Since this is a conversation I just can’t drag myself out of– this brief post by Alan Jacobs, about yet another person claiming that teaching kids to code will be our salvation, inspires me to highlight a point I’ve made a few times before. Many people are making some version of the argument that, in order to solve our unemployment problem specifically and our economic woes generally, we need to push students to pursue majors that are attractive to employers in the technology sector. There’s a lot you could say about that. I’ve argued at length that, in the short term at least, there’s no reason to believe these employers are actually having a hard time finding skilled workers. I’ve also pointed out that not everyone has the talents or temperament to succeed in these fields. Plenty of people go to college fully intending to get degrees in computer science or electrical engineering or similar and find it too hard to finish. To make matters worse, the big firms don’t want the median graduate. They want the stars. Great for the stars, but bad from a macroeconomic perspective.
But here’s a more important point: major tech firms are such a financial success in part because they employ very few people. When people talk about startups as being “lean,” when the culture celebrates how easy it is to get a tech startup off the ground, when the idea of a few college kids building an app in their dorm and becoming millionaires is a common trope, each of these things are indicative of the low labor costs involved in the tech industries. Yes, individuals can become fabulously wealthy in these firms. But they can in part because the pot is being divided between a much smaller number of people. Even the tech firms that we think of as giant companies have far fewer employees, relative to their revenues, profit, and power, than their older analogs. Last time I checked, Google had a market cap six times that of GM but employed less than a quarter as many people.
Now there’s a whole conversation we could have about capital-biased technological change and automation and the future of work. But in the most limited sense: it seems perverse, to me, to be pushing tons of kids to pursue work in an industry that is so dedicated to keeping labor costs low. And the push to further automate is only going to intensify; while I’m a skeptic towards the more outlandish claims of a “Singularity” and think people broadly overestimate the current state of artificial intelligence, there’s little question that more and more tasks are going to be performed by computers rather than coders. In other words, it’s quite reasonable to believe that the very job-killing disruption that computer scientists have created will come to affect computer science as well. That’s simply taking the logic of automation to its natural ends.
There is no connection between a field’s media visibility, or our vague intuition that a field represents “the future,” and the future job prospects of people in that field, and there’s never been any rational reason to assume that such a connection exists.