Workers Identity in a robotic world
By Scott Dennis Jan 18, 2017
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King brought to light our nations struggle with racial inequality, in his many brilliant speeches he carved a narrative that helped to solidify an identity for the oppressed. If you listen closely to the logic of his discourse you find an economic model at the heart of racism. In the American south land owners intentionally created enmity between the races to frighten poor whites into accepting lower wages. The equation was simple to understand, work for pennies or we will get slaves to replace you. For the millions of workers facing obsolesce due to technology this may sound familiar.
Years later Dr. King would point out anecdotally that the southern white policemen that locked him in jail were bringing home the same pay as a black rail car operator in Chicago, the racial advantage was an illusion held onto by racists who could not face the reality of belonging to the larger multi-racial group called the working poor. As a society we have to ask ourselves if anything has changed and if the wonders of our technological advances are lifting all people up or creating a new procariat, or class of people as economically “precarious” as King faced in his time.
What is the identity of a worker?
It is important to note that a workers identity is looked at in a very different way by government and policy makers versus an individual’s own thoughts on how they relate to work. Everyone reading this has their own opinion on what work means to them ranging from a disgruntled factory worker, to a middle manager looking for inspirational leadership as well as contented academics nestled in the ivory tower. Policy and corporate decision makers see things in a different context. With the economic downturn in 2009 concerns about workers could be summed up from a passage taken from Dennis Snower’s Keil Institute study (May 2013).
“..workers can adopt either an elite or underclass identity. An elite worker has a pro-work ethic, with a low disutility of work and a high disutility from being unemployed. This gives the worker a strong incentive to take up work and thereby raises her job finding rate. Conversely, the underclass worker has an anti-work ethic, with a high disutility of work and a low disutility from being unemployed, leading to a lower job finding rate.”
Studies like these are most common when the system is seen to be broken as was the case in 2009. In the simplest terms work has always needed labor and industry makes it their business to drive the narrative to understand where the attitudes of the people are and to control them when possible. Groups like Blue Collar Think Tank are taking action by thinking through strategies for workers with changing identities in the face of technology.
All labor that uplifts humanity
As you toil in your cubicle you might not think that your work helps to uplift humanity, but it does in the practical sense of your taxes being used to improve infrastructure, provide a social safety net for those in need or your contributions to schools and the institutions of your faith. Community bonds are strengthened through friendships at the workplace and when you understand the inherit dignity of work a creative zeal can spark inspiration in even the most mundane occupation. This is why we are at a cross roads in the face of uncontrolled automation, we could suffer the erasure of the workers identity unless we take a determined and holistic approach. In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote in Progress and Poverty:
“The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.”
So as Dr. King famously asked where do we go from here? It starts as it did then with understanding who we are in these changing times so that the interests of humanity can be heard above the churning of technological progress. Asking not always can we do this thing but should we and what are the consequences? The new identity of the worker should echo George’s quotation to bring security for its own sake. Workers will need to be more organized in the future to get to that point and will also need to unmask those who want to divide them for their own interests so that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.
Scott Dennis writes for www.bluecollarthinktank.com @bcthinktank