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The changing meaning of work?

Among the many new careers that have sprung up recently, none is perhaps as curious as that of a water sommelier whose job it is to understand different kinds of bottled water and guide presumably confused consumers about which kind of water to drink with what kind of food. Nobody in their right minds could have foreseen the possibility of this being a legitimate job, and few perhaps still do. Even a traditional sommelier- the one that helps us choose the wine in a fancy restaurant performs a function few would have thought of as a function. And yet, not only is it a profession, it is very highly paid and comes accompanied by pomp, a touch of hauteur and a lot of reverential self-regard.

Underneath the apparent strangeness of these kind of careers, lies a principle that needs to be examined- that what we call work is not fixed, and that with time and context, new careers spring up around us all the time. The meaning of work has become increasingly arbitrary, or at the very least, culturally constructed. Because of our ability to naturalise whatever our current reality is, this seems like an organic development that is not worthy of too much thought or comment.

Work is whatever we agree to call work and pay for. And what we are choosing to call work is changing. One pattern that can be seen quite clearly is the growing energy around the act of consumption as against the historical centrality of the act of production. As production becomes relatively routine and automated, the excitement is shifting towards developing the ecosystem around consumption. Earlier we worked hard to make things so that we could consume them. Production was the credit side of our life and consumption the debit. There was a science to production, there were important sounding professions that involved doing things that looked like work. Consumption on the other hand, was either an indulgence or a chore. We ‘earned’ money through production which was ‘spent’ by acts of consumption.

That has been changing for a while, and is poised to change much more dramatically. Over the years, the service sector has been the fastest growing part of economies in most parts of the world. The idea of ‘service’ is really about catering to the many intangible and often inexplicable needs that human beings have. Given that human needs take new forms and shapes all the time, new hitherto, undreamt of jobs have a good chance of being born. And going forward, this movement is only going to intensify. Increasingly we are seeing the rise of jobs that were not thought of as jobs till recently. Apart from sommeliers, today we have personal trainers, event managers, wedding planners, beauty advisors at retail outlets, fashion bloggers, life coaches, djs at parties, app developers, data miners, gadget reviewers- all jobs that have come into being recently.

In a digital world, consumption becomes a kind of production. That easy separation between production and consumption is changing as is the meaning we attach to both sides of the equation. In a digital world, production becomes simpler and consumption more complex and layered. How to consume, what to consume, what new meanings to attach to consumption- these are the new civilizational questions of the day. Identity descriptors too are moving from what we do to earn a living (our occupations), to what we spend our time and money on (our interests). Newer professions are working to sharpen the pursuit of consumption. Whether it is data scientists looking to map the implicit preferences of every individual or curators helping other consumers refine their acts of consumption, the direction is unmistakable.

Becoming expert consumers could well be the next frontier of work. Like in the case of production, consumption needs its own specialists. The two currencies of our age are time and money, and learning how to spend both better is becoming an increasingly more significant pursuit. We have already started filling up time more deliberately. Work takes time, and a lot of the work we do today is to help others directly consume time. Entertainment, sport, shopping, surfing the internet, using social media- these are all ways of consuming time. The more we are able to place value on ideas rather than things, representations rather than reality, the closer we get to a world where our primary pre-occupation is consumption. Buying things has a limit, even if it may not feel like that. But buying ideas or symbols is potentially limitless.

Along with this shift in emphasis, come the possibility of new ways of imagining how we make money. The origins of the idea of the Universal Basic Income may lie in the need for a form of a guaranteed social safety net but it in effect, lays the ground for an economy where we are paid to consume. Conceptually, it is a device that provides a certain minimum standing as consumers. Could we inhabit a world tomorrow where we are paid according to our ability to consume and to aid consumption? Could we get paid simply to provide data about ourselves? In an economic system perpetually hungry for consumer demand, jobs are arguably plausible excuses to give people money to spend things on, and with time, we will dream up new excuses.

The future of jobs may look very different from what today’s reality looks like. Newer jobs will emerge, activities that currently do not assume the form of professions, will become legitimate career options. The threat that automation poses to employment, however, is a real and pressing one; the changes being spoken of will take much longer to unfold. But in the long run, the idea of jobs is fluid enough to take on new forms in line with newer contexts. Jobs are cultural inventions, and we will invent new occupations. What kind of world would this translate into, and how desirable it would be, is another question altogether.

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