The Wire, Rules, And The Future of Work

In 2006, Princeton economist Alan Blinder, writing in Foreign Affairs, considers the question of job security in an increasingly globalized world.

What sorts of jobs are at risk of being offshored? In the old days, when tradable goods were things that could be put in a box, the key distinction was between manufacturing and nonmanufacturing jobs. Consistent with that, manufacturing workers in the rich countries have grown accustomed to the idea that they compete with foreign labor. But as the domain of tradable services expands, many service workers will also have to accept the new, and not very pleasant, reality that they too must compete with workers in other countries. And there are many more service than manufacturing workers.

Many people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people – doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general “upskilling” of the work force. But this view may be mistaken…. The critical divide in the future may instead be between types of work that are easily deliverable through wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.

MIT economist Frank Levy makes a complementary argument (as excerpted from Shop Class as Soulcraft)

He puts the issue not in terms of whether a service can be delivered electronically or not, but rather whether the service is itself rules-based or not. Until recently, he writes, you could make a decent living doing a job that required you to carefully follow instructions, such as preparing tax returns. But such work is subject to attack on two fronts—some of it goes to offshore accountants and some of it is done by tax preparation software, such as TurboTax. The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules.

Still Curious? Read Kevin Kelly’s recent article in WIRED Better Than Human.