Norman Lear’s work was an integral part of American life in the second half of the 20th Century. Television programs like Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons dragged television out of the 1950s and into the real world. As Variety states: “Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam war – by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of All in the Family revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.”
All in the Family, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, typified the clash of generations. Middle-aged bigot Archie Bunker – played by Carrol O’Connor – was a right-wing King Lear in Queens, raging at the radical changes in society. Archie didn’t let ignorance get in the way of his opinions; once he argued that people who lived in communes were communists. The thing is, the old dog was actually capable of learning new tricks. Archie never evolved into any kind of saint. But over the nine seasons "Family" aired, experience taught Archie the benefits of listening to (and respecting) viewpoints far different from his own.
All in the Family was the jewel in Lear’s crown, but don’t forget the highly popular shows One Day at a Time (which featured Bonnie Franklin as a divorcee raising two daughters in the Midwest) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (with Louise Lasser as the titular figure in a parody of soap opera conventions). Good or bad, Lear’s work was never indifferent.
More recently, you may have heard about Lear’s lively activism. His TV shows were themselves arguments for free and unfettered speech, and Lear supported a slate of liberal causes. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way. The organization’s website describes the ways that PFAW has “engaged cultural and community leaders and individual activists in campaigns promoting freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.”
Lear’s life was a long and fulfilling one. In 1978 he was given the first of two Peabody Awards, the most prestigious award in television. “To Norman Lear,” it reads, “...for giving us comedy with a social conscience. He uses humor to give us a better understanding of social issues. He lets us laugh at our own shortcomings and prejudices, and while doing this, maintains the highest entertainment standards.”
A pioneer, a gadfly of the state, a mensch. To paraphrase a lyric from All in the Family’s theme song, “Mister, we could use a guy like Norman Lear again.”
Automation and the Post-Labor Economy
Automation is set to replace a large portion of the American workforce. What do we do once it happens?
In his 1984 essay Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?, Thomas Pynchon predicted that "the next great challenge to watch out for will come when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge." Nearly 35 years later, that convergence is upon us. Barring some sort of federally enforced halt on technological progress, automation of most basic services is inevitable.
Self-driving cars are continuing to improve. Automated checkout lines are being implemented all over the American retail space. There are even programs being written that may be doing the majority of our accounting work in the future. Sadly, the common claim that technological advances and economic growth go hand in hand with job creation is spurious at best. In 1964, AT&T was worth $267 billion (adjusted for inflation) and employed upwards of 700,000 people. Today, Google, which is worth roughly twice as much as 1960s AT&T, only employs about 88,000. According to the McKinsey Global Institute up to 375 million people could be out of work by 2030. Unlike the second industrial revolution, which gave us cars and airplanes in the 20th century, the third industrial revolution probably won't create many new jobs. In fact, by that same 2030 mark, the U.S. could be staring down the barrel of 35% unemployment.
The specific numbers, which I've thoroughly explored here, aren't nearly as important as how the U.S. government chooses to address the issue. Mass unemployment is coming, and it's hard to even imagine what it might look like, let alone how we're going to deal with it. In his piece A World Without Work, Derek Thompson attempts to tackle this issue, comparing the future United States to the present Youngstown, Ohio, a once prosperous steel town that lost 50,000 jobs to overseas manufacturing in the late seventies. In the years following the steel industry's evaporation, the rates of depression, suicide, and spousal abuse all jumped up radically. According to professor Jonathan Russo, "Youngstown's story is America's story, because it shows that when jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroy." Thompson's thesis is that work is so ingrained in the American psyche that regardless of whether or not we end up with a welfare state to take care of the millions of jobless, there will be civil unrest. Kurt Vonnegut came to a similar conclusion 63 years earlier in his book Player Piano, in which the government was forced to not only provide complete welfare for the unemployed masses, but fake jobs as well.
With regard to the impending employment drought, the government is left with a few options. They can ignore the issue, allowing millions to slip into grinding poverty, turning Youngstown, Ohio into the norm. This type of laissez-faire capitalism would have made Ronald Reagan blush but the problem is, with no money, there are no consumers. Another solution that's been popularized in recent years is Universal Basic Income, a program in which the government pays all of its citizens enough money to live, regardless of whether or not they're employed. Plenty of tech moguls, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg, have embraced the idea that the money made from technological advances should be, at least partially, given back to the people. On paper, it's a no-brainer. People need money to live, and companies need people to have money or else no one would buy anything. This would, as it were, keep the trains running on time. The problem is, this plan ignores Thompson's point about the vacancy of purpose left by a post-labor economy. There's a feeling of despair attached to having nothing to do. Anyone who's ever spent a teenage summer vacation not working can attest to this, and as evidenced by Youngtown, this listlessness can be destructive, both physically and psychologically.
There is a third option however, one that's helped Germany lower its unemployment rate, called work-sharing. Essentially, the program cuts hours rather than employees. For example, if a company needs to cut 30% of its low level accounting staff, instead of firing 30% of its workers, it cuts everyone's hours by 30%. Conventional wisdom says that inoculating less efficient workers from layoffs while cutting the best workers' hours is a recipe for disaster, but we are entering a distinctly unconventional time. If employees are losing their jobs to hyper-efficient automation, the potential dip in productivity should be more than mitigated. That said, work-sharing doesn't completely fix the problem either. Unless major corporations suddenly start valuing benevolence over higher profit margins, less hours means less pay. Trim the hours enough and the results of work-sharing and the results of ignoring the problem altogether start looking eerily similar.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff
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