The New New New Economy

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.

The jobs that are being automated are the stable, well-paying jobs where you could settle in and know exactly what you'd be doing for years.  As Arnold says, if you can define it, you can probably outline it specifically enough to outsource, either to a lower-wage worker somewhere else, or to a computer.


Why is this troubling?  Aren't routine jobs stifling? Soul-destroying? A tool of the oppressive overclass?

Well, that's what we used to say when we had more than enough to go around.  The assembly-line was grinding modern man into just another machine part; the stultifying conformity of the white collar world was producing a nation of anal-retentive Casper Milquetoasts.

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.

Unfortunately, they're being given no choice.  Even if we stopped outsourcing, we're not going to somehow stop automation.  One of my first jobs out of school, way back in 1994, was as a secretary.  I'd be shocked to find that any of the executives at that organization still have secretaries--maybe the executive director, but maybe not even him.  Already at the time there wasn't really enough for me to do; my boss had a secretary because, well, people in his position did.  That's not because the work was being outsourced to Bangalore, but because computers and the internet were eliminating much of the coolie labor that secretaries used to take care of.  And of course, the recession is accelerating the pace of change--and leaving the people who are displaced fewer options to transition.

Don't get me wrong--I'm no Luddite.  I don't think it's unfortunate that progress is being made, and a lot of fairly boring jobs are being eliminated.  I do think it's unfortunate that people don't like it.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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