It’s A Living

My dad’s friend knows a horse masseuse. No, that’s not a typo. Horse. Masseuse. Weird, right?

My dad and his friend volunteer at SCORE, a pro bono business consultancy for the small-business set (think of it as sort of like a Legal Aid for retired MBAs to hang out at), and it was through SCORE that my dad’s friend met this woman who massaged horses as a career. (There may have been a physical therapy angle to it as well, but I can’t say for sure) The problem she had was a good one for any entrepreneur (too much business), and she came to SCORE to get her accounting and pricing strategy straightened out. They did that and as far as I know she’s still driving all over New England doing her thing.

I am reminded of this because of a conversation I had today with Adam Gurri and Jordan Peacock on Twitter today. The topic was of robots, automation, and the future of jobs. Jordan, like many people, is concerned about automation destroying jobs and making people’s skills redundant. Adam and I were generally more sanguine about the economy’s ability to create new jobs at a sufficient clip to (more or less) maintain employment levels. We both acknowledge that the transition from one economic model to a new one can be very difficult for some people, and some individuals may never make the transition, but overall (from a big picture point of view), I’m not worried about vast swaths of humans becoming unemployable.

Ultimately we are predicting the future, so who can say whom is right, but given the economy’s past success at finding jobs for redundant labor (a process that has been going on in earnest for nearly three centuries now), why do many people share Jordan’s sense that future jobs won’t be there when we need them? To answer my own question, I think the center of if is this Tweet and this one where Jordan qualifies that he’s skeptical the economy will make “non-B.S.” jobs. Presumably then he thinks that the economy can always put people to work digging holes or something, but is hoping for something more than that.

Jordan’s hope for “non-B.S.” jobs (which I will henceforth call “important jobs”) is, I think, a fair one. No one wants to feel like they are useless, and while charity is appreciated by those who really need it, a lifetime of charity is grating. Most people want to feel that their work is important, that its value is appreciated by others. As Good Will Hunting said, there’s honor in being a bricklayer. Those are people’s homes you’re building, where families are raised. It was important to Will that the honorable nature of a bricklayer’s work was acknowledged by his therapist, and I can understand why. I would also have a bleak outlook about the future if I thought there might be jobs to be had in the future but no honorable ones.

Is a horse masseuse an honorable profession? If you’re like me (being among the 99.9% of Americans who don’t own horses or know much about their care and needs), it’s an impossible question to answer. We have no basis for assessing the worth of a horse masseuse. But we can say this much: Many horse owners are willing to pay a handsome sum (plus travel) to have someone perform this service.

With each step-change in technology, as subsistence needs are automated and employ fewer people, the work most of us do strays further away from providing the basic necessities. But this isn’t a bad thing! The misleading thing about future jobs is that many of them will be considered trivial by today’s standards, but the people of the future will value them nonetheless. This is equally true (from the perspective of the past) of the jobs that exist today. To a subsistence farmer, a web developer or pedicurist does profoundly unimportant work. The farmer grows food, and what’s more basic and central to life than food? We don’t need many farmers these days though, so people find other things to do – things that no one before realized would be valuable. And they are valuable! There is value in creating an enjoyable mobile video game, or driving an Uber car. These things make other people’s lives more enjoyable or convenient. You can do them well, and be thanked for them.

I look forward to the day when so much of what we currently do has been automated away that people are free to dedicate their working hours to making my life even easier and more convenient than it already is. For instance, I have tight muscle in my back and could use a masseuse myself. Do you think Uber could bring one to my home at this hour of the night?

 

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