The Anxiety Economy: Why the Future of Work Will Be All About Stress

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(But don't stress out. It's a good thing.)

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I want a wantologist.

On Sunday, I learned that a "wantologist" -- what, you don't have one? -- is somebody paid to figure out what you want. Arlie Russell Hochschild, writing in the New York Times, quotes Katherine Ziegler, wantologist, helping a client to figure out what it is that she wants. The conversation went something like this:

What do you want? "A bigger house."

How would you feel if you lived in a bigger house? "Peaceful."

What other things make you feel peaceful? "Walks by the ocean."

Do you ever take walks nearer where you live that remind you of the ocean? "Certain ones, yes."

What do you like about those walks? "I hear the sound of water and feel surrounded by green." 

After realizing that the thing she wanted wasn't a bigger house so much as the thing a bigger house would afford -- peace of mind -- the client built a little room filled with green plants. This decision no doubt saved many tens of thousands of dollars in the process, depending on the price of the plants. The wantologist earned her salary.

***

Two generations ago, there was no such thing as a wantologist, a dating company, a nameologist, a life coach, a party animator, or a paid graveside visitor, Hochschild informs us. Today, they're everywhere.

Is that bad? Hochschild claims it is. She predicts that we're entering a dark age of emotional emptiness. We, an anxious people, work harder and harder to afford the salaries of people to make us less anxious, which ironically deprives us of family time, which makes us more anxious. Apparently, paying people for emotional and psychological needs is turning us into emotional psychos.

Maybe she's right. I see it the other way. I think wantology sounds pretty great. I love party animators. I don't currently employ a life coach, but I like knowing I could, in the future. Rather than mark the beginning of something truly dark, the wantologist represents the continuation of one of the happiest long-term trends in modern history -- the explosion in wealth that we often don't take for granted when we write about the miserable short-term prospects of the economy.

FEEDING OUR NEUROSES

Food is not an obvious place to begin in the Defense of the Wantologist, but anyway, that's where we're starting. For 100,000 years, the great priority of all societies was the production of food. The inability to make enough of it is one reason why real wages famously stagnated for the hundreds of years (if not thousands, or tens of thousands) before the industrial revolution. This graph of subsistence wages in various cities around the world gives you a good idea of what economists call the Malthusian Trap. When populations collapsed, as they did after the Black Death, wages rose. When populations grew, wages collapsed over time to the subsistence level, indicated in the Y-axis by "1" in the graph below.

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Across the centuries, more than 70 percent of a typical family's income went to food, and more than 70 percent of these countries worked in food production. You can't afford much creativity in the services sector when wages hover around the subsistence level and the vast majority of your money and time is dedicated to growing and eating. It is safe to say that 16th century Dehli did not have a thriving wantology sector. This also explains why, for example, you would not expect to find much of a yoga industry in Mali, nor an "party animator" sector in Haiti. These industries are luxuries that only wealth and high production efficiency can afford.

So why, all of a sudden, can we afford them? In the early 19th century, something changed. Wages started rising ... and rising and rising and rising. In the industrial revolution that began in England and spread around the world, we became more efficient at growing food, more efficient at transporting goods, more efficient at heating our homes, and more efficient at doing lots of other things.

The efficiency monster is still on the prowl. For a long time, we didn't think we could make retail more efficient. Now, thanks to Walmart and the Internet, we're selling more stuff than ever with flat or declining employment in retail. Today, we don't think we can make health care and education more efficient. But if history is any indication, the forces of efficiency will triumph in these dinosaur sectors, as well. Perhaps they already are.

Right now, most of the fastest-growing occupations are in health care and the worst cost inflation is in education. What happens when the efficiency revolution does to medicine and teaching what it's done to basically every other sector of the economy? We'll need fewer doctors and teachers per person, and we'll need new jobs for people to do -- jobs that we can't replace with software or Indians. Jobs that are local, personal, emotional. Jobs that look an awful lot like wantologists.

MASLOW'S HIERARCHY OF JOBS

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published in Psychological Review an instant classic of modern science, "A Theory of Human Motivation." Seven decades later, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of the touchstones of basic psychology. It's also a pretty good framework for understanding evolution of employment, from wheat to wantology.

450px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg.pngFor practically all of human history, most people labored to satisfy their basic need for food. Eating forms the foundational level of Maslow's pyramid. Now that rich countries like the U.S. and Canada can feed ourselves while employing less than 3% of the country in agriculture, workers are moving up the pyramid.

Government, health care, and education have made up more than half of all employment gains since 1990, according to economist Michael Spence. Modern government is in the business of defense and insurance. Health care and education are in the business of building and protecting human capital. These categories of employment fit snuggly in the next level of Maslow's hierarchy.

If employment in these sectors slows down, the Maslow Theory of Employment suggests that jobs will appear closer to the top of the pyramid. We will pay more and more people to help us solve problems of love, confidence, and self-esteem. We already are.

"In the late 1940s, there were 2,500 clinical psychologists licensed in the United States," Hochschild reports. "By 2010, there were 77,000 -- and an additional 50,000 marriage and family therapists." In the 1940s, there were no life coaches. Today there are about 30,000. A few years ago, nobody had heard of a wantology. Now it's on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Review.

Your takeaway: We have found cheaper and cheaper ways to afford the base of Maslow's pyramid. That leaves more money to invest in the pyramidion.

***
Arlie Russell Hochschild concludes in the Times: "What would we say if a wantologist put us on a couch and asked, 'Is this the kind of society we want?'"

Of course it is! Wantology does not create vacuous wanting any more than psychologists invented anxiety. They are solutions to old and lasting elements of being a human. The basic needs are only now appearing in the market because only now do we have enough money to satisfy our foundational needs.

It seems to me that we should want, if not desperately crave, the kind of affluence that makes food so cheap, and shelter so available, and medical care so affordable, that we have money left over to pay people to help us meet our "higher" needs. Rather than fear the anxiety economy, I welcome it with anxious and trembling arms. It's a badge of wealth and something of a miracle that today, uniquely within the sweep of history, we finally have the time and cause to debate whether we're spending too much money nursing our neuroses and investing directly in our happiness.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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