How useful is your job?

If we were to categorize jobs according to their utility to society, I think the spectrum would look like this:

Constructive jobs

These are jobs that create, produce, or maintain something (material or not) that end-consumers demand. Butcher, Baker, Brewer, Blacksmith, Construction worker, Farmer, Miner, Software developer; Auto mechanic, Cleaning services, Electrician, Pilot, Plumber. This also includes a part of services: Delivery person, Medical and Education professions, Driver, Judge, Public safety (Firefighter, Paramedic, Police occupations); and also research, which is not always directly demanded but is nevertheless crucial to the economy.

The gray area

Entertainment jobs are a more muddy category. Although clearly not critical, entertainment has a major contribution to quality of life. Lawyers are useful when protecting one's rights, but often serve just to clarify the muddiness of the law itself.

"Filler" jobs

These jobs are NOT needed by the final consumer, but still exist and tend to regulate or annoy people: most jobs in Finance, Marketing, and Advertising; Salesman, Tax collector, Insurance agent, Telemarketer. These jobs exist for two main reasons:

  • due to intermediate layers in the economy that separate the producer from the consumer, e.g. advertising and sales
  • because they're a necessary evil to cope with the shortcomings of the current situation in fields like law or public services (in many countries you still can't pay your bills online so cashiers are necessary)

My opinion is that after graduating, most people who don't really know how to do something TRULY USEFUL, pick a "filler job". Such a job also acts as a filler for their very life, covering the post-graduation void: Now what?

I further believe that the future will squash many of these useless jobs:

  • With the ever-increasing growth of product and reseller rating databases, advertising will gradually lose its effectiveness. For example, I don't watch TV and I use ad blocking software so I'm almost never even hit by ads, let alone influenced by those that do reach me. When I want to make a purchase, I head to a specialized reviews/ratings site, and see what other consumers' opinions are of the candidate products.

    Advertising is a necessary evil at the moment for the survival of non-profit organizations that provide useful services (for example, National Public Radio, or for funding non-profit services (think of Google applications).

  • Marketing will also be minimized to placing your product or service in a directory, and letting the competition decide. There is still the problem of achieving a critical mass of consumers to show high enough in search results, so until information technology solves that somehow, marketing won't disappear altogether.

  • Bank tellers are being replaced by online banking. Banks themselves become online-only in order to cut costs and offer their customers better rates. Only the very complex financial operations need personal interaction.

  • Many brokers and financial analysts are being eliminated by electronic trading.

  • With the advent of web sites comparing insurance agencies, many (esp. car) Insurance agents lost their jobs.

  • Travel agents have been partially replaced by a host of travel web sites, although it still takes a certain amount of voodoo to find the actual cheapest flight to somewhere.

  • The logistics of paying taxes in the US are horrendous (read my essay The brutal cost of paying taxes). In Europe, the population can pay taxes online for free.

Conclusion

What the industrial revolution did in the 19th century, the information revolution is doing now: jobs that don't really justify their existence are being replaced by technology.

Is there such a thing as a truly useful job? Depends on your idea of the future. If robots will ever be able to take on the most specialized human tasks, then perhaps not. The question then makes sense only in the "current" timeframe of the next 10-20 years. But there are certainly jobs that are being eliminated nowadays, and for good reason. Is yours one of them? Ask yourself this question: if you got hit by a bus, to what extent would other people (and/or goods) be impacted?

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