“Why so many jobs are crappy”

by on March 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm in Economics | Permalink

I would have titled the post differently, shortened it, brought out more implications, and made it less dependent on the mathematics.  Still, this contribution from Heteconomist has that special something, namely insight.

The first key point is that if you learn more on the job on a regular basis (i.e., your job is interesting), you become harder to replace from the point of view of your boss.  Over time you win more of the bargaining surplus.  That means we end up with jobs with an inefficiently low level of learning and jobs are too boring relative to an optimum.

The post closes with this:

A different application of the argument presented here would be to consider the circumstances under which instances of bad luck in competition for employment could have long-lasting effects on the earnings of individual workers. Workers who luckily gain appointment into good jobs, perhaps initially contrary to merit, will get the opportunity to learn on the job and lock in their advantage, whereas unlucky workers consigned to bad jobs, again perhaps contrary to merit, might have a tough time reversing their fortunes.

I like the present application, though, in which capitalist deskilling emerges partly as a response to the effects on worker discipline that are potentially created by on-the-job learning.

Applications to nepotism are left as an exercise to the reader.  For the pointer I thank @Interfluidity.

Mike March 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

While I think there might be something there, I think there are problems with the model as well as your intuition about its results. Most fundamentally, if experience reduces your costs of effort and makes you more indispensable to your employer, then you have created surplus: you are now less costly to employ than the next-best worker. Perhaps you will appropriate some of this surplus through bargaining (which I think is where your intuition that you will “win more of the bargaining surplus” comes from), but let’s be clear: your employer will also appropriate some of this surplus. The firm will be better off after you have gained experience and lowered your costs and become more indispensable. Therefore, the firm would want to put you in a situation in which you have the scope for learning.

Further, both you and the person who wrote the model allude to the idea that working in an interesting job is something workers inherently value. If this is true, then by making your job more interesting, your employer should be able to get you to work at a lower wage if your next best option is to work at a boring job with similar pay. Your employer would make your job more interesting, because it would benefit from doing so.

In the model, the worker appropriates more than 100% of the surplus he creates by learning on the job. This is where the seemingly perverse effect is coming from. Perhaps this is a reasonable assumption, but it is not the assumption I would make.

Tyler Cowen March 30, 2013 at 9:52 pm

The model as presented does fail (see my initial remarks) but there is a way to capture the same intuition without making strange assumptions about the surplus distribution.

JB March 31, 2013 at 11:12 am

Musicians and game developers would agree that many people choose to work at a lower wage instead of working at another more boring job. I mention game development and more specifically game programming because in that case it is very clear that workers are often (not always) choosing a lower wage over a less interesting job since it is fairly easy for workers to move between various kinds of programming jobs.

steve March 30, 2013 at 5:11 pm

I became an engineer specifically because I enjoyed learning. My first job didn’t disapoint. That is until I became an expert on the system I had been working on. I couldn’t be reassigned because my knowledge of the original system was too valuable. I knew too much not to keep me working on improvements to the original system. It grew boring.

Easy solution though. I got a different job. I recommend it to anyone in a “bad” job.

Jason Braswell March 30, 2013 at 5:29 pm

I have serious doubts about the degree to which bosses (or anyone) can “make” jobs interesting or boring. There are a lot of jobs that need to be done. Some are interesting. Some are boring. Only tech innovation seems to be able to reallocate jobs from one category to the other.

Rahul March 31, 2013 at 12:32 am

Some are interesting. Some are boring.

No. One man’s poison…..

It’s matching the right person to the job that’s key.

jseliger March 30, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Workers who luckily gain appointment into good jobs, perhaps initially contrary to merit, will get the opportunity to learn on the job and lock in their advantage, whereas unlucky workers consigned to bad jobs, again perhaps contrary to merit, might have a tough time reversing their fortunes.

I wonder about the extent to which the Internet, presumably combined with libraries, can alleviate this dynamic for the very active, by making it easier to learn off-the-job. In the tech industry, for example, there are legions of stories about people who pick up Python for Dummies (or whatever) and parlay those skills into jobs, or apply them to their current jobs.

Here is one recent example that’s close to the genre above.

Rowz March 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Mike is exactly right. I respect TC’s judgment, but he is mistaken here, and the original author is both confused and apparently ignorant of search theory.

dan in philly March 30, 2013 at 6:03 pm

FWIW, I have a job which is extremely technical and which most would.find boring and frustrating. Through creative experimentation I have made is less boring to me, but its still only about 50% interesting.
It does pay the bills, though. I came to enjoy my relationship with my employer more when I realized he didn’t have any obligation to entertain me. He owes me the salary he pays me. The more I can make myself valuable, the more money I make.

Greg March 31, 2013 at 5:12 am

What makes it boring, and which aspects were you able to improve or not?

dan in philly March 31, 2013 at 1:59 pm

At the risk of oversimplifying, my job is kind of like this: its like counting the marbles in a jar and then doing it again and again and again. Tedious, boring, and frustrating, to be sure. However the fun is figuring out new, interesting, and better way of counting and ensuring you are right in your count.
I figure that many who get a job like this only look at the initial tedium and conclude the job stinks. The job can be what you make of it, you just need to apply yourself.

Dave Barnes March 30, 2013 at 6:27 pm

More academic writing should be in this style.
“Bolshie”. Damn, that’s good.

anon March 30, 2013 at 6:32 pm

I know several people who have interesting and enjoyable work that is a unique combination of their skills and the overall environment created by their employers, combinations not easily duplicated elsewhere.

Bryan Willman March 30, 2013 at 6:38 pm

@Jason Braswell doubts that bosses have much control over whether jobs are interesting or boring.

I think this is fundamentally correct for tasks. So an employer might make YOUR job boring or interesting by assigning you the boring or interesting tasks. But the tasks themselves mostly are what they are.

The original post also seems to misunderstand technical fields with high growth – person A learns on the job and becomes more expensive. Management doesn’t mind, because they also became more capable. Jobs are advertsized as “very interesting” to recruit the sorts of people who become ever more capable, said capability being manifest in superior products in the market. (See computers and software.)

Some commentors also seem to have totally missed the bit in software orgs where some tasks (and the jobs they comprise) are so bad they’re impossible to fill with competent people. Anybody competent to do onerous job J is also competent to do interesting job K, and applies for K and refuses J. If the supply of competent labor is tight, job J may be impossible to fill. If J is essential of but of low market value (you have to do it but it pays poorly), and also onerous, it may be impossible to fill – leading to some kind of crises of out-of-proportion cost.

It’s worth noting that ANY written commentary on the business prospects for running a McDonalds seems to point out that recruiting and retaining people who will do the job is a never ending stress point for the management. Yes, the workers are about as interchangeable as they get in the real world – and they still have to be trained, persuaded to show up, and so on.

Brandon Berg March 30, 2013 at 11:30 pm

If J is essential of but of low market value (you have to do it but it pays poorly), and also onerous, it may be impossible to fill – leading to some kind of crises of out-of-proportion cost.

If demand is high (it’s essential) and supply is low (nobody capable of doing it wants to), then how can the price be low? If you need to fill it and can’t, you raise the price until you can. Or you don’t, because it’s not essential after all.

Jonpez2 March 31, 2013 at 4:10 am

Yes but nobody ever thinks that way. Instead expensive people are hired to automate away the tedious job. This automation is imperfect, leading to more tedium in a different position. And round we go.

Jonpez2 March 31, 2013 at 4:12 am

And actually, I think that’s a good thing, as generally speaking the new system is an improvement on the old. There’s just always some tedium.

Greg March 31, 2013 at 5:15 am

We need behavioral economics for employers. They are rather predictably irrational, after all. The other part I love is how they’re far more willing (in the US, at least) to give an employee 10% more pay rather than 2% more compensation in the form of vacation.

Matt2 March 31, 2013 at 8:27 am

The price will be low because employers will not raise the wage to a market clearing level but rather leave it at the level they want to pay. Then there will be lots of talk about the lack of available labor and/or how unwilling to work people are, followed by attempts to increase visas and/or decrease immigration enforcement so we can just have illegal aliens do the work that citizens aren’t “willing” to do.

joan March 30, 2013 at 6:58 pm

The number of jobs in occupations that have on the job training has been declining it will become even harder to get a non crappy jobs in the future without a college degree and maybe even with one.
http://pinterest.com/pin/87890630200328127/

Dismalist March 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm

At the margin, all jobs are crappy. At the margin, we are not independently wealthy. That’s why we get paid.

Greg March 31, 2013 at 5:20 am

I doubt this, although I appreciate the consistency between your user name and comment.

Most software developers I know would continue to write code if they were independently wealthy. Writers write even if they don’t get paid for it. If everyone were wealthy, many people would continue to do things that create economic surplus. The need for a consistent paycheck is more about financing (I need/prefer it to be relatively predictable). I would still be doing something similar even if I didn’t need to get paid.

This doesn’t apply to all jobs, of course, but over time it will apply to more and more as the truly crappy jobs continue to be designed out of the system.

Rahul March 31, 2013 at 7:33 am

You are cherry picking jobs. Would your trash collector empty your dumpster if he wasn’t paid any more?

Only a small percent of society gets paid to do what they enjoy.

maguro March 31, 2013 at 8:47 am

Developers might write code even if they weren’t getting paid, but it probably wouldn’t be the code they’re getting paid to write now.

Dismalist March 31, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Appreciate the comments. No quarrel, as I said “at the margin”. If I were independently wealthy, I would continue to do what I do, but not as much.

Andrew' April 1, 2013 at 7:03 am

I think you are mostly correct. My mantra for academia has been “find something you will do for free…because at some point you will.”

Jonathan Bechtel March 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm

I’m not an economist, but maybe a simple explanation is that paid activities naturally gravitate towards the stuff that *has* to get done but no one would naturally want to do…..thus leaving most people in a situation where they dislike their job?

There’s a reason you don’t find any amateur dump truck drivers or insurance underwriters.

Brandon Berg March 30, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Oddly enough, computer programming has a very large amateur community, and also pays as well as just about any job you can get without a postgraduate degree.

M1EK March 31, 2013 at 9:15 am

But the programming people are paid to do bears little resemblance to the programming people do as amateurs. Nobody wants to write device drivers or code for the back-end of a website.

Claudia March 30, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Working on a hog farm can be a crappy job (I know) … shoveling manure, hauling deads, dealing with mean sows … but you know what can make it even crappier? The specialization needed to keep up with market competition. On the small farm you do many different crappy tasks and have some say in how you allocate your day (making it all a little less crappy). On the large farm you have one job, all day, everyday for example birthing aka pulling piglets out of mean sows all day. Most have made it off the farm altogether but they found specialization and a lack of autonomy elsewhere. This is not to discount the efficiency gains of crappy jobs. Let’s be honest those non-crappy, interesting jobs can be quite wasteful and thus have to be doled out with a lot of care.

Translation: clever piece but I disagree with the primacy of the learning mechanism. I’d point to specialization. Also everyone is replaceable. That’s life.

Brian Donohue March 30, 2013 at 11:55 pm

There is something in what you say about specialization, but what do you think about the typical job today compared to Chaplain’s 1936 lament on the subject, Modern Times?

Most jobs have always had a sizeable crappy component.

Ryan Cousineau March 31, 2013 at 12:28 am

Forgive the unsourced anecdote, but my understanding from maybe more than one source is that on assembly lines, attempts by management to shuffle up work assignments were resisted by workers, who preferred to do the same job every day.

This is a dangerously tidy anecdote, so don’t take it as a given, but I feel pretty confident in asserting that not everybody seeks a creative challenge in their work (or, perhaps, they find it even on an assembly line).

Rahul March 31, 2013 at 12:37 am

Precisely this. Claudia’s mistake is to extrapolate her own (high IQ, high education) feelings to the typical career hog shit shoveler.

My experience with process-plant operators is the same. People hate reassignment.

Greg March 31, 2013 at 5:23 am

I agree, but is this a learned behavior or more inherent? I bet people in very narrow, uninteresting jobs lose the ability to deal with or enjoy variety at work, to a large extent. If you think about it, a lower-middle skilled employee is fed rote tasks by spoon from kindergarten through retirement. Ouch. No wonder they get used to it.

Ape Man March 31, 2013 at 10:59 am

I think it is to a large degree inherent. There is a large degree of self selection that goes on in those factory jobs. I have several uncles from the poor side of the family who tried factory jobs and could not make it more then a couple of months before quitting because of boredom. I know other people for whom doing the same thing every day is sort of like heaven.

This tendency towards like routine does not seem to be IQ dependent on my observation (although high IQ routine lovers in my experience have more intellectually demanding routines). My brother who is a computer programer and is smarter then me loves routine. I would find his work horrible boring and not much better than factory work.

Claudia March 31, 2013 at 6:17 am

I concede that my notion of a crappy job may be different than some, but it’s not a matter of IQ. I never faced the farm job choice I mentioned, one of my brother’s employees left a big farm to come work for him on a smaller one. There are days I wish I just dealt with mean sows and monotonous tasks, but I think many would see that as a crappy job. But Ryan’s point does raise an interesting question…what do people consider crappy? And I think this could undercut the author’s argument too. Maybe there are a lot of jobs without learning and opportunities without advancement because the workers don’t want to learn or stretch or take creative risks … they want to get paid, go home and have a life. Besides the efficient firm can deal harshly with creative, entrepreneurial mistakes, so why bother…let the people in charge take the risks?

… now I am off to hide Easter eggs (two hunts yesterday and I am under specific instructions from my daughter not to hide eggs in the same place…sound familiar?).

X March 30, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Jobs are crappy by definition, because they are something you’d rather not do.

The way to not have crappy jobs is to not have them at all, by automating everything.

George March 30, 2013 at 11:38 pm

The author seems to be suggesting that managers don’t want workers with any bargaining power whatsoever, and since bargaining power in this model has to do with human capital accumulated, that would suggest that firms should discriminate against educated workers in favor of cheap, unskilled workers. Since that obviously isn’t what happens in the real world, I think he’s talking about at least job-specific, if not firm-specific skills. And those should make the worker more valuable to his firm, relative to potential replacements, but should also make a particular job more valuable to a worker, relative to his other employment opportunities. So, no change in bargaining power. I don’t buy that managers benefit from workers not learning on the job.

Brian Donohue March 31, 2013 at 12:02 am

Yeah. To say that there is ‘underinvestment’ in training is one thing, but, in general, employee and employer interests are aligned with respect to employee skill acquisition. If anything, employees are more resistant to change, seen in work rules among collectively-bargained employees.

prior_approval March 31, 2013 at 6:56 am

‘employee and employer interests are aligned with respect to employee skill acquisition’

Which is why companies are so interested in contributing taxes to the locality they are located in, right?

Or do employers prefer to relocate to places that provides massive tax breaks, and let other people pay to educate their work force?

Derek March 31, 2013 at 12:50 am

Maybe the story here is the weakness of us business in managing people effectively.
The idea that skilled people our those with learned skills have some bargaining power is obvious. But any endeavor that requires adjustments to market conditions requires skilled and knowledgeable people to figure our how to do what is needed. I have yet to run into a job where an individuals initiative and applied skills don’t make a difference in the ability of the employer to compete. The more tightly managed, the more intelligence and initiative is needed to find ways around the stupidity that well educated fools implement.

geda March 31, 2013 at 6:55 am

“Applications to nepotism are left as an exercise to the reader.”

Paul Krugman had also given us readers another exercise in which we are asked to give our verdict on ‘which Price IS Wrong’. I think that is too much for judgement constrained readers.

as March 31, 2013 at 8:22 am

Tyler started to write referee reports for blog posts.

Brian Donohue March 31, 2013 at 10:24 am

“Still, this contribution from Heteconomist has that special something, namely insight.”

Tyler, outta respect for you, I read this. Good God man, this is a peevish, childish, exercise in twaddle that could only have issued from a clueless, gilded-cage academic with some math and economics theory but zero understanding of the actual subject about which he opines. It’s an eloquent testament to the main thrust of legitimate criticism of the current state of your profession. He’s like a kid fiddling with a gun with the safety off.

The fact that this passes as ‘insight’ to you suggests to me that, gifted polymath that you might be, you are similarly afflicted with zero real-world understanding of this subject. Otherwise, you would recognize the absurd and counterproductive frame chosen by the author for what it is.

Interesting subject though.

sort_of_knowledgable March 31, 2013 at 10:52 am

Is the premise that jobs are being deskilled even correct? It used to be that you could be a typist or a file clerk. Now those skills are consolidated into admin assistant who is also suppose to know MS office suite which might be considered crappy, but not deskilling. The change in low wage/high wage job ratio seems more likely to the change in size of industry sectors.

Rich Berger March 31, 2013 at 12:26 pm

“Work, being a core part of life, is meant to be interesting, engaging, and meaningful.”

Sez who? At best, this idea is less than 150 years old.

steve March 31, 2013 at 12:40 pm

There will always be crappy jobs. Why? Not because of employers, but because crappy is a relative term.

The coal miners, steel workers, those daredevils that built the skyscrapers of New York, and all those guys picking tomatoes all day before it was automated may well consider many crappy jobs of today a sweet deal. Someone sitting at a computer all day may well get bored, but my guess is that most people will find it beats bored combined with hard labor.

My personal belief based solely on anecdote like the one above is that over time jobs will get better and better. Safer, more comfortable, less repetitive (that gets automated), and perhaps more interesting ( a long shot I know.) But, even if all of that is true. There will still be bottom of the totem pole crappy jobs.

Hazel Meade April 1, 2013 at 10:30 am

A perverse fact that falls out of this is that public education lowers the income of workers by making workers interchangable from the employers perspective. If all workers come to the job prepared with the same skill level then they are replacable and win less of the bargaining surplus.

tily April 1, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I read this model to be predicting that proprietary information has a cost, and that organizations will tend towards adopting and promoting standards for business practices, techniques and terminology where those knowledge does not provide benefi which outways the costs.

I’m still thinking through whether this implies that jobs become ‘crappy’ due to such standarization.

Pave Low John April 2, 2013 at 1:29 pm

I discovered, after 20 years, that any job can get boring if you do it long enough. I got my dream job when I was 24 years old (flying helicopters for the Air Force). By age 42, I was running for the door, hoping to do anything but what I had spent almost two decades doing. Now, being out, I might get restless and start missing my old job (I’ve been out a year and don’t miss it yet), but who knows. I just know that, at some point, it stopped being really and became just….another job, I guess.

So now, I’m back on a university, earning that M.A. in History I need to either A) get a PhD or B) teach at a junior college or private school somewhere. That job might get boring in a decade or two, but by then, I’ll be ready to retire for the second time.

Switch jobs every 10 to 20 years if you want to avoid boredom, because it is inevitable past a certain point, in my opinion….

Stan April 3, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Wow! You’re all nuts!

I am self employed. You folks are the reason I will never hire an employee.

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