Dinosaur economics, wave physics & saucepans: the cognition of employment

baking tray full of dinosaurs

Jobs are like this. It’s not obvious… it’s a thinking problem

Next week I’m delighted to be talking at Huckletree, London to the members of KindredHQ – a collective of freelancers, contractors and self-employed people who, like me, don’t have a traditional “job”. We are the self-employed. But how can you give yourself a job? Jobs don’t work like that, do they? You get one, you don’t invent one. But we all know what self-employment means… however have you ever considered that self-employment is the norm and working for someone else is a blip in human history?

It is (as you may have guessed) a thinking problem… and to explain it you need to consider the concept of the job using the physics of wave forms, a saucepan and (as all great essayists will tell you) dinosaurs.


Jobs are a blip?

Everyone is familiar with that concept, we’ve grown-up in an economic culture that was founded (in the pre-industrial era) on the principles of self employment. Go further back and you’ll realise it’s how we evolved. Our ancient, hunter gatherer ancestors didn’t have shops or companies, they had to fend for themselves.

Skip forwards a few thousand years to the bronze age and you witness the first people to develop skills and learn trades. Come a little closer to the modern day and you’ll find coopers smiths, tailors, farmers, hunters, merchants, thatchers and so on (which also gave people names and family identities that, even today, we recognise… even if Paul Smith is actually a tailor and Margaret Thatcher never mended a straw roof in her career).

A bit further down the timeline, as we get into the renaissance, we have the emergence of businesses, guilds, the first glimmerings of organised labour and organised corporations. Although both concepts underpin the modern world, those ideas were dominated by family relationships more than being options or choices for people at the time. You were born into a business, or a trade, and those occupations were bundled together with your social status in much more organic way than we know today. You need to roll on another couple of hundred years, into the industrial age to recognise the economic organisation of companies, workers and most importantly, a meaningful sense of exercising personal choice over which career path you followed.

When viewed as a continuous timeline, it’s an unarguable fact that the idea of working for an economic legal entity like a company isn’t just relatively new idea for people, it is (potentially) an exception and not the rule of how we employ our time and resources. That means, logically speaking, that jobs (as we understand them today) might not be around forever. That concept is naturally hard to grasp, because cognitively speaking, we can’t really understand anything unless we can describe an alternative or an opposite concept against which we can explore the nature of the thing we’re trying to describe. Put simply, trying to understand “light” would be very hard without having a concept of “dark”. “Hot” is a nebulous concept without “cold” to measure it against.

How can we work without jobs? (Wave physics helps here)

Now at this point, you’re probably expecting me to render some sort of bullshit homily that we’re all living in a long term cycle of economic forces, and we’re about to swing back towards a pre-industrial model of employment and all become journeymen staymakers and subsistence farmers or what have you.

But I’m not. That’s never going to happen. We’re not all just the puppets of cyclical economic and cultural forces, what goes around does not merely come around. That was never true. History and economics don’t follow a wave pattern. They aren’t truly cyclical either. That’s just a comforting analogy parents use when explaining the complex story of human existence to their children, and each other (when they’re drunk and setting the world to rights down the pub).

Waves are patterns, describing parcels of energy being transmitted through matter, forming physical expressions of the effect of energy upon matter in a very specific context. The matter doesn’t move forwards or backwards, it looks like that because the energy moving through the matter is headed in a specific direction. The matter actually remains in more or less the same spot and moves up/down/back/forth around it. Because of the mass of different components suspended in the matter, some things are moved around with the wave, but they are moved by the up and down motion of the wave-carrying matter, not travelling anywhere with the energy in the wave itself.

That might sound overly complex, so instead, consider this. If the waves on the ocean surface were actually moving in the same direction as the energy that makes them wave, all the water in the sea would keep going up the beach, along the land and now be rolling endlessly round the planet as opposed to staying in the ocean.

Which it doesn’t. The energy is released into the beach envrionment, and the water recedes back into the ocean. It doesn’t really go anywhere and it certainly doesn’t keep moving with the wave energy into the beach and beyond.

We draw waves as cycles, swinging up and down above and below an axis, which means we automatically think of cycles (and cyclical processes) like waves. It’s how we learned to see them. So when you suggest jobs are just a function of the period of economic history we’re experiencing, you automatically visualise that statement like a nice little sine wave graph that, we assume, is about to swing back towards living like peasants in villages, chewing straw and drinking cider round the maypole. It’s not. We’re not on a journey back to anything. We’re not going forwards either, we’re staying in the same spot and changing.

It’s hard to grasp, at first, but intuitively you get the point. We have an old saying that describes the process: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. That’s a pithy folk sentiment that sums-up a good deal of physics in a nutshell.

What I am describing when I talk about the end of jobs, what I think a long term historical perspective suggests, is evolution. Not a cycle. I have no doubt that jobs are evolving, that companies and corporations are evolving too. The basic economic and cultural ecosystem that we’re living in is changing around us and because we’re inside that ecosystem, we will change with it whether we like it or not. More importantly, we are changing with it, whether we realise it or not.

Jobs are saucepans for social relationships

To grasp that, let’s explain what a job actually is. It’s a saucepan. This is difficult to explain because of how our brains work – i.e. clearly a job is a very different category of thing from a saucepan, but it is about as close as you can get.

Humans have trouble defining themselves. Ask yourself the question “What am I?” and the answers are a complex web of very different concepts. Gender, sex, star sign, body shape, age, language, ethnicity, nationality, hobbies, occupations, musical tastes, aspirations… all of them come up as possible answers. I’m a man. Male. Adult. British. Half Scottish, half English. A writer. A tech geek. Businessman. Husband. Father. Fortysometing. Bearded. Overweight. Sports fan. Guitar player. Dreamer. Doer. Thinker. Sleeper. Drinker. Ex-smoker. Good sense of humour. Seeks woman with similar provided my wife says it’s okay… You get the point. Personal identity is an aggregate that we unconsciously mold, reconfigure and repackage depending on who we’re talking to, our motivations for the circumstances we’re experiencing and so on.

Nobody ever really has one identity. We don’t have multiple personalities, we only ever have one of those. In fact, even the condition that is sometimes called “Multiple personality disorder” hasn’t ever really been proven to exist, there is a lot of debate as to whether that is a discrete condition or merely an expression of a broader set of psychological disorders called “personality disorders”, or a kind of of dissociative condition, not even necessarily considered to be multiple personalities as opposed to one that is malfunctioning in a very unusual way. (Sorry, but multiple personalities only exist in Hollywood movies).

Jobs aren’t things. They are a word we use to label a whole bunch of conditions that describe relationships. They are containers into which we place elements of our social relationships in order to enable them to react with each other. Just like a saucepan. They explain, in many respects, the existence of social relationships between people who don’t know each other.

How can you have a relationship with someone you don’t know? Easy. They buy the thing you make. They use the service you provide. They relate to the things you accomplish with your time. And vice versa. Karl Marx hit on that idea in the 19th century, when he first explained the social relationships between people as commodity fetishism. Once you get a handle on that definition of “a job” it makes you realise how absurd it is when anti-immigration politicians talk of foreigners “stealing jobs”. You can’t steal social relationships.

A job, therefore is a container, into which we pour aspects of our personal identity (“I’m a fishmonger / fireman / banker” etc.) and aspects of the legal expression of social relationships (contracts) along with a big pinch of applied maths (organising people into productive, cost efficient units for the sake of productivity) and a dash of mutual social controls (tax, records, citizenship). There isn’t an alternative concept, however, if you consider this like a cigar, you can see how a great many aspects of our lives – not just as individuals, but as a community – are wrapped tightly around the concept of “employment”.

So if jobs so entrenched in our psyche and tightly wrapped as a neat concept, why are they coming to an end?

The answer is simple. Because one of those layers of social organisation is starting to break down. Companies ain’t what they used to be. Today, we have more companies than ever before. In fact, if you consider self-employed people as little individual expressions of the idea of a company, we’ve got half a million more in the UK alone than we did five years ago. That picture is mirrored all over the world. Plus we have surging new economic players, emerging in Africa, established in Asia and South America, where business culture favours independent operators and affords rich opportunities for entrepreneurs and self-starters. Compared with the last century, which saw the emergence of the “multinational giants” like General Electric, Nestle and HSBC (to name but a few), we’re seeing a massive growth in companies generally. Not in their average size though, nor their value, or their competitiveness and productivity. In fact, all the measures we used to use for assessing the worth of a company become meaningless for the self-employed, or small, agile businesses that are spreading across the global economy.

But what we do know is this. There aren’t as many full time jobs as there used to be. People don’t consider their employment in decades, no jobs for life any more, we have much lower expectations of how long we’ll work for the same company. We have much higher expectations of choice over how our careers progress, over the working conditions we’ll except, over the places where we are prepared to work and how we integrate free time into working time. Our social lives and working lives are blurring. We work from home. We do our shopping at work. We send emails to clients and colleagues when we’re on holiday and we expect our employers to provide training and benefits that affect our skills and opportunities long after we’ve quit one job and gone to another. In fact compared with, for example, a job applicant back in the 1960s (just fifty years ago) the expectations of a job applicant today are characterised more by emotive lifestyle aspirations than exchanging labour for wages on a nine-to-five basis.

Sic transit Tyrannosaurus Rex

So where are jobs going? The same way as the dinosaurs. That sounds dramatic because most people have a very catastrophic picture of what happened to the dinosaurs. As children we learn that, for some reason (maybe a super volcano, probably an asteroid impact, the debate goes on) something big and explosive happened one day, as the dinosaurs were happily going about their business, and the next morning they’d all died and all that remained were little furry things that eventually turned into people. But of course, we know that’s not true. Whatever the reason for the mass extinction of the ‘terrible lizards’, what really happened took years, during which time the ecosystem changed dramatically enough to favour creatures whose size and living requirements were less dependent on abundant food supplies and a stable, consistently warm, sunny climate.

Put simply, big things couldn’t eat enough and weren’t furry enough to survive a food shortage and prolonged cold, dark wintry conditions. That’s ecology and evolution at work. In the same sense, if you live in the Arctic, a tortoise isn’t going to survive for long in your garden. A tortoise the size of a house will also discover there simply aren’t enough dandelions growing on your lawn to keep it well fed and happy. If you have a pet rat, conversely, it will do just fine.

The rat will also do just fine if you live somewhere warm with a massive lawn suitable for keeping a giant tortoise, too. The rat is adaptable to changing conditions.

The global economy is changing, and it is an ecosystem just like the triassic period. Digital technology has fuelled a massive change, not just in how businesses operate, but in how we live our lives. Our expectations have changed, your phone isn’t just an phone any more, it’s something you shop with, something you play games on, something you use to grow and maintain social relationships. And as we know, social relationships are an aspect of jobs. So it’s hardly a surprise to think that, in a world where your social and shopping life has become accessible through something you carry in your pocket, your “job” will be changing too.

In this world, there isn’t the same basic social ecosystem we had before, when we needed to be in an office, with a phone on the desk, posting things to other people (who we didn’t know) or shipping boxes of stuff around the world for other people we also didn’t know to store in buildings we’d never seen, and sell on to other people we’d never met through shops we’d never even heard of. The mechanics of our social relationships, along with the mechanics of the supply chain and the economics of distribution have changed. Which means companies aren’t making money like they used to… and whilst they try to figure out how to make money in this new world, they’re experimenting with more efficient processes, robots, sub-contractors and self-employed people. Productivity is down, employment isn’t as necessary as it used to be.

Evolution and the workplace

Basically, for the giant creatures, the dinosaur companies, the ecosystem is getting darker and colder and there’s less to eat, and that means they’re finding it harder to survive. Meanwhile the little furry things that eat less and can put up with climate change, they’re doing just fine.

That’s why jobs are evolving. That’s why our social relationships are dominating our decision making about exchanging our time and effort for money in a way we’ve never experienced before. The big picture looks like we’re going back to the days of blacksmiths and bakers, but with one subtle difference. In the evolved world of work, the blacksmith and the baker are the same person, but depending on the reason why you’re in their shop, you only see them as one or the other. They’re also a money lender / investment opportunity (on Kickstarter) a network of small businessmen (on Twitter) and a playwright (on Kindle). And their customers don’t just walk in through the door, they come in through the phone as well.

A job, in the future, will still a be a kind of container for contracts, but think more like a colander through which contracts pour and money gets strained out. The main difference from today’s jobs, is you’ll own the colander and the water will come to you, as opposed to the current situation where you have to rent the cookware from the kitchen before you can strain anything.