1. A much-publicized Oxford study from September 2013 found that 47% of total US employment stands at risk of automation in the next several decades. In the words of one commentator from the Atlantic, “imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.”
2. If the machines don’t take your job, it might well become part-time or less compensated. In addition to automation, the rise of part-time and the rollback of benefits are also changing the shape of global employment. Guy Standing, a British economist, coined the term “precariat” to describe the emerging class of people worldwide characterized by insecure, “precarious” work. According to the Irish Times
this precariat is becoming more characteristic of 21st century capitalism based on flexible, periodic and insecure employment, transiency, lack of control over time, over-qualification and uncertainty. It is recruited from the traditional working class, from denizens – migrants, asylum seekers and ethnic minorities – and especially from the new youthful well-educated who cannot find stable work.
3. The Canadian scholar and cultural critic, Henry Giroux, amongst others, has written much about the “politics of disposability”:
As the 21st century tumbles forward, ever more individuals and groups are now considered “excess” by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. This politics of “disposability” can be seen in the rising numbers of homeless, the growing army of debt-ridden students, those lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, the surveillance of immigrants, the school-to-prison pipeline and the destruction of the middle class.
4. In sum, many of us who are now relevant, gainfully employed, and secure, may soon find ourselves obsolete, underemployed, and disposable.
This is, understandably, cause for alarm.
But it may also present an opportunity: to reenvision our humanness quite apart from productivity. Who are we, once abstracted from work? What would be left to us, as cosmic loiterers and moochers, as use-less and worth-less humans?
I don’t know. But I heard a podcast recently that made me think the witness of communities like L’Arche could be vital for answering these questions. Jean Vanier founded this organization to care for people with disabilities. But instead of only servicing the needs of such individuals, Vanier found himself deeply instructed by them. Shorn of many “capabilities” that give status and meaning to able persons’ lives, Vanier discovered that the disabled persons for whom he cared pose “a mystery of the human reality.” The human remainder, after subtracting all the paraphernalia of productivity, is “a cry for relationship.” Tenderness and touch endure, and suffice! even where jobs and usefulness and even words are impossible. “We love people,” says Vanier, “not because they’re beautiful or clever, [but] because they’re a person.” Because they belong in relationship, however simple.
There is a Christian wisdom there. Perhaps many of us who worship Jesus have become too enamored of success and productivity, as if these were the earmarks of godliness. We ought to remember that the man whom we confess as God was himself unemployed, ineffectual, and disposable (in fact, disposed of): “rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him” (1 Pet 2:4, NIV). A man who was not powerful and did not produce much, but who was remembered for lending his presence to unlikely people around him. So Jean Vanier:
I think the mystery of Christianity is just living with Jesus the way Jesus lived in Nazareth with Mary, his mother, and with Joseph. A relationship. John the Baptist was strong, he was powerful […] He was prophetic. Jesus was quiet. And he ate with people who are caught up in prostitution, with tax collectors, with lepers and all that. I mean, there’s something so simple about Jesus that he is disarming. We don’t quite know what to do with it. Because frequently, we would want a powerful Jesus who will put everything straight, who will cure everybody, who will do everything that we tell him to do. And it’s not like that.