Ellen Ruppel Shell on Jobs and Work in the Twenty-First Century

A deep dive into the future of work with The Atlantic correspondent Ellen Ruppel Shell

July 10, 2019

Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell

We’ve all been hearing a lot lately about the economy: unemployment is near a record low, the stock market is at a record high, and job creation numbers have been relatively steady. Yet behind these reassuring numbers lurks a troubling reality about jobs in the United States. There’s a job, and then there’s a good job—the kind that pays the bills every month. When hard work at a full-time job no longer assures a comfortable, middle-class life, is it time to re-think what we mean by “work”?

Author Ellen Ruppel Shell explores this question and many more in The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change. Shell, who is a correspondent with The Atlantic and a professor of science journalism at Boston University, interviewed employers, entrepreneurs, economists, and workers in many professions, all in a quest to understand what today’s jobs really mean for today’s workers. From her analysis of our increasingly skills training-based education system to an exploration of worker’s cooperatives, Shell provides her readers with a better understanding of the challenges ahead and the best way to prepare ourselves for the future of work.

InfoWorks spoke with Shell over the phone about the insights gained and lessons learned while reporting her latest book.

InfoWorks: A lot of your other writings are in the area of human biology, not business and economics. What sparked your interest in work and jobs? Why did you decide to write this book?

My last book, Cheap, was about the externalities of low price. Externalities means, what are the consequences, what are the things we don’t think about, when we strive to keep prices low? Low prices are made possible by workers [working at low wages]. There’s a quote by a US president [William McKinley] that said, “Cheap goods mean cheap men.” So that got me thinking, and I decided to write a book on work. It’s quite a sweeping book, and it was quite a task.

InfoWorks: Much of your book explores the difference between what the word “job” means to people, versus what “work” means. You wrote that workers should be looking for “work that we can control, rather than a job controls us.” Why do you think these are important distinctions?

The word “job” traces back to the sixteenth century, and its definition was to rob or to cheat. It wasn’t thought of as an honorable thing, it was kind of a negative thing. And in fact I learned that in Colonial times, employed men who didn’t own land weren’t eligible to vote, because it meant they were obligated to vote in a manner that favored their employer. So this notion of “job” only became something that people desired in the late 1800s with the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, most Americans were farmers, and they were entrepreneurs. They wanted to own their own land. They didn’t want a job. And if you had to work on a farm and didn’t own it, that wasn’t something you aspired to.

In the twentieth century, jobs became glorified, as if your job was your work, when in fact your job is a mere subset of your work. And this is a problem, because jobs are not trustworthy. In the US, we have a law that people are employees at will, meaning you can be fired for any reason or for no reason at all. So most of us do not have true job security. I advocate that individuals develop a portfolio of skills and interests that are theirs, regardless of their employment status. I think it’s really important for young people in particular to strive for that.

InfoWorks: Your book looks at globalization, rapid technological advancements, and artificial intelligence (AI) as factors that lower wages for US workers. One of your interviewees, Hod Lipson, even said that “automation and AI will take all our jobs away.” Based on your research and interviews, what’s your take on the effects of AI and globalization?

When I started thinking about the book in 2012, economists and computer scientists— especially economists—were pushing back against the idea that AI would cost jobs over time. More recently, this has changed. The question is, will new jobs replace these [lost] jobs? Some people argue, “Well, that’s always happened in the past.” But in the past, machines only took over physical labor. Now we have machines doing thinking jobs.

We don’t really know where this will lead us. What we do know is, even though we have a low unemployment rate in the US right now, many Americans are affected by lack of job security and low wages. And that’s surprising. Why aren’t people demanding larger salaries? Well, there are all sorts of reasons, but most of the new jobs that have been created are low-wage jobs. Home health care workers, the fastest-growing job in the US, make $21,000 a year. To give another example, Caterpillar, which makes tractors and other large machines, once paid its factory workers as much as $40/hour. Today their new employees are making less than half of that. Companies can hire temporary contract workers, or even pick up and move to Mexico and Asia. So that’s happening across the country… 48 percent [of Americans] make $31,000 or less per year.

InfoWorks: I was fascinated by your discussion of the rise of the “maker’s economy,” with tradespeople working both in traditional arts, like broom-making, and digital arts, like 3D printing products. You wrote, “We are circling back to the time of the independent tradesman, farmer, and craftsman, and toward an economy in which our working identity relies less on any particular institution, and more on our relationship to the work itself.”

Do you see this “maker’s economy” as continuing to be an important area of job growth in the future?

I’m very optimistic about this. The reason I’m optimistic is I think we don’t really have a choice. There’s a big push in this country to train people to code. We’re going to train people in Appalachia to code. Well, I was down in Kentucky, and first of all, it doesn’t work very well to take someone who has been a coal miner and try to train them to code. But even if it did, that’s a global job. So these folks in Kentucky are competing with workers all over the world, many of whom work in low wage countries… it’s not a great way to develop a local economy.

A better way, I think, is to look at these local economies and say, “What does this economy have to offer? What are the skills of the people? What do they want to do?” And I believe there are a whole bunch of things that people can do that doesn’t put them in a position to compete with people all over the world, like a service or product that is an outgrowth of your culture, of your region, of your specialness as a person. It’s amazing how many craft breweries there are today. There is a movement of small farmers. I have a young friend in Baltimore, she and her husband have their own small farm, and they’re succeeding. When you talk about makers, yes, this includes people who make mass custom production products—clothing, furniture. These “makers” are not crafting each item literally by hand, but using new tools that make it far more efficient to produce custom made goods.

InfoWorks: In your exploration of work and education in Finland, you highlighted that Finnish education emphasizes critical thinking and general academic and civic education, rather than vocational training. Do you think our own education system is too focused on practical, skills-based education?

Yes. If you look at, say, folks in Silicon Valley, what do they want their children to learn? Well, many don’t allow their children to use computers in their private schools. They limit their screen time. They want their children to read Shakespeare, to learn languages, to be exposed to the arts. They know this will prepare them for the work of the future by developing critical thinking and analytic skills; that is, to know not only how to solve problems, but which problems are worth solving. But other people’s kids? Well, we’re told they should focus mainly on STEM. Other people’s kids should have a computer in their classroom. Other people’s kids don’t need to have a deep understanding of literature or history. And I think the rest of us should be very suspicious of that. If we lose our liberal arts education, we’re going to lose a lot.

I was a science major myself. Having that opportunity to learn about science was very important, but so are the humanities, and so are the arts. Great scientists often draw on their understanding of the arts as they pursue their science. We don’t really know how or why people innovate. It’s very, very risky to limit young people and insist they focus mainly on STEM. As I’ve talked to people [employers], interviewed people about the book, the most common complaint is lack of soft skills—they want employees who can read, think, and communicate effectively. When we talk about a skills gap, THAT is the skills gap. There are many people coming out of high school who don’t have these basic skills. This is what every American kid deserves to have and should have, not just the rich kids.

InfoWorks: I loved your discussion of the skills gap. US corporations complain about a lack of skilled workers, but you point out there’s “little if any evidence to support the vague and slippery claim.” You seem to suggest that companies use this alleged skills gap as a false justification to hire workers outside the country. Why do you think we’ve all been so ready to believe their narrative?

I just find it shocking. I live in Boston. I have another young friend who has a PhD in physics from Berkeley, and he went to Harvard, and he’s had a hell of a time finding a job. We’ve all encountered this: A highly-skilled person with lots of education and experience, and they send out 50 resumes and get one call. And yet everyone claims there’s a skills gap.

People believe it because they’re told to believe it, and it’s part of the national dialogue. You get lectured by politicians about this. But then when you actually look at the data, you find… well, no, actually. Generally speaking, there is no skills gap. Companies are looking for plug and play – someone who has already done the exact same job… [but] there are folks to fill pretty much every job that is open, and are qualified to do so with some minimal training. Companies don’t want to train, so they promote this idea of the skills gap because they want people to pick up these skills on their own. They don’t want to train folks on a certain computer language, but [hire] someone who already knows it. Companies want the opportunity to choose from a large labor pool, so there’s a lot of competition among the workers, and that drives down the wages.

InfoWorks: You explored unions, worker-owned cooperatives, and other forms of worker ownership as organizational forms that might improve the jobs of tomorrow. You wrote, “Coworking arrangements, twenty-first century unions, and other coalitions offer hope to the growing cadre of Americans laboring independently.” Do you think we’ll be seeing a resurgence of unions?

That’s a good question that no one can answer. I think unions need to reinvent themselves, and they’re in the midst of doing that. Unions have lost power because companies can hire contract workers or move abroad or hire workers who live abroad and work remotely. Collective bargaining is hard when you don’t have the leverage to walk out in a strike. There are still some powerful unions, and one of them I mentioned is the union that supports people in the entertainment industry [IATSE]. In the book I told the story of a woman who makes props for television and film. She told me that the union makes her work possible because it protects her and thousands of others who work in her field. So that’s a union that works because it’s organized around skill sets within an industry sector. And of course the teachers unions are doing well, as are other public sector unions that support jobs paid with tax dollars. But I think by and large, we need to re-think private sector unions.

InfoWorks: Both corporations and the government are making efforts to promote the return of good, living wage jobs—but these efforts are minimal and sorely insufficient. Given how this touches the lives of every American, why do you think labor policy is so absent from the national conversation?

Most Americans don’t think of themselves as workers. They think of themselves as consumers, and they’re marketed to as consumers. So the focus is always on getting good deals and getting stuff when we want it. Labor policy has not been a priority.

Do I think business will step up to the plate? I certainly hope so, and some are already taking first steps. Generally, industry is not in the business of providing the best opportunities for its workers, it’s in the business of providing for shareholders and executives and consumers. But in the book I write about so-called “B corporations” that commit to protecting their workers and their communities as well as their shareholders. This is a very hopeful movement, and one I predict will continue to grow. That said, I do think government must play a stronger role in protecting American workers in the global economy, regardless of their particular jobs. Even Adam Smith, the great champion of free markets, argued that the “invisible hand” of the unfettered marketplace required guidance. And that guidance must come not only from industry bigwigs and politicians, but from us, the American worker.


Interview by Katherine Don

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