TCS Daily

The Beginning of Work

By Ilya Shapiro - January 5, 2005 12:00 AM

I started my very first honest to goodness full-time adult job two months ago. Not an internship or fellowship, not a summer job or a work-study opportunity to research for a professor, nor a summer associate position at a law firm (with all the pay and little of the work of a real junior lawyer). Not even a clerkship, that halcyon year of working at the "elbow" of a judge, learning at the nexus of the theory and practice of law -- and postponing for one more year one's entry into the "real world."

Nope, now I'm a bona fide white-collar working stiff. It feels strange that the usual overachieving path of high school (do lots of extra-curriculars) to college (same, plus internships) to fellowships and grad school and peripatetic travel on a shoestring, the only existence I've ever known, is over. Now I actually have to turn some of that human capital I've been building, the investments my parents and I have made, into returns. Returns on potential, as it were.

So yeah, there's anxiety, not over whether I can succeed at this next level (I generally paid attention in law school), but over whether I'm setting the right goals and making the right choices. It feels more than strange.

But mostly it feels good. Not necessarily the work qua work -- which has its ups and downs as with any vocation or avocation -- but mixing my abilities with the task at hand and gaining financial (and psychic) remuneration. I'm not ashamed to scream from the rooftops that I'm a productive member of society. Or more precisely, as a corporate lawyer, that I grease the wheels of the capitalist machine. And that my efforts in some small part enable the Hank Reardons of the world to flourish and thereby, in the words of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, to contribute to the tide that lifts all boats.

Yet not everyone is as cheery and upbeat about our brave new world of the information revolution, where 21st-century technology and Bono bring instant communication and 40GB iPods to the most remote areas of the planet.

Social activist and proto-liberal gadfly Jeremy Rifkin, in a recent update of his seminal tract, The End of Work, contends that worldwide unemployment will increase as new technologies eliminate jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural, and service sectors. And former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, continuing a theme he began in The Future of Success -- and perhaps feeling my pain -- constantly argues that even as those Americans who "succeed" earn more than ever, we work longer, see our families less, and allow our communities to lose all sense of, well community.

While a small elite of corporate managers and knowledge workers reap the benefits of the high-tech global economy, Rifkin says, the middle class continues to shrink and the workplace becomes ever more stressful. Those most greatly affected, of course, are African-Americans -- as the clich├ęd headline goes: "End of World: Women and Minorities Hit Hardest."

Though we have more choice as consumers and investors, notes Reich, the choices themselves are undermining the rest of our lives. As people at all income levels feel more insecurity about their future income streams, our society is fragmenting into socially stratified enclaves: the gated-off rich and the isolated poor.

So there is no work and that work which there is deadens our souls and kills our society. Good grief; give me some painkillers and pour me a stiff one.

Pop economist Lester Thurow, meanwhile, characteristically immodest at having been less than prescient in praising first the Soviet system and then the Japanese model -- he designs Sports Illustrated covers in his spare time -- is now calling for the need to "shape" globalization.

What the likes of Rifkin and Reich and Thurow (oh my) miss is that, in addition to making everybody's life easier, computer and communications technology is here to stay, and its spread is not controllable. And there is no debate over whether we should allow progress or whether we should provide an environment conducive to innovation -- except for our little "discussion" with the Islamofascists.

Saving time and freeing up resources for other, more efficient uses, is good. Sure there is displacement and alienation: 50-year-old pipe-fitters who may never again make union scale and parents who rarely see their infants awake. But -- and I apologize for being so presumptuous at my still tender age -- that's the way the world works. Would we prefer to be in stasis and consign the next generation to dead-end jobs at best? Or to deny young people the opportunity to give their progeny the material comforts and fancy educations they may have lacked growing up? Or maybe we should skip the industrial revolution too and have everybody working the fields: full employment!

It's like Frederic Bastiat's old parables about glaziers and candlemakers: Breaking windows to increase glass manufacturing does not benefit society. Nor does mandating that shutters be closed during the day (this is before electricity) or, better yet, asking Congress to pass a law limiting the hours that the sun may shine.

The bottom line is that old chestnut creative destruction. Just because I now suffer bouts of late-20s angst -- not to be confused with teenage or college graduate angst -- at the plethora of options before me doesn't mean that I would rather have someone else narrowing them down for me. Just because America and the world are undergoing social transformations (much exaggerated, in my opinion), doesn't mean we should close the spigot on new ideas.

And work? Like history, it never ends but often finds new beginnings.

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He last wrote for TCS about New Year's resolutions for Purple Americans.



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