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.

Daniel Lemire, "Why we make up jobs out of thin air," in Daniel Lemire's blog, July 18, 2012.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

9 thoughts on “Why we make up jobs out of thin air”

  1. Excellent observations. The Marxist utopia of artists and philosophers was canceled due to a lamentable lack of artists and philosophers. Instead, we got the post-industrial reality of bureaucrats, busybodies and status seekers.

  2. Disturbingly interesting. I was wondering why for the last few months, I was so interested in learning how to make a garden, how to bake bread, how to cook from as little pre-processed ingredients as possible. This post pulls my underlying question out of the covers: this good job (read: well-paying and stimulating in the sense that it feels like a game) I work is just a step underfoot towards eating, resting, playing, e.g. what I really want to do.

    If working is so often for prestige and status, it is quite satisfying to realize how little I care for prestige anymore. Confronted with the choice of a job, my main criterion is that it should enable my baking my bread and my sheltering my wife and kids; fun comes next, and everything else comes last. Empowering.

  3. “I think most professors would feel exploited if they had to lecture every single day.”

    And yet, we work every day (including weekends!) on research, which is basically what we are paid to do. If we were told that our job was to teach and not do research, then some of us would leave academia, and the rest would indeed be teaching every day, and doing lecture prep on weekends (as do most professors in teaching-intensive positions)

    I admit that this is a minor aside to your main point, but it’s also annoying to see the “professors don’t do any work” canard propagated.

  4. Cool article. I often wonder why so many students go into med school after university graduation. Do they really mean to “help people”, or is the med degree really a status symbol?

    I have to nitpick one example in your post:
    “I bet that even gangsters and prostitutes are strongly motivated by the social status of work. The most respected among them work with great intensity, beyond their need for financial compensation.”

    To say that prostitutes are motivated by social status rather than by poverty, or coercion is a very strong claim. Do you have a reference that points to some behavioral study on this?

  5. @Suresh

    I did not meant, nor did I write, that “professors don’t do any work”. I think professors often work very hard, precisely to acquire a high social status.

    I was trying to make a case that Celine Dion was a hard working person. That is how she got and maintains a high social status.


    Lots of sex workers are motivated by financial or survival needs. You should not take my statements literally.

  6. Your assertion that governments are getting ever bigger needs some backing. It is indeed a popular belief, but I have yet to see real data backing the claim.

    As far as I know, the US government has had a general average over the last 40 years of about 20% of GDP. In lean times, that rises, in good times, it falls. In the heart of the Clinton era, it was at or below its recent historical average. Starting with the 2nd gulf war, it has risen to about 26% lately – with most of that being increased medicaid and social security, as well as declining tax revenue as people have lost their jobs.

    I like the main thrust of your thesis – but very little of the anecdotal data you introduce will stand up to rigourous inspection.

  7. I agree that we desire higher status jobs, and that we invent jobs all the time to reflect that desire. I do not buy that government is larger because of this.

    Perhaps instead government is less effective because of this – we are paying more and more useless middle and upper management, who get paid 10x (and more) the wage of the people who actually do things – and so without expanding government, we are getting less done than we should. This is an interesting thesis – it would indicate that instead of welfare for the least well off, it is welfare for the middle class.

    I have no way of proving this idea of course. It just seems very strange that in the past we could build highways, subways and railway systems, but we can’t afford to do it now on similar budgets (as %gdp).

  8. @Dominic

    There are certainly components of the government where they have been improving efficiency and shedding jobs, but these mostly correspond to blue collar (low status) jobs. To compensate, governments have created a comparable number of higher status office jobs… even though advanced information technology means we should need fewer office workers than ever.

    (…) little of the anecdotal data you introduce will stand up to rigourous inspection.

    Please do poke holes in my analysis but consider that I don’t mean it to be literally correct.

  9. Sorry to give life to an old article. I ‘ended’ up here through other links.

    That said, this is a very very very insightful and unique article.

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