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“Wealth work” is one of America’s fastest-growing industries (theatlantic.com)
84 points by kareemm 59 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments


Dude, work has been by the rich, for the rich, for about as far back as I know of. Probably forever.

It's comparative advantage, right? You use Uber because you don't want to drive. You use Deliveroo because you don't want to cook. The supermarket workers earn 1/5th what you do. The restaurant staff earn 1/5th what you do.

And so on and so forth.

Anyone who makes the transition from working to middle class knows this intimately. Suddenly you're on the other side of interactions.

Is it problematic? Sure it's problematic. The entire economy is problematic - if everyone were upper middle class we'd melt the ice caps, faster than we do already (damn.).

> Dude, work has been by the rich, for the rich, for about as far back as I know of. Probably forever.

And indeed the link is even more basic than that. Once you get past what you can spend to maintain a lifestyle, wealth is basically a measure of how much of societies resources you can call in, and to make more of it the better options are to organise people to do useful work.

It isn't a class thing that the rich organise the work. Organising people is approximately what makes a person rich.

If someone is organising large numbers of people and is poor ... that is more than a choice, they'd have to be working quite hard not to be bouyed into wealth. It is easy and natural to leverage followers into riches.

> Organising people is approximately what makes a person rich.

Which means, if we are to remove wealth inequality, we have to disincentivise everyone from organizing other people.

If an AI is doing it, maybe, but it also has to be unhinged from all of the people programming it or owning it. That was unthinkable until recently.

I'm curious to know how you see that being implemented...

Sounds like a great way to make everyone poor.

This logic doesn't apply well to manufacturing (or agriculture, extraction, or arguably a lot of research and engineering). You use a stainless steel fork, because you... don't want to use your hands? You eat Idaho potatoes so you... don't want to starve? Or you use double-pane windows and gas heating because you... don't like freezing to death in the winter? People worked real hard for all of that, but that doesn't mean they're all making less money than the users.

There are many degrees of this issue. When we lived in Bangladesh, the income gap was so large that the small middle class of professional workers (not capital owners) could easily afford multiple live in household helpers. When we moved to the US you had to be truly rich for that.

> Dude, work has been by the rich, for the rich, for about as far back as I know of. Probably forever

It’s not new, but it’s a sign inequality is getting worse. A hundred years ago, rich people had live-in maids, and then they (mostly) disappeared.

I can tell you where I grew up (third world country), we have live in maids and some treat them as family (we do) and some treat them as slaves. Maybe that is where 'murica is headed with au pairs etc..

Treat them like family? Then why isn't the master of the house cleaning your cousin's house?

Because treating like family doesn't mean they're actually family, but that familial manners extend to them, among whatever their original reason for being part of the family is.

> Dude, work has been by the rich, for the rich, for about as far back as I know of. Probably forever.

There have definitely been jobs and businesses for hundreds of years that pay a living wage providing services almost exclusively to the wealthy: gold and silver smiths, upholsterers, watchmakers, falconers, tile-workers, high-quality tailors, courtiers, handmaids and butlers, etc.

Being a landscaper pays a living wage.

The main difference seems to be that the world doesn't force you to do something anymore, it begins to ask "what can I do for you?".

At some point money becomes more than the hard money you buy your food with, but a means of control. Within some limits you can, at some size even have to, provide meaning to others through organisation.

Instead of worrying about the next paycheck you worry about risk, the perspective has to become ever more "macro", lest you lose money because the world model you use to make investment decisions with isn't close enough to the reality of the world. Which, at the highest level is just a cloud of beliefs, constrained by psychology and ultimately physics.

I'd like to read more about the experience of others, and how much it differs between people who have worked/lucked into it during their life and those who were born and perhaps raised with that knowledge and in this environment (inheritance).

How do you find meaning if everything can be accomplished by a mere decision to invest/acquire/influence?

What are the values of the (ultra-)rich? What does still have value to them?

Can leaders of large, complex institutions have a true connection to the reality of the process?

Is there a way to cope with the massive social responsibilities other than to ignore them or finding a way to accept "small" misfortunes (laying off hundreds of people, shutting down unprofitable companies) in pursuit of a greater good (sound resource allocation, long term strategy)?

Is there still something, beside history, science or religion you can look up to and find instruction? Or does one have to look to ones side, to the few lonely people at the top of the pyramid?

Simply put, what is their perspective on the world?

> It's comparative advantage, right? The rich have the advantage of owning essentially everything and defining where and how people will work. And you have the advantage of having a warm body.


>You use Uber because you don't want to drive.

Or it makes more financial sense to 'rent' a ride than to own it. You shop at a supermarket because it is cost-prohibitive to buy from the source yourself.

Not every transaction has to be about squeezing out someone else for less money.

it to me also seems problematic from a long term growth perspective. More and more people seem to move from full time employment in productive industrial sectors to low skilled, low productivity service sectors.

In the last few decades this has largely been framed as "natural" and just been shruggingly accepted but I'm not really sure how smart it is to put an increasingly highly educated workforce into a servant economy.

> low skilled

I think this is a flawed intuition. Remember how the early AI pioneers thought that chess would be hard while speech would be easy, and walking easier still? Precisely the opposite turned out to be true: the things humans think are easier are actually the things that we end up with the most skill experience in just by going through regular growth+development.

Jobs that require these such skills are actually highly skilled jobs; just because nearly every adult human being has the skill, doesn’t mean it’s not a skill.

I point this out because people worry about jobs being destroyed by automation “from the bottom up”, with the least skilled jobs first and then more highly-skilled jobs later on. But under such a framework, service jobs are some of the most high-skill jobs, that will be the very last to be automated. At some point, soft skills will be the only skills left.

I'm not judging whether it's a difficult skill in terms of how likely AI is supposed to automate it, it's a low skilled job in that it literally odes not require significant (academic) training, many people can execute it, and as a result it pays little.

Sending huge amounts of people that have obtained high levels of education at the cost of debt into low productivity jobs that are inequitable is a bad idea.

The question we should be asking is why these people are entering servitude instead of starting businesses, moving somewhere else and increasing economic productivity, which in some countries like the UK has stayed flat for a decade, and is barely increasing in the developed world.

I don't buy the narrative at all that we have somehow started all businesses that can exist and invented everything that can be invented so now we're all supposed to be maidens in cat caffees with 20 years of education.

This is what I was trying to say:

> it literally does not require significant (academic) training

It does! It’s just that almost every human is given this training, usually by their parents. Just because a particular skill is common does not mean that it didn’t require a lot of intense effort to learn.

Look at it this way: in the medieval era, only the most highly-educated people were literate. Today, literacy surpassing the average medieval level is something pretty much every human being achieves by age 4.

Does this mean that literacy is an easy skill? Or just a common one that humanity has built an amazing education process for?

If you look at social/soft skills not as “human instincts” but rather as technologies—tools increasing our leverage by enabling access to different (usu. better) Nash equilibria in social-competitive environments—tools that humans at one point invented, and then gradually developed ways of inculcating from birth—then I’m far less concerned with the fact that jobs that require these skills might be some of the only skills left.

Such jobs that require soft skills are not low-skilled jobs, any more than jobs that require literacy are low-skilled jobs. Literacy was once the province of clerics and military officers; soft skills were once the province of courtiers, diplomats and therapists. Now both skill sets are evenly distributed, because we’ve learned to teach them better. But the jobs that require them aren’t lessened as a result of our increasing educational capacity! Your average hospitality worker from the modern era could likely get a medieval courtier laughed out of the room. They have a high level of skill. It just happens to be common.

(And, in fact, many people seek to cultivate their soft skills beyond even the level the education system brings them to, through continued exposure to harsh social environments. What do you think Twitter is, if not a practice court for aspiring courtiers? But, again, we don’t see it that way, because it’s such a common skill that we don’t see the people practicing it as practicing anything at all. We see people polishing their courtly manner as just “playing around”, the same way we see tiger cubs practicing hunting as just “playing around.”)

> The question we should be asking is why these people are entering servitude instead of starting businesses, moving somewhere else and increasing economic productivity, which in some countries like the UK has stayed flat for a decade, and is barely increasing in the developed world.

Yeah, this one really confuses me.

I think a lot of people are 'just comfortable enough'. They see it as a risk to move country, to move town, whatever. Perhaps it means losing friends, family.

The life of someone who earns 15K a year in London is just a joke compared to what it could be elsewhere in the UK or another country. Servitude is exactly the way to describe it.

Low-paid/unskilled jobs in high CoL areas are hell.

Work has been by the poor, for the rich. That's practically the definition of rich -- profiting frmo other people's work.

It's not "profiting from other people's work", it's "profiting from making other people's work more efficient". That includes providing the capital (tools) to multiply the productivity of labor, securing customer contracts, ensuring all legal requirements are met, forecasting market conditions, managing the long-term strategic business plan, ensuring employees get a steady paycheck, etc. These skills are far from universal and those who have them rightfully earn a decent share of the profits. If it were just a matter of profiting from others' work then everyone would choose to be self-employed and keep that money for themselves.

> Is it problematic? Sure it's problematic.

No it's not. That's just a story you're telling yourself. You're either working your farm or you're working someone else's farm. Everyone can choose either. They both have their pros and cons. The former is greater risk but greater reward. The latter is lower risk and lower reward. You have to choose one or another to survive in this world. There's no free lunch. Mother nature doesn't afford any other creature in the animal kingdom a free lunch, why should human's receive any other treatment?

Work predates the rich. Hunt or gather. It's the natural order of things.

I think it's less of "wealth work" and really just "work" and it's good and necessary. Times are never constant, things change all the time. More traditional work (traditional in the context of the last 50-100 years) has been on the decline due to huge advancements in technology, globalisation and other reasons, so it's only normal that we see many jobs go, but equally and luckily also many new jobs come.

It's true that there is more "Uber for X" businesses out there today, but 30 years ago we also didn't have "Digital Agencies", "YouTubers", "Influencers", "SEO Experts", "Security Engineers", "Software Architects" and obviously "Uber Drivers". But today people have different jobs than 30 years ago and that is alright.

Personally I see this market grow even more in the next two decades. One day someone's job will be to stand in the queue for me to buy me tickets to Wimbledon tennis tournaments or a new iPhone during a launch event. Some might say this is degrading work, but others will love it. We might call it "wealth work" today with a bit of a negative meaning, but I bet a few hundred years ago people felt the same about someone who was cutting your nails, scrubbing your feet and giving you a head massage.

A great glimpse into the future of jobs is by looking at Japan. In Japan you can hire someone to "cuddle with you". It's not a sex worker, but as people feel more and more lonely, it's only natural to see a new market rise in this space - where there is a new need (and money) there is a new potential market.

> One day someone's job will be to stand in the queue for me to buy me tickets to Wimbledon tennis tournaments or a new iPhone during a launch event.

This is always going to be degrading because it's literally an artificial meaningless thing. The operators could just do this for a fee, but they're forcing someone to burn their time instead.

I really think that this is only seen as degrading today, because it's not needed yet. Was probably the same case for people cooking your food, or making you a sandwich, or someone walking your dog or looking after your cat whilst you are on holiday, or coming into your house and doing the gardening.

But once the times have changed where there's an actual demand for someone to stand in the queue in front of an Apple Store, then I am sure the perception will change too. Maybe the "Uber Driver" or "Digital Agent" is too busy during business hours but can afford someone else to pick up a phone for him. There's a physical limit to how many people can buy the phone from a shop, so it's not going to be a profession where anyone can do it, you'll probably end up paying quite a bit for someone who potentially has personal connections to the shop owner or gets some preferential spot in the queue so they can charge a higher fee whereas someone who is not at the same level might charge very little but also end up at spot #1001 in the queue and actually not being able to get your desired tickets.

You see what I mean? We can't write off this new market when we don't know yet what it will look like. All I can say, wherever there is need there is money and the more mature a market gets the more $$$ there is to make. Being a professional who can secure you the first iPhone during a launch event can be a hugely respected job one day.

> I really think that this is only seen as degrading today, because it's not needed yet.

The point was that it's not needed period. There is no point in having people wait for hours in a queue apart from satisfying the retailer's vanity. It's degrading to the prospective customer personally standing in line, much less a mere hired agent. The economically sound move would be to price the items at a point where there is no shortage, but if the company wants to create the appearance of a shortage at artificially low prices for dubious marketing reasons then they should just hold a lottery for the opportunity to purchase rather than making people waste their limited time in line.

Pricing at a non-shortage point is even worse. Waiting in a queue means that some poor people have a chance at getting the product. Auctioning the desirable product guarantees they won't.

Lottery is perhaps better, but it's probably easier to game a lottery than a line, since a rich person can buy many tickets.

As to the first point, it depends on what you're trying to achieve. That's why I mentioned the lottery option. You can limit the lottery to one entry per person and make the ticket, and the item itself, non-transferrable; anything less can be gamed to favor those with disposable funds, including queues. (After all, that's the subject of this thread.)

However, I think that if someone took the time they'd otherwise have been wasting in lines and used it productively instead then they could probably earn enough to afford the higher market-clearing price, and society would be better for it.

If you do a lottery you're still more likely to have a higher proportion of folks with more money and less time than vice versa than you would if you force people to stand in line, and if you verify that the attendees actually stood in line you make it more difficult to game.

Re: your second point, I can't imagine that's accurate given the extreme differences that exist in disposable income and earning ability.

Edit: I'm realizing now that you may have been more focused on retail than events, in which case I suppose the identity verification option that I'm discussing I admit seems a bit stranger / less relevant.

I'm not going to dispute your point that the lottery would be less likely to favor people with more free time compared to the queue, but I don't see why a company would care about that. Keep in mind that the context was "get the latest iPhone on launch day", not something with significant audience interaction like a concert. Keeping prices low to generate hype and make themselves look popular is one thing but the goal is still to attract people with money and connections in order to sell more product and build the brand.

I'm not convinced this is about equality, either. The time-intensive approach disfavors the lower-middle class the most; on the <em>very</em> low end of the income scale you have a lot of time on your hands on account of not having a job, but for that reason probably can't afford the latest iPhone even at a scarcity-inducing discount. Above a certain point you have enough money to determine your own working hours and can afford to spend time waiting in line for something you really want.

Yeah, sorry, I didn't follow the thread carefully enough and had the context wrong / thought you were discussing the concert situation.

I may be wrong here, but I still think a middle income person is more likely to be willing to spend time in line than a high income person - maybe not as much because they actually _have_ more time available, but rather because they don't value their time as highly, see it as "cheaper" to spend it waiting in line, or are simply more accustomed to being made to wait in lines. Conversely, if I am very rich, I may very well be able to afford waiting in lines, but I may also be more averse to doing so.

It does has other effects that they may be interested in, at least if they require that the person in the queue actually be the attendee.

Forcing people to stand in line in order to attend an event means that only those who are willing to spend time rather than money will be able to go.

This has effects on the type of person who ends up in the crowd - arguably people who on average are more interested in the event, even relative to a lottery solution since that would give you a more random distribution of folks along the axes of access to time / money.

That said, it does come at a cost.

Edit: I'm realizing now that you may have been more focused on retail than events, in which case I suppose the identity verification option that I'm discussing I admit seems a bit stranger / less relevant.


I always thought standing in line to get something was odd. I tried doing it for a game once, and I felt miserable. What a total waste of time. Most game studios fixed it, by going digital and allowing preloads.

Doing that as a job? Oof. 0 skills required, just good knees. Definitely, sounds like a wise career move./s

>This is always going to be degrading because it's literally an artificial meaningless thing.

It's not really artificial, it's the product of having first-come-first-served instead of highest-bidder products.

>The operators could just do this for a fee, but they're forcing someone to burn their time instead.

Ignoring the choice of FCFS instead of highest bidder, this is just what work is. Someone is offering their time in exchange for monetary compensation.

It is precisely artificial.

Yes, it is work. Degrading work, because it's completely pointless.

I could pay someone to move the gravel on my drive from one side to the other over and over again for a year. Someone would probably accept that if I structured it as an 8-hour job with health insurance etc. It'd be the most mind-numbingly boring thing ever.

Artificial means created by people. Choosing first-come-first-served meets that definition. A queue is an artificial object.

It's interesting that you mention some of the other emerging careers like "Influencers", because there is a lot more capacity for innovation in these emerging careers. A lot of those industries involve consulting, software, and even hardware products that can give one aspirant an advantage over the competition. If you selectively look at capacity for innovation alongside productivity, YouTube, SEO, and other "new" industries are a much greater boom for the economy than Postmates and Uber.

Gig economy apps are not an open platform. Workers are in the thrall to their company of choice, and there is no upward mobility. Even a manicurist may be able to learn new techniques or save money to open their own store, but the app that told a stranger to buy Wimbledon tickets for you doesn't provide a plan for the worker beyond going from gig-to-gig.

Alternative take: More people are able to start their own small businesses providing services because of increased total wealth. The wealth not only provides clients, but also provides increased access to capital to start said businesses.

The data doesn't really support this unless by "their own small business" you mean effectively 1099 contractors with zero employees forever. See figure 3 in [1].

[1] https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/research-matters/2018/...

That doesn’t explain rising demand for the services these businesses provide.

More affordable and convenient. A fitness trainer doesn't have to make their weeks worth of wages in a few hours if they have more clients in general. Also this kind of work no longer requires hiring an entire fronting agency, just a website ad and a cellphone.

I think that "servant work" would be more apt in most cases. And it's sad, of course, that as a society, we don't have a better answer to this growing inequality.

Conversely, "Not Wealth work" is one of America's slowest-growing industries.

I'm being very tongue-in-cheek, but as it turns out, the more you make, the more you spend. I view this as a great opportunity to supply a demand (or even better, create a demand! $$$).

and the reason they wealthy are flocking to the US? because they avoid having to pay for the social services programs to their employees which leads to huge profits. foreign workers comes to the US and because they know they can get all these social services once they've returned home, they can underbid their US counterpart. the expanding different between the haves and the have not is purely due to the world wealthy and foreign workers exploiting the lack of social services in the US.

"wealth work" == servant

The only change is now the positions are less long term employer commitment and more gig work than ever.

"Between 2010 and 2017, the number of manicurists and pedicurists doubled"

Lots of middle class women get manicures and pedicures. Besides, as hourly pay at the top rises, the rich are willing to pay more per hour for labor that saves them time. Economic growth is not a zero sum game.

I got some downvotes, but it is true that wage levels for service jobs reflect the wealth of the people consuming those services. It is not more difficult to drive a taxi, cut hair, clean a house, or babysit in a rich country than a poor one, but those jobs pay better in real terms in a rich country, because the people paying for those services earn much more in rich countries and are willing to pay more to save time.

Do you honestly believe the rich tip more if their wealth moves from 100 to 125 million?

I think you're forgetting that wealth trickles down. Extreme extra-strong emphasis on the "trickles".

I just don't know if that trickle rate increases as there's more to trickle. If you're already having all your desires fulfilled, why spend more?

Spending to satisfy your own desires directly benefits the buyer and the seller—that's the part people tend to focus on when discussing the "trickle down" effect—but what doesn't get spent on consumption ends up invested instead. That improves the productivity of labor, allows more goods to be produced at lower cost, and ultimately benefits everyone. Trade is good, but the greatest external benefit to society comes when one consumes less than one earns, thus leaving more for others. Even just stuffing the money in a mattress would benefit others by reducing the competition for goods and services; it's not as good as a profitable investment, but it's better than wasting resources on malinvestment.

Wouldn't that suggest that the interest rate should be something astronomical?

I'm not sure where you're getting a connection to high interest rates. I would expect just the opposite; if people have their desires satisfied and are looking to invest what's left over then their time preference will be lower (more willing to wait) and money should be easier to get (lower interest rates on loans).

I was thinking the real-world version of keeping it under the mattress would be in a savings account, which would be encouraged by high interest rates.

I'm confused as to why investing (I assume in the stock market) "improves the productivity of labor, allows more goods to be produced at lower cost, and ultimately benefits everyone" - that money we invest in buying stocks, after the stock is initially bought from the business, is just shuffling chips around a table, it doesn't seem to be doing anything for anyone. Am I off base? How does a company see a direct benefit from already sold stocks?

Putting money in a savings account is still investing, which is why you're earning interest. What I meant by "stuffing the money in a mattress" was actually taking it out of circulation. I didn't meant to imply that this would be more profitable than investing, just that it would still be a net benefit to others since you're not using that money to bid up prices on things they might want to buy. Same amount produced plus less money in circulation equals lower average prices.

> How does a company see a direct benefit from already sold stocks?

Normally when you buy shares in the stock market, other than from an IPO or secondary public offering, the company doesn't directly benefit from that trade. The company received its benefit up front when it sold the shares. Of course no one would have bought the shares if they didn't expect to be able to profit from them, either by selling to another investor or through dividends, so the fact that a market will exist is critical to any company looking to raise capital by issuing shares to the public. A high stock price is also beneficial to any company looking to raise funds through a secondary public offering, and may translate into actual revenue for capital investment if the company holds some of its equity in reserve.

What I really had in mind, however, was not buying existing shares from other investors in the stock market but rather venture capital, IPOs, private equity, and the purchase of corporate bonds. In each of these cases the investment directly injects money into the company where it can be put to work enhancing productivity.

My comment was tongue and cheek. I agree with you. Even if the trickle rate were to increase it's a joke. It's horse and sparrow theory, "If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."

Ah, ok - sorry. I seem to have said something unpopular, so I wasn't sure if people were actually defending trickle down or not.

Do you honestly believe the rich wouldn't drop an extra $120 surcharge to have someone come to them and do their nails during a teleconference as opposed to taking an hour to go to the salon?

I think those services existed before, they would have been more rare and expensive, and as they grow more common the prices on those services will drop.

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