Are jobs taken or created?

September 21, 2017

I was grocery shopping in Ralph’s the other day and started to use the self-checkout scanner when I heard a woman nearby say “I know you think you’re cool…”

I looked up, not sure if she was talking to me, but presuming that she was teasing me about something playfully.

She continued, “I know you think you’re cool, but you’re taking jobs away from…” and pointed to the employees working behind the normal checkout lines.

Her face was dead serious and her tone sounded bitter and judgmental. She wasn’t teasing me. She was blaming me.

I was somewhat shocked and muttered something like “Thanks for letting me know…” in a less-than-enthused voice, but could not stop thinking about the encounter.

At first I was angry that some lady I had never even met decided to judge me. I “thought I was cool.” Maybe sometimes I can be vain but a self-checkout line being cool? Really?

But then I started to think that this obviously wasn’t about me, and she’s not the only one that feels this way.

There is a substantial part of the U.S. population that feels like jobs are being taken from them.

The advance of technology, automation and now the massive wave of AI about to hit the shores of almost every industry is really scary if you think of it in terms of a job-stealing, industry-crushing threat to your career and well-being.

And I think the less comfortable we are with the inevitable progress that is developing, the more we fear, and the angrier we get.

But let’s pause to actually think through this for a second.

What is a job?

A job is where you provide a valuable service to someone that pays you to meet a need they have.

When you hire someone for a job, you are looking at the total value they provide to you, including their personality, their profit potential for your company or even the friction they reduce so you can move closer to your goals.

The value they provide is worth more to you than the money you pay them.

And if you are evaluating multiple people for one job, you will choose the person that you feel will provide the most net value to both you and your company.

Now for the people who don’t provide enough value, is it your responsibility to hire them just to help them out? Even if they are not needed, or do a worse job than your top candidate?

I have never heard someone argue that you should hire every single person that applies for a position, just to make sure they’re all employed.

That would not only be bad for the company (some would go bankrupt), but it would be bad for the customers that the company serves.

Cash flow, resources and a combination of positions and talents that could have gone to creating a more helpful service has now gone to managing an array of employees that are not needed, are not providing value and may even be causing problems that top performers have to solve on top of their existing responsibilities.

This is a charity, not a company.

It’s totally fine to encourage those so inclined to start a non-profit for those suffering from unemployment, but that’s a lot different than running a for-profit business.

A company is focused (at least it should be) on providing its customers the best possible good or service that it can while still remaining profitable and creating a sustainable financial system. That’s how it stays in business.

It shouldn’t be focused on making sure everyone in its industry is employed. Nor should it be forced to employ people that add no value to the company’s goals.

Think about if the government forced you to hire landscapers for your yard if you didn’t need or want them, just so they could be employed.

Or if you were forced to hire someone to vacuum your home if you just bought a Roomba.

The service they provide would not be valuable, yet you are forced to pay them. This hardly would seem fair or reasonable.

Yet people still seem to latch on to the idea that jobs should be given, protected and secure, even if they become obsolete.

Is it the responsibility of the innovators, businesses and customers to pay people for useless or subpar services? Or is it the responsibility of those seeking jobs (and asking for money) to provide value?

Providing value inherently requires learning, innovation, hardship and creativity, all on a very regular basis.

Doctors continue their education after they go to med school. Graphic designers stay on the edge of their field so they can be current but progressive. Musicians constantly evolve to connect with their audience in new ways.

And the same principle applies to factory workers, accountants, retail workers and yes, grocery store employees.

It is intrinsically not static.

Just because what you’ve done has been helpful for 20 years, it doesn’t mean it’s helpful now. If you don’t decide to stay valuable, you cannot complain that no one finds you valuable or wants to pay you.

It’s no one’s fault that technology continues to advance and provide us with more ease, convenience and often a better quality of life, and we certainly shouldn’t feel bad for enjoying processes and technologies that make our lives better.

And of course this is going to always get rid of certain jobs (remember, value in exchange for money), because the value disappears or is superseded by a much more valuable solution.

Automatic cars will put drivers out of business just like digital media has put newspapers out of business.

But the point is not to yell and complain at progress. It’s coming and we can’t stop it. Why would we want to?

It gives us the opportunity to use our creativity, take responsibility and think about how we can create value now and in the future. Not rest on what we used to do to help people, but figure out how we can help people given their current circumstances and options.

So my argument is that jobs cannot be taken, but they can (and must) be created. Because value requires creation, intention and is earned, not given.

And the feeling of having valuable skills that genuinely help people is much better than the one you get when you do something everyday that provides little to no benefit to the world just for the money.