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VOCATIONAL REFUGEE

December 10th, 2020

This episode is dedicated to the person behind the Twitter handle @nutzeeer

 

It seems likely that anyone who makes a living as a truck driver is going to wake up soon and find that the majority of their professional function has been outsourced to a robotic truck that doesn’t need to sleep, never looses focus, doesn’t need to eat, and requires no human.  This sort of thing was very rare in the past and with the induction of the industrial revolution a couple hundred years ago, this phenomenon is becoming more frequent.  With the accelerating evolution of technology in nearly every facet of life there is a real probability that this situation may become a kind of norm across the board.  The dominate perspective around this either lapses into full-fledged denial, rebutted by comments like “not in my lifetime!”  or it’s met with a sober fear.  But both may be over reactions.

 

As humans, we seem particularly talented at failing to realize how quickly things have changed and failing to see how quickly things might continue to change.  It was but a few short years ago no one had a cellphone, let alone a supercomputer which connects a person to a global web replete with knowledge, communication and other resources.  The new normal becomes business as usual exceptionally quick, and soon enough we are smirking with the thought of incompetence when the wifi craps out while sitting in a metal tube that is safely hurtling through the stratosphere at several hundred miles per hour.  It perhaps does well to remember that Wilbur Wright, one half of the brother team that first achieved flight, said that man would not fly for at least fifty years - and that he said this just two years before he and his brother figured it out.

 

In an age of accelerating technology, more and more people are going to be obligated with the humbling task of eating their own words after saying “Not in my life time!”

 

But returning to that truck driver, what is a person supposed to do?  When your main set of skills suddenly becomes irrelevant because there is a much cheaper non-human way to get the work done, the situation creates a kind of Vocational Refugee.  The year 2020 has given many a taste of this sort of situation by dint of governmental lockdowns.  Many people have suffered due to the financial dead end created by an inability to generate an income coupled with the sheer need to live.  Some governments had the resources and the organizational power to fill in this missing piece of the puzzle, effectively putting a kind of ‘pause’ on the lives of many workers.

 

How was the time for such people spent?  Did such people recognize the fragility of their profession and get busy carving out a new career in a more robust field that can stand the shock of something like a pandemic?  Certainly some did.  But most?  Very hard to say, but likely.. not.

 

One reason for this is the retirement paradox.  Many people, after retiring from a long career spanning many decades simply stop doing… anything.  Having been somewhat forced to do tasks under the guidance of a boss for so many years, it’s clear that something lively deep within the human spirit gets beaten down to the point where a retired person just doesn’t want to do anything they don’t want to do, and having been completely starved of the time required to discover what they might actually enjoy putting some effort into, there is only a void that is filled, most often with TV and food.  Mindless consumption becomes the Modus Operandi of the mind that has forgotten how to motivate itself.

 

To juxtapose, notice how very wealthy, older people who have created their own companies don’t really ever seem to retire.  Jeff Bezos could retire with enough money to float him for several hundred lifetimes of the most opulent expenditure.  And yet he keeps going to work.

 

Why?

 

The answer is painfully obvious, but not one that many people juxtapose with themselves in a tight enough way to really resonate.  He does it because he wants to.  So why don’t more retired people want to do things?  Particularly difficult things?  It goes back to that double-edged human talent of adjusting to a new normal: if you’ve spent years and decades following the dictates of others, your ability to generate dictates for yourself has likely lost it’s voice from disuse.  One of the principles of Tinkered Thinking applies here: 

 

Use it to boost it or lose it.

 

Things are either pushed forward to improve, or they degenerate on their own.  This applies to things as elemental as drive, creativity and personal fulfilment.

 

Using and boosting any of these characteristics requires time and energy, and for many working people all that time and energy is devoted to the fulfillment of a job as dictated by someone else, and so when a big fat chunk of time suddenly comes along, many people just don’t know what to do with it, and their natural energy suddenly has no direction.  More importantly such people have little ability to direct their own energy because that task has been handled by the routine of a job.   Aimless energy turns into an anxiety that is often quelled in a retired way: with mindless consumption.  

 

Directing one’s own energy is a skill that requires exercise like a muscle.  And without regular exercise, it’s nothing short of a painful shock to suddenly try and use it after long disuse - as with any muscle.

 

That pernicious human ability to quickly adjust turns out to be a virtue in this situation.  Soon enough the pain and shock subsides with continued exercise and with practice, it doesn’t become too difficult to direct one’s own energy and find a more fulfilling way of living.  But that’s easier written in a sentence than actually done - many people don’t achieve it, even when handed the opportunity.

 

One might imagine a sort of restart-center - a place or a program that would enable someone to subsist, that is the basic necessities are taken care of: food and shelter, and this persists for as long as it takes for someone to get back on their feet with a new purpose, mission and career.  It’s a nice thought, but such a thing probably doesn’t exist because there’s no clear nor guaranteed return on investment, and because it’s never been tried before.

 

There are, however, programs and economic structures emerging that tap into this idea.  An ISA is an Income Sharing Agreement, which means, instead of going into debt to pay for a program, a person will dedicate a percentage of their future income to the program that is enabling them with the skills to get that job in the first place.  The growing coding school called Lambda School functions with this sort of set up, and the results so far have been spectacular from the looks of it.  People who were formally making sandwiches or even homeless are now buying homes with the salaries they have earned after going through Lambda School.  Notice, how the incentives are aligned correctly in this situation.  Teachers are motivated to create very capable students because if they don’t, then the school doesn’t make any money.  

 

Notice how this sort of incentive structure has always been absent from something that might look like a ‘restart center’.  Are there any homeless shelters that have the agreement option that they will provide food and shelter in exchange for a percentage of income after a person has learned a new skill and gotten back on their feet?  If so, I’d love to know about such a homeless shelter.  

 

Frankly, before recent times, there wasn’t much incentive to experiment with such structures.  Most people stuck with a profession for decades on end.  Those who lost their jobs were just deemed unlucky, like the Ludites. But as this situation becomes more frequent and widespread - exacerbated particularly by the student loan crises, civilization will be pressed to explore new structures to enable its continuation.  

 

This is a key point.  Ask yourself: what’s the point of civilization?  There might be some future evolved answer, but for the most part, civilization is an experimental survival technique.  We found out we were far more capable as a larger group than as a smaller group or on our own.  If the structure of civilization suddenly betrays this core function -it doesn’t lead to the crumbling of society or the apocalypse as many think but to an evolution of civilization.

 

A total melt down is certainly possible.  It’s happened to many pockets of civilization throughout the millennia, but the root cause of our anxiety today may also function as a protective solution to the problem it seems to cause.  That being, technology.  We are more connected than ever before and on many metrics, society is improving rapidly, as hard as that might be to believe given the flashy and shocking bad news that spreads so quickly and easily on the news and within social media platforms.    One good example is how acutely aware we are of impending climate change problems.  Former incarnations of human civilization would have had no warning on such a topic.  Asteroid impacts are another - former civilizations would be caught totally off guard, but present civilization actively tracks the position and velocity of nearly every large object in the solar system.  Reflect for a moment on how utterly incredible that fact is.  We achieve this task to such a degree of resolution that we’re quite sure a rather large object is going to impact Earth in 48 years.  Is it something to worry about?  Only if you don’t know about it.  Which is a very inconvenient catch-22 of which we are on the right side of.  48 years is far more time than we need to figure out how to nudge that existential disaster off course.

Zooming out on the topic of civilization and zooming back in reveals one important trend: we are adaptive, and crucially, we are becoming more adaptive as times necessitate. 

 

Yes, adaptation is painful, but luckily, we are quite capable in this area.  For some, such adaptation might be a low probability outcome, especially if those muscles of adaptation and self-determination haven’t really been exercised for decades.  But low-likelihood is infinitely more likely than impossible.  If incentives and pressures are of proper structure and intensity, chances are just about everyone can change.

 

One final facet of this topic is absolutely fundamental: stress.  Losing a job with nothing new on offer is extremely stressful.  When necessities like food and shelter are under threat as a result, the human brain has a very high likelihood of entering a vicious downward spiral of chronic stress.  The most important fact about chronic stress is that brain function is severely impacted in the overwhelming majority of people.  Put simply: the poorer a person is, the less likely a person will get out of poverty because the stress of poverty makes it far more difficult to think properly and make good long term decisions.  This is a neurological fact: chronic stress makes you stupid.  Or rather, it makes MOST people stupider than they actually are.  This sly process is conveniently absent from discussion of poverty, debt (which is one of the largest causes of chronic stress), welfare programs and differentiations between classes of people.  No discussion of this topic is even remotely informed without a thorough understanding of the neuroendocrinology involved.  These neurological processes and effects were first and foremost laid bare in Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers”. Which is essential reading on the topic.

 

The conclusion to be drawn from such research provides a deep logic for why new incentive structures like Income Sharing Agreements as offered by Lambda School are experiencing such incredible success.  Rumour has it that Lambda School has grand future ambitions to expand into many different fields of study and skill, effectively creating a kind of restart structure for those who find themselves to be vocational refugees.


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