I asked my three-year-old son what I do for work.
Work, he said. Like I just asked in the dumbest question in the world.
But what do I do for work, I asked for a follow up.
I kept prodding. But what does dad do all day?
I already said WORK!
Where do I work?
That was my cue to drop it. Work isn’t tied to any deeper meaning to him. It’s an abstraction, just a place I go when I’m not taking him to the park.
I didn’t explain marketing to him. Maybe when he’s older.
If you asked me as a kid what my dad did, I’d tell you he fixes cars. I might also say he’s a carpenter and electrician, since he also does those things on the side. My mom’s a teacher. Both my grandparents were farmers. One grandma went to work at a Chrysler factory after my grandpa retired.
Me? My title is director of social media. It took just a couple generations to go from baling hay, milking cows, assembling cars and rebuilding transmissions to getting likes on Facebook.
My grandpa lost two fingers to a corn picker. My dad had the tip of his finger cut off by a motor. I’m the first in three generations to have all my fingers. I’ve never been in danger of getting even a papercut when I post digital photos to Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.
I’m proud of what I do. I write, I teach, I create. I spread ideas and share people’s stories, and that’s meaningful to me. It has ups and downs like any job, but I feel like I can help make a difference.
At the same time, what I do feels profoundly different than what my parents and grandparents have done for a living. We’re inheriting terms and framework from an earlier era and trying to retrofit it onto today. The 40-hour work week comes from the factory. Job titles are a vestige of doing a single duty on the assembly line. We call sitting at a computer work.
The scientific definition of work is using force to move an object a distance. That may fit a hunting, gathering, farming and manufacturing society, but feels out of place today.
The book I’m reading now, Future Shock, talks about how quickly the economy is shifting, and that was back in 1970. Future shock is like culture shock caused by rapid changes in time. We find ourselves disoriented by disruption and churn in our environment. The job you start with looks nothing like the job you have when you retire. We become strangers in the future’s strange land.
Author Alvin Toffler predicted that the economy will change from an industrial-manufacturing economy, to a service economy and finally to an experience economy. Automation will continue to replace what humans used to call work. This is only going to keep accelerating. We have self-checkout lines at the grocery store. Soon the trucking industry will replace people with self-driving semis. Drones will take over Amazon’s delivery service.
We’re only in the beginning stages of redefining what we mean by work. We’ve come up with terms like emotional labor or service economy or side hustle to describe the things that bring in a paycheck. Work is now a generic term for what we do to earn money. I’m not sure that’s working anymore.
Each graduation season, I re-post on Facebook a 2001 commencement address from Fred Rogers. The world looks very different 16 years later, but words from Mr. Rogers remain relevant. The Facebook post had 291 shares and reached nearly 100,000 people. Something about it resonates with people.
In his speech to new graduates, Mr. Rogers talks about a framed piece of calligraphy from The Little Prince that sits next to the chair in his office.
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“I feel the closer we get to knowing and living the truth of that sentence,” Mr Rogers said, “the closer we get to wisdom.”
Mr. Rogers has an incredible legacy because he left behind timeless lessons and an emotional impact. It feels weird to call what he did work, but Mr. Rogers earned a paycheck for what he did.
In his speech, Mr. Rogers talks about struggling to find his niche after college.
“It took a good deal of time, and my parents probably wondered if I’d ever be able to make anything of all I’d been given,” he said. “But after a lot of help from a lot of people, I’ll never forget the sense of wholeness I felt when I finally realized what, in fact, I really was: not just a song writer or a language buff or a student of human development or a telecommunicator, but I was someone who could use every single talent that had ever been given to me in the service of children (and their families).”
I think about that commencement speech as a new group of graduates get ready to start careers with an uncertain future. We aren’t all going to be Mr. Rogers, but we can learn from him.
I don’t know what we’ll call the future of human labor. But it will be less about our metrics of the past: Quantifying output, units of production, moving objects a physical distance.
Work — whatever we choose to call it — will be invisible to the eye.