The Overemployed Via ChatGPT
Previously: Escape Velocity From Bullshit Jobs
They took our jobs! They took… several of our jobs?
"ChatGPT does like 80 percent of my job," said one worker. Another is holding the line at four robot-performed jobs. "Five would be overkill," he said.
The stories told in this Vice article (and elsewhere) are various people who found themselves able to do most job tasks much faster than they could previously do those same tasks. They use this to take on additional ‘full time’ jobs.
If the jobs involved are productive, this reflects large increases in total factor productivity that will continue to spread. That seems great.
Still, this multiple jobs reaction is a little weird. Seems worth exploring a bit more. Why are such people taking on multiple jobs, rather than doing better at one job?
A Question of Composition and Compensation
Simple math plus social dynamics. Multiple ‘full time’ jobs lead to much better pay.
In most salaried jobs, compensation is mostly dictated by social status and hierarchy. You are mostly paid what people with your title and position are paid.
A killer employee who can produce ten times as much work product of identical quality per hour, or superior work worth ten times as much - such as the standard ‘10x programmer’ - would be supremely lucky to earn double the pay of a worker of average skill.
This is a key reason why great employees are so valuable. Not only do you only manage and communicate with one person instead of ten, you save tons of money.
Why does it work this way? Compensation in jobs is inherently about comparisons, about social status, about hierarchy and about fairness norms. It is also about what can be justified to others, what is standard and what sounds ‘reasonable.’ If you tried paying your 10x employee five times what your 1x employees get paid, the 1x employees would revolt, the boss would think you were crazy and the funders would raise hell, you would resent that they’re paid more than you are, and so on. Also, they’d know the employee didn’t ‘need’ the money. Who do they think they are?
Our norms continuously push such dynamics towards equality.
Workarounds for Insufficient Pay Inequality
We do have several known existing solutions for this. I’ll consider the top three.
Option 1: The default reward is that by doing amazing work you would ‘get promoted’ into a different job, where you would have different tasks. Where you are likely not 10x the standard. One of those tasks will be management of other employees, which you likely hate and do not want to do. This then gives social justification for increased compensation, but destroys value and your experience. It will probably take many promotions to triple your compensation. Getting those promotions will likely require you doing battle inside a moral maze and be unlinked to your newfound production.
It is easy to see why someone getting a supercharge to their productivity from GPT-4 would be uninterested in climbing the corporate ladder.
Option 2: One can break free from salary or even hourly pay entirely, as some fields and professions allow. If you are for example a 10x salesman, artisan, trader, merchant, tournament competitor, poker player or author, you keep the extra production. There is no need to split your attentions to justify increasing your compensation.
Option 3: If you want to make the really big bucks, you do not want a job. What you want is equity. You want skin in the game. That is The Way.
I highly recommend to anyone who is capable and motivated that you want to take option three to the greatest extent possible. Early employee is good. Founder is better.
It is not simple, easy or safe.
Founding a company or running a business requires taking on a wide variety of other problems and tasks, and taking on a lot of risk. It is not for everyone, even among those who are highly productive and self-motivating.
The Overemployment Option
Often none of the three above options will be viable. Promotions don’t offer much, your profession has equality norms for compensation and you don’t see a good path to equity. Yet your productivity is now very high.
Option 4: You take multiple jobs. It is much easier to do 10 hours of work for each of three jobs at $250k each than it is to do 40 hours of work and get them to pay you $750k.
This is even more true if the large positive productivity shock is available to others as well, and uses methods others might copy, frown upon or ban. If you suddenly 5x your production people are going to want to know why.
Note both the similarities and differences to those who work two lower-end jobs in order to make ends meet, where various norms prevent earning more pay from only one job, no matter how many hours they could put in or how productive they could be.
Should You Do This?
You should absolutely do the part where you get massive productivity gains, if your profession of choice allows massive productivity gains.
The question is what to do with those gains. When is multiple jobs the way?
If you need to take on multiple jobs to pay the bills, consider trying to find better paying work, and ask whether you’re spending more than you need to, and so on, but certainly lack of solvency is a good reason to go down the multiple jobs path at least for a time.
Otherwise, assuming you can pay the bills without additional jobs, my take is:
Prioritize getting skin in the game. Equity rules everything around you.1
Only then, ask whether what you’re already doing effectively ‘caps out’ in time.
Get sleep, keep sane, have a social life, learn, explore and so on.
Even if your primary job can’t provide skin in the game, taking on a second project is a great opportunity to pursue skin in the game.
If you still have enough spare cycles and you can’t do better, sure, more jobs.
What happens when more and more people get such large boosts in productivity?
This could go in several different directions, which can be combined.
Acceptance. Employers increasingly look the other way, actively not minding if you take multiple jobs or even outsource your work. What matters are the results, and how much it costs to get those results.
Recalibration. Employers see the increase in productivity, demand lots more production from each worker, so it becomes impossible for all but a handful of people to hold down multiple jobs or only put in a few hours.
Dejobization. If what matters is the work, perhaps stop thinking about people as having ‘jobs’ in such contexts. More work transitions to contracts, commissions, commerce and per-result payments.
Bullshitization. If the purpose of jobs is to ensure that people have exactly one job, no more and no less, or the purpose of a job is to know that there is a person dedicated to a particular thing, then the work must expand, through ever-increasing amounts of bullshit, until the job takes the correct number of hours. That could take the form of having to be in the office, or banning the use of LLMs. It could take the form of endless meetings, although beware whisper transcriptions and summary requests being used to ignore meetings. It can mean more paperwork, more forms, more things designed to be difficult to automate, and so on. The possibilities are endless.
Regulation. Crack down on the bastards. Keep a registry of who works where and flag anyone with multiple jobs, destroy the social permissions and force them to sit idle the rest of the week or at least do something that isn’t shaped like a job. Plausible this is good, since jobs are generally not the most productive use of time.
What happens to wages and jobs? Almost anything is possible here, almost no matter the scenario, both in a particular area or in general.
Paradise. Productivity rises, more good things, more surplus, higher real wages and returns to capital, more demand for everything good, lots of things now worth doing. Things are moving fast, you do better if you adapt, cost disease still ensures everyone gets paid well.
Dystopia. Productivity rises, less jobs are needed, demand doesn’t rise that much, too many workers chase too few jobs, wages crash. Everyone without capital is scrambling to stay above water, as even if you have a ‘safe’ job there are lots of people who enter that job after losing their old one.
Redistribution. Dystopian dynamics by default, but we institute a UBI, or alternatively some sort of jobs program (even if that program is ‘require a lot of bullshit’) and this results in sufficient redistribution that everyone is mostly fine.
Would be remiss to not also mention, of course:
Slow Motion Doom. Central example: AIs soon do almost all remote jobs better than humans, anyone using a human gets outcompeted, then anyone using a not-fully-unleashed AI gets outcompeted, then the unleashed AIs rapidly get control of the future, humans have steadily less real resources over time and soon die out, even if the AIs ‘respect property rights’ in a way that humans never actually did.
Quick Doom. In the end, none of these dynamics mattered. Foom.
There will be some areas where there isn’t that much latent demand waiting to be induced, and where employment will collapse. There will be other areas where more productivity means more production, I expect software engineering to be in that space for a while although people disagree on this. And there will be areas where new jobs come to exist, or our newfound surplus induces demand despite not much change in sector productivity.
Overall, I remain an optimist about job impacts, especially for those paying attention and willing to adapt. That includes realizing that a job may not be what you need.
As a commenter notes, it’s all about the numbers - getting in early enough means massive equity, being employee #75 might mean you have equity that is nice to have while being much less valuable than your salary. The goal here is to get the kind of equity that is actually most of your expected value, even if it is usually worth zero.