THE MANY MUST FAIl (PART TWO)
Welcome back to my analysis of Vidal Gore’s statement ‘It is not enough to succeed, others must fail’. At the end of the last instalment it was suggested that when Lewis Hamilton said ‘You can do it, too, man’ he was not referring to world-famous achievements like becoming Formula 1 champion, but rather everyday goals.
Perhaps the most universal everyday goal in societies with commercial markets is the quest to find an enjoyable, rewarding job. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, is a question that is asked of most of us, and we are encouraged to believe there is every chance that we will find work that pays us to do what we love, if we are willing to expend appropriate amounts of effort in finding such jobs.
However, even in this case I think the saying “it is not enough to succeed, others must fail” still applies. Moreover, competitive markets actually need people to fail in achieving their dreams much more than it needs them to succeed.
This brings me to what I call the ‘Lottery Problem’. I call it that because people’s attitude towards getting their dream job is similar to their attitude toward winning the lottery jackpot. Of course, there is no one-to-one comparison of the jobs market and a lottery, such that one is exactly equivalent to the other. Winning the lottery is entirely down to luck, whereas actually getting your dream job entails a mixture of luck and other factors, such as talent, and knowing the right people. Another difference is that, where the lottery is concerned, it is possible to quantify your chances of success. You just figure out how many possible combinations of numbers you have to choose from, and how many tickets you have bought, and that gives you odds of 1 in 14 million or whatever the results are. On the other hand, where jobs are concerned there are so many variables involved that you cannot really say with precision what your chances of success are.
Having dealt with the way in which the jobs market is not like the lottery, let’s now look at how they are comparable. For one thing, when it comes to the lottery, most people understand that their chances of winning the jackpot are, to say the least, not great; but they also believe that if they just keep on playing, then eventually their numbers have just got to come up. This attitude goes some way to explain the strange fear players have when they forget to buy a ticket. “I’m not watching the draw this week, because I don’t want to see my numbers come up when I don’t have a valid ticket to make a claim with!”, is how we commonly feel if we normally play the lottery but forgot to buy a ticket.
Really, though, we should feel more confident about our numbers not coming up in that particular week than we feel about going outdoors and not being struck down by a bolt of lightning, because the odds of winning are so very, very tiny. Indeed the chances of picking the right numbers are so small, you could play the lottery for hundreds of years and you would still almost certainly never win the jackpot. But most people don’t get this, and think that if they just keep playing, week after week, eventually they’ll win.
Similarly, most people seem to believe that if one just keeps on persisting, eventually the door of opportunity has got to open for you, and you’ll get that dream job. Surely, if you never give up and try, try, try again, those in a position to give you a break will give you a break. They cannot ignore you forever! Well, actually, yes they can, and for similar reasons why you probably will never win the Lottery. It’s because there are so few dream jobs and so many people competing to be accepted into such positions.
Hell, these days, what with Covid lockdown decimating whole sectors of the market, even quite crappy jobs, the sort of work you would not choose to do but instead are coerced into taking on, driven by the fear of what could happen if you refuse (‘if I don’t submit to this job I could end up homeless’) have multiple applications for every job offer. If there are 50 applicants for every such job, you are more likely to be one of the 49 unsuccessful applicants than the chosen one, as those applying for job after job without getting so much as a response, let alone an actual offer, know only too well.
And those are the crappy jobs, the sort of work nobody cites when asked ‘and what do you want to do when you grow up?’. As for job vacancies offering the sort of career people do often cite as ‘what I would love to do’, those job offers come up about as rarely as your winning lottery numbers. On the exceedingly rare occasions when such job offers do turn up, of course millions of hopeful applicants are going to be competing to get it. Very few will succeed and the vast majority will fail. Which group do you think you’ll most likely be in?
Nevertheless, whenever somebody cites some enjoyable, socially meaningful, and well-paid work as their preferred job, nobody ever tells them they have very little chance of ever doing such work. On the contrary, we are led to believe we have every chance of gaining such employment, given adequate effort on our behalf, just as the lottery tells us ‘It could be you!’, as if there really is every chance of your ticket being the winning ticket.
But the truth of the matter is that, not only will most of us fail, most of us must fail. The reason why is the same in both cases; it’s because that’s where the money comes from.
There is a scene in the film ‘Bruce Almighty’, in which Bruce, who has temporarily been granted the powers of God, decides to answer the prayers of every person wishing they would win the lottery, thinking universal granting of this wish will please all those praying their numbers will come up. Instead, he ends up making the players angry because everyone ends up having to share the jackpot with everyone else, which means they get like one dollar each. The lottery actually depends on the many failing to pick winning numbers and buying tickets that are not worth a damn, in order to build up a prize fund that makes one or two people enormously rich.
Similarly, it’s not so much the people who actually do rewarding, aspirational jobs who create the wealth of the world. No, that wealth is mostly created by those who have to toil away for minimal compensation, exploited more than they are rewarded, and motivated to turn up for work day after day because of coercion rather than any real hope of personal reward, who actually create the wealth that translates into billions of profit for the few.
Indeed, given the primary purpose of a job, it’s clear that the less rewarding such work is, the better. You see, jobs do not exist primarily to provide enjoyable, secure, and financially rewarding work for employees to do; jobs exist primarily to generate profit for the business, so from that perspective the employee is there to have value extracted from them, much more than they are there to gain from the job.
What is an ideal employee from the perspective of a business’s owner? From that perspective, an ideal employee is one who is competent, replaceable, and cheap. They need to be competent, obviously, because if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. They need to be replaceable because if a job needs to be done but the employee doing it is difficult to replace, the business is in trouble if something were to happen which would mean the person doing that job cannot work. On the other hand, being in a position where one can quickly fill a vacant position is a whole lot more convenient for the business. Finally, if you can hire cheap employees, that saves on costs, which translates into more profit.
Now, in order to have employees who are as competent, replaceable, and cheap as they can possibly be, the working environment has to be structured to ensure that this is the sort of worker you will be hiring. The most effective way to create such an environment is by reducing, as far as possible, certain qualities of work.
Creativity needs to be reduced, so that your employees don’t need to use much imagination in order to carry out their job. Challenge needs to be reduced, so that the employee does not need to exercise much in the way of problem-solving logic in order to do their work. The less mastery an employee needs to acquire to do the job, the better, so there is a motive to try and minimise the skill required of employees to do the job.
So, as far as business is concerned, the more the creativity, challenge, and mastery needed to do a job can be eliminated, the better. This is because it puts the boss in the welcome position of being able to treat employees less like unique individuals, and more like interchangeable components. The more you can treat employees like interchangeable components, the more you can exploit your workers. The boss who can tell her workers “if you don’t like this deal, then I can soon find someone who will do your job” is a boss who can extract maximum profit from her workers.
Another way to put this would be to say that jobs approach the challenge of work from precisely the opposite position from videogames. You see, fundamentally, a videogame offers repetitive, drudge work. After all, what you are physically doing while playing a videogame is repeatedly mashing buttons. Videogame designers take that dull foundation and add opportunities to exercise the imagination via the inclusion of content-creation tools; opportunities to exercise one’s problem solving logic by including challenges to overcome; and opportunities to gain in mastery by adding levels of skill and sensory-feedback information that helps players learn from their mistakes and improve through guided trial-and-error. The reason why videogames designers strive to include more creativity, challenge, and mastery into their game is because they want players to play the game, enjoy the experience, and recommend it to others. If that happens, they sell more units and make more profit. Conversely, since businesses strive to reduce costs and workers’ wages and other benefits comprise some of the largest expenses businesses must cover, the motivation is to turn work from something that had the qualities of challenge, creativity and mastery, and turn it into drudgery. That way, the business need only hire cheap labour or even eliminate human labour altogether and automate the job.
But from the employee’s perspective, this drive to turn work into drudgery is problematic, because Creativity, Challenge and Mastery are the very qualities of work that make it an enjoyable, meaningful and rewarding experience. That is precisely why videogames designers try to include more of these qualities in their product, so more of us will pay to experience that kind of work. Of course, not all jobs can have those qualities reduced to the point where work becomes drudgery because some, by their very nature, resist efforts to rid them of the need to apply creativity, problem-solving logic and so forth. But such jobs are outnumbered by the ones that do allow for the conversion of work into drudgery, and since tech innovators are well aware that businesses would pay good money for technologies that would enable those jobs that resist this drive to succumb to it, they are motivated to try and find ways of turning the jobs that are resistant into just another job that can become drudgery.
Given these facts we can explain two otherwise puzzling situations. People are obviously made to work. We have big brains, evolved to solve problems and to be imaginative; hands adapted to work with a wide variety of tools and we are at our healthiest when mentally and physically active as part of a cooperative group. So really we should take to work like a fish takes to swimming. Nevertheless every study into people’s attitude towards work finds that the vast majority of us hate out job. Now we know why that is.
Also, it explains why social security systems tend to operate like they seek to punish the unemployed more than offer them genuine support. When work is designed to be unrewarding the only way to get people to submit to employment is by making their jobless lives even worse.
“It is not enough to succeed, others must fail”. Yes indeed. The vast majority of us will never fulfil our dreams because we must not, for the sake of profit. The jobs market, which dominates the best years of our lives, pursues goals that seeks to turn work into drudgery and requires the existence of social structures that coerce the majority of us into sacrificing our dreams and submitting to labour that is not at all rewarding.