From underemployed to overemployed to underemployed

The 21st century looked so bright when I was a kid, busy devouring into retro-futuristic juvenile science fiction books. Young couples enjoyed honey–literally–moon trips, everybody was healthy and young, and nobody worked. Robots and computers took care of all our lives, and a typical citizen just relaxed in a sofa in his apartment complex overlooking the skyline, indulging in philosophical discussions over the TV phone.

30 years later and we are in the post-2001: A Space Odyssey era. We will probably never travel to space on a PanAm vessel served by androgynous flight attendants. The ever-increasing health care costs and underfunded social security system are crushing hopes for a happy retirement. But one prediction is coming close to realization: No work, not anymore. Either robots or robotic hard-workers in developing countries are taking care of our job with 50% less cost. We, the good citizens, sit down in a sofa in our apartment complex, gaze into the TV screen, and indulge in philosophical discussions–inside our heads, wondering what our lives are about.

Welcome to the real world, where young and smart lads, who have received the highest levels of education human beings ever conceived, are flipping burgers in a drive-through while living in the basement of their parents’ house. What went wrong?

Probably nothing. Nobody deliberately tried to force people into the current economic situation. Most likely, most people just worked hard to feed their families, send their kids to college, and save for their retirement. And I think therein lies the key.

What is work, especially the joy of it, after all? Largely, it is about improving our lives, step by step. In other words, it is to make things more efficient: faster, easier, simpler. All we have done is to continue our optimization crusade–until now, where we have reached the holy grail: humans, the ever unpredictable, lazy slobs. We have stepped into the final (or previously forbidden) phase of optimization, that is to reduce ourselves.

The sci-fi novels overlooked two things: we need money to buy food to nourish our body, and we need something to do to nourish our soul. Rob us of them, and we can easily turn violent. In Andalusia, impoverished villagers marched across the country for protest, led by a leader who endorced vandalism and has been hailed as the modern-day Robin Hood by the media. Angry mobs in China unleashing their frustrations hardly counts as news anymore. Expect more to come.

Is there a way out? I think there is. If the current jobless situation continues to get worse (yes, it will) to a point where everybody, even the 1%, starts thinking “I’ve had enough,” then we have a new task in our hands–the time has arrived for us to optimize the jobless economy, which was caused by the previous stage of optimization. Work sharing, job hopping, slashers–all these minor tactics will soon blossom into mainstream lifestyles.

And yet, after everybody gets a job, then of course we will start “optimizing” them. Chicken and egg, ying and yang, men and women. The karma will continue.