09/15/2014 09:11 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Work and a Sustainable Future

I teach management at Columbia to current and aspiring sustainability professionals, and my colleagues and I work hard to ensure that our curriculum is evolving and keeping pace with a rapidly changing field. We have developed new courses in sustainability metrics, green building, energy analysis, water governance, green accounting, entrepreneurship and sustainability reporting; and I am confident there is much more to come. While I have an easy time seeing the emerging management needs of the transition to a renewable and sustainable economy, I am less confident about the role of workers and work itself in this emerging economy.

I know that people will work, and that managers will not simply manage machines, but lead people. But I am concerned about the amount and nature of work in the new economy. The people who lead America seem to be forgetting about the importance and vulnerability of this country's middle class. We know that the rich are getting richer and that more and more people of modest means must piece together several insecure jobs to make a living. I hear less discussion these days about the dignity of work and the importance of work-life balance. Automation has been changing the nature of work for well over a century and if anything the pace of change is increasing. High school and college students are not sure what type of education will lead to a good career.

Our expectation of work continues to change. One of my grandfathers was a baker. To him, work was what he did to bring home money and bread (literally) to his family. He did not seek meaning or self-actualization from his work. He got that stuff from family, friends and his synagogue. During the industrial era there were many jobs like my grandfather's. All you needed was strength and a bit of skill along with a willingness to work and take direction. Today, many of those jobs have been replaced by technology or outsourced abroad. Moreover, people expect meaning as well as money from their work. In an increasingly global and technological world, these trends will only increase.

The premium in the modern workplace is on technical skills, communication skills, organizational skills, flexibility, and a willingness to tolerate insecurity and ambiguity. New and growing professions like events managers, blog editors, fundraisers, physical trainers, physical therapists, spa managers, database analysts, web designers, web masters, nutritionists, nail technicians, home health aides and landscape designers are replacing the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. But professions are changing so quickly it's hard to know where the jobs will be when students graduate from school.

This requires most workers to be lifelong learners. As you get older professions begin, change and die. You can date yourself quickly by resisting change and refusing to learn new approaches and technologies. The need to continue learning can be easily met, but ensuring that excellent work is rewarded seems to be more of a problem. This is due to the changing balance of power between workers and management. For almost a century workers had unions and the threat of unions to achieve fair play, a decent wage and a measure of dignity. That has largely disappeared in the modern global economy and has not been replaced by anything. When a factory can be moved to another state or another country, the threat of a strike has less meaning. Wages are declining for all but the very rich and working people are slipping into poverty. If we are not careful we will enter a descending spiral that will be hard to get out of.

The importance of a middle class is that it gives the average person an ownership stake in society and has led to both higher quality of life and political stability. When middle class status began to be accompanied by homeownership, it also stimulated enormous levels of sweat equity as laborers devoted their "recreation" time to adding space and furnishings to their homes. All of this work led to a more prosperous, hopeful society. It did not eliminate class, gender or racial bias, but it led to progress in all of those areas. Today those gains are endangered in part by the loss of worker leverage.

Rich people and rich nations need to understand that they have a stake in their poorer neighbors' survival and success. Without a middle class with growing income there is no one to buy the stuff that our companies make. Similarly, all the greenhouse gas reductions in the U.S. and Europe are meaningless if they are not matched by reductions in India and China. We are all part of the same global community, whether we like it or not. We share a very finite, very fragile home planet--even if we live in the penthouse suite.

With a global economy it is easy for businesses to avoid being located in unionized environments. However, at some point the same process that caused the development of organized labor in the developed world will cause unionization of workers in the developing world. The alternative is repression, and a brutal style of government that is immoral, unstable and ultimately bad for business.

It will take a while for worker leverage to reassert itself, but in the meantime the nature of work and the nature of consumption will continue to change. It is important to understand the dramatic changes in work life that have been occurring steadily in the industrial and post industrial era. In a 2006 study published in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's Monthly Labor Review, Ian D. Wyatt and Daniel E. Hecker observed that: "Professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers ... grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment between 1910 and 2000; laborers (except mine laborers), private household service workers, and farmers lost the most jobs over the period." They report that between 1910 and 2000, professional and technical workers increased from less than 5 percent to over 20 percent; service workers grew from 3 percent to 13 percent; craftsman, laborers and household staff declined dramatically, and that farmers and farmworkers dropped from about 33 percent to 1 percent.

Automation of agriculture and food processing at the start of the 20th century and automation of manufacturing at the end of that century has radically altered the work we do for a living. A more skill and brain-based economy has evolved with a premium on creative thought, problem solving and social interaction. As consumption becomes proportionally less material and more based on information, entertainment and service provision, occupations will continue to evolve and the nature of work will continue to change. Jobs that didn't exist fifty years ago will continue to professionalize and new professions that we can barely imagine will be created.

What will be typical of both production and consumption is our reliance on energy. Energy is used to replace human labor and is required when we consume many of the products that enhance our quality of life. The transition to renewable energy becomes more important as more of our economy becomes virtual (as opposed to material). Fortunately, as Justin Gillis reported in the New York Times this past weekend, the renewable energy transition is already underway in places like Germany. The reduction in renewable energy prices is happening so quickly there, that the companies with huge investments in fossil fuels and infrastructure are starting to worry about disruption. In fact as Gillis observes:

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

Changes in energy infrastructure and in the global economy will continue to influence the nature of work. None of these changes ensure that people will receive a reasonable share of the wealth they produce. No one even knows the definition of a "reasonable" share. But the political stability of the world depends on leadership from the developed world and a clearheaded discussion of how to balance capitalist incentives and rewards, with a living wage for all workers. A sustainable future will not be possible without recognition and reward for the work required to build that future.