A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.

On Janitors and Doctors of Philosophy

Did you know that in the United States, there are 5,000 janitors who hold a PhD? I didn’t know either until I stumbled on this post on Quora. The most popular response comes from Joseph Wang, PhD, who posits two credible explanations:

3) I’ve known people that have worked as janitors, and they say it’s an easy job. You get paid eight hours of wages for work that usually only takes two or three, and you spend the rest of the night just chatting. You work in the middle of the night so your manager isn’t going to be looking over your shoulder, and as long as everything is clean the next morning, no one cares how many hours you “really” worked.

4) You can do janitorial work and theoretical physics at the same time. You are pushing a broom, you can think about quantum field theory. This is *not* true for a lot of other jobs. You can’t think about QFT while taking orders at McDonalds, selling shoes, flipping burgers, or driving a cab. If the janitor has a blank vacant look, no one cares, whereas being absent-minded while dealing with hot cooking oil or customers can get you fired or cause a fire.

Improving Office Productivity via Musical Chairs

By shifting employees from desk to desk every few months, scattering those who do the same types of jobs and rethinking which departments to place side by side, companies say they can increase productivity and collaboration. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Proponents say such experiments not only come with a low price tag, but they can help a company’s bottom line, even if they leave a few disgruntled workers in their wake.

In recent years, many companies have moved toward open floor plans and unassigned seating, ushering managers out of their offices and clustering workers at communal tables. But some companies—especially small startups and technology businesses—are taking the trend a step further, micromanaging who sits next to whom in an attempt to get more from their employees.

“If I change the [organizational] chart and you stay in the same seat, it doesn’t have very much of an effect,” says Ben Waber , chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a Boston company that uses sensors to analyze communication patterns in the workplace. “If I keep the org chart the same but change where you sit, it is going to massively change everything.”

Mr. Waber says a worker’s immediate neighbors account for 40% to 60% of every interaction that worker has during the workday, from face-to-face chats to email messages. There is only a 5% to 10% chance employees are interacting with someone two rows away, according to his data, which is culled from companies in the retail, pharmaceutical and finance industries, among others.

Want to befriend someone on another floor? Forget it. “You basically only talk to [those] people if you have meetings,” Mr. Waber says.

Some psychological effect is at play here:

Aspects of a worker’s disposition can, in fact, be contagious, according to Sigal Barsade , a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “People literally catch emotions from one another like a virus,” she says. Her research has found that the least-contagious emotional state is one marked by low-energy and sluggishness. The most contagious is a calm, relaxed state—which she nicknamed “the California condition.”

People with similar emotional temperaments work best together, Ms. Barsade says. But if a manager is trying to get a stressed-out worker to brighten up, the best strategy is to surround her with lots of cheerful, energetic people.

I think all corporations (not just start-ups) should be paying attention to this research.

Nate Silver on Learning, Intuition, Boredom, and Changing Jobs

The Harvard Business Review recently sat down with Nate Silver, everyone’s favorite stat nerd and author of The Signal and the Noise, for an interview. The whole thing is worth the read, but I enjoyed the following two exchanges.

On learning and intuition:

HBR: What about if I’ve read your book and I’m just starting college or a little younger and I’m trying to think actually maybe this statistician/data scientist role is something that I’m interested in? What do I study? How much education do I need? What’s that base for plugging into some of these jobs?

Silver:  Again, I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.

But it really is something that requires a lot of different parts of your brain. I mean the thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.

That stuff is kind of hard to teach through book learning. So it’s by experience. I would be an advocate if you’re going to have an education, then have it be a pretty diverse education so you’re flexing lots of different muscles.

You can learn the technical skills later on, and you’ll be more motivated to learn more of the technical skills when you have some problem you’re trying to solve or some financial incentive to do so. So, I think not specializing too early is important.

On being listened to, being bored at work, and changing jobs:

HBR: You’ve had obviously some very public experience with the fact that even when the data is good and the model is good, people can push back a lot for various reasons, legitimate and otherwise. Any advice for once you’re in that position, you have a seat at the table, but the other people around the table are really just not buying what you’re selling?

Silver: If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated. In Moneyball that on-base percentage is better than batting average looks like ‘OK, well, the goal is to score runs. The first step in scoring runs is getting on base, so let’s have a statistic that measures getting on base instead of just one type of getting on base.’ Not that hard a battle to fight.

Now, if you feel like you’re expressing yourself and getting the gist of something and you’re still not being listened to, then maybe it’s time to change careers. It is the case [that] people who have analytic talent are very much in demand right now across a lot of fields so people can afford to be picky to an extent.

Don’t take a job where you feel bored. If it’s challenging, you feel like you’re growing, you have good internal debates, that’s fine. Some friction can be healthy. But if you feel like you’re not being listened to, then you’re going just want to slit your wrists after too much longer. It’s time to move on.

Excellent advice.

David Graeber on the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

David Graeber is a professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In a must-read, thought-provoking post titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” he explains how the majority of workers these days are stuck in meaningless jobs:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

So what happened as a result of global automation?

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

So was Keynes wrong? No, argues David Graeber, in this humorous paragraph:

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

On meeting people with bullshit jobs in real life:

In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely.

On the perverse notion that this status quo should endure:

It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

A must-read in its entirety. Thought-provoking.

Is LinkedIn Cheating Employers and Job Seekers Alike?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade. In this post for PBS, he is skeptical of the new way LinkedIn is aggressively targeting job seekers and employers:

I couldn’t believe that LinkedIn was going to sucker an employer — who was paying thousands to find the best job applicants — by putting me at the top of the applicant list just because I paid for it.

(Tomkins got the exact same pop-up ad six months ago, listing the same #2 and #3 profiles beneath his own. He notes they are in the “San Francisco Bay Area,” thousands of miles from his own location. You’d think LinkedIn would gin up a pitch that at least delivers “results” that include “candidates” from the same geographic area!)

Could LinkedIn be taking money from job seekers and misleading employers with fake applicant rankings? Thinking that Tomkins and I had somehow gotten this wrong, I did what any LinkedIn user might do: I contacted customer service.

A LinkedIn representative, LaToya (no last name given), explained via e-mail that, if I pay the $29.95, the advantage “is that your at the top of the list rather than listed toward the bottom as a Basic applicant. [sic]”

But what about those other poor suckers, the Basic applicants, who ride free — and whose qualifications might be better than mine?

And what about employers — don’t they get upset when they see someone paid to get bumped to the top of the list of applicants? Another customer service representative, Monica, told me that, “Unfortunately, there isn’t a way for the employer to turn this off.”

So job seekers pay for top billing, and the employer knows the top applicants paid for their positions because their names are highlighted and have a little badge beside them. (Wink, wink! You paid, but employers know you’re not really the top applicant!)

This is today’s leading website for recruiting and job hunting?

My inbox has about a half-dozen emails from LinkedIn, encourage me to pay up to $29/month to sign up for this premium service. I say, no thank you.

Nick Corcodilos goes on to say that LinkedIn has become a cheesy job board:

The changes came quickly. In summer of 2011, we were treated to “LinkedIn’s New Button: Instantly dumber job hunting & hiring.” A user merely clicked an on-screen button which made it ultra-easy to apply to lots of jobs, making it clear that quality of fit was certainly not a top concern. This was truly silly job-board-class “innovation,” to be outdone only by the more recent, meaningless “endorsements” that accomplish little but generate enormous numbers of profitable clicks and traffic for LinkedIn.

Lots more to consider in the post.

The Secret to a Higher Salary: Ask for Nothing?

An interesting experience by Brooke Allen on negotiating the highest salary (in his mind) by asking for nothing at all (literally, $0):

The next time I had to negotiate a contract, it began in typical fashion with a prospective employer sending me a lopsided agreement and asking me to counter-propose. I said I was incompetent to do that and suggested they write a new contract as if they were me, putting in everything that would be in my best interests, and then taking out everything they would never agree to. Since that would be the best I could get, I would accept it subject to agreement on compensation.

We started with base pay. I wrote down the least I would work for and asked them to write down the most they would offer a perfect person, irrespective of whether I was that person or not. If when we exchanged papers, their number wasn’t higher than mine then we could stop there and save time. Their number was twice the best base pay I had ever received in past jobs, and my request was for $0. I explained that my goal is to live a debt-free life, and therefore I wanted to give value before receiving compensation.

We did the same thing with profit sharing percentages. However, this time I wanted the highest payout standard for our industry, which happened to match their number. We agreed on that percentage because it maximized my incentive to perform and minimize the risk I would ever want to go elsewhere. (As it turned out, because human resources wouldn’t put me on the books without paying me something, I ended up getting a better deal than the best I would have ever asked for.)

I’m all about the win-win, but I have doubts about the employer playing a game where they write their number down, you write your number down, and then perform a bilateral exchange. This process takes days or even weeks, not minutes as implied by Allen’s post.