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Ask HN: Delivery guy is a chemist with 2 teenage kids. Can this happen to me?
61 points by lighttower 21 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments
As I was schlepping boxes with a man 15 years my senior from curbside up to my unit for a $25 tip, we were talking about how back at UofA he developed a 5 carbon ring synthesis method that uses free radicals to protect functional groups. He told me of his kids one finished grade 12 math in grade 10. How is this possible, in fact common, that the lowest paid people in society often have advanced degrees? I'm terrified that I'm going to end up the same way.

I don’t know how common it is but a chemist friend of mine retired early. His situation was his company was bought and layed off people, he survived. That company was bought, he survived. The 3rd time this happened, he didn’t survive.

Add ageism to the mix and I think it’s quite likely you will be out a job before you are ready to retire.

These guys that are saying “maybe he wanted to shlep boxes” are whistling past the graveyard because they don’t want to believe it could happen to them.

I wouldn't call it common. People with advanced degrees are less likely to end up in low paying jobs: https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/valueofcollegemajors/

But, it can happen for a variety of reasons, including mental illness, illness or other issues with family that result in the loss of a position. Did you ask this delivery guy why he's doing this job if he used to be a chemist? Believe it or not, sometimes people get tired of doing these kinds of jobs and decide instead to do something less stressful. I don't know how old "15 years your senior" is in this instance, but it could be a retirement job or a side hustle to get him through a rough patch. Who knows.

Can it happen to you? Certainly, it could happen to anyone without generational wealth. That is, if you don't have 6 figures invested and generating passive income, you could very well end up doing a low paid job for a long time. Plan accordingly: network, keep up to date with hot skills, and/or marry rich.

You need about 8 figures generating passive income by most estimates.

Not sure what "most estimates" means but that'd be $400k a year in passive income assuming the smallest possible number and an extremely conservative 4% return -- index funds have been hitting longterm returns around 10%.

Suffice to say, by your passive income alone you'd be in the top 1% of all American earners.

Tech is experiencing probably the biggest boom we've ever witnessed. What we're experiencing completely blows away the dot-com bubble.

If you need to trade your labor in order to keep a roof over your head, you are in the same boat as any other person who needs to do the same, no matter the sector or role. The overall trend for labor has been that of stagnation, undercutting via contracting and outsourcing, and replacement.

Companies at the forefront of our industry have colluded to keep engineer compensation artificially low. They were prosecuted for it and lost[1]. Some of those involved who colluded to keep engineer pay low were Google, Apple, Intuit, Pixar, Adobe and Lucasfilm.

At the end of the day, monied interests are actively trying to ensure that you are paid as little as possible for the work you produce. Your fear is not unfounded.

Such a predicament raises questions: What can we, as laborers, do about it? Well, if we look at history, unions were successful at winning things that we all enjoy, like the 40 hour work week and the weekend. Perhaps tech is due for a renewed interested in unionization or guilds.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-Tech_Employee_Antitrust_L...

I always wondered about this... What if those big tech giants such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google are pushing coding bootcamps and coding education at such a young age in order to dramatically reduce labor costs in like the next 10-20 years.

Oh there's zero question that what they're doing. They are greedy and they aren't satisfied with the amount they have.

dot com boom was pretty big. A lot of people who could barely program were getting big money. The nasdaq was at 5000 when the cash flow couldn't justify it.

There was a bust and I am sure it will happen again. History is cyclical. Facebook, google, apple etc. will be fine because they generate so much cash. They can afford to pay people 300k. I don't see how companies like Uber and Lyft which generate no cash can afford to pay similar salaries.

Biggest boom we’ve ever witnessed and we still accept demeaning interviews ...

That's more of a testament to the general worker's rights climate in America than it is of the tech boom itself.

Start of my junior year in chemistry at Alabama, went in to talk to my adviser (his fifth year teaching there). He was sweating over paperwork, said it was the first time he made enough to file a tax return. I said, "Excuse me, I've got to go change my major." And I did. Never looked back.

That doesn't make sense. I thought the IRS required tax returns to be filed for any amount of income over $600.

I believe if you make under ~5,000 a year you can claim exempt from federal taxes and then there is no point in filing a return because you never payed any federal taxes. But I’m not really sure on that.

Nope. It’s $12,000 for 2018.

It was actually pretty close to that at that time; at one point I thought it was like $16,000, but I'm not sure.

Well sure, better to do a subject you care something about, chemistry evidently meant nothing to you. ..So why did you choose it in the first place?

Nope,chemistry was my thing. Went all the way to the International Science Fair (high school) and won big there. Then got a National Merit, had choices of Hopkins, Stanford, etc., but stayed at Bama for family reasons (sick mom). To be fair, I also cared a lot about radio & computing, so switching to EE wasn't a big shock, but better career prospects w/o having to do a PhD.

Could just be indicative of your adviser being in a poorly paid role in academia?

Short answer, yes, it absolutely can. The reason they call it a rat race is that if you stop running (producing at a certain level) you will likely be thrown off the treadmill.

Or, perhaps the added stress (both to them and home life) was more than they wanted and they decided to stop running and go for a nice easy walk in the park.

That'd be nice, but but raising a family on a package delivery driver's income doesn't seem like a walk in the park either. I don't want to go off on a political tangent but I've always been struck by how capitalism is presented as both the great multiplier of wealth and the remorseless driver of competition and unyielding bottom lines.

Honestly, if we can ditch the myopic "quarterly perspectives," I think we can improve some, though the bottom's still gonna be what it is.

> capitalism is presented as both the great multiplier of wealth and the remorseless driver of competition and unyielding bottom lines.

It's presented that way because it's a philosophy rather than a science; it can't be tested in a controlled environment and it can have dramatically different results across countries and time periods.

Try explaining the nuances and risks and watch people's eyes glaze over. It's just easier to say capitalism will solve everything, eventually. Don't try to understand how.

And remember kids, even if you win the ratrace, you're still a rat.

> How is this possible, in fact common, that the lowest paid people in society often have advanced degrees?

I assure you, this is not the case in the US. The lowest paid people in society don't often have advanced degrees. They often have no degree or even high school education. Do some people with advanced degrees have low paying jobs? Yes. But I wouldn't say it's 'often' compared to low paid people as a whole.

Of course it can. Fancy advanced degrees aren't worth anything - that's just the lie colleges tell you so you'll part with more money. You're supposed to be the valuable part. If you aren't valuable, no matter what that means in your modern market, then you could be living in the streets.

And so the truth is laid bare.

Capital > humanity

This is why people is not free to move where they can find the most benefit, but capital is.


You could equally interpret that as character > money, like I did. And take heart that $ can't buy everything.

Ok, who at the what?

Character can't conjure a peanut butter sandwich or rent for an apartment, what do you mean?

Whenever I see things like this, I wonder about traumatic medical events. That thought wouldn't occur to me, but when my heart condition was in full force, one of my best friends on the cardiac unit was a severely overweight engineer.

We both reacted to medical trauma in different ways. He decided that he was going to quit his job and live out his days doing something physical. He thought he might get a job doing construction, stocking shelves, or anything where he would have to exercise. He wagered that it was worth taking an 80% pay cut to live for five more years. He was so serious about it that he was even asking if I thought he should keep his P.Eng on an application to work in construction. I didn't understand my heart condition or the lead up to it. So, the day after I got out of the hospital, I bought a pack of cigarettes and started smoking.

Of the people who I have stayed in touch with, not many of us have kept up with our post release resolutions. I quit smoking after about six months and took up running. One buddy took a partial early retirement and only works three days a week now. So, maybe medical trauma has absolutely nothing to do with any of these really major life changes. But to this day, whenever I hear of a story like that, I'm reminded of my friend who decided to trade in a very good engineering job for a gig in construction...

There was a survey in Silicon Valley some years ago that showed that this kind of fear goes pretty far up, plenty of millionaires fear falling off the gravy train.

I do my family's grocery shopping, and I have several times noticed new clerks at the checkout, men in the 40-65 age range who are a little too well dressed -- very nicely ironed and starched white shirts, fashionable ties and watches. They seldom become fixtures in their new positions; which way they go, IDK.

I'm the OP. I'm CEO of a small biotech company. I'm terrified, constantly, of falling of the ladder, and never again be trusted to do anything of value again. I worry that I won't be young much longer and if this one doesn't go out of the ballpark then it's game over. I'll be at Trader Joe's bagging your groceries.

Edit: Began as EE, hence my connection to HN . There isn't anything close to this community anywhere else.

I've failed before, so here is the perspective of someone else who "fell off the ladder".

It is good to be a little scared of failure. But you don't need to be terrified. If you are still young, you will have time to recover. It may have its bad moments (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13445141). If failure looks imminent, make a plan B. But you don't need to live in fear.

Instead, look at what other lessons you can take from meeting the box-lifting chemist. Here is a guy with an advanced degree in chemistry who is working for peanuts. This could be an opportunity for you and him. When I was bankrupt, a complete chance encounter led to the job that pulled me out of that situation. I was having no luck getting a technical job. But while I was getting a haircut for another failed job interview, I told the hairstylist how difficult it was to find a job as a physicist. And she said, "Oh, I know a guy who is looking for physicists". She gave my number to a physicist who ran a small company. He hired me and it was a mutually rewarding relationship. He also hired other down-on-their-luck physicists and programmers. One of the current directors of the company was notably hired when the company founder met him as his waiter in a Chinese restaurant. By keeping his eyes open, this founder got great talent at a good price and now his company pulls in over $50M/yr revenue.

If things go bad, maybe you'll meet someone who pulls you back up while working at Trader Joes. If things go well, maybe you will be the person who pulls someone up.

Thank you for this. I also read your previous post that you linked to.

Are you in Silicon Valley by any chance?

Producting things that make people willing to pay you money can be very different than the skills emphasized in advanced degrees.

As long as you understand how you bring value to others, you’ll probably be fine. Conversely if you don’t, one job loss could knock you out.

Is this UofA as in University of Arizona? As in Tucson, Arizona? Tucson is one of the most economically depressed regions in the nation, for a major city (see: https://www.azcentral.com/story/money/business/economy/2018/...).

I imagine this man just might be overqualified for an already poor job market, and is doing whatever he can in the mean time to make ends meet.

Side note, I did attend UofA for undergrad. Loved it, the school and the education were great. Unfortunately Tucson just isn't a good place to be if you're trying to have a real career. Unless its a medical career at Banner or some research career that aligns with the university's strengths, I recommend to a lot of UofA grads leave Tucson.

EDIT: If its not UofArizona that you're talking about, just ignore everything I said

University of Alberta in Edmonton. I live in Vancouver and the delivery was here. Edmonton has had lots of oil related jobs.

I once had an accomplished scientist apply to a customer support role in my company.

The reason she applied for an $18 p/h role was simple: burnout. She'd been burnt out on long hours of grinding research and wanted something that allowed her more flexibility.

I gave her a shot, but she genuinely wasn't a good fit for the role.

In the end, she took a course on coding and is now doing quite well as a back-end developer in the Bay Area.

I got the impression that you're seeing into this too much, perhaps because you yourself have legitimate fears of failure and are turning the delivery guy into a symbol of that.

No one's life is alike. You don't know what life circumstances brought the guy from chemistry degree to delivering stuff.

What you saw was a person at a single point in time. Whatever your takeaway was, doesn't define who he is or what his life will be like forever. You saw a man deliver boxes and realized you didn't want to be in his shoes. So take whatever small action you can each day to prepare against that possibility.

I have seen this happen to people I know. They don't have bad personalities or bad habits, etc. From what I have seen it is sometimes that the jobs dried up or were in places they couldn't move to (big mortgage, kids and family can be a barrier). My middle school computer scienece teacher whom I looked up to eventually became a mail courier. Advanced degrees aren't a golden ticket and always being on the lookout for better opportunites is necessary. Don't fear being low paid, fear being redundant. Your future is what you make it.

Intelligence is wonderful but it alone does not make one well-off.

The short answer is that you get rich by leading, not by following. So unless that intelligence comes with a disposition to build a business or at least lead others then you don't get rich. Going with the flow and getting a delivery job like everyone else keeps people poor.

Even Rocket Scientists - https://www.npr.org/2011/07/11/137677198/end-of-shuttle-prog...

Always plan for a rainy day, and don't take it personally.

Every time there's a recession, people get laid off and can't find work. After 6 months, 9 months, stocking shelves or bagging groceries starts looking pretty good. Pro Tip: don't mention your advanced degrees when you apply for the job.

> I'm terrified that I'm going to end up the same way.

First off - we don't know that guy's life situation. That is, what did he do after graduation? Or - maybe he was successful, and does delivery just to have something to do while he gains royalties on all his patents? Or maybe he enjoys physical work more than doing chemistry at some company? Or maybe he was employed, then convicted of some crime he was a part of with an employer? Tons of possibilities, we (and probably you) just don't know what led him from there to here.

There's no way to know if this is how you'll end up; but your first question should be why you feel you may end up the same way?

What is it about your current situation (employment, life, etc) that may cause you to "fall down the ladder"? If you can answer that, then you'll have at least a clue as to what to do or try to prevent it.

I'll use my current situation as an example (maybe even a warning?):

I'm a software engineer - big whoop, right? So are a lot of people.

I'm also 45 years old. I've been a professional SE since I was 19. Unfortunately, I didn't do everything I probably should have done, and now I am making up for "lost time".

Biggest mistake: Not saving my money early. In fact, it took me a long while to learn to save money - and also to get off the credit spending cycle. Fortunately for me, I broke out of it - and today I am "debt free" (I call it "Dave Ramsey Debt Free" because I still have a mortgage - but that is secured debt, so it doesn't really count). I have a lot of savings - not as much as I could have had, but more than the average American does.

That gives me some flexibility - mainly in my career. I have what could be termed "FU" savings. Basically, I can tell my employer to "take a hike" if I want, and still be able to live comfortably for a while until I can find another job (not that I want to - I like where I'm at right now).

One thing I have done over the years to insulate myself from being unemployed has been two-part: I keep my skills up-to-date and varied (everyone should do this), but I also, in the field of being an SE, keep my skills general enough that I can apply my knowledge to get up to speed on whatever it is that my employer may need or want me to do.

I don't focus on the skill or language "du jour" so-to-speak. Chasing that demon will only lead to fruitless heartache, if not a lot of stress. Instead, I seek to improve my skills in more general avenues that can be applied more narrowly to situations.

To that end, in recent years I've been pursuing using online resources - learning what I can about ML/AI; I've yet to use what I've learned at an employer (these new skills have included a focus on self-driving vehicle technology - but there's a lot of general skills even in that which could be applied more broadly, which is the takeaway I seek when I pursue self education opportunities) - but I believe that having them may help me to find future employment if necessary.

That said, I do worry about hitting some kind of an "age ceiling" given my current age; one area that I've never had an opportunity to try has been that of "management" - I've never been a team lead, or a manager of a team, or anything like that. I don't know how to gain that experience except by doing it, but if you are never given the chance to do it, you never gain it. Furthermore, I am not sure I would be good at it - but I've never been tasked with it. I worry that this lack of management experience may hinder me going forward as I get older.

But I have no choice here, except to keep doing what I have been doing that's been successful for me.

That's about all you can do yourself - try to find a career you can enjoy going to every day, make yourself relevant to the business needs, continue your education, especially towards more general knowledge in the problem domain that can be adapted more narrowly if needed, and in the meantime, increase your savings and reduce your unsecured debt load (ideally to zero).

I can't speak toward investment or anything like that - those are other skills and such that I lack, and I don't know how to gain them. I'm not even sure at this late date if such knowledge would matter. But if you are young, you might look into such a thing, whatever "investment" means for you.

There's no guarantee that any of this will prevent you from becoming a "service worker" - or someone with an advanced degree working for a pittance. All you can do is to do what you can to prevent it, and know that may not be enough in the end. But it may be enough to slow things down during the "fall" - should that happen - that you can pick yourself up and figure something else out to reverse your fortunes.

Oh - one other thing I forgot: I don't have kids - that was a decision my wife and I made a long time ago. Not having kids helps greatly with savings and debt-load issues. But that's another choice to make; everyone is different in regards to whether to have children or not, just realize that they can be both a "burden" and a "blessing" - and to plan accordingly, for before and after should you decide to raise some.

Was he happy doing what he's doing though?

Don't get so caught up with money. And don't judge people based on your perception of what their income might be.

One thing to keep in mind is that Barry the Box Schlepper might have chosen that career. There are plenty of people who decide they want to do something different. Heck, YOU might talk to Barry, learn how much he enjoys his work, and decide what sounds way better than mucking with beakers & Bunsen burners. While that path is not for me (today), I can see the appeal of doing predictable, physical work during the day & having a lots of unspent creative energy on nights & weekends.

Make wise decisions with your money. Save some, put in in index funds. Make FU money. Learn to manage the stock market.

I think ageism is too overstated in tech industry. If graduates with zero experience can get work, then it doesn't make sense that senior software engineers should struggle in the job market.

Personally, I see the opposite with many job posts asking for minimum X years of experience. If a programmer with many years of expertise is jobless it says more about their personality and their ability to fit culturally speaking. Perhaps they're just applying for the wrong jobs, or use the wrong rhetoric etc.

Too many programmers are concerned with their skill level and less with their ability to communicate their potential. That's what it comes down to when everything is taken into consideration.

The reason 'ageism' is a thing is because many tech companies view labor costs > all.

Two people are applying for the same job. One is a guy with 2 decades experience in relevant technologies, the other is a fresh graduate who did an internship at a tech company. One of the big differences here are expectations. The experienced individual is going to demand substantially higher pay. They also are going to be less willing to live their job than a fresh grad due to a better understanding of the employer:employee relationship along with the fact that they likely also have more obligations outside of work, such as family. The fresh graduate is going to underestimate his own worth, be eager to please, and have fewer obligations as well as likely being more willing to put those aside for the job.

Because of this you're going to end up paying substantially more for the more experienced employee. How will that affect your product? It'd probably be good, but that's not a given. And even if it does result in a better product or a more efficient deployment time, how does that contrast against your increased labor costs? And this is all talking about things in terms of a meritocracy. In software, hype and marketing play a huge role in many product's success, meaning there's even less reason to optimize for the most capable teams.

As an aside this is also the reason for the huge push for getting [x into computer science]. It's great optics for public relations, but increase the labor pool and guess what happens to labor prices? Mega corporations such as Google and Apple are pushing upwards of 100,000 employees. Reduce average labor costs by 10,000 a year and that's well over a billion dollars of recurring profit per year - keeping in mind that when a company pays an employee e.g. $10,000 they end up paying substantially more than that in various compensation-scaling taxes and other disincentives.

As our capable labor market has exploded relative to the quantity of desirable jobs, many wages have stagnated. Tech is the exception. It's a field where demand is still in line with supply which keeps wages going up. This [1] is an archive link to Glassdoor's reporting on Google salaries. The inflation there is remarkable. In 2010 a senior software engineer made $125k. Today, 9 years later, they make $165k, a 32% increase. Inflation during that period has only increased by about 15%.

[1] - https://web.archive.org/web/20100601000000*/https://www.glas...

Maybe his kids are doing well because he has a lot of time to be a great dad and coach them?

Life happens. Shit happens. Kids happen. Enjoy the ride and don't terrify yourself about money or what your life should look like. We all get 24 hours a day on the planet and from a long term perspective, almost nothing of what we do really matters. Maybe by moving boxes instead of schlepping in a lab for some deranged sociopath like Elizabeth Holmes, the guy gets to spend a couple more priceless hours with his kids? The same kids that are going to be so far ahead because of his great mind that they will take care of him once they're adults and he has his time back once full-time parenting is over..

tldr: you sound very young so ponder this tip from a very wise zen teacher I had once "your life doesn't have to look like anything."

Reminds of Heinrich Böll's wonderful anecdote concerning the lowering of productivity. [1,2] I would recommend anyone reading this comment to check it out. It's an entertaining and enlightening short story.



That story is much better known in English as the parable of the Mexican fisherman. In fact, it gets repeated in self-help and business circles so often that it has become a cliché. But I had no idea that it was taken from Heinrich Böll, and I'm sure few of the people repeating it do either!


I really loved your comment, all except for:

>from a long term perspective, almost nothing of what we do really matters.

So what? Yeah, in the long run we're all dead, so what? I imagine someone walking up to you, punching you in the face, and if you object, saying "Woahh! Calm down. From a long term perspective, almost nothing of what we do really matters. Don't you understand?" The things in peoples' lives matter plenty. What else is there. There is no other kind of 'mattering'. (Sorry if I misunderstood you.)

OP here. The thinking that on very long time scales Earth doesn't matter doesn't bring me solace. In fact it's depressing. finding meaning in my travails is important to me... As you say, what else is there?

Yeah such is life. What's worse, some of the people who shouldn't possess wealth are some of the richest people on earth. (think El Chapo).

Walter White

Don’t have kids. Don’t buy a house. Spend significantly less than you earn.

Or just earn a shitload of money.

They care more about their work then money.

organic chemists care about delivering boxes? I wouldn't be so sure

I know a very smart individual in India who worked as a watchman (nighttime security guard) for a salary of 200 $ per month (PPP ~1000 $) who lived in < 125 sq ft dwelling

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