Reporting Fives—Week Six (reboot)

I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom,

As we live in uncertain times, this reboot edition of Reporting Fives centres on the state of work and opportunity—I hope this dispatch helps you as it has helped me.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Curiosity > Passion

> We keep telling people to follow their passion, and I feel like that can be an intimidating and almost cruel thing to say to people at times.

This sentiment, described by Elizabeth Gilbert on the TED Radio Hour to follow one’s passion, has become popular career advice, and a first glance, it seems reasonable. After all, some research suggests that being intrinsically motivated makes us happier in our jobs, happier even than receiving a large paycheque.

But as Gilbert points out »... if somebody has one central powerful burning passion, they’re probably already following it. Because that’s the definition of passion, that you don’t have a choice. If you don’t, which is a lot of people, have one central burning passion, and somebody tells you to follow your passion, I think you have the right to give them the finger«.

Even if we accept that powerful burning passions are rare, it may also be dangerous to suggest that passion alone is enough to find happiness or success in work. In 2017, 80,000 Hours, the non-profit research team within the Centre for Effective Altruism, reviewed over 60 studies on what makes for a dream job. What they found, in a nutshell, is that we are most likely to be satisfied by work that we are good at, that is in service of others, and promotes supportive conditions. These conditions include engaging work, with supportive colleagues, that is fairly compensated, and that is compatible with our personal lives.

So what piece of fortune cookie reductionism can we offer as an alternative to living a life in pursuit of passion? Gilbert tells people »... if you don’t have an obvious passion, forget about it. Follow your curiosity. Because passion is a tower of flame that is not always accessible, and curiosity is something that anybody can access any day«.

So it might be said that as a source of intrinsic motivation, curiosity is more readily accessible than passion. It may also be more likely to drive us to work in the face of uncertainty, as curiosity, unlike passion, is fuelled by the unknown. It may be that curious people are more flexible and adaptive; that they are more likely to maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Since even a dream job can be tedious at times, being intrinsically motivated by a quality such as curiosity may help us endure setbacks and opposition—because no matter the outcome, if nothing else, we have satisfied our curiosity. On that note Gilbert leaves us with a final point:

> Your curiosity may lead you to your passion, or it may not. It may have been for ‘nothing’. In which case, all you’ve done your entire life is spent your existence in pursuit of the thing that makes you feel curious and inspired, and that should be good enough.

William Samuel Johnson, too, reminds us to not follow our passion unless our passion is curiosity with: »curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last«.

Inspired by: TED Radio Hour: Guy’s Favorites: The Source Of Creativity

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Zero-sum workforce

It may not feel like it at times, with periodic warnings that emerging technologies threaten to displace the middle-class labour force, but opportunities still remain. One can be easily persuaded by this centuries-old dystopian trope, despite evidence that transitioning from one technological paradigm to another does not have to cost jobs.

But what of more present concerns that increasing labour productivity or immigration might increase unemployment? Happily, these too are said to be unfounded. The OECD reports that GDP per hour worked has fallen significantly since the mid-1990s, and while the migrant population has grown considerably over the past 50 years, it has only increased marginally as a percentage of the total human population.

But most importantly, work is not finite—the notion that the amount of work to be done is fixed, and therefore increases in productivity or the number of workers in the system reduces the number of available jobs, is a fallacy.

In an interview with Planet Money, professor of economics at MIT David Autor reveals that a hundred years ago Americans spent something in the order of 70 percent of every dollar on necessities like housing, food and clothing. Today he estimates they spend only 40 percent on such things, freeing up the remaining 30 percent for non-essentials—and this additional spending creates new jobs.

If we compare the employment rate of prime-age (25–54 years old) men and women in 1967, with that of 2006, we can see this growth in action. According to figures presented by Casey B. Mulligan, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, 14 percent of the full-time workforce during 1967 were female, compared to the 39 percent which were male. By 2006, the number of women employed in full-time positions had increased to 26 percent. If we submit to the zero-sum theory, the number of males with full-time employment should have fallen to 27 percent, when in fact it remained at 39 percent.

So as Autor indicates, there is no evidence that we are running out of jobs, and yet, during times of low employment as we are currently facing, zero-sum thinking and protectionist attitudes still tend to emerge. »If the public no longer believes that the economy can create new jobs, it will demand that we protect old jobs from new competitors in China and elsewhere«, writes Paul Krugman for the The New York Times. However, the ‘threat’ needn’t be foreign, as demonstrated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At that time, the United States barred married women from some jobs—a policy which appears to be built on the premise that each woman hired represents a man not hired, which we see from Mulligan’s figures just isn’t true.

The fears that drive this flimsy logic—and tends to further punish marginalised groups—is referred to as the lump-of-labour fallacy. But as Jacob Goldstein, co-host of Planet Money points out »... the fallacy of the fallacy is that that means there’s nothing to worry about«. Autor agrees, citing that for people with high levels of education, a proportion of the employment growth we’ve experienced is in fairly low-paid, economically insecure personal services, like hospitality.

Inspired by: Planet Money: 13,000 Economists. 1 Question
Reference: The New York Times

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The course of my life, so far

On page 1082 of the Codex Atlanticus, assembled by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni in the 16th century, there is a letter addressed to Ludovico Sforza from the great Leonardo da Vinci. It begins:

> Most illustrious Lord. Having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors of instruments of war, and finding that the invention and working of the said instruments do not differ in any respect from those in common use, I shall endeavour without prejudice to anyone else to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secrets, and then offering at your pleasure to work with effect at convenient times on all those things which are in part briefly recorded below.

The letter, which goes on to list ten of da Vinci’s competencies, is often cited as the first example of a résumé. If true, this ‘technology’ has been with us since the late 15th century.

The résumé, which is French for ‘summary’, is often referred to interchangeably with the Curriculum Vitae (CV), which is Latin for ‘course of life’. Strictly speaking, these two devices serve different purposes, but they are nevertheless identical in one critical characteristic, which is that they are woefully out of date.

These 500-year-old appeals for employment are widely acknowledged to favour white men (like me) while severely punishing women and marginalised ethnicities. Meanwhile, the 7.4 second-long glance a recruiter is awarding each résumé tends to favour applicants from prestigious universities and highly recognisable businesses. Besides the fact that this device invites enormous bias, Laszlo Bock, the former head of human resources at Google, told Quartz that:

> It doesn’t capture the whole person. At best, they tell you what someone has done in the past and not what they’re capable of doing in the future.

Résumés are terrible proxies for even the most predictable humans, especially at a time when we are expected to train and retrain for jobs that don’t yet exist. So why do we still render our 19th-century notions of work in a 15th-century format? After all, the BCC in consultation with an executive CV writer and former recruiter claims that even Leonardo da Vinci would find it difficult to find a job based on his résumé today, for »dwelling on the negative... and straying too far from the skills that interest employers«.

So would our contemporary da Vincis fair better today with a LinkedIn profile and an expert recruiter? Maybe employing systems that evaluate what people are »... capable of doing in the future«, might serve us better.

Inspired by: Quartz at Work
Reference: Notebooks

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Doing away with bullshit

What began as an article for Strike in August 2013 has evolved into viral outrage against the absurdist realities many of us face day-to-day. David Graeber’s clear-eyed account of the system that produces bullshit jobs has become a rallying cry for all those suffering through yet another inefficient meeting while wondering what happen to John Maynard Keynes’ promise of a 15-hour working week?

Graeber's analysis of one informant’s testimony reveals the physical and social isolation brought on by a collective understanding that we ought not to discuss our subjugation to jobs that produce little value for no meaningful purpose. In conforming to this bargain, many of us consent to the bullshit, which Harry Frankfurt describes as indifference to the truth.

However, at this moment, many of us are not bound by the conditions that facilitate such jobs. Instead, ‘non-essential’ workers privileged enough to hold ongoing positions are telecommuting—in theory, freeing us from the private hells we have constructed, which Graeber claims force us to become a little bubble unto ourselves. But the social isolation created by our bargain is compounded by the isolation imposed by our current situation. And whether we feel it or not, social isolation is often accompanied by higher levels of surveillance, as Ivan Manokha writes in a piece for the Monthly Review. For some that might mean those inefficient meetings have become more frequent as employers ‘check-in’; for others, it might be much more nefarious, as Manokha describes.

This oversight fails to acknowledge the cram-and-slack rhythm that comes from jobs shaped by actual production needs and amnesia for efficiency, which was once defined as higher productivity from less labour. Bullshit jobs necessitate that we labour regardless of the actual production needs for the sake of growth, or a concept of an employer owning our time.

If you find yourself in such a role, remember that Graeber fantasises »... about eliminating the jobs, not the people who have them«. Imagine if we seized this moment to do away with the bullshit—given the concepts and technology to facilitate doing so have existed for decades. It might even be cowardly of us not to demand change.

Inspired by: Overland
Reference: The New Yorker

Friday, 8 May 2020

Opportunity hoarding

During a public address in 2013, then-President of the United States Barack Obama described »dangerous and growing inequality« as »the defining challenge of our time«. Since then, inequality has remained a lively political issue. However, as Richard Reeves identifies in his book Dream Hoarder, much of the rhetoric centres on the ‘top one percent’ problem—as if the remaining 99 share the same experience. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, reminds us that this is untrue by examining the widening gap between the upper-middle class and everyone else.

A year earlier, a Pew study found that children raised in low-income families tend to become low-income earners as adults, while those raised at the opposite end of the income ladder tend to become high earners. This ‘stickiness at the ends’ is due in part, to categorical inequalities, which Charles Tilly describes in his book Durable Inequality as those maintained by social discriminators such as gender, race, or nationality. Tilly argues that these unequal categorical pairs, i.e. citizen/non-citizen, are the solution to an organisational problem which, despite its drawbacks, both sides of the divide have come to depend on.

When members of a categorically bounded network acquire something of value, they might organise to control that asset. This monopoly helps members of the group ‘look out for one another’. And while it might seem harmless enough to support someone in your group, in some cases, this opportunity hoarding contributes to harmful outcome differentials among different groups.

> Sometimes when there’s only one person from a certain background in a particular space, that pioneering person opens the door for others, so it isn’t fused shut again. But some want to shut the door behind them and be the only one in the room.

The Iranian-American chef Samin Nosrat understands the temptation but chooses instead to make space at the table for everyone.

Inspired by: Code Switch: Samin Nosrat Is Making Space At The Table
Reference: The Guardian