The new scarcity: valuable work

In the past, wars were fought over resources. The definition of power was the ability to collect a great deal of physical wealth — land, gold, slaves — and order people to work on your behalf to get you more.

Two rulers would go to war and the winner would have more of everything at the end.

It started to change a few hundred years ago as the colonialization period was coming to its end. Some wars began to be fought for access to markets, not access to goods. Instead of taking stuff away from others and forcing them to work, rulers wanted to give stuff away (in return for money which, is, basically, an IOU) and to have their own people work.

Today, most wars are over markets, not resources. The US occupied Iraq — but handed the oil fields back to the Iraqis. The main US beneficiaries of the war were defense contractors, who got the chance to work.

The most powerful, influential people I know — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the guys at Google — aren’t known for their hoards of physical goods or armies of servants taking care of their every personal need. Sure, they may have these things but nobody would care, or, worse, laugh at them.

They do create interesting and popular products but there are plenty of people out there who who make things that everybody plays with — Rubic’s Cube, anyone? — without getting the same degree of respect.

I would argue that the respect comes more from these guys’ ability to create valuable jobs for large numbers of people.

Valuable to society, in the sense that society is willing to pay for their work.

And valuable to the employees themselves, as the jobs are challenging and interesting.

As birthrates continue to fall across the world, as expanded industrialization drives prices for commodity goods lower and lower, and as the market for virtual goods such as music and movies, as well as goods that exist only in virtual worlds, continues to expand there will come a time when everyone has everything that they need.

Even today, in some western countries, a person can opt out of the rat race, through age, disability or emotional problem or simply a well-crafted excuse and live on government subsidies. Their standard of living may be lower than average as a result, but the payments are usually enough to cover basic needs. I have relatives and friends in the United States who live on government pensions or disability paychecks and live better than royalty did a couple of hundred years ago.

After all, they enjoy modern conveniences — hot and cold running water, electricity, television, radio — that weren’t even available a hundred years ago. Their health care needs are covered. They can lie on their couch. Pick up the phone any time and order takeout. And watch TV.

A couple of hundred years ago, only the nobility could afford to lie around, have food brought to them, and be continually entertained.

It was the pinnacle of existence.

Today, in most civilized countries, it’s the bottom.

I know some people who do little if anything to support themselves and spend their time drinking, flirting, watching television, playing around with hobbies to pass the time.

A few centuries ago, they would have been considered the luckiest people in the world. Today, they’re lazy bums.

In the past, workers would riot and rise up when they were forced to work too much by their overlords. Today, workers riot because they don’t have enough jobs.

Jobs are today the only real scarce resource. The men and women who are able to create jobs are the new heroes.

We’re already starting to see situations where people are competing to work for free: internships at high-profile media companies and in politics pay little or nothing at all, and can be extremely competitive. And freelance writers are often paid in copies of the magazines for which they write, and, on occasion, are asked to buy a minimum number of issues.

There are also places where people actually pay to work. For example, you can have a working “vacation” on an archeological dig, or a family farm, or in some non-profits.

There are companies that charge students significant amounts of money to place them into internships in China.

This is a very new phenomenon, but as the basic standard of living continues to rise (temporary economic blips notwithstanding) — and there’s only so many physical things that you can buy before you run out of storage (and of time to play with them) — then we might start seeing even more of these “paycations”? Reverse jobs? Fee-based internships? Trial careers?

I like that last one. Trial career.

For example:


For just $1,990 a month, you too can be a foreign correspondent! You get your correspondents’ visa, ten hours a week of intensive Chinese language lessons, and actual reporting assignments in China. Our bureau chief will help you come up with story assignments, find sources, and organize the story. Our copyeditors will get your story ready for publication. And your byline will appear in magazines in China and around the world: you will be an actual foreign correspondent.

In your downtime, you will be encouraged to enjoy the many perks of being a foreign correspondent, such as the ability to drink, unembarrassed, in bars and pubs around town. You will be able to ask total strangers deep, penetrating questions.

Journalist visa, lodging and language classes included. Transportation extra.

No foreign language skills necessary! Reporting experience helpful but not required.