Post-Work Migration and the End of America

The backlash isn’t aimed at just economic migrants but all immigrants, including those fleeing war and famine. The images of rioting and terrorism at the nation’s Capitol this week shocked many people who had dulled themselves into complacency about the fascistic inclinations of their neighbors, but this was the endpoint of a movement that has also blamed migration for perceived cultural and economic decline (a narrative that has been pushed by mainstream conservatives for decades). It’s not difficult to envision how the mass joblessness of post-work, in the absence of equitable distribution of the spoils, will create ever more fertile soil for this type of ethnonationalist grievance to be planted. The climate crisis, again, heightens all of this: It will affect both work and migration in profound and somewhat unpredictable ways. The existence of post-work society, or really any society, is dependent on the viability of the planet and our ability to avert the worst of the climate catastrophe.

Not every job will disappear—some because they can’t, others because we don’t want them to. Donald Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies and author of a recent paper on the future of work and international migration, said, “Caregiving service jobs, some of that can be automated and reduced to algorithms, but some of it can’t be. Caring for kids, caring for (the) elderly. In a lot of cases, people won’t want it to be all mechanized.” Kerwin believes that work won’t ever totally go away but merely change, and migrants tend to be among the most adaptable people anyway: “There’s a lot of uncertainty about it, but what is certain is that it’s going to award people that are flexible, adaptable, and willing to move. And those are really the migrant qualities.”

There’s also the possibility that there will be plentiful work of the sort that people don’t need to do but want to do. In an in-depth 2015 Atlantic article on a future without work, Derek Thompson explored various potential courses, including one where there is abundant work on communal creative pursuits not necessary to subsistence, calling it the “artisans’ revenge.” He visits a community space in Columbus, Ohio, where people gather to work on baking, welding, 3D printing, and other projects for the artistic merit of it. In such an arrangement, there’d be no shortage of work for everyone, because we would all create our own work how we wanted it. This vision upends the arguments both for and against worker migration, as societies wouldn’t really “need” these workforces to function, but there is also no domestic workforce to protect zealously. People could tend to their new occupations anywhere, though they may well agglomerate with others doing the same thing: Perhaps Columbus would become known as a haven for bakers and Milan as the place to be for 3D printers.

Here, we connect to the other side of the coin: the motivations for migration. If the benefits of a post-work society would not be made available to them—if a nationalist vision of abundance for citizens that excludes noncitizens takes shape in the U.S.—would people still want to go? For those seeking safety from persecution or ecological devastation, this incentive shift won’t matter, but there’s a large subset of more elite global travelers who would probably see little point in packing their bags. We’ve seen a preview of this with falling international student enrollments in the U.S. as the Trump administration limits access to post-graduation work opportunities.

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