Labor day: facts on the future and present of work

16 days from now my fifth book, The Year Without Pants, launches, and I’m posting daily till that happens. As today is Labor Day in the U.S. it’s timely to look at some facts about work.

If you search on the term the future of work you find plenty of slop. There is no more well worn cliche in any field that people who slap “the future of <insert thing many people are interested in>” onto the end of something, hoping to trick more flies to their sour, uninspired honey. I put the phrase in the subtitle of my new book reluctantly, only after making sure I could justify its use in the book itself (something I explain in the introduction).

The big facts on the future of work:

Think for a moment on just how many different kinds of work there are in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd worlds on our planet. Work with hands. Work with danger. Work that has to be found every day. Wow.

At a grand scale you must admit the future of these diverse jobs must be different. Some will:

  • Grow in number
  • Shrink in number, or disappear completely
  • Will improve in quality
  • Will decline

This means whenever someone uses the singular, unframed, phrase “future of work” they really mean “the future of the kind of work  I do or is done by people I know” which is a far narrower topic. It’s big business to sell things to the wealthiest kinds of workers, distorting impressions of what most work on planet earth looks like.

According to World Bank Data:

  • Agriculture: 922 million (30.4%)
  • Industry: 740 million (24.4%)
  • Services: 1.36 billion (44.9%)

Now of course it’s hard to know how many of these vaguely categorized industry and service jobs involve sitting at a desk with a computer all day (anyone know a better data source?), but this gives a basic sense of how well divided the working world truly is. The latest software and gadgets mean little towards productivity for much of the working world.

While the trends in the U.S. are for many labor intensive jobs to move elsewhere (the number of globalized workers, or workers who do things for export, was 900 million in 2005, up 400% from 1980), those jobs still exist and those workers have a very different working future than the jobs that stay here.

Today is labor day: Take a second to think about all the different kinds of labor there are on earth and how grateful you should be about the kind you have, or that you have employment at all.

Thanks Joe McCarthyMWilk and Ron Miller for research help.

3 Responses to “Labor day: facts on the future and present of work”

  1. Gustavo

    It seems there is a typo in the World Bank data for services.


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