Video games and the future of work: March 26, 2017 Snippets
Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes, is back in fashion. Nearly a century ago, Keynes extrapolated from our economic growth and productivity gains that within two generations we’d see fifteen-hour workweeks broadly across the social classes, and that the bulk of our time and efforts would be able to go towards leisure activities and searches for higher purpose. This is not a future that most of us look around and recognize today. On the contrary, many of us look around and see overworked, overstressed peers: economically affluent by the standards of Keynes’ time, yet exhausted and taking on more work each passing year.
Meanwhile, something else is happening that deserves increasing attention: broad swaths of a generation, particularly young men, are electing to drop out of the workforce entirely. New research documents that among men in their twenties without college degrees — traditionally the most reliably employable tranche of the workforce — over twenty percent report zero hours worked in the last twelve months (up from 9 percent in 2000).
So, how are all of these young men occupying their time? The apparent answer, accounting for over half of leisure hours gained, is not TV, or Netflix, or even social media. It’s video games. Hence, those who need the money least are working harder than ever, while increasing numbers of people near the other end of the economic spectrum, particularly young men supported by their family, are opting out of employment entirely while dedicating significant effort towards overcoming video game levels and opponents. All this is going on against the looming backdrop of automation: is this a glimpse of the new normal? How can we make sense of what’s going on?
In a widely read Atlantic article last September, The Free Time Paradox in America, Derek Thompson lays out three potential explanations for what’s happening. First, the availability of attractive work for poor men is falling while that of cheap entertainment is rising; second, that social forces are cultivating a culture of workaholism in the professional classes; third, that leisure time is ‘leaking’ into our professional lives and vice versa. While empirically sensible, these explanations aren’t particularly satisfying: “If you’re A, you want X; if you’re B, you want Y”-type reasoning often becomes a circular argument that doesn’t illuminate any underlying truth. Worse, it can descend into divisive rhetoric that creates resentment and adversarial mentalities. Unless you’ve been asleep for the last year, you’ve seen how problematic that kind of language can become at large scale, particularly as we contemplate the future of work, productivity, and human participation in society.
If we’re going to have a productive dialogue about the future of work and human motivation, the first order of business needs to be coming to consensus about what it is we strive for in common. What do the overstressed investment banking analyst, indie musician barista, and Call of Duty expert have in common? Perhaps the real variable that they are each seeking to maximize is perceived progress against challenge. Once our basic needs for food, shelter, safety and so on are met, and we reach the point where we have disposable time and income to allocate how we choose, we increasingly define our challenges and progress relative to our local surroundings and our peers. What may be happening now is that people across the economic spectrum are seeking out challenges that best line up with whatever kind of progress they feel is most achievable. For some, that means 70-hour workweeks in pursuit of career goals. But for others, exhausted from facing down unpaid internships or non-starter entry points into the creative class that don’t seem to work out, video games are a seductive alternative. Ryan Avent, writes in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine last week:
“The designers of the game of life, such as they are, may have erred in structuring the game in a way that encourages young people to seek an alternate reality. They have spread the thrills and valuable items too thinly and have tweaked the settings to reward special skills that cannot be mastered easily even by those prepared to spend long hours doing so. Unsurprisingly, some players are giving up, while others are filling the time not taken up in rewarding, well-compensated work with games painstakingly designed to make them feel good.”
Progress is relative; challenges are local. If an individual feels they aren’t making progress, it’s only natural that they should seek to adjust the challenge. If we’re serious about addressing post-automation labor, universal basic income, or any other grand plans for human productive potential in a strange future, then this is something we need to take very seriously. Our choices reflect our options. In Avent’s words:
“A life spent buried in video games, scraping by on meagre pay from irregular work or dependent on others, might seem empty and sad. Whether it is emptier and sadder than one spent buried in finance, accumulating points during long hours at the office while neglecting other aspects of life, is a matter of perspective. But what does seem clear is that the choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life. And a society which regards such adjustments as fundamentally unfair should be more tolerant of those who choose to spend their time in an alternate reality, enjoying the distractions and the succour it provides to those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game.”
Keynes’s future is imminent, if not already here. He got one thing wrong, and another thing right. What he got wrong was his assertion that productivity gains would mean we would all work less, from rich to poor, across the board. But what he got fundamentally right was the idea that an increasingly productive society faces a greater number of options for how to allocate our time and effort, and must therefore make choices. Perhaps the most pragmatic thing we can do as a society is to make sure that each one of us has the ability and the right to make a real choice, and not a false one. It’s unclear what other option we have.
Who’s really in control?
Podcast episodes for your listening enjoyment:
Other reading from around the Internet:
This week’s news and notes from the Social Capital family:
Last time we checked in with Cozy, they’d just wrapped up a monster of a year by the end of 2016. Their property management and landlord platform and products grew over 400% by revenue, they added 98,000 new properties (making the Cozy community 3x the size of the largest REIT in the United States!), and most importantly a grand total of 112,320 ounces of LaCroix consumed. Some quick back-of-the-envelope math means that the average Cozy employee consumed over 400 cans of LaCroix in 2016, so that gives you an idea of what kind of team we’re dealing with. The A Team.
Since then, Cozy continues to build on their momentum. Brian Ellin, formerly of Twitter and Medium, came on board as VP of product. They’ve also created a rent calculator tool so you can hit the balance between vacancy and yield right in the sweet spot. And just this past week, they released their new multifamily property tool kit, making it easier to manage multi-unit dwellings and more complicated rental portfolios. If you’re a landlord yourself, or know anyone who manages residential properties, you should definitely think about using Cozy yourself. In the meantime, go check out Cozy’s online resource center, Landlordology, made to help answer questions you might have. Any kind of resource you need is all there: state laws and regulations, a services directory, how-to guides, and more. Cozy also has a blog and a newsletter of their own, keeping you up to date on all things product, property management and more.
Have a great week,
Alex & the team at Social Capital