In 1800 the majority of people worked as farmers. In the U.S. it was more than 80% of the overall population. Everyday lives of these people very much resembled one another.
The typical 19th century farmer would wake up when the sun started to rise and spend most of his day out on the fields, seeding or harvesting, depending on the time of the year. When the sun went down he’d go home, eat some yummy bean stew from his very own acre and potentially have a glass of home-brewed whiskey (or more likely two). The next day he’d start all over again (except if it were a Sunday).
Life as a farmer was simple and it’s easy to nail down the motivation for work: Feeding yourself and your loved ones.
The industrial revolution changed worklife for many. Productivity increased and one farmer was now able to produce more food than her family would need to survive. Therefore, some people put down plow and sickle for good and went to work in industries. Eventually the western world moved to a state where industry and not agriculture was the driving force of economic growth. By 1880, it was less than half of U.S. citizens who were employed in the agricultural sector.
Working in industry meant that the purpose of your job was somehow related to manufacturing physical goods that people would use to either (1) grow & harvest more food on less land and in a shorter time, (2) produce other goods or (3) use in their daily life to increase their living standard.
Over time productivity also increased in the industrial sector. Humans engineered ever more cool machines that would make it easier and faster to produce goods. In consequence, more people became available to work in the service sector. Already by 1930, the majority of the U.S. population earned a living as ‘service providers’.
By offering services to others, your goal would be to either (1) help other people to produce food or goods more efficiently, (2) enable other service providers to offer better services or (3) make everyday life more enjoyable for consumers.
Maybe you already see where this is heading.
Thanks to software automation, many services which used to be taken care of by humans are performed by computers these days. Therefore less people are needed in the service industry, which gives rise to the guild of online creation. I call this the digital sector but you could also think of it as the information economy, online business or remote workers. Currently, in the U.S. 18% of the workforce are working remote full-time (a number which has risen by 173% between 2005 and 2018).
As an online creator you aim to either (1) make digital products that serve the agricultural, industrial or service sector, (2) provide tools to enable other creators or (3) cater to a psychological need of humans on one of the higher levels of Maslow’s Pyramid.
In essence what I have just written down here is nothing new, the ‘three sector model of economics’ has been developed ages ago and also the concept of knowledge workers and/or the creator economy is buzzing around our newsfeeds almost on a daily basis (especially since the pandemic propelled a shift to more remote work). Nevertheless, I thought that it’s worth telling this story once more and emphasizing what I’d call the progression of ‘metaness’ throughout this development.
Every one of these sectors, from agriculture to digital, adds on an additional meta level to the existing economy. This allows us to increase our society’s standard of living but also makes the structure of our economy more complex. While farming work has a clear purpose, namely the feeding of humans and animals, the meaning and impact of work becomes harder to summarize in one sentence as we progress through the different sectors. Jobs that are more ‘meta’ tend to create value by either providing some kind of assistance to one of the lower levels or addressing increasingly sophisticated human needs. I hope my little graphic helps to convey what exactly I mean by that and makes this explanation a bit less meta (pun intended).
One of the consequences of metaness is, that it becomes harder to tell the difference between quality work and bullsh* t. I don’t know if you too used to play the ‘Why Game’ as a kid, but it is essentially just that. You ask a person why she is doing something and then, ask again for the why in her answer. And again. And again. Until you managed to nail down the final purpose. The higher we progress on the ladder of metaness, the more ’Why’s you need to ask and the easier it becomes for scammers to hide a lack in value between the levels. To give you an example, I’d say it’s quite easy to judge whether food is good or bad. But it is much harder to judge the value of a consultant’s work. As a consequence, you’ll find more bullsh*t jobs and workers that only provide very little value to overall society on the higher levels.
However, with that I don’t mean that meta work in itself is worthless. I just think there exists a comparatively high percentage of people in ‘high metaness’ professions that just want your money but are not willing to provide much value. These individuals are also one of the reasons why knowledge work often gets devalued as ‘not real work’ or ‘not providing value’.
In the past years, the number of online creators has increased massively. Likewise, there exist tons of resources that advertise with the slogan that ‘everyone can build their own brand and earn a living as an online influencer/podcaster/software developer/writer etc.’ if just following ‘The complete guide to earning $10k+ as a XXX’. I personally often thought that this must be scam, because in the end someone needs to pay the creators. And I still have this opinion (because a world full of just influencers would starve) but I think there might be more truth to it, than often thought.
We are still experiencing a long-term GDP/capita growth (putting COVID aside for a moment), which shows that productivity is increasing and in turn the standard of living is rising. This means people are moving their focus to needs located closer to the top of the Maslow’s pyramid and at the same time less people are needed in Meta 0-2. Thus, this is (and probably will be for some time) an expanding industry, where more jobs are created and workers in this industry serve some of humans (admittedly high level) needs. And while not everyone can work on Meta 3 (and most likely also not everyone wants to), chances are many more people will actually be able to support themselves as an independent online creator (although it probably takes a bit more than just following the steps of a single ‘How-to’ guide).
Becoming too meta is also a risk, for society as a whole. Comparing to the 1800s where daily life was almost the same for over 80% of the population, today’s landscape of existing lifestyles is much more fragmented. This makes it harder for us to communicate with people outside of our very own bubble (or decrease the size of our bubble, however you want to view it) - often realities of ‘outsiders’ are so different that it makes it seemingly very hard to convey a message. One way that we are noticing this is increasing polarization. Another one is the growth in all types of specialised sub-communities. Becoming more and more meta (potentially progressing to a Meta 4 at some point?) is thus risky for a society, as its members have a harder time relating to each other and identify with a shared set of values.
I have caught myself multiple times, assuming somehow implicitly that people around me wake up to a somewhat similar reality than I do. This here is the manifestation of my pledge to keep reminding myself that this is simply not the case.
With all that being said, I am going to close my laptop now and do some garden work. You know, maybe I’ll have to survive on those home-grown carrots at some point.
If you liked what you read, consider signing up for my bi-weekly newsletter or sharing with a friend.
If you didn’t like what you read, consider shooting me an email to bring on the discussion.