Why Do We Work? ⌚ Transcend Newsletter XIX

The growing "hour inequality" you've never heard of, new series of featured fellows and jobs in the future of K-12.

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tl;dr: for the first time in history, the rich are working more hours than the poor. This says a lot about our new relationship with work, and how it might evolve in the coming decades.

We are at an interesting point in history. For the first time ever, those who make more are also working more hours. Gone are the days of Downtown Abbey (as Arbesman put it), when neither the rich nor the poor could tell you what a weekend was, but for opposite reasons.

So what is it about work that makes people want to work?

I’ll give my overview after having talked to many people over the last few months, and explain how I see this affecting the future of work.

Let's dive in. How many hours are worked every week by the average citizen? In the US, that number is roughly 34 hours, per the 45 hours worked in Mexico, 48 in Turkey and Colombia, or the 29 worked in The Netherlands.

But how are those workweeks distributed within the labor force? Perhaps not so surprising, but as one works more hours, income rises, across all income brackets.

Makes sense, but here’s something interesting. While in 1979 the most likely workers to work long hours (50+ hours) were those in the bottom 20% percentile by income, this phenomenon had reverted by 2006, as top earners were twice as likely to work overtime as their lower-income counterparts. The raise in hours worked predominantly affected highly educated, high-wage, salaried, older men.

So if they were making a lot more money, why would they work so many more hours? And why would low income workers work less, if anything they should have worked more to climb up the income ladder?

There are a lot of potential explanations (Kuhn and Lozano focused on the unpaid or longer term benefits of working overtime, in the form of promotions), but one factor that has played a role is the increased presence of technology in the workplace as it has eliminated the need for many manual tasks.

As this fantastic article explains in the (context of the UK's stagnant labor productivity), employers face a fundamental question when it comes to increasing productivity within their companies: they can either invest in technology or hire and train human labor. Employers have started investing in technology at an unprecedented level, and while that took some upfront investment, it's starting to yield returns for the firms in the form of increased output: now robots can do some tasks infinitely more reliably than humans.

This is great... but there's one caveat - robots don't have wages, don't take days off, and can't organize. And they are owned entirely by the firms, which leads to this phenomenon:

So firms can now produce more output, and workers see none of the benefits of that marginal increase. Beyond conversations on robotaxes, what this generally means is that the shift towards a "smarter" economy is actually leaving behind low-income workers, and giving more opportunities to high-income workers - thus the increase in hours and increase in economic inequality.

Now back to the question of hours - we still don't have an answer to our question: since robots can do more work for us than ever before, why would top income workers more just as much or more? What this trend shows, to me, is that work (or at least "humane" work) is about more than simply exchanging labor for currency. In my opinion, the answer (at least partially) is threefold:

a) Work is about dignity

"I make sure everyone my town gets to work on time", "I ensure everyone is well fed", "I keep people happy by planting beautiful trees". These may sound like a CEO speaking corporate hyperbole at a conference, but these are real answers from bus drivers, cooks or gardeners when I've asked them if and why they like what they do. People take a lot of pride in their work, particularly in the things no other person can do, as this gives them a sense of dignity and purpose (Roy Bahat also mentioned this in his piece). If you don't believe it, watch these snippets from this awesome documentary (minute 4:07 43:09, 53:15).

b) Work is an increasingly personal matter

The way we work is increasingly embedded in our personal and social life - the (likely Anglo-Saxon) notion that work can be a defining element of one's life ("live to work" rather than "work to live") seems like it could be spreading (perhaps one's confirmation bias). Pew's research stated in 2011 already that: “home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored”.

c) Creative, intellectual or personal care work is almost endless

When we look at creative, intellectual and personal care work that is produced within a society, the ability to expand it is almost endless: assuming there is some way to fund that increase in supply, the marginal utility derived from these services (how much more you like or dislike an extra hour of it) doesn't approach 0 like it would for a physical good like apples. If we were able to increase the societal demand for these services through increased funding, the supply could be increased to represent a large percentage of the workforce in the future.

These three factors contribute to making work about more than a simple economic exchange, and explain why it is that people work more when they have meaningful work, sometimes defying rational economic thinking. When people like their job (and we tend to look for reasons to like it unless it's a horrible job), they create a link that goes beyond its economic value - and this has important implication for the future of work.

Lessons for the future of work

One key lesson from this phenomenon is that work is going nowhere, regardless of the technological changes that may make some tasks redundant. You can count me in as a skeptic of the narrative that portrays a work-free society where everyone spends its Universal Basic Income in their creative endeavors.

Work is a fundamental source of identity and dignity (another great piece by Roy Bahat), and that's an important point to consider for the future of work scenarios. We'll find ways to create work, since otherwise humans will lose an important balance in their lives, and likely work that is creative, intellectual or related to personal care, since we excel at those tasks.

Since work is not leaving our lives anytime soon, this means societies will have to increase exponentially its upskilling and reskilling budgets and capabilities, a conversation that is already growing and present in mainstream media (see discussion on Canada's training vs US). We'll focus further on the upskilling and reskilling revolutions in another newsletter issue!

What do you think? We’d love to get your thoughts, please leave a comment or reply to this email! For more on our thinking, visit our Open Theses.

☀️Want to give back and build professional skills? Check out Empower Work, a national nonprofit providing a unique crisis text line for work, where workers across the U.S. connect with trained peer counselors via SMS or web chat, getting emotional and tactical support to help them tackle the challenge in a way that works best for them.

🖐️Fiveable just raised a seed round and shared its crazy last year with the world. Congrats to the team!

🤖How might technology change K-12 education? Here are some answers from a founder, a VC and a U.S. Department of Education professional.

🛠️Learn about the work Bitwise is doing around upskilling in this piece, as a part of a wider series by The Atlantic

💻Want to learn how digital credentials are redefining the world of education and hiring? Join this upcoming online discussion, with experts author Ryan Craig, on Tuesday.

👋Looking for opportunities or want to say hi? Introduce yourself here!


Venture Associate @ EdConnective

EdConnective's mission is to transform education from the bottom up by ensuring student success through transformative teacher training.

All the updated job opportunities can be found on our Job Board!

  1. Associate Education Designer, Micro-credentialing- EdDesign Lab

  2. Software Engineer and Head of Coaching - CareerCopilots

  3. Manager of Schools Partnerships - EdConnective

  4. Microverse - Product Management

  5. Operations Intern - 256 Ventures

  6. London Interdisciplinary School - Strategy and Operations Associate

Fill out this form if you are looking to hire or get hiredand check out our job board for updated openings.

We are starting a series this week where we’ll introduce you to our Transcend Fellows.

This week we’ll learn about Vartika, CEO and co-founder of Stackraft.

What does Stackraft do?

StackRaft is a one-stop platform that helps to hire software engineers globally in the simplest way ever.

What stage are you at/what are you working on this quarter/year?

We are in open beta now. Companies hiring engineers can post jobs, start getting applications and candidate recommendations instantly. For the next quarter, we are working on the talent feed where top candidates will be featured, we will be partnering with many more boot camps and developer hubs to give them access to curated jobs.

What is one trend/shift that you are confident will be a part of the future of learning and work?

More & more companies will go remote and hire from a global talent pool. The future of work will truly become location-independent and free of biases in hiring.

What’s your call to action to the community?

If you're hiring or looking for a job, create a profile on Stackraft and share your feedback with us. This will really help us build a good experience as per your needs.

Thanks for reading another week! For any feedback, requests or ideas, reply to this email.

Alberto(alberto@transcend-network.comMichael (michael@transcend-network.com)

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