Thursday, September 15, 2011

Structured jobs are endangered jobs

Megan McCardle writes in the Atlantic:

Arnold Kling writes one of the most troubling, and true, passages about the American job market that I've read in a while:

"The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing. That was what I was trying to say in my jobs speech."

Why is this troubling, she asks. Perhaps we shouldn't want routine soul-destroying jobs like assembly-line work or white-collar cubicle conformity.

Then the jobs started to go away and we discovered that many people like dreary predictability--at least, compared to the real-world alternative, which is risk.  What many, maybe most, people actually want, it turns out, is the creativity and autonomy of entrepreneurship combined with the stability of a 1950s corporate drone.  This is a fantasy, of course, but given their druthers, it's not clear that most people will pick risk over dronedom.

In fact, I wonder how many people DO want creativity and autonomy. I think most people do. But some people really do want things to be very structured, with a set of rules and clear lines and hierarchy. Some soldiers love the military life for that, for example, and have difficulty when they transition back to civilian life.

And every office has people who think the purpose of life is to observe and enforce rules which have been handed down from above.

People do want security. Much of the welfare state is predicated on that as well. But as she points out, there can be trade-offs.

And routine jobs also tend to be low or medium-skill jobs. That takes a hit out of specific - and large - parts of the workforce.

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