Arnold Kling  

The Job-Seeker's Paradox

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Phil Bowermaster writes,

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can't count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won't immediately grab.

The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing. That was what I was trying to say in my jobs speech.

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JP59 writes:

What should/can we do with the people on the left-hand side of the IQ bell curve?

Jonathan Bechtel writes:

You articulate my thoughts on the job market better than I do.

Labor market polarization is very real. The world is yours for the picking if you can assemble disparate inputs and put them together into something valuable. Your ideas can take you to the outermost edges of the world.

Software development has evolved to the point where almost all rote work can be done more efficiently than with human hands. Cloud based computing has enabled the sharing of this automation throughout the world.

I'm starting a one-man company in a few months, and my manufacturing, fulfillment, web-hosting, customer service, legal work and advertising will be done by a computer or very talented foreign workers with MBAs that cost half as much as any alternative in the states.

For my ongoing labor, the types of work I will need done almost entirely fall into two opposite groups: unskilled rote work, and very domain-specific skilled labor.

The price of unskilled rote work is heading asymptotically towards zero, and the providers of skilled work can almost name their price, because they can do in one hour what could take lesser talented people 3 weeks.

The world is re-calculating its labor force.

Jonathan Bechtel writes:


This doesn't really answer your question directly, but I think there's something very peculiar about the sorts of technological innovation.that happens today.

In the past technological innovation usually bailed out institutional deficiencies, whereas today it puts downward stress on them.

If we had open borders people could easily move to places where the cost of living was cheaper and unskilled work was more abundant.

If we had a de-congested school system people could easily find trade schools that cheaply taught specific skills that people could take to the market.

I think we'd shift around surprisingly well. But because innovation today has a tendency to zap out inefficiencies instead of expanding the production frontier, the irrationalities embedded in our institutions have a more pernicious effect on the common man.

George Marselis writes:
The world is re-calculating its labor force.

The Marxist terminlogy for this concept is "Revolution"

N. writes:

I am more concerned that "Revolution" is what will occur when the labor force decides it does not wish to be re-calculated.

Les Wiley writes:

"We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won't immediately grab."

I get it.

The future of work has been set by those kids who sell Chicletes Gum on the corners in Mexico City. I will find a corner and open my franchsie tomorrow.

JKB writes:

Ironically, as Seth Godin points out in this post, our education system is organized to produce workers that do well in defined jobs where they follow orders. With government controlling education, we are unlikely to see any change in the 93 yr old tradition either. So the question is, how do we help students overcome the handicap of universal education (as it is currently practiced)?

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of of workers who are trained to do 1925 labor.

Theodore r. Smith writes:

JKB, according to several serious researchers, the school systems of the world, particularly in the U.S. were purposefully re-engineered to accomplish just that. The elites have wanted a "renormalization" of governable population levels for the bulk of the last 120+ years.

We are creating a system where 90%+ are or soon will be considered "useless eaters", ripe for the culling.

Research Charlotte Iserbyt's The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America.

Scott Gray writes:

We finally have a return to the pre-guilder age WHILE having the benefits of mass production and easy mobilization of capital! We get to have our Cale and eat it too! Time was, everyone in the nation was a free independent businessman but all were dirt poor. By the middle of the 18th century masscompany labor began to become more common as the standard of living for each increased. But people decried and hated the loss of freedom and personal responsibility. So, we win!

Dan writes:

There was a time when schools were in the business of teaching critical thinking and problem solving. Doing a better a job then of readying students for today's job market.

Then we have the era of "No Child Left Behind" which explicitly teaches kids to pass tests and pretty much nothing else. Giving them a skill which will be useless in the real world but nonetheless has been celebrated in bipartisan fashion as a school reform worth pursuing.

I hope Scott Gray's prediction wins out but I have a feeling that the more pessimistic slide into a deeply divided society more polarized than what we are facing now is the more likely outcome.

Glen Smith writes:

My question is why would someone who can truly create a need only he/she could fill choose to be an employee?

Bryan Willman writes:

Submariners remark "in the next war there will be two kinds of ships - submarines and targets"

Software people might now remark "very soon there will be two kinds of people, programmers and the unemployed"

stuhlmann writes:

Les Wiley,

I don't think you do get it. You stake out your corner to sell chiclets, and the next day someone installs a vending machine that undercuts your prices. Selling a particular product at a particular location is one of those well defined jobs we were warned against.

Greg E. writes:

@Glen Smith

Glen, some reasons why someone might choose to be an employee is for a regular salary/cash flow, or to take advantage of certain resources (workspace, clients, insurance) that an employer can provide more cheaply.

I work in an industry not yet automated, and while I can probably provide a unique product, I have financial requirements that mandate a dependable monthly income. Thus, I remain an employee.

N. writes:

@Glen Smith

That's easy. Risk aversion. Or, more generally, personal preference.

I myself would far prefer a job, ah, flipping burgers in a Wyoming diner, if you will, than suffering through the obstacles and barriers of free agency. A talent for perceiving value doesn't necessarily imply a preference for fighting for it. Some of us put a far higher premium on tranquility.

Scott writes:

Most of our ancestors came to America without job prospects...The fact that they were escaping old europe where Royalists and clergy were stealing much of what they could made was enough incentive. By nearly every measure, America is still the land of opportunity. How would you like to try to make it in China with a billion other folks who have to make a living in an economy less than half the size of ours?

Also, I once knew a guy who apprenticed for free with a mason to learn the trade...He then went on to find his own work. Just a thought.

McGuire writes:

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OmegaPaladin writes:

Creating a job for yourself? Good luck doing that in this economy. Business owners aren't interested in risking a dime on a new position, especially for someone who isn't a rock solid resume. Thanks to the economy, the more qualified people are now looking for a job, making positions for the less qualified harder to get. Oh, and good luck making it as an entrepreneur, even if you have money to start out.

Defined jobs? I'd settle for a job where I won't suddenly get my hours cut because the boss spent too much money, a job where I am not completely disposable. I want a job that is reliable, and even that is hard to find.

Roderick Rees writes:

Job descriptions are not really very useful, partly because those who write them always overwrite the requirements and sometimes misuse them, but also because humans are rather poor at description of any kind. The Artificial Intelligence people will remember that "Expert Systems" were mostly failures, because no-one with a real skill, whether mental or physical, can ever describe it fully or even be fully conscious of what he knows. More than that, by the time you wanted to update, you had lost the humans who actually had the skill and could give some guidance.

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