Book Summary – The Job (Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change)

Many employers screen and hire for the notion of “fit” as heavily as they do for skills, competence, education and experience. Shell calls this the “chemistry game”; it requires applicants and employees to go beyond complying with an organization’s values and culture; they must convince the employer they share those values and the same likes and interests. The author recognizes that often this subtle dance communicates  the degree to which a person will give up everything for the job. Employers often change the definition of fit, consciously or unconsciously depending on the applicant, to include physical appearance, age, race and gender. This lets employers avoid qualified people who seem as if they might not make the sacrifices required.

The diminishing, high-salary workforce suffers from automation, outsourcing and an oversupply of talent. 

Far fewer working-age Americans hold jobs now, Shell asserts, than in the past. Many opt for disability or social welfare payments rather than work. Only 25% of Americans hold “good jobs” – those that pay at least $38,900 a year and come with health and retirement benefits. From a raw numbers perspective, jobs that vanished in the Great Recession have returned, but almost entirely in the form of dead-end work that pays less than $15 an hour.

Automation, the author thinks, may take the highest toll on highly skilled jobs. The fastest-growing jobs include low-paying personal health assistants, food service and other jobs machines can’t do. Higher-paying work – for example, in law, accounting and programming – experienced far greater loss due to automation, and it is likely to continue to do so. Net job losses and salary stagnation belie claims of shortages made by parties that gain from the illusion.

Don’t let the volume of jobs postings fool you: Shell observes that each posting gets an average of 245 applicants. Many employers also advertise jobs that don’t exist. They post fake jobs to collect résumés so they look as if they are growing.

University graduates earn barely more than high school graduates.

Corporate leaders and politicians mislead Americans when they blame “skills gaps” for wide income disparities. They suggest that good, high-paying jobs abound, if only lazy or unmotivated workers would acquire the skills to perform them.

Parents, teachers and students succumb, Shell observes, to the myth that a college degree will close income disparities and confer upward mobility. Despite enormous gains in literacy, statistics show that high school graduation rates, college attendance, real wages and employment have fallen. The supply of college graduates exceeds the true demand. This pushes wages for holders of bachelor’s degrees down to near high school graduate levels.

Where skills upgrading might work best – in community colleges – students spend years and substantial fees preparing for work that, on average, pays only about 15% better than the earnings of high school graduates. Shell details how participants in government skills retraining programs do even worse, earning 10% less, on average, than their counterparts who forgo training.

The promise of a “good job,” offering stability and socioeconomic mobility to those who work hard, has mostly vanished.

Work itself has changed profoundly, and no one knows what the future – particularly in terms of automation – will deliver. Shell doesn’t believe it pays to focus on jobs that seem more resistant to AI and automation, because, she says, those jobs are likely low-paying, dangerous or dirty. The impossible demands of work, the soul-destroying need to fake values and preferences, the irrational, never-ending pursuit of success as others define it, and the insecurity of most jobs might lead you to one conclusion: Drop out. But you probably can’t afford to do that. Shell understates wildly when she notes that even with disability and Social Security payments, a life of poverty holds little appeal. For most people, work offers the near-essential benefits of community and purpose. But alternatives have arisen that hold great promise.

Rather than teaching people the latest skill or even a profession, Shell maintains that schools should teach them resilience, problem solving and critical thinking. Berea College in Kentucky – cited as the best liberal arts college in the country for several years running – produces graduates who learn to succeed across a range of entrepreneurial pursuits, from crafts to farming. Berea wants to prepare its graduates not for a particular career, but for success in an uncertain world.

America must provide safety and security for its workers. It could follow the example of Finland.

After the 1991 fall of its biggest trading partner, the Soviet Union, Shell details how Finland’s citizens suffered substance and spousal abuse, poverty and high suicide rates. Through a concerted national effort to invest in its human capital, Finland recently led the world across categories of innovation, standard of living and happiness. Finns value work, and all working Finns receive living wages. Everyone enjoys guaranteed, world-class, affordable health care and education. Finland, Shell takes care to point out, is not socialist. It levies relatively low corporate taxes and has its share of the very rich. It works to provide an even playing field to the extent possible. No student gets left behind, whether a citizen, an immigrant or a refugee. Underperforming primary school kids receive intense intervention by educators, administrators, psychologists and parents to address learning issues Becoming a teacher requires a range of prior accomplishments and a mind-set for helping students. 

Work in Finland focuses on trust and the mutual support of business and employee needs. Employers encourage workers to reflect on their work, to innovate, and to make time for wellness and learning, all while offering job security. Trust at work extends to and comes from broader social trust in other citizens and in the government. This high degree of trust – many times that of the US – reduces friction and costs throughout Finnish society and workplaces. Shell holds that Finns pay their taxes knowing the money goes to good, honest use. They cooperate and accept other people’s differences.

Tax policy and other support for worker co-ops, freelancers and independent craftspeople could provide good alternatives for millions of people.

In the US and elsewhere, Shell details, worker-owned, co-operative organizations show promise in providing well-paid, secure and meaningful work. In Cleveland, Ohio,242 co-ops operate some of the city’s largest businesses in laundry and agriculture. Workers receive higher pay, and the firms give to local charities, in part, because they don’t have to pay their profits out to investors. Worker-owned co-ops flourished across America in tough times such as the Great Depression but waned in good times. They are on the rise today, from New York and Boston to Austin and Oakland. Shell cites co-ops a possibly the best path forward for many American workers, the majority of whom have no union protection and work under one-sided “at-will” 255 employment contracts.

Outside of co-ops, worker ownership through Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) now includes 10% of America’s workforce. Ownership offsets the imbalance when new tools and automation increase worker productivity. ESOP holders make higher wages and retire, on average, with more than twice the retirement savings as other workers. The more workers own their work, the greater their freedom and the closer they come to United States’ traditional ideals. “Worker ownership…guarantees a relatively even distribution of profits and earnings,” the author writes, ”and narrows the gap between the highest and lowest earners.”

Thanks to increasingly affordable and sophisticated technologies, the US is seeing a relatively new blossoming of artist-makers that promises to provide creative, meaningful and well-compensated work for millions. Like craftspeople of the past, makers create bespoke items locally. Technology, which enabled offshore manufacturing, also has revamped domestic manufacturing. For example, 3D printing enables makers to produce one-of-a-kind products that mass manufacturing can’t match. Makers emphasize quality. And they gain satisfaction and derive meaning from designing unique things.

Outside of co-ops, Shell reports that independent workers have begun to unite in professional or trade associations like the National Association of Realtors, which represents more than one million members. Real estate agents, who are essentially independent employees, rank among the happiest workers due to the agency they have over their work and the satisfaction it delivers. Others, including the fastest-growing union in the United States, the Freelancers Union, bring together disparate workers outside of corporations, amassing political clout to improve conditions for their members. Shared office spaces that bring independent workers together generate camaraderie that boosts performance, on average, well above similar workers in office settings, where people compete rather than cooperate. “We work best,” Shell writes, “when we are trusted to perform the job in a way that allows us to make meaning out of what we do, rather than when we are urged to see the job itself as meaningful.”

The current American business model, which puts shareholder returns above all else, dates back to 1919. At the time, Shell describes how Henry Ford wanted to divert profits to improve employee conditions. He lost a court challenge as judges determined that companies owe a primary “fiduciary duty” to their investors. It wasn’t until almost a century later that the “B-Corp” structure appeared. B-Corp allows corporations to treat employees and other stakeholders as just as valuable as investors. Thousands of firms – starting with Patagonia in 2012 – have become B-Corps. For example, the QT chain of convenience stores has grown to “$11 billion, 20,000 employees and 750 stores,” not by cutting costs and exploiting low-skilled workers, but by paying well, offering generous benefits, extending trust and partnering with its workers. Shell admires Market Basket, a large grocery chain in New England, that operates similarly and generates stakeholder loyalty in that region.

Universal health care and guaranteed income benefits would let people take chances and find meaningful work – often of their own making. 

Through tax policy, Shell stresses, governments can and should encourage the creation of good jobs, even in retail and personal services industries, as do QT and Market Basket. Public policy should support independent makers and freelancers. Lawmakers should consider initiatives like a universal guaranteed income, for example, in which all adults, regardless of job status or income, receive a flat, annual amount from the government. Shell argues that even small, guaranteed payments – not enough to raise someone from the poverty level – free people to pursue meaningful work, take risks or start something of their own. Experiments in universal income suggest that recipients work more, not less. The small stipends provide enough security to allow them to divert their attention away from survival and toward pursuing a better job or their creative ideas. Universal health care, Shell believes, might unleash tremendous innovation, fresh thinking and productivity by giving people the space they need to think of something other than paying rent, getting medicine or buying food.

Americans value work and expect more from it than a paycheck. 

“Americans,” the author writes, “tend to be rational actors, and we tend to follow the money.” Beyond a living wage, your work should deliver a portion of your need for meaning, relationships, growth and purpose. Pressure to love your work and find meaning in it is especially pernicious in an era of diminishing good work. Don’t beat yourself up for not finding your passion at work. Think about what you want to do. Consider the conventional wisdom concerning specific, “job-of-the-month” skills training or supposedly hot degree options. Shell urges you to earn a craft and operate independently if that suits you. Freelance if you wish, but join an association and rent a shared work space. If you seek traditional work, look for co-ops, B-Corps or employers who offer ESOPs. The core of Shell’s advice is this: seek meaning and fulfillment in other aspects of your life, as well as through your career.

Hard Truths

Ellen Ruppel Shell teachers science journalism at Boston University. She deals in proof- and fact-based arguments. Every position she takes in this startling tome derive from considerable research. That makes her wide-ranging conclusions all the more disheartening. Shell perceives an almost-inescapable paradigm shift taking place in the US, one that will find the entrenched model of personal ambition as the solution to all class problems thoroughly outmoded. Shell writes crisply and avoid hyperbole. She doesn’t wallow in bad news or wring her hands. She describes the new world a’coming without sentiment and urges you to adopt solutions with a similar mindset.