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.

Daniel Lemire, "Transemployment: creating jobs out of thin air," in Daniel Lemire's blog, September 3, 2014.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

11 thoughts on “Transemployment: creating jobs out of thin air”

  1. I think there is an important distinction, both in the motivation for and the ability to identify the intrinsic value of, between “bureaucratic” functions and functions that are “a level removed” from actually doing work.

    Outside of the idealized completely open market (which only a freshman economics student might actually dream of living with), free markets are intrinsically inefficient and create inefficiencies. Their virtue is that despite their inefficiencies, they tend to be more efficient on a macro scale when it comes to allocating scarce resources.

    I do think though that you can make the case that our market has become increasingly volatile/disrupted/etc. that the velocity itself is creating a larger portion of inefficiency than it used to. It’s likely not a bad thing.

  2. I heard this somewhere as a way to be more creative or productive at work: Stop doing something and see if anyone notices.

  3. It’s interesting you say, “Even just asking whether something needs doing has become a major faux pas.” While you can find it a bit everywhere, there is a strong cultural variance, and I’ve come to find it strongest in mature industries that are in decline (and therefore typically operating under zero sum game dynamics) and generally weaker across the board in Canadian & American culture. So I’m surprised/disappointed you are encountering it more often.

    The general rule of thumb is that if you don’t understand why a role is important, then there is either a need for better presentation of the role’s value (which is most often the case) or it is genuinely not a useful role (which is too often the case).

  4. @Christopher

    So I’m surprised/disappointed you are encountering it more often.

    I do not know if people really shy away from speaking up and saying “this new employee does work that is unnecessary, it is not a real job”. You tell me that you see it happening. It could well be.

    My post is speculative. I am throwing the idea on the net, hoping that people will either validate or invalidate it.

  5. Oh, I’d say that generally people don’t say that about a new position, and it *is* generally considered rude to do so, because there is a presumption of significant consideration before going through the process of creating a position and hiring someone to fill it, and the value of new roles is generally speculative in the first place (it’s too soon for anyone to really know for certain what the value of the role is).

    However I wouldn’t say that suggesting that the existing role dynamics and organizational structure is in need of change/refactoring isn’t considered rude (indeed, that’s generally how those other positions get created in the first place). It is perhaps perceived as politically aggressive & dangerous, particularly when you get to specific roles and specific people, but that’s different (and fair, arguably).

    When that questioned gets raised, newer (as in, they aren’t the “new thing” now, but they would have had that designation not too long ago) roles are generally more likely to get tossed by the wayside. That doesn’t mean that the people in those roles necessarily go with it, but that is a likely outcome.

    The general mantra I hear around me is that it’d be shocking/disturbing for there not to be at least some change that hasn’t been made, but ought to be made, at any point in time.

    That said, I work in the tech business, where there are Darwinian forces that ensure organizations embrace at least the concept of change/disruption/continuous refactoring, even if they stumble at the execution. Heck, half the companies in the valley wouldn’t even exist if there wasn’t some kind of market/organizational construct that was speculated to have outlived its usefulness.

  6. @Christopher

    In my view, transemployment is created by continual change and refactoring. A lot of modern-day organizational reengineering is about creating new roles, new processes.

    Let me give you a concrete example. What I see in higher education, and this appears to be true from the most puny college all the way to the Ivy League… is that with every passing decade, we create new support or administrative positions. These positions grow in number much faster than the teaching-related jobs. The latter tends to follow the number of students. The former grows exponentially.

    So, today, the ratio professor/student is roughly the same as it was in 1970. However, you now have many more administrators and intermediate professionals that are employed by colleges but have never nor will never teach, nor will they ever do research or scholarly work.

    Where I work, at the University of Quebec, support staff and administrators outnumber professors by a ratio of 2-to-1. Wait a couple of decades and it will be 3-to-1 or 4-to-1.

    So, while on the face of it, colleges are about teaching and research… in practice, they do not tend to grow (relatively speaking) in the number of teachers or researchers… but rather, they add new layers of processes and management.

    This would be completely counter-intuitive to someone from the 70s given the technological progress we have known. Back in 1970s, messages were sent by mail… you needed a strong mail room… today they are sent by email… back in 1970, professors needed someone to type their lecture notes, today professors can type their own document… accounting has gotten far easier to do… and so on.

    This technological progress, given that colleges are still pretty much in the same business, should have lead to leaner colleges… We should have observed massive job losses.

    I think we saw these job losses, but, then, colleges turned around and created many more positions… each and every time there was a good reason. Sometimes the reason was external (e.g., new regulations), sometimes the reason was internal (e.g., the new dean wants to promote equity or accessibility).

    You are not old, but I am sure that if you were to go back to the school you graduated from, you would find many positions that were unheard from when you were an undergraduate. They were not needed back then. Are they needed today? We claim that they are, but are they? How would we know?

    Sure, sure, if we were asked to justify these positions, we would provide elaborate documents. But that is like proving the existence of God. Someone can always come up with a proof of either its existence or non-existence.

    More to the point, is anyone asking serious questions about it? No. At the margin, we complain when college presidents earn too much… but nothing is said about all the new positions that are created with every new reengineering.

    It is not just colleges however. I use this example because this is the context where I work.

  7. The notion that technological innovation will inevitably lead to leaner organizations is misguided and fails to recognize factors that are on outstanding display in the software business in particular.

    The reality is that technological change often simplifies and streamlines activities, but the market response to any business that doesn’t wish to be completely commodified (read that as: “lose stakeholder value, a.k.a., ask to be fired and become irrelevant” 😉 is to increase the scope, complexity and sophistication of the organization (much as increasingly powerful tools for abstraction in software have not lead to less work but rather more and more ambition in the scope and complexity of software projects).

    Think of it this way: spreadsheets were a terrific innovation for simplifying the process of analyzing data and reports, and Excel made them that power that much more accessible and efficient. The realities of the market place and competition are such that the effect was not to *reduce* time spent doing that work, but rather *increase* it, along with the scope and sophistication with which it was done. This wasn’t just because of enlightened self interest of the bureaucracy and job security concerns (sure, those forces are there), but because the economic ROI of investing more time & expertise in the activity is ratcheted up significantly. Over the long haul, this leads to entire departments becoming core competencies that previously didn’t even exist.

  8. @Christopher

    The notion that technological innovation will inevitably lead to leaner organizations is misguided (…)

    Agreed. The evidence is indeed overwhelming that it is not the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.