The Decline of Work When you slack off and withhold your human capital, you steal from everyone.

 (WSJ) You hear these all the time now. “I want a career with a purpose,” which usually means an activist. Or “I need a good work-life balance,” which suggests someone doesn’t want to work very hard. Gimme a break. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company told me he recently spent an entire afternoon discussing his company’s pet-bereavement policy. He asked the human-resources folks, “Let me get this right, someone’s goldfish dies, and they get a week off from work?”

Work has become a dirty word. Cyber bohemians just want to dream and stream. And now this: The New York Times ran an opinion piece titled “How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work.” What? Paper cuts are a bigger risk these days than losing an arm in a loom. Still, I thought the piece would be about dirty jobs—the hardships of coal miners, the plight of burnt-out nurses, or the inhumanity of waking up at 5 a.m. to milk cows. Nope. The author complained about digital monitoring—coders, cashiers, and others being tracked by evil bosses, who are measuring productivity. Gasp! Has society become that spoiled? Apparently so. The prevailing thinking is we’re all Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz wrapping chocolates on a conveyor belt.

Only 8.4% of U.S. nonfarm payroll positions are in manufacturing. Many of those jobs were exported long ago to cheaper labor markets such as China. Even if some of those jobs return to the U.S., many workers aren’t qualified. Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame said, “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist.” So they are underemployed. Or quit. Or seek purpose and balance.

We rightly encourage STEM jobs—science, technology, engineering, and math. I recently learned of HEAL jobs. Dog walkers? No, jobs in health, education, administration, and literacy. These are the growing jobs of a vibrant service economy.

It isn’t news that the U.S. is a service economy, yet too often the focus is on labor vs. capital as if we still make widgets. Unions want to arm-wrestle value from the capital and force higher wage payouts than are economically sound. This blatantly disregards human capital—what workers learn on the job is theirs to keep. We increase productivity and wealth by having workers figure out how to do more with less from the bottom up. So please stop paying people not to work. The best antipoverty program is a job because a job’s value comes from this increase in human capital. One-time payments are a waste.

I’ve written often that profits are a measure of the societal wealth created by corporations, and that the price paid for products and services is the minimum amount of value created. If that weren’t true, we could all grow our own food or assemble our own iPhones. But we can’t. Jobs are very much like profits. All jobs, from the machine-learning coder to the oil-rig worker to the Safeway bagger, increase societal wealth. Why? Because we don’t have to do those jobs ourselves. Think of pay as personal profits. Every (legal) job adds value, and if you slack off or don’t deploy your human capital and live up to your potential, you’re stealing societal wealth from the rest of us. That’s selfish.

People generally are paid what they are worth. Well, except for jobs with artificial shortages such as doctors, lawyers, and those requiring occupational licensing. Or those bumped up by minimum-wage laws. Or public-sector-union jobs such as teachers. OK, that’s a lot of skewed salaries! Higher pay comes from productivity and education, not government scheming.

Unions are on the rise again, attempting to organize Starbucks stores (more money for barista body piercings?), Amazon warehouses, and every other service-economy job. It’s wealth destruction. And now there is a call for pandemic amnesty, perhaps for teacher unions that kept schools closed with their selfish demands. Should they get a mulligan? Only if students get the same for that C-plus on the Dickens test or not knowing the word “avarice” on the SAT.

Interest rates are rising. Though it is still hard to find cashiers or construction workers, layoffs are rampant in overbuilt Silicon Valley, a canary in the coal mine. Half of Twitter, 11,000 at Meta, plus Stripe, Zillow, Snapchat, Netflix, Coinbase, Robinhood, Salesforce, Lyft, even Virgin Hyperloop—and more to come. The purpose of a job may go back to being a paycheck again.

Advice from Mike Rowe: “Stop looking for the ‘right’ career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable.” He’s right—and build human capital. A job already has a purpose. And please don’t ask for pet-bereavement benefits.

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