead wrong. To begin with, his suggestion, borrowed from LinkedIn founder Reid Garrett Hoffman, that young people should approach their careers as an entrepreneur contemplates starting a business, strikes me as chilling. How are entrepreneurial skills, and the entrepreneurial mind, in any way compatible with a career as a classics scholar?
I have thought—and felt—for some time that this mad pace of technological development, resulting in the overwhelming transformative change in society’s every aspect and the unbearable pressures of global competition, must end by driving men mad, and the increasingly anxious, fearful, and hysterical quality of postmodern life suggests that this, indeed, is actually happening. What is a career, trade, or craft but a lifelong dedication, pursued with enthusiasm and even love? No commitment is more human, more expressive of man’s deepest nature. To work is to pray—and to live. And just as prayer and living are deeply personal things, so, too, is to labor according to one’s chosen métier. True, for some men work really is a curse from God; while, for many others, any old job will do to put a roof overhead and food on the table. For the better sort of men, however, and perhaps even a majority of them, a career is not something lightly to be set aside in favor of other, different work. In the 19th century, critics (many of them citizens of the world’s first industrialized country—Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Gissing, Butler) asserted that industrialism guaranteed that, henceforth, artisans, craftsmen, and men and women of the laboring classes would no longer labor pleasurably, for love. A century and a half later, laborers as well as craftsmen are hard-pressed to find work, rewarding or not, in postindustrial society.
The current labor situation, which has been developing over the past 20 years, has now reached to the professional classes as well. Print journalists, for instance, are being thrown out of work as newspapers and magazines close, and compelled to work for the internet, which either does not pay at all, or pays poorly. In the age of the print media, journalists were unpleasantly aware that their work was convertible next day into wraps for dead fish. In the reign of the internet, it is summarily vaporized after a few weeks, or months. Internet writers write upon water—or rather, the cybernetic aether. In television journalism, a similar trend is taking place, as the networks struggle to turn a profit and news broadcasters are progressively ignored by the politically interested public in favor of largely nonprofessional bloggers and websites of opinion, most of them with no money.
Breakneck advances in technique create corresponding changes in all society’s elements, the artistic one included. Technological invention encourages an obsession with technological novelty, which in turn encourages a desire for artistic novelty, partly for itself and partly from fascination with the new techniques that deliver it. Artists in each of the fine arts face the hopeless challenge of keeping sufficiently abreast of the latest public craze, while maintaining the artistic continuity that defines their career. But it is impossible for a writer, a painter, or a musician to rediscover his subject, to reinvent his technique, his style (himself) each season and maintain his sanity—and his popularity and sales. Young writers willing to endure the long apprenticeship that success in literature generally requires find that, in middle age (or sooner), the world they took such pains to observe, understand, and depict in words has ceased altogether to exist, and that the one they presently inhabit is a world wholly changed in style, substance, and point of fundamental reference. I think offhand of a dozen or so American novelists who enjoyed a large success in the 1980’s, but whose books are no longer listed in the publishers’ catalogs, reviewed in the press, or found in bookstores. They must be only in late middle age today; presumably they still live, but can no longer get contracts for their manuscripts. The world that should have sufficed them for their lifetimes has experienced two or three technological and social revolutions since they were born. No wonder the present world considers they have nothing to say to it. (It thinks Austen, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Waugh, and perhaps even Salinger have nothing to say to it, either.) By what means are these writers putting food in their mouths today? Artists, more than anyone, are generally fit only for one line of work, and that is their own.
So far, certain professions and occupations remain relatively unthreatened by technological and social transformation. The law, for example. And medicine. And, of course, politics. At present there are too many lawyers, not enough doctors, and the voters are always eager to elect to office as many dreamboat candidates as are needed to replace the scoundrels they have just kicked out of it. Politics, so long as one is prepared to dissimulate, lie, pander, and claw without limit, is the sole profession these days to enjoy complete job security. (The first profession may prove also to be the last one.) Lawyers, doctors, and politicians will always be with us. But the law and medicine are changing as fast as everything else, and this imposes a terrific strain on their practitioners to stay abreast of new laws, new treatments, new machines. When I was a boy, my parents had friends among members of both professions, all of them cultivated gentlemen living relatively leisured lives that allowed them to study history or literature, farm in the gentlemanly manner, and become competent musicians on the side. All that was lost with the old civilization, which has been forfeited to runaway technique and speed.
In a time of high unemployment, when a significant number of the unemployed have been on the dole for six months and more, American government at every level supports retraining programs for those put out of work. But it appears that a great many of the jobs lost no longer exist, having been made redundant by technical innovation and global competition. In time, indeed, a great many more of them are likely to be performed by robots, presently a much ignored and underestimated science. Moreover, middle and late-middle age are not times in a man’s life conducive to acquiring a wholly new trade or profession, assuming even that he had a bent for, or an interest in, the work. A recent study reports a widespread apathy among American workers that is adversely affecting the productivity of American companies, thereby reducing their profitability and lowering the GDP. Would it surprise anybody to learn that many of these apathetic workers, having been made redundant by advances in technique and terminated from the work that engaged them as human beings, and finding themselves in jobs to which they have no intellectual or emotional connection, lack the visceral incentive to exert themselves?
“[W]hat I fear,” wrote Samuel Butler (in 1871),
is the extraordinary rapidity with which [machines] are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it?
The alternative, he suggested, is that man himself may become “a sort of parasite upon the machines,” “an affectionate machine-tickling aphid.” So long as he can still get work tickling its keyboard, at any rate.