Great Antidote Extras: Brent Orrell on Dignity and Work

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March 26, 2024

The work world changes rapidly and what young people need to navigate it changes too. Lavery gives us the highlights from Brent Orrell's guest spot on The Great Antidote
 Brent Orrell joins Juliette Sellgren on this episode of The Great Antidote podcast to discuss the future of work in a rapidly changing America, the flexibility of non-cognitive skills, and how  nurturing the passions and goals of individuals creates opportunity.

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute with a research focus on employment training and criminal justice reform. Orrell is the editor of Rethinking Reentry and the host of the Hardly Working podcast.

You can listen to the podcast here: Brent Orrell on Dignity and Work

Orrell identifies three features that define the state of work in America going forward: Changing demographics, technological advancement, and a shift in valued skills. Of these, changing demographics is the most present in the short run. Orrell states that due to America’s population deceleration, labor shortages, like the current one, are bound to be more frequent. Orrell believes this has contributed to the string of recent strikes, such as those undertaken by the UAW and Hollywood actors’ union. However, Orrell makes it clear that labor shortages and strikes don’t signal doom for workers. Not only have American workers benefitted, but this is also representative of a shifting economy where labor is valued higher.
[T]he labor shortage is really increasing the bargaining power of workers. The labor strikes we've been seeing in the past 18 months are really a sign of economic progress, because it means that workers are able to take advantage of market demand, strive for better working conditions and demand higher salaries. The signal beneath the noise is that these strikes are a sign of health in the economy. I think that broadly speaking, employers are having to work harder to attract and retain talent. That’s good for workers.
Technological advancement is another piece of the pie when discussing America’s changing labor conditions. To Orrell, AI represents the next wave of automation, and just as in past waves, workers feel they are doomed to be replaced. But Orrell cautions this fear with the argument that automation doesn’t destroy labor, quite the opposite. Technological innovation merely shifts the labor that is valued, which increases productivity and creates new demand for work..
Michael Strain published a column about this question of the future of work. He notes, and I'm just agreeing with the expert, automation has never reduced the amount of work, it's only increased the amount of work that needs to be done. It's this paradox that automation increases productivity, which increases wealth, which creates higher levels of demand for products and services, which creates new jobs. I see no reason why AI is any different. I think it's going to change the kinds of work that we do, but I don’t think it’s going to reduce the amount of work that needs to be done.
Here’s the article Orrell is referencing: The Jobless AI Future Is Still a Long Way Off, Michael Strain

Orrell thinks workers have nothing to fear from demographic changes or technological innovation, and instead should focus on the traits and skills required to excel during these economic shifts, the most key of which is flexibility.
Sitting between those two is this question: What kinds of skills might be most useful in an economy in which you've got a shrinking population and rapidly changing requirements driven by technology? My operating thesis here is that in an environment of unpredictable technological evolution, which is where we are, the most important skill is flexibility and adaptability to changing conditions.
The skills that tend to check this box are often intangible, or soft skills, such as work ethic, personal responsibility, creativity, interpersonal communication, and critical thinking. For workers to weather their changing environment and for the American economy to continue to progress, these skills must be fostered and encouraged. To Orrell, the most optimal way to do this is through encouraging the stability of the family unit.
[T]here are policies that government can pursue that would increase the stock of non-cognitive skills within American society; policies that make it easier for families to form and stay together. Probably the most important thing that we can do is look for opportunities for how to strengthen families, so that they can do the really critical work that needs to be done to help nurture and develop the next generation.
The landscape of work is not only changing in the skills that are desired, but the reasons behind work are shifting as well. We are moving into an era where work is not for survival, but for self-actualization. But Orrell doesn’t see this reflected in pervasive attitudes towards work. The fear directed towards technological innovation shows this, but it can also be seen in more mundane scenarios. Orrell sees this in the ambitions of young people being pushed aside far too often. Orrell prescribes accommodation and encouragement towards the goals of individuals, and an understanding that we are progressing to an economic situation where the primary goal of work is personal fulfillment. Orrell believes that Americans no longer live in an era where most people have to work for basic needs, there is space for everyone to find fulfillment in their work, and discouraging fulfilling careers out of a concern for financial well-being only harms an individual’s future success and happiness.
I call this the drunk uncle question. This is the question that you get around the Thanksgiving table with your uncle who asks you what you're studying, and you say, ‘Well, I'm studying anthropology,’ or ‘I'm studying English literature.’ If it's not a technical field like computer science, the question is always going to be, ‘Well, what are you going to do with that?’ As if that were some sort of a knockdown question, like if you can't connect your interests directly to an economic outcome, somehow, they aren't worthwhile. What I am arguing in my research and what I really believe is that we've got the questions wrong. We are moving into an era in which the main burden on us is going to be what we choose to do with our lives. That has to be driven by a different set of questions. What are my interests? What are my passions? What are the things that get me out of bed in the morning?
Orrell’s advice to young people is simple: Slow down. He sees far too much concern and pessimism from younger Americans towards finding work, instead of finding the right work. Orrell urges young Americans to be grateful for living in a world where they don’t have to worry about their basic needs, to take time to be introspective, and understand that their fulfillment is valuable.
Take a pause, think about what you really want out of your lives. Think about how you have been uniquely equipped to contribute to the world around you and then figure out how to make that contribution.

Related Great Antidote episodes

Want to explore more?
Brent Orrell-Where’s The Muscle? at Law & Liberty
Brent Orrell and David Veldran-Vocation: A Cure for Burnout at Adam Smith Works
Brent Orrell and David Veldran-A Pro-Market and Pro-Social Economy at EconLib
Brent Orrell-The Common Ground of Human Dignity at Law & Liberty
Robert P. Murphy-Does a Worker Help the Rest of Society? at EconLib
Richard Epstein-Preserving Labor Market Flexibility at Law & Liberty
Mark Pulliam-What Really Threatens American Labor at Law & Liberty
Rachel Lu-The Value of Work at Law & Liberty