How 'The Wealth of Humans' Explains Why You Work So Hard

The wonderful and depressing reality of work - including higher ed work - in the 21st century.

October 16, 2016

The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century by Ryan Avent

Published in September of 2016

Why do you work so hard, and for so many hours, at your (higher ed) job?

The answers to this question is not immediately obvious. Some clues may be found in Ryan Avent’s excellent new book, The Wealth of Humans.

Avent is a senior editor and economics columnist for The Economist - and his book is basically what you’d expect from an Economist editor/writer. The degree to which you like this book will be highly correlated with your affection for The Economist.

What does an Economist devotee look like? Maybe economically moderate. Perhaps on the socially socially liberal side. Globalist, pro-technology, curious, optimistic, and skeptical. You?

So why does Avent think that you work all the time?

One reason that is explored in The Wealth of Humans is the current reality of labor abundance

The disturbing reality for all of us - no matter what job that we do - is that we are all eminently replaceable. All of us overestimate the degree to which we are “essential” for the running of our organization. The truth is that if we left today, the place would get on quite nicely without us.

Do you ever sit on search committees? Are you as amazed as I am about how many incredible people seem to apply for every available position? Not only are there large number of applicants, many of them seem to be better qualified than those of us doing the hiring. 

Who in their right mind would want to compete in a job search with the seemingly endless supply of brilliantly experienced and credentialed job-seeking competitors?

The argument that Avent makes in The Wealth of Humans is that for most jobs, including the higher ed jobs that we work in, that we are living in an age of labor abundance. The nature of our cognitive work means that many people - with many different backgrounds - could do our jobs very well. Someone who is a strong collaborator, writer, analyst, and communicator can translate those general skills to many specific tasks.

So one of the reasons that we all work so hard is that we know that we are vulnerable to being replaced. We work hard to make ourselves as essential as possible. We work hard because we know that there are large numbers of potential replacements, all willing to work whatever hours it may take to succeed at any task.

But fear doesn’t explain everything. The other reason that Avent believes that professionals work so hard - and here I’m including higher ed people - is that we love our jobs.  Our work is intrinsically interesting. We have spent many years developing expertise in our chosen field, and a recognition of expertise feels rewarding.

Another reason that work is so rewarding is that our professional networks and our social networks are tightly integrated. We work with people that we like, and like the people that we work with. The divide between our work lives and our personal lives has basically disappeared. Our identity is tied up with our jobs.

What makes one successful at their job? And what sorts of people thrive in higher ed? Avent argues that successful professionals learn how to navigate the culture of their organizations. Further, the most successful organizations are those with high levels of social capital. The value created in the best organizations is a function of how the work is organized. The production of this value cannot be reduced to a set of instructions, rules, or procedures. Rather, the value is driven by the internal motivation of the members of the organization - and their ability to flexibly collaborate, create, and deliver.

The best organizations, including the best colleges and universities, put a premium on socializing new entrants into the culture (including values and traditions) of the organization. We work so hard, in part, because we feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We believe that the mission of the organization aligns to our own values and goals, and that our work is an important part of achieving that larger institutional mission.

How will technology change any of this?

Will the rise of ever-smarter algorithms and ever-more capable robots further erode the value of work and workers?

In our higher ed world, how will the availability of ever-better adaptive learning platforms, and ever-improving open online courses, impact the fortunes of individual educators?

How worried should higher ed people be about the rise of the robots?

For Avent, the answers to these questions will depend less on how quickly the technologies improve, and more on how adaptable our social, political, and organizational policies will become. On this score, Avent is not very hopeful - as he sees years (perhaps decades) of wrenching political discord and organizational dysfunction in the face of rapidly changing technologies.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a good job - including a good higher ed job - can expect to be working even harder (and less securely) in the years to come.

Do you love your (higher ed) job, and do you work all the time?

How do you think technology will impact the future of higher ed work?

What are you reading?



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