Service Without Servility

I wrote the other day about how most of the jobs of the future are likely to be pretty banal — think of categories of service sector work that people do today, and imagine a higher proportion of the population being engaged in them.

One response to this vision of the future is to deride it as saying that I’m trying to “convince those without that their future lies as the body servants of those with.” But of course the whole essence of all economic transactions is that you’re doing things for other people. Farmers are growing food for non-farmers. Carpenters are building houses for people to live in, and auto workers are building cars for the middle class to drive. Performing a “service” for someone else in exchange for money is no different from building something for someone else in exchange for money or from growing some food for someone else in exchange for money. But I think we have a cultural hangup around the idea that there’s something inherently servile in the idea of service sector work. That it lacks the dignity that comes with manufacturing employment on an assembly line.

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But while it’s of course true that the very worst service sector jobs are in fact bad jobs to have, there’s no reason to see this as being the case generally. We tend to acknowledge this by dignifying a certain sub-set of service sector work that requires advanced degrees as “professions” rather than “services.” Hence your lawyers and doctors and architects. But consider this Planet Money host about a woman who’s pursuing her dream of becoming a Lindy Hop instructor. I wish her well and don’t think there’s anything service or demeaning about sharing expertise in swing dancing with paying customers. And that’s the point — if a smaller number of people are able to produce a larger number of material goods, then then “jobs of the future” will come in the form of more people doing this kind of thing, sharing their (labor intensive) skills and passions with interested members of the public in exchange for money.