Adam Davidson Credit: Michael Lionstar

Author and broadcaster Adam Davidson is a master storyteller—a prize-winning print and broadcast journalist, New Yorker writer, and successful podcaster as the cofounder of NPR’s Planet Money (where he once conducted a notoriously contentious interview with Elizabeth Warren).

So if, as he told me in a phone interview last week, the Reader rejected the only story he ever submitted to it back in the 1990s, I have to guess that this happened on that one unfortunate day when our faultless editor was struck with a fleeting but terrible, judgment-impairing illness.

Davidson, who graduated from the University of Chicago and spent a decade here working at the Tribune and at WBEZ, says he’s over it now. He’ll be back in town this month for a Chicago Humanities Festival event where he’ll discuss his new book, The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century. An engaging mix of Michael Lewis-style reporting and a Shark Tank-like focus on how to succeed in business, it’s an upbeat spin on what’s ahead for us in the new, gig-and-hustle environment. It goes like this: although robots and AI are going to eat our current jobs, we’ll get an unprecedented opportunity to turn what we love to do into our source of income. Davidson provides a set of eight rules to guide us in this endeavor, and a collection of happy stories about folks who are already doing it.

The backdrop, however, looks grim. As Martin Ford noted in his 2015 book about our “jobless future,” Rise of the Robots, productivity and job growth have disconnected. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study comparing data for 1998 and 2013 showed that while the value of goods and services produced by American businesses grew 42 percent (and the population increased by 40 million) over that time the number of hours worked annually remained exactly the same. A Brookings Institute study published last year estimates that 70 percent of the tasks now performed by 36 million American workers will be taken over by robots, and that it’ll happen rapidly, especially if there’s a downturn in the economy. Another suggests that an average of 45 percent of all job tasks in the Chicago area are susceptible to automation.

And it’s not just the robots that we need to worry about. University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Michael Gibbs, who researches this stuff and whom I called for some context, says the larger impact will come from artificial intelligence. “Automation has been an issue for a long time,” he says. “In 1850 the United States workforce was over 50 percent agriculture; in 2020 it’s one percent or less. So automation has been huge, but it has not so far led to mass unemployment.” In this century, Gibbs says, technological change, coming at an ever-faster pace, is freeing up people in high-skill cognitive jobs, allowing them to be more productive and more valuable, even as it eliminates mid-level positions.

“The interesting question is, will machine learning allow AI to mimic higher order thinking by humans?” Gibbs says. “And will that mean that we’ll have fewer jobs or more?” He’s cautiously optimistic: new technology tends to lead to new products, new services, new markets—things that grow the economy, which tends to create jobs, he says. But, “We’re going to get further disruption. It will be painful, some people will be displaced.”

So, back to Davidson. His first rule for getting along in this disrupted new world is to identify the thing we love to make or do, find the people who want it, and listen to their feedback. (Among the other rules: keep the business small, tell a good story about it, and never let it be a commodity.) He envisions a future in which we’re all artisans, so to speak, crafting our unique wares or services and mostly striking out on our own to sell them—locally or in the global bazaar of the Internet. “Once you put your passions and abilities together with the right kind of customers, you’ll be amazed by how easy it can be to carve out a profitable niche in this economy,” he writes. He knows “more than a dozen people who started in public radio . . . and are now podcast millionaires,” while many of their former colleagues are stuck, languishing in the old broadcast format.

But, reality check: the universe of podcasts right now is enormous, about 800,000. And that raises a question: Can we all really prosper by turning our avocations into our jobs? Or is it just going to be the same bold souls who were successfully entrepreneurial in the 20th century?

“That’s obviously the central question,” Davidson told me, but here’s the difference: “The 20th century economy rewarded being the same, suppressing whatever made you weird and interesting. But this economy doesn’t reward that. This economy has shifted far more in the direction of rewarding uniqueness. So broadly speaking, more passion is more possible.”

“I’m certainly not arguing that we’re just going to flip a switch and everyone is going to get to do whatever it is that they happen to want to do,” Davidson added. “But I think of my great grandmother who came to Chicago in 1908 and got a job as a seamstress, and never particularly liked it, and never had an opportunity to even think about, ‘Is this something I want to do?’ I think we’ve already come a long way, and we will come even farther. This economy offers that opportunity.

“There’s a lot of people who think they’re screwed, who are not at all screwed, who actually could both have more fun and make more money than ever before.”  v