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So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means - Immanuel Kant's Formula of Humanity

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The desk jobs

 A fundamental truth in mankind existence - a thing cannot move from one place to another, unless a human labor is involved. An object stays in its place forever unless someone acts on it. Also its true -> an individual cannot do anything by himself alone, no matter what. Even a genius scientist who finds a medicine for a deadly sickness, uses a table and chair for his experiments, things made by someone else. If he wrote his findings - someone made the paper and someone else made the pen. So the fundamental unit of change is human labor.

 

Most of world's history - individuals worked for themselves only - in the form of finding his basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter for his own survival. With his life being threatened by wild animals and other components of nature, he determined that he has to associate himself with a group of people, like a family or a working community. The search for needs was discovered to be easier when done in groups. Group ism created more bounty for the individual effort, with common wisdom from experiences of all.

 

Later on as tools and machinery got invented, the labor moved from being physical to being less-physical. The nature of jobs moved from agriculture to manufacturing to providing services eventually.

 

During this transition in the last couple of centuries, some individuals within the group became smarter and smarter compared to the rest - they began to work for others for a "reliable" income. Employer-employee relation would eventually become an organized mode of extracting human productivity after the invention of needed tools, that workers will be trained to operate over time.Eventually the employers became co-ops, companies & corporations.

 

Western economies of the last 2 decades have become service economies for the most part, with very little trace of manufacturing (producing products). 

 

Gradually the western world has evolved to basically this - Bulk of the employment is "desk jobs". It's like people playing some kind of video games from their chairs. Apparently they are ALL creating value doing that. I wonder in most cases - they aren't. At least not in its fullest definitely. Are you asking, if all of them are unproductive - no. Some of them definitely are. But desk jobs cannot be 100% replacement for real manly jobs that need hard physical activity. Machines have replaced most of those jobs - which is definitely welcome, but the so called 20th century jobs are definitely way inferior to what mankind ever knew.

 

How did a superb performing US economy, which pioneered production manufacturing lines making household products (that improved quality of life for all humans across the globe), reach this pathetic state. Surprisingly all this happened in spite of a purely capitalistic model - It's all private owned. Productivity was keen.

 

Human resources as any other resources available in the world are scarce. It is hard to get people with specific skills and importantly with the needed attitude. They need to be utilized right and productively. Labor is precious.

 

The services industry has grossly mis-allocated resources, the way it is practiced.

 

It can be said almost with certainty that a factory unit, producing a product is 100% productive. They will never manufacture anything that is not needed. Products produced will be consumed in one form or the other. If they produce something the market doesn't need - they will change course right away. Workers would be made to do something else - that will be used by someone else no matter what. A badly made apparel in a Tirupur factory will at least be used as a waste cloth for years. Unfortunately you cannot say that in your desk jobs. Not all of the things that are produced are really used somewhere usefully. In desk jobs, it's very common for workers to do products (documents, reports, software, analysis etc) - that no one uses. They lay on broken hard disks. What was the cost of money & time to accomplish it? More importantly, who paid for it?

 

When I went to the US in 2005, I would see this on TV often, George W Bush, then US President would come on prime time and would say that the Americans are getting ready for the 21st Century jobs. He would say this when asked questions about the depleting manufacturing base and loss of blue collar jobs across the country. It was like the average American worker will not participate in producing day-to-day needed products like - toothbrush, paste, soap, table, chairs, sofas, beds, pen, pencil, books, fans, washing machines, tv, electric appliances, etc. These things need resource intensive mode of production - and thus can be done by people from poorer countries. American workers would do only cutting edge items like - building airplanes, rockets, military submarines, R&D, high-end technology and similar jobs that need expertism. In theory - it would be correct. In practice - it just didn't work that way. Doing difficult things is being productive. What really happened - most American workers were not ready for the so called "21st century jobs" and their standard & quality of life started falling. Bulk of them left the labor force because they couldn't hold on to their jobs. The labor force participation rate has been going down for years now & right now, it's around a pitiable 60%. 

 

In the US, Women made the bigger work force than Men in last couple of years. Leaving aside the gender discrimination aspect of it - a quick dissection that will lead to an arguable thought -> Women have a different physiology and cannot do lot of things like men. One obvious thing - A man starts his "working career" sometime in his 20s and will be in the work force continuously until they retire in their 60s. But the women - they cannot be in labor force similar to men. They take career-breaks during pregnancy. They take care of kids after that. By nature, they raise families. Their role there as a mother & wife is very unique. This distracts them from focusing fully on their jobs. Because of this, employers tend to pay them lesser which is understandable. For the society - more women being in work force compared to men is a sign of falling productivity and not increasing productivity.

 

I was talking the other day to someone at work. With the covid restrictions kicking-in, they were getting a count of who will be in office and who would work from home. He just said - he will be in office. Turned to me and said, when at home, and sitting before a computer all day - his mother doesn't even consider that as a labor happening. It is very common for them to ask him - Can you please go and do this errand for me. I just see you sitting before the computer and unsure, what you can possibly be doing. It looks there is a whole generation of people who think -> sitting in a table/desk in front of a computer screen is void of any labor activity. The productivity is undefined and obviously unnoticeable. The invent of Social Media (SM) over the internet is a considerable distraction for desk jobs too. You could spend hours and hours looking at SM pages scrolling down & down and not benefit anything at all from it all day. For many people - it turns out to be addictive.

 

The covid pandemic has come as a huge storm into the existing way of employer-employee relationship. With things back to falling in place now slowly - the old way of operation is probably gone. There is going to be a new kind of set-up. One thing that the pandemic has challenged - there are some jobs that can be executed remotely. If they can be executed remotely - what difference would it make to do the remote work from New York City or Nigeria. It doesn't make any difference as long the "same work" gets accomplished. Also the time zone in which they operate is not simultaneous but sequential. This ought to bring more efficiency.

 

One word that was used more frequently and not being in use at-all these days is - globalization. This term essentially referred to the employer going global leaving out the employee of the region. If the jobs are essentially desk jobs - what is going to happen is, the employee is going to go global sitting from his chair. He is no longer tied to his employer in his geographic region. He can work for anybody. This will play out eventually in the following years. This wave is coming and it's going to shift the employer-employee set-up we all know.

 

The pandemic of the last 2 years, has redefined many things. We just sent all employees home for 2 years which is quite unheard of. Things are holding up still, if not normal. It doesn't look like we are going back to 2019 when the pandemic is gone. People's preferences have changed. There is going to be a lot of give-and-take in the employer-employee set-up. Ultimately the market is the best judge. Market has & will always do a good job of allocating resources. This time at the global level. Weaker links get broken, stronger resources get better. The post-pandemic world has more surprises waiting for us. It's interesting times.

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