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The White-Collar Job Apocalypse That Didn’t Happen (nytimes.com)
83 points by johnny313 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

Ah, corporate apologia.

> Companies did move millions of office jobs to India, the Philippines and other places where they could pay workers less. But those job losses were more than balanced by growth elsewhere in the economy.

That's like saying there will be an apple shortage but ignoring it because we grew more oranges.

> But many companies discovered that labor savings were offset by other factors: time differences, language barriers, legal hurdles and the simple challenge of coordinating work half a world away. In some cases, companies decided they were better off moving jobs to less expensive parts of the United States rather than out of the country.

The thing is, rents and expenses continued to grow where these jobs used to be but wages stagnated. Offshoring is a contributor to wage stagnation, which would be acceptable if rents and expenses ebbed and flowed at the same pace. But wealth inequality and rent-seekers continue to squeeze the average person. The result is people who are underemployed or working multiple jobs.

> Ms. Lund said she saw parallels between offshoring and automation: Both trends threaten one set of jobs but should make the overall American economy more productive, creating new job opportunities, albeit ones requiring different skills. And she said the pace of change should allow workers, companies and governments to adapt.

Learning new skills isn't free. It will harm workers who have their jobs automated. Our employment system isn't worker-friendly in this instance. Those displaced workers will still need to pay rent and buy food ALONG with buying new skills. They will probably end up underemployed.

I suggest referring people to http://economixcomix.com/home/tpp/. It has some very good explanations of the flaws in a lot of pro-globalization economic arguments.

Ridiculously superficial. Get a proper book on trade instead.

I have. The history of economic models is rife with those that were upset by a voiding of a simple inherent assumption, much as the author of that comic addresses. He provides citations, does he not?


Exactly. Cost of living goes up, you cant save your way to retirement. Thats the wests biggest problem. All we got in exchange for the average citizen is cheaper flatscreens and shittier toys.

But sure those of us in tech are good.

People could never save for retirement. Never. Not a single generation did it yet. Just the scale of the problem is now bigger because as the population stopped growing fast enough, we suddenly have a lot of people going to retire.

My parents and their parents again did it. I don't know what you're talking about.

I thought the whole point was all the generations before generation X were able to save and/or have a pension or other retirement facility paying enough m. Baby Boomers and before.

Is there any empirical evidence that rent as a fraction of GDP, grows? That could happen in case of quick economic growth combined with a lack of major inventions (people get more money but struggle to find what to spend it on - they already have all newest stuff and newer one is slow to get invented - so keep a lot of free cash -> rent grows). But these times aren't like that.

So i tend to believe these observations are largely made up. There is no "squeeze" in the sense that economy-wide, cyclically adjusted, rents do not grow faster than GDP per capita does.

That's not a very useful observation. Rents decrease in areas without jobs. Incomes increase in areas with jobs. Therefore country wide rent grows slower than GPD per capita as more people moveto the cities.

I went on a date with a girl who does accounting for a VC firm in Menlo Park. She got career advice in ~2002 not to study CS because it would all be in India by 2015. My lucky-best decision was studying CS in 2002 right after the bubble burst, everyone was worried about outsourcing, and the smartphone revolution that led to 2009-present growth in tech hadn't started. Talk about buying low.

I was recently talking to an Uber driver from Kenya who was saying rents in Nairobi, an African tech hub, aren't that much cheaper than, say, Cleveland. So we're past outsourcing...but Cleveland...

The rent I pay for a 2 bedroom apartment in Delhi is the same as the rent my brother was paying for a 2 bedroom apartment in Atlanta about a decade ago (factoring in exchange rates).

The truth is that good third world employees aren't exorbitantly cheaper than their counterparts in the US. Cheaper, yes, but not enough that it would completely offset the cost of communication lapses, legal issues, and collaboration problems.

And isn't this sort of to be expected after globalization? Wages balance out across the (globalized) market, for the most part. It also strikes me as kind of a good thing. Is that wrong of me to think?

I wouldn't say it's wrong, but I do think often protectionists or just those critical of globalism are often unfairly criticized because they don't like what the end result will be.

The way I've put it in conversation is this: while the equalization will balance out in many ways, pulling "third-world" countries up closer to "first-world" standards of living, the reality is it is highly likely that first-world standards will actually decrease... for the first time in quite a long time. Now, one can argue this is a good thing because we first-worlders are overconsumers, polluters, and many other reasons, but I don't think it's fair to hate on people wanting to protect their own standard of living.

I have theorized, perhaps wrongly, that this is part of the real, behind closed doors, push for brexit in the UK, especially seeing as currency is the great entangler and now that Europe are all on the Euro, the UK wants to get out before the Euro starts having major issues, and they probably saw that coming which is why they never left the pound. So ignoring the more unsavory reasons being touted for brexit, I think it shows a certain amount of people intuitively understand globalism might reduce their standard of living which is why we are seeing an increase in protectionism in much of the first-world.

Note: I hate the terms first-world and third-world... any better suggestions on that are welcome.

first world, second world and third world are cold war terms denoting aligned to the western nations, aligned to the soviet union, or basically unaligned.

you want "developed" and "developing."

I used to try to keep reminding people of this fact, but then gave up. Words change in meaning, and ‘third world’ as a term has reached critical mass and means ‘developing’ now, at least in the U.S.

Is there a term for undeveloped countries that aren't actually developing in any way? Do such countries exist? Is "developing" just an euphemism? Genuinely curious.

Globalization as it is now is purely a race to the bottom in terms of ecological damage and mistreatment, so balancing the wages out is a real problem.

There are models where you could still have uplift without those issues but they are not what we are doing.

You’ve been downvoted by others, but your assessment is correct.

Our trade deals exclude environmental, labour, and other non-goods protections. So As a result we end up with the race to the bottom that you mentioned.

The fix is trade agreements that enshrine protections for more than just the goods being produced.

The assessment is not correct. It’s not a race to the bottom so much as bringing the bottom up to current levels.

China is going to destroy their environment with or without incoming US capital. They will also continue to employ children, etc.

Globalization puts more demand on their system so their people get higher wages, better conditions, cleaner work environments, etc.

Competition for their labor pool and their environment in general means they don’t have to give it up under bad terms.

It is, but it is also leading to tremendous inequality. My monthly income is the same as the annual income of the teacher who taught me maths in school. I don't really think I offer enough value to society to be paid that much more.

You are paid more because you do offer enough value to compensate you for it.

The problem your math teacher has is that there are significantly more people qualified and willing to teach math at that level than there are people qualified to do your job.

> rents in Nairobi, an African tech hub, aren't that much cheaper than, say, Cleveland

That's an easily falsifiable assertion.

Here's an apartment in Nairobi that's $62.50 USD per month.


Cheapest apartments in Cleveland, OH meanwhile found here are $400 per month and there are 4 of them.


So there's a ~6:1 difference in rental price between the two, on the low end as listed online. Presumably there are even cheaper deals to be had which are not listed online. Food, labor, transportation and other expenses in Kenya are going to be similarly less expensive, perhaps by even greater multiples.

So no...outsourcing is definitely cheaper in the short run, and for simpler tasks.

I'm not going to tell you how to outsource or not outsource, and when it is and is not appropriate but labor can definitely be had for much cheaper than in the US. The US is now the richest country in the world per capita, more so than Luxembourg and the other traditionally richer countries because the USD is so strong.

Of course this will fluctuate over time, but that's the present status as we have this discussion.

"Yeah but outsourcing is dumb and people don't know how to code."

It's dumb? They don't know how to code? Could it be that some people don't know how to manage projects remotely and across cultures? Could it be that some projects can be outsourced while others can't?

> Here's an apartment in Nairobi that's $62.50 USD per month.

I should research this; I was told $800 for two bedrooms.

This one's $430 (1 bedroom). So I have no idea, but there's probably a massive range. Could be neighborhood, could be having security and power. I'm not sure.


Are they equivalent things?

Rent was cheaper for me in Beijing than in Seattle, but whenever I looked for anything that I would have rented in Seattle, the gap disappeared and even increased in Beijing. Yes, I paid less rent, but I lived at a much less standard as well.

There are other things to consider worn outsourcing: logistics are often more costly in the developing world than developed world, which can eat away at your savings pretty quickly.

Things are surprisingly expensive in poor countries, because of poor infrastructure and scarcity of decent [anything].

I was advised in 1989 that I shouldn't study CS because it'd be outsourced/replaced by AI.

What did happen were waves of outsourcing, followed by insourcing. My theory is that whenever there's a new generation of managers, we flip around, because they haven't learned from the previous one.

A somewhat related story.

My first degree was in a foreign language; I was taking it for my own reasons but one of the professors I was close to knew I was very involved in technology and linguistics. She asked in, maybe in 1992, whether I thought computers would eliminate the jobs of translators "soon."

I remember looking at her and saying that no, not until the mid-2000s or so, because of the twin problems of voice recognition and OCR: in both cases, you need both a corpus for translation and to build it you need to get the data into machine form.

I was off by maybe 6-10 years but machine translation really did start making inroads for professional writing around then (and maybe a little sooner). Now, though, the job is totally transformed. Live translation is still a real job but a hard one to land and with fewer opportunities, and media translation while it is still a career (especially for science and technology papers, etc.) it is dramatically changed and is now more of an editing job than a translation job. That happened in a few years, tops, once the tools arrived.

So .. maybe we're whistling in the dark. A lot of what we do cannot really ever be practically done by AI, but I think a lot could be. The demise of the CASE market probably delayed a lot of what's coming for a long time, and a lot of things likely will be automated. I think UI design is ripe since so many UIs basically look exactly the same.

UI design will live for a long, loooong time, because every single customer is basically like "I'm somewhat of an expert myself".

Preventing them from following through on the really bad ideas is the salient part here :)

This holds, AFAICT, for translation too. Yes, you can get the gist via machine translation, for some language pairs. You cannot preserve imagery, intention, subtlety without a human int the loop.

AI is good at looking things up and beats us there. It is entirely insufficient at context & wisdom (and I don't see that changing anytime soon). Sure, the industry might choose to collectively ignore that and jump off a cliff. It's not going to end well, so I hope saner heads prevail.

Well this is not exactly new. An uncle that worked in IT tried to talk me off computing in 1988 because he felt it would be a secretary- or typewriter-like job in the near future. Others told me that computing was ok but only at hardware side.

This uncle indeed lost his job because he worked in operation of a mainframe and didn't bother to learn PC or even UNIX workstation programming. He resorted to teach math in a primary school to complete time for retirement.

one of my employees told me a funny story.

I was telling him about the experience of the terror of mid-2002 - layoffs everywhere and a really tough job market, stock market post-collapse, massive rise of offshoring in actuality but more importantly the nearly-universal assumption among business leaders and investors that eliminating US employees was the way forward, the entire career looking incredibly iffy, etc.

He was in highschool at the time, he says. The highschool guidance counselor was doing their thing and he was interested in computers, softwarer, etc. She told him that programming was all going to India so he should do something else like law school or business.

> something else like law school or business.

And then sometime after 2008 the bottom dropped out of the legal industry and the big corporate firms started laying people off.

That's because a bunch of new grads looked at their job prospects in 2008 and decided they should stay in school studying something like law. Someone with several years of experience more than that cohort should do well as long as there's a skill discrepancy between the cohorts.

Yes, exactly. Well, legal as a career started to go south maybe a few years before that.

Aside from making me feel tragically old (I'd been working professionally for years at that point), it was just interesting to hear someone recount a totally different view of the cataclysm.

I was given advice in 2001 not to study CS because I was too much of a people person. Good thing I didn't take advice at that age.

I graduated from high school in 2005 and was choosing between science and CS. I chose science because a lot of ideas from the prior tech bubble burst and offshoring craze were floating around in my head. I wish I had just majored in CS instead...

That didn't happen yet.

I think the biggest takeaway from gig economy "gig brokerage" platforms is that many people would rather take direction from an app than a human manager (conjecturally, for psychological reasons). If more traditional companies (retailers, businesses with other large output-oriented workforces, etc.) figured out a way to introduce this sort of algorithmic management model that works for them to either hide or replace management while also augmenting it, I feel like a great deal of middle-management bureaucracy could end up eliminated.

Sounds like the Manna novel:


Glad you brought this up. A fun read the first time, and a concerning one the second.

It took me a couple of readings to finally accept that I wasn't missing something. That this "novel" had no real plot or characters at all. It's just a wish-fulfillment thought experiment. A techno-utopian version of "Atlas Shrugged", only a thousand or so pages shorter.

Game'ified performance appraisals or records/statistics that you can cite/link for getting work outside the app-job.

Unlocking raises with hours invested or good reviews earned or a combination of metrics.

Making in-app purchases to join a union or buy into additional benefits.

Integrating these gig economy apps with places like LinkedIn (shudder) to help you find temporary work quickly without ever talking to a human.

World of WorkCraft

I'm guessing you're trying to sketch a dystopian scenario but that sounds pretty appealing to me!

The only part I disliked was LinkedIn - #introvertsunite

many people would rather take direction from an app than a human

This is something specific to the millennials, who have an aversion to anything and everything that is not app-intermediated. They even socialise with apps.

The impedance mismatch is just too high. I haven't been doing this that long, and I've already seen multiple cycles of outsourcing functions, dissatisfaction with the quality, speed, and communication overhead of the outsourced services, then bringing the functions back in-house locally. Then a year or two passes, new directors or VPs come in, and the cycle begins again.

It's a lot of churn. One result is that I see with my enterprise customers is that they end up with a lot of the more expensive, experienced people getting thinned out in each of these cycles - IBM is one that is somewhat infamous for this.

The other that I see is a death of specialization. There aren't really dedicated network engineers, or ops specialists, or DBAs, or security experts in most companies anymore; everybody is a short-timer that is thrown into the mix and making things up on the fly. And these are Fortune 500 companies, not fly-by-night SMBs.

Long-term institutional knowledge is criminally undervalued.

I've always been irked by the assumption that more jobs = good when most people, especially white collar workers, go to work everyday knowing that their job is almost certainly replaceable or one that probably doesn't actually need to exist in the first place e.g. a "bullshit job".

I'd been expecting "peak office". "Peak factory worker" was in the 1970s in the US. I'd expected that, with everything being computerized, total office employment would decline as well. Didn't happen.

Why is an interesting question.

I suspect some of is due to how amorphous the term white collar is. The BLS has job projections, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/occupations-largest-job-decli... , and they forecast large declines in admins and clerk-type office jobs that you would expect.

The fastest growing list on the other hand, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm , has some office jobs, but it's dominated by healthcare jobs that some of which are kind of office-like.

There's also some weirdness, with Computer Programmer listed on the decline list, while Software developers, applications is on the fastest growing list.

That's probably just a reflection of the job title changing, rather than the number of jobs available. Computer Programmer is an "old-school" title while Software Developer is more up to date.

If you look at the description, I believe part of the problem is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has always been under the delusion that "Computer Programmers" were little more than typists who understood programming syntax. There's an assumption that some sort of all important _DESIGN_ work was done by analysts or other so-called experts perhaps the almighty "Software Developer". Could it be Computer Programmers just type what they're told, and perhaps Software Developers do the important work;)

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/... https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/...

Note to my own comment: Take a look at the "What they do tab" for both titles. You'll think that you've been transported back to 1969 in the punch card room where yes - the lowly Computer Programmers simply write code while the Software Developers talk to the business people and figure out what needs to be done. While hardly writing any code themselves. It's hilarious.

Yeah I’m just gonna need you to figure out how to get our sales guy between all these sales hubs for the lowest cost... if you could get that done by next week that’d be great.

I’ve heard this distinction arose partly because most/many early programmers were women, a relic from the days of the human computer

> Why is an interesting question.

I'd speculate that office workers are often interacting with things that can't easily be outsourced or don't make sense to outsource fully. Billing, HR, support, legal, accounting, marketing, advertising, PR, and dozens of other things.

The wealthiest (and many of the largest by employee count as well) US corporations today are largely software companies. Facebook is software, its ad network is software. Google's search engine is software, its ad network is software. Most of the value in AWS is in the software services. Software has comically fat margins typically. It affords staff bloat that most any other type of business does not. It's also incredibly hard to undercut via simple industrial methods like dumping (as in the steel or aluminum industries).

If you look at the ways you can beat a US manufacturer on making a pair of shoes for Nike or steel or an electric fan or office chair or toaster, those methods will not work well against Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce, Oracle, AWS, Adobe, Workday, Intuit, ServiceNow, et al. I'm not putting my data in China's cloud with their version of AWS, Azure, DigitalOcean or Linode even if it costs 1/4 as much. I'm not using their Cloudflare. I'm not running my CRM software in their cloud. And so on.

The wealthiest (and many of the largest by employee count as well) US corporations today are largely software companies.

Wealthy, yes; high employee count, no. Facebook has about 35,000 employees. Alphabet/Google, 103,549. Amazon is huge, at 650,000, but they have a warehouse and trucking operation. That's not software.

WalMart has about 2.2 million employees. Ford, about 200,000. Boeing, 153,000. The biggest "tech" company is IBM, with 366,000 employees.

(What does Alphabet/Google need 103,000 people for? They don't build much hardware themselves. They don't do customer support. They backed off on doing network outside plant, as Google Fiber. What part of the operation is labor-intensive? Ad sales?)

Many reasons, but one it's notable is that while we increased efficiency of most office workers we also created more distractions (facebook, reddit, hn, etc). This probably balanced out in many professions.

https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/ On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs - STRIKE! Magazine

The reason it didn't happen is because many white-collar jobs require a good understanding of our culture and language, which isn't required for factory jobs.

Can you elaborate your point? I'm curious because I've spent time in a plant formerly shared by American/Japanese corporations concurrently

My point is that in factory jobs, the end result is usually just to get the job done, whatever that may be (building parts of a car, etc). As long as the workers can understand you and you can communicate what needs to be done, it can work.

White collar jobs usually involve more meetings, knowledge of business culture and language. This is much more difficult to outsource to countries that don't share any of the same culture and language.

This is also why outsourcing development jobs has been mostly a disaster for US companies.

>outsourcing development jobs

Outsourcing in the sense of sending to offshore body shops. Somewhat true.

But a lot of companies distribute development around the world in various ways. It's not only about taking advantage of lower costs, but some of it is.

Wow, to think it's been almost 30 years since I wasted money on Decline and Fall of the American Programmer. Too bad it was the first Yourdon book I'd read, because it was also the last.

He wrote a sequel The Rise and Resurrection Of The American Programmer not that long after. Its worth checking out if you can find a copy. A real snapshot of history and insight into the culture of the time.

Hey he may not be a good predictor but he's a good businessman, covering both ends of the spectrum!

Yourdon, you’re done

Except.. it did happen.

Hey I work for Nexient. Kind of cool to be in an article in the NY Times, less so perhaps for the ire directed at outsourcing.

I'm just a devops person. Would it be considered a majorly huge faux pas if I mentioned any details about Nexient's careers? If so, I'll edit and remove that previous sentence.

paging Mr. Yang...

A good strategy is to off-shore jobs in a function that is to be eliminated. When it comes time to close the operation down, there isn't as much mid-level management inside the company opposing the closure. It also minimizes community and political backlash.

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