How Work Got Good

Overall, jobs have become safer, more interesting—and more intense.


Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi's John Sculley to Apple by asking him if he wanted to spend his life selling sugared water or if he wanted "a chance to change the world." Sculley took the chance. In all his enterprises, Jobs offered his employees the same. They were on an intense mission, where much was asked of them. The work was hard, and they were expected to care about it and devote themselves to it. But they could grow and be justly rewarded for their contributions. They were expected to question their boss, who would sometimes change his mind based on the questioning.

Some of the rewards were intangible—the "flow" of losing oneself in an important and challenging but doable activity. Other rewards were tangible. When the first Macs were shipped, Jobs took the Mac team to the parking lot, called each by name, and handed him or her a Mac with the signatures of the 46 main team members engraved inside.

Many of the higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good life are the same higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good job. The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously observed that after we satisfy physiological needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, we seek to satisfy higher needs, such as fulfillment, meaning, control, and creativity, through the choice and pursuit of challenging, meaningful projects. Too often a life of leisure does not allow sufficient satisfaction of the higher needs. It is telling that Europeans have much more leisure than Americans, but Europeans report being much less happy.

Having a challenging job where you are in control of your time is not only important for satisfying the higher needs; it also is important for satisfying the basic need for good health. One cause of constant long-term stress is boredom, which has been shown to adversely affect hormone levels and heart rates. For men, another cause of constant long-term job stress is lack of control over what projects to pursue or tasks to prioritize. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Health Psychology, men who lacked control in their work had a greater risk of death.

At first glance, it is surprising that among retirees with $1 million to $5 million in assets, 33 percent retire from one job only to then transition to working in a new one. Even among retirees with more than $5 million in assets, 29 percent continue to work. At second glance, these findings are not so surprising in a labor environment where a growing percentage of jobs are good jobs: creative, challenging, satisfying.

A skeptic might object that these findings only apply to the rich. But jobs in construction and trucking are increasingly hard to fill, suggesting that poorer workers who otherwise might build and drive also are finding better alternatives: safer, less physically exhausting, less routine.

Farm to Factory

Innovative dynamism, sometimes less aptly called creative destruction or entrepreneurial capitalism, has a long history of creating new, better jobs and also of nudging old jobs toward the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs. In much of human history, the powerful have been tempted to force slaves to do the most dangerous, exhausting, and boring work. But then inventors created machines that could do these tasks, reducing the temptation to enslave and hugely bettering the work lives of some of the worst off.

An early specific example of innovative dynamism improving jobs happened when kerosene replaced whale sperm oil for high-quality lighting. Collection of sperm oil required the collectors to spend days scraping spermaceti from the brain cavity of the decomposing carcass of a huge whale. Work in oil fields was far from perfect, but it was better than work in decomposing brain cavities.

Some have suggested that some of the early machines of the Industrial Revolution mainly hurt workers by replacing skilled artisans with unskilled factory workers. But most of those who worked in the factories had earlier worked on farms, not as skilled artisans. Victorian-era economist Nassau William Senior observed that the Industrial Revolution's factory system had improved the conditions of these former farm workers. He described their new conditions as "the comparatively light labor which is exerted in the warm and airy halls of a well-regulated factory." Charles Dickens, famous for defending the poor in his bestselling novels of the mid-1800s, praised the clean, comfortable working conditions of former farm girls in a Boston textile factory. Before they had the option of mill work, their labor on the farm would have been dirty, physically exhausting, and often dangerous and lonely.

Around 1858 in England, one 8-year-old girl did farm work 14 hours a day; she later testified that "it was like heaven to me when I was taken to the town of Leeds and put to work in a cotton factory." By today's standards, the conditions of the early factories were awful, but they were still better than the even more awful conditions that had prevailed in the countryside. The factory was progress, a stepping stone but not a stopping point. In the 1800s a great many people of all ages and genders voted with their feet for the factory over the farm.

Innovative dynamism also eventually greatly improved the conditions of work for those who remained on the land. Railroads opened up the possibilities for farming at a greater distance from the cities. On the fertile and less rocky fields of the Midwest, farmers could now grow more with less effort. Their work, pain, and danger were also reduced by farm innovations such as the McCormick reaper.

Today, many farmers have drones for monitoring crops, computers for calculating yields, air-conditioned tractors for comfortable plowing, and the internet for information and entertainment.

Office to Home

Over the last six decades, more and more workers have been employed in jobs emphasizing expert thinking or complex communications tasks, while fewer have been employed in jobs emphasizing routine or manual tasks.

Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps noted that innovative dynamism "has so far been an extraordinary engine for generating creative workplaces" where workers can discover and explore in the pursuit of challenging projects. Walt Disney Productions was once such a place while its founder was in charge, but it declined after cancer took him. Decades later, officials at the Walt Disney Company offered John Lasseter significantly higher pay to work for them. He declined, choosing to stay at then-independent Pixar, which, though strapped for funding, had become a new exemplar of a creative workplace. Computer-enabled innovations gave Lasseter a job at the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs, where he had the freedom to create a new kind of film, starting with Toy Story.

In the past, home workers were paid significantly less than in-office workers because it was harder for firms to measure and manage home workers' productivity. The internet made this much easier, and the at-home wage penalty substantially fell between 1980 and 2000.

Another example of gains from technology is Amazon Mechanical Turk. The original Mechanical Turk in 1770 was a chess-winning "robot" eventually revealed to cleverly conceal a human chess master within the box allegedly holding the robotic mechanism. Amazon's version is an internet platform that allows firms to hire participating workers from around the world to perform various online tasks. The surprising punchline is that Amazon Mechanical Turk was rated by its workers as treating them slightly more honestly and fairly than in-person employers in the workers' home countries.

Almost everyone would like work that is satisfying and doable but challenging; that is in the upper meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs. Besides that, some people want a difficult project that they can throw themselves into with intensity—what strategy gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call "big, hairy, audacious goals."

Big, intense projects appeal to our desire for exhilaration and total engagement. They are especially appealing to those who feel that their lives will be worthwhile only if they "make a ding in the universe." Many breakthrough innovations are more dangerous at their early stages. But some workers enjoy the adventure of risky jobs, take pride in their ability to get those jobs done, or feel satisfaction at being a part of an important project.

When Joe Wilson committed his little Haloid Photographic Company to develop xerography, it was a big, intense project. Horace Becker led the team tasked to produce the first commercial Xerox machine: the model 914. His account captures something of what it feels like to be part of such a project. By the time they tried setting up their first 914 assembly line, he says, everyone was fully immersed in the project, forgetting grievances and performance ratings. All workers, from engineers to assemblers, were indistinguishable in pulling toward the common goal. They would even sneak in on Sundays to make adjustments or to admire the progress.

Big, risky dreams do not appeal to everyone. But an advantage of innovative dynamism is that it allows everyone to be intense without forcing intensity on anyone. And even though many of us will prefer a more relaxed life, we often benefit from the fruits that the intense create.

NEXT: Trump Announces Higher Tariffs. At Least He Called Them 'Taxes.'

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  1. It is telling that Europeans have much more leisure than Americans, but Europeans report being much less happy.

    I keep reading that Europeans – Danes, Norwegians, etc – are the happiest people on earth. Is that wrong?

    Read Viktor Frankl’s Mans search for Meaning for a great example.
    “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

    1. This is also why religious people are in general happier.

    2. Along those lines—it’s long struck me as odd that delusional people are almost always terribly unhappy, living in fear and paranoia, feeling angry, sad, and rejected. If you’re going to hallucinate a fantasy world, why wouldn’t you make it a pleasant one? Why not live in a delusion that you’re safe, loved, important, and successful? It’s very rare for crazy people to do that. They almost always construct a world full of evil people and demons pursuing them. Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing.

      1. Delusions are involuntary. If you choose a delusion, it’s not a delusion. It may be folly, but not delusion.

        1. Apparently you believe in that “free will” stuff.

    3. I believe that while Danes and Norwegians are among the happiest people, they are not representative of the happiness of Europeans in general

  2. “A skeptic might object that these findings only apply to the rich. But jobs in construction and trucking are increasingly hard to fill, suggesting that poorer workers who otherwise might build and drive also are finding better alternatives: safer, less physically exhausting, less routine.”

    I actually think these finding do apply much more to people in the upper two quintiles of income [note: upper two quintiles start at ~145K income annually], and not the lower 60% of wage earners in the US. More to the point, there is a real, and meaningful difference in quality of life between those who have a 4-year degree, and those who have no college degree.

    The fact is, life is only now starting to get better economically for the lowest 60% of wage earners. There is a long, long way to go. Life for this set of people is not getting more interesting with innovative dynamism. For them, life is fraught with uncertainty, insecurity, and a paycheck to paycheck existence. Out of this we see social pathologies: substance abuse, premature death, higher divorce rates, single parent homes, and just ‘checking out’. In the morning, they say, “How I wish it were evening”; and in the evening they say, “How I wish it were morning”. Their lives are an unending grind, with very little hope of moving upward. This has to change.

    I do not know what world Mr. Diamond lives in, but it is not the same world I live in, and observe. If anything, people in the lowest 60% of wage earners are going to have it even harder going forward….their jobs will slowly and steadily get automated away. And then what will they do? Learn to code? I don’t think so.

    What I am wondering is how that innovative dynamism plays out for the lower 60% of wage earners? When a high school graduate driving a truck making 50K-70K annually sees their trucking job replaced by automation when they are age 57…then what.

    1. I think you’re being generous. It’s more like the top 20% that have any hope of an interesting and challenging job.

    2. *I* wonder what world you live in, if you think it’s the four year degree which separated the 60% from the 40%. I know people of both types and of both strata, and there is no clear mapping. Happiness, income, and degrees do not have any clear correlation like you suggest.

    3. the upper 2 quintiles don’t start at 140k!!!!!!!! Maybe the top 5 or 10 percent

      1. 140k is top 17% for household income in 2017

    4. Presumably the same as high school graduates whose jobs were automated away have been doing all along. Where did the tellers and typists go? Typesetters?

    5. I do not know what world Mr. Diamond lives in, but it is not the same world I live in, and observe. If anything, people in the lowest 60% of wage earners are going to have it even harder going forward….their jobs will slowly and steadily get automated away. And then what will they do? Learn to code? I don’t think so.

      I agree that there is a real risk of this – esp in a society where the basic rules of the game end up being mainly created by/for the benefit of only a small subset of people who happen to acquire the power (political or economic) needed to impose those rules on others. Regardless of people’s particular ideology – that is the society we are in and the only society that people even think/imagine can exist and is the sort of society we want to impose/strengthen via our preferred ‘ism’.

      IDK how ‘true’ Maslow’s model of hierarchical needs really is but to the degree it is true, it (in combination with game theory type stuff) is an interesting way of analyzing ‘-isms’ to see what sorts of individual needs that ism is seeking to impose more broadly on everyone. The scenario that you are positing is one where the lower half of income is also forced to remain on the lower two steps of that ‘need’ pyramid. That Maslow’s hierarchy is essentially turned into a proxy for income and/or control over income. Which honestly is exactly what many of those at the upper levels themselves want (even if there’s no apparent need for themselves that is serving).

    6. Some people just like to complain. Everything is so terrible and unfair. It’s always someone else’s fault.

  3. poorer workers who otherwise might build and drive also are finding better alternatives

    Such as hanging out in their Baby Mama’s Section 8 apartment getting high and playing video games all day.

    1. Yeah, but then the baby mama’s always bitching about something or other. It’s not as great as it sounds.

  4. Funny that this article shows up now. My coworkers and I were talking about how the office job had changed over the last twenty years or so, and one of the things we’d noticed is that side benefits had all but disappeared. The year before I started my first job, the company cut there once a year all you can drink and go-kart get together. My coworker talked about her husbands job had stopped giving employees all paid vacations.

    The invisible bennies are disappearing for everyone who isn’t director level.

    1. Funny, my last employer, a small manufacturing company, had added those and numerous other benefits since 1990. I guess it depends on where you work, how competitive the industry is, and how much the owners appreciate the value of keeping good employees happy.

      1. Anecdotal stuff obviously always depends on the specific context of the anecdote. Problem of course is that means that one can always find an anecdote to support a preconception and battling anecdotes leads nowhere.

        Even well-conducted statistical surveys – like this one by SHRM re employee benefits will (or should) lead to as many questions as answers – and that’s the last thing most people are looking for.

    2. One thing happening in office jobs is the ability to work from home for all or part of your job. I find that a much better arrangement.

      It is less stressful, you avoid the commute, more flexibility and you can be more productive without the distractions of the office.

      Plus the dress code is nice.

      1. Downside is the expectation of constant availability.

        1. Yup that can happen. Believe me I know.

          It is up to workers to create boundaries. If you want my services this is when I am available.

        2. Of course can happen in office work as well.

          The classic scene from Office Space

    3. “The invisible bennies are disappearing for everyone who isn’t director level.”

      While government mandated benefits continue to grow. It’s almost like there’s some sort of connection there.

  5. Work sucks and the only reason I’m doing it is to be able to stop as soon as mathematically possible.

    1. You’ve just described exports and imports to a T.

      Exports suck and the only reason we do it is to be able to buy imports.

  6. nice spin. yet 70 percent of the jobs are still soul crushing, and most people are only there because they need the money.

  7. People are happier with work when they find their niche. An auto mechanic may not be happy in a big shop if what he really wants to do is restore old cars. Given the opportunity he will trade off income to do that and be better off.

    Some of the most miserable people I know are those have who put income as the first priority. It leads to a constant cycle of striving to make more because there is never enough and always comparing yourself to other people.

    CE is right not all jobs are satisfying in themselves. It does not mean that work itself needs to be the source of satisfaction. It can just be a way to earn income to allow for other things. One way to look at it is that every job is a gig and every person is their own little company. If you start to think that your job owns you rather than the other way around anything can be soul crushing.

    I think the other thing that gets people down is a sense of entitlement and over expectation. There are bad days and hard times. That is entirely normal but we think it only happens to us. We think we deserve better.

    Harry Browne had some insight into that in his famous letter to his daughter.

  8. Many of the higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good life are the same higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good job.

    That observation is only true for the higher level jobs. In fact this entire statement is only true for that part of the population that ‘lives to work’ rather than ‘works to live’.

    There is simply no way for someone who doesn’t have the skills to fill a ‘good job’ to eg satisfy their need for self-esteem from a job. The skills that they would have to acquire to get that ‘good job’ that can satisfy their ego/self-esteem needs are skills that are, by definition, more valuable to someone else (the person who controls the terms/conditions of that ‘good job’) than to themselves. And the time spent doing that is absolutely and permanently lost.

    I see no problem that some people are ‘work to live’ and others are ‘live to work’. I see a huge problem when those who have one motivation seek to impose that motivation on everyone else by creating a society that puts obstacles in the way of the other.

  9. […] Innovative dynamism, sometimes less aptly called creative destruction or entrepreneurial capitalism, has a long history of creating new, better jobs and also of nudging old jobs toward the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs… Read More > at Reason […]

  10. There is a rising demand for freelancers in the IT field. This may be due to the people lifestyle & work-life change from authentic jobs to move out to more of a gig economy. Increased ride-hailing app drivers and food delivery personnel also confirm the same fact. New entrepreneurs are also creating such on-demand business with ready-made solutions like Uber clone

  11. The truth is that work plays a major role in defining a society. In fact, the definition of a workplace has constantly shaped how communities form. Today, many people working for large firms do so from home. An Amazon Product Description Writer, for instance, helps affiliate marketers to move products for Amazon without having to conform to the strict work environment of the firm.

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