Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

Why we make up jobs out of thin air

We prefer to invent new jobs rather than trying harder and inventing a new system that wouldn’t require everybody to have a job.” (Philippe Beaudoin)

In the XXIst century, people from wealthy countries work hard primarily to gain social status. We often make the mistake of tying up wealth with social status, but most of the wealthy people we admire are also consumed by their great jobs.

Celine Dion is very wealthy, yet she still gives a show every single day, including week-ends. I think most professors would feel exploited if they had to lecture every single day.

Bill Gates is very wealthy and universally admired, however he worked nights and week-ends as chairman of Microsoft. Every year he would read 100 papers from Microsoft employees about the state of the company. What do you think happens when leading researchers make enough of a breakthrough to ensure they enter in the history books? I believe they don’t stop working, they use this as leverage to get even more engaging work, if possible.

For many, wealth is merely a stepping stone to intense work. This may explain why people with higher IQs are not wealthier (Zagorsky, 2008): high IQ people may have an easier time getting rewarding work so they need less wealth.

I bet that even gangsters and prostitutes are motivated by the social status of their work. The most respected among them work with great intensity, beyond their need for financial compensation. As a consequence, we have a strong incentive to create “make belief” jobs purely for status reasons. With our current technology, we should need fewer people than ever to run a government, but we are not motivated by needs and efficiency, we are motivated by status. People who complain that big governments are inefficient are missing the point: they are not meant to be financially efficient, they are meant to confer as much prestige as possible onto as many people as possible. In this way, big governments are highly efficient and so are large corporations. I predict a bright future for both of them.

And when everything else fails, we can always extend education. There is some prestige in being a Ph.D. student, for example. Whether there is any practical purpose in training so many Ph.D. students is irrelevant. And that is why we are not really trying to make higher education more efficient. Nobody cares that lectures have been shown to be an expensive and inefficient learning technique. It creates lots of jobs: one for the lecturer, and another one for each one of the students. We have the technology to replace expensive university degrees with cheap and labor-saving certifications, but I predict it will not make a dent into higher education. In fact, I can only see education becoming more labor intensive. We will extend the duration and cost of higher education beyond any practical sense. In a way, we already have: several American colleges charge upward of 60k$ a year in tuition fees. It will come to occupy a greater and greater fraction of our GDP: education made up 2% of the American GPD in 1920 and has since exceeded 6%. Not because the added education increases our practical efficiency, but because it is a very efficient way to grant many people a high status.

So, who has a “make belief” job and who has a real job? Here is a hardship test: if you stopped doing your work, and nobody replaced you, how much suffering would that cause? If you are a parent, and you stopped taking care of your kids, they would suffer. If you are a college professor and you stopped doing research and giving your lecture, how much suffering would that cause the students? Maybe not much. Google has tens of thousands of engineers: they probably could be running quite well with only a small fraction of these brilliant folks.

As a computer scientist, I would trust a computerized diagnostic system more than most of the overwhelmed medical doctors. When I worked for the National Research Council, one of my colleagues showed that machine learning could easily spot errors in diagnostics made by medical doctors for important issues like cancer. For the most common health problems, automated diagnostic and monitoring would be preferable. It would cost far less, but more readily available and be generally safer. With cheap sensors, a computer could monitor you every minute. It could stop the problems days before you can and weeks before a doctor could see you. And the fraction of common health problems better handled by computers will only increase over time. Yet we are unlikely to see automated doctors in our near future. Instead, these systems, when they are implemented, are hidden from view, operated by trained staff. Indeed, we must keep the luddite fallacy a fallacy, our prestige depends on it.

According to Veblen, we can expect prestige to be related to how useless your job is. As most jobs become “for show”, the prestige of having a job increases.

Project yourself in the future a little bit. Imagine a society where robots provide everything we need. By extrapolation from our current condition, we can imagine that people would probably be even busier and they would still have jobs, yet all of them might be unnecessary (by the hardship criteria). However, it is going to be a taboo to wonder openly about whether a job is purely for status. The major social faux pas of the XXIst century is going to wonder about someone’s usefulness. And not having a job, even if you have wealth, is going to be a stigma. We may even question retirement. Maybe people will start a second career instead of retiring. We will blame it on our lack of wealth, but the true reason will be the increasing importance of work for status. I used to openly worry that robots would steal our jobs and leave most of us in poverty. I have now concluded that I was underestimating the pull of prestige among human beings. We will make up jobs out of thin air if we need to.