Quitting and Adapting
November 3, 2014 • Los Angeles
Twenty years ago, Evan Harris wrote a book called The Quit. In light of what’s happened to the economy since then, it’s a prescient guidebook for individuals as the job market makes its race to the bottom. Some industries seem to be hit harder; almost no one that I worked with in journalism a decade ago is still working in that field. There was some astonishment earlier this year among surviving journalists that the LA Times was publishing news items generated completely by software. Given that the stories are breaking news about earthquakes in California, it’s really not that surprising that computers with sensors provide data for other computers to generate text for the Times’s website. Still, the fact that journalists are reporting on software as news about news reveals our uniquely human inability to keep up with what other people have done to change things. It’s natural that we’re resistant to change our circumstances when we get comfortable, but we ignore change at our peril. Whether it’s right or wrong, and whether change is happening fairly or unfairly, the truth is that it’s happening regardless of how we react as individuals. The German government can ban ride-sharing services like Uber to protect their taxi industry and the structure of the labor market, and the French government can refuse to let Google add its books to the digitized world brain, but in the long run the restructuring is going to happen anyway, and rather than protecting the status quo, the effects will be things like French scholarship becoming less known and less relevant.
People graduating high school today are being told to prepare for at least five career changes during their work lifetimes, and to be happy about it. The often cited example to remind us that this kind of change has always been part of our culture is that “no one churns butter anymore.” True, but the difference now is that it seems to be happening at a breathtaking pace. Large corporations seem intent on reforming the labor market so that all of us, white collar and blue collar alike, will be day laborers working on contracts when they need labor, kind of a high-tech version of the guys hanging around the Home Depot parking lot waiting for work. Harris’s book outlines strategies for disengaging from a job, a partner, or a city and making it a positive change. Twenty years ago I think the intended meaning was about personal transformation, but today these strategies seem more relevant to coping with accelerated technological change and unavoidable labor market upheaval. “Learn how to do something new; get out ahead of the layoffs” might be a more timely interpretation.
Sometimes the instinct to resist change pays off. Maybe Germany will be a full-employment, chauffeur driven paradise in the future. At other times, accepting new things head-on has enormous benefit, and it feels like we have no choice. Who would voluntarily quit their cell phone? I’ve offloaded knowing how to get around SoCal to Google Maps and Waze on my phone, freeing up a lot of room in my brain to think about other things. The downside is that if I don’t have my phone, I’m completely lost even three blocks from my house—but overall the benefits feel like they far outweigh that kind of loss. The software takes me around traffic congestion on streets I’ve never seen before, and most peak-hours car trips have become adventures of exploration. As much as it galls me to admit it, software is much better at finding my way around than I am. And I’m startled at how quickly the ability to navigate and remember routes faded from my mind, the same way higher math does when you don’t use it.
Nothing is ever free, of course, so the payment for even owning a cell phone is that we provide oodles of data to companies like Verizon, whether we want to or not, and it is resold and sliced and diced in multitudinous ways. Most people I know would consider not having a cell phone to be impossible, and the big-data trade-off seems worth the benefits. But we should also be prepared for a future where our health insurance premiums are tied to data points like how many times you’ve gone to the drive-through at that fast-food joint, and how long you spent inside that bar or at the gym. But could I quit my cell phone to keep my life more private? I doubt it.
In career terms, my favorite quitter-adapter is the journalist Ray Suarez, who explained in Utne Reader in 1996 how he left NBC for NPR because he wanted to do better journalism. More recently Suarez has adapted again, hosting Inside Story on Al Jazeera America, where he is doing the best form of journalism possible, unfettered by market demands and the vapid requirements of infotainment. May we all be so skilled at navigating change.