Our object is a 2050 article published by the New York Times shortly after the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics released its landmark ‘50 percent unemployment’ report:
Carsten Ryholt drums his fingers along the table. It's intensely distracting. Tap-tap-taptap-tap-taptap-tap. He doesn’t seem to be able to relax as we wait for our tea. When I ask him whether he'd come far for our meeting, he answers quickly. "Yes, 45 minutes. It doesn't bother me. It's a nice ride."
Ryholt has been officially 'unemployed' for 16 years, and he's not alone. According to figures released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of people who are unemployed, underemployed, or have completely fallen out of the workforce has breached the symbolic 50 percent barrier. But just as some pundits are decrying the end of the US economy as we know it, there's an unspoken question lurking in many minds — so what if most people are unemployed? Does the very concept of 'employment' itself have any useful meaning in our hyper-casualised, fully automated world any more?
"It was a big shock, being fired," says Ryholt. "Back in the 90s, everyone would always ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. An astronaut, a fireman, a games designer, that sort of thing. Just work hard and you can do anything! If you dream it, it can come true. So you go to school, go to college, get a degree, get a job, do everything you're told to."
He leans forward, shaking his head in disbelief. "And when that stops when you're only 46, when I got fired from my news site, I thought it'd be the end of the world. But it wasn't. I didn't suddenly become homeless and society didn't suddenly start treating me like a piece of dirt. Why? Because everyone else was unemployed too. So I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing."
Young people today are confused as well, but in a different way. They find it difficult to comprehend why someone like Ryholt would have ever voluntarily signed a contract to spend half of his waking life at work, never mind one that gave him little say and no meaningful share in the proceeds. Young people think that states have always had mandatory healthcare, unemployment insurance, and basic minimum income guarantees — but of course these are all recent gains. In the past, if you even had the opportunity to sign an employment contract, you'd be counted as lucky. Today, employment is optional.
Despite having grown up in a different age, people of Ryholt’s generation broadly believe that the country's new social security measures are a positive change. As one friend told me, "It's easier to cope with billionaires going on holidays to Mars when you aren't worried about losing network access." One of the hardest things for older generations to get used to, however, is living without the structure that employment used to provide.
"The noughties and teens were the golden age of journalism. Back then, most articles were still written by hand," reminisces Ryholt. "I'd get to the office at 8:45 am, Starbucks coffee to my right, iPhone to my left, and two monitors in front — back then, glasses were things you wore to correct your vision. Three columns of Tweetdeck, Skype in one window, Gmail in another, Safari on top. Yeah, it was the closest you could get to immersion back then.
"In tech news, it was all about being first. That meant we had long, long hours, and they had a rhythm that shaped my day. And there were no agents, no data-mining, no reputation metrics or automated fact-checkers, it was the wild west! Today, well... the high-frequency writers have that market sewn right up. I still get up early, but there's nothing to do."
In recent history, it wasn't until the industrial revolution that people divided their lives into discrete hours-long blocks of time, largely to service the newly constructed manufactories. By the 20th century, this practice had expanded to almost every sphere of life, including schooling and even, arguably, the entire notion of the 'weekend'. For a century, people would talk of the 'nine to five', being ‘on the clock’, travelling to work and back during 'rush hour', celebrating the weekend with drinks on Friday night, watching sports on Saturday. But things did change, eventually, as Dr. Taylor explains:
"If you look at the sociological literature of early 21st-century rich countries, you'll see a spike for 'precarity', which meant a state of life without security or predictability. A life that had no stable work or leisure routines because people had no option but to work whenever work was available — whether late at night or on weekends or, sometimes, not at all.
"But the breakdown in routine wasn't only happening for the precariat — it was also happening for so-called knowledge workers. They had the opportunity and the pressure to work from anywhere at any time for anyone, which understandably ruined their notion of the 'nine to five' as well. And church and religion had long ceased to hold sway over most people's time.
"It wasn't until the 30s and 40s that structure began reappearing in lives. Instead of being driven by employment, though, it came through more local means such as the missions and clubs and the 'secular sabbath' movement."
When I ask Ryholt what he makes of all of this, as someone who's witnessed the transformation of work and life first hand, he begins drumming his fingers again for a long minute before finally answering.
"The best comparison I can make," he says, "are those endless school summer holidays. Some of my friends had all these classes and camps and activities booked by their parents, and some didn't have anything planned at all. I can't say which was better, but I was in the second group.
"I'd spend whole summers online doing nothing useful at all, but it was during one of those summers that I started a website... this crappy little review site that I poured my heart into with some buddies from Germany, and I worked harder on that than anything else I've ever done. It's what got me into tech writing, and it was a structure I chose for myself.
"Now that there aren't any good jobs left, but we have social security, I guess I'm glad more people have the option to choose their own structure. But it takes some getting used to. We all have so much time, and I don't know whether to feel guilty about the fact that my income comes from taxing the billionaires who own all the robots and the millionaires who know how to operate them. I suppose I could work as a groupie for one of them, that'd give me structure and a bit more spending money, but I have more self-respect than that."
As we finish our tea and stand up to pay the check, I ask Ryholt what he’ll be doing this afternoon. He smiles, and taps his nose.
"I think I have a scoop on something that the high-frequency writers won't pick up. Not a rumour, of course, but an analysis piece. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'll be starting the draft today. I've also had a rich guy from the valley ask me to write a history of tech news in the 20s, which might pay well."
Would this be a millionaire or billionaire asking? Ryholt has the grace to look embarrassed. "One of the two, yes."