Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Transemployment: creating jobs out of thin air

Back in the eighties, half of the 16-year-old teenagers were licensed drivers in the US. Evidently, things have changed. Driving is still important, but other activities have become even more important. I am guessing that it is hard to get a date without a mobile phone today. My point is that we create needs. These needs feel very real. And, in a sense, they are.

Employers and governments are no different. Once your automotive corporation has a social-media specialist, you cannot imagine not having one. Once you have compelled all colleges to have officers in charge of research grants, you cannot imagine how it could ever be otherwise. I call this transemployment.

So, irrespective of primary needs (food, lodging and reproduction), we create jobs that have abstract purposes. Sure, maybe we can automate the job of the social-media specialist. Maybe we can buy software that automatically represents the corporation on Twitter and Facebook. But since we do not really know what the social-media specialist does, how do we know that automation will work? And if you automate, who do you blame when things go bad?

What happens if someone asks what the social-media specialist does and whether it is needed, or whether it can be automated? Nobody is going to ask. The position might be terminated, but it would be too rude to say that the job was not real.

It is easy to question the value of concrete work, like carpentry or plumbing. You either need a plumber or you do not. But how do you know whether you need this particular program manager?

If you work in an office, much of the work you do is not real. The forms you fill are usually there as part of some process. This process feels absolutely essential… except that, not long ago, it did not exist and things worked nevertheless.

We need medical doctors so badly that we can afford to have them spend half their time filling out forms and satisfying regulations.

We know that many jobs are not real. But we need to believe that they are. And if you ask too many questions, someone could ask whether your own job is real. My conjecture is that useless jobs have become a cultural blind spot. Even just asking whether something needs doing has become a major faux pas. Anyhow, most times, we do not understand what others do for a living.

If there was a war, and half of the working age men were sent to fight… maybe fight some aliens in outer space… we would still have food, houses, cars, colleges… We would make do with far fewer people.

But, surely, the free market would take care of these inefficiencies and make people unemployed? It would, but we are getting so wealthy that the inefficiencies brought forth by transemployment are often insignificant.

I know, it does not feel like we are massively wealthy, but we are. These days, people will go down in the streets if you suggest that you might lower their retirement benefits. A century ago, people would have celebrated at the thought that they might have any retirement benefit whatsoever. It used to be that people would go on strike and see their families go hungry… today, the people who went to occupy Wall Street had mobile phones, the Internet, and abundance of food… They were not asking for bread, they were not hungry… they were upset because some were much wealthier than they were.

Some will accuse me of being dismissive of poverty. Yes, there is real poverty in the world. Nothing is perfect. Even in a Star Trek universe, there will be misery. But that only encourages us to sustain transemployment. Trying to put everyone who is not absolutely needed out of a job would be considered very harsh. It is much better to add new jobs.

And that is the future I imagine. In fact, this future is already here. Robots have replaced us. We just choose to ignore that fact.