The Least Attractive Jobs

by Russ Roberts on April 25, 2008

in Podcast, Work

The latest EconTalk is a monologue by me on the following question: does our standard of living require people at the bottom to do the lousy jobs that we don’t want to do? This question was posed to me by a news correspondent for a national network. He assumed it was true. That is, he assumed that to keep people comfortable at the top of the income distribution requires an underclass. Implicit in this argument is the idea that our standard of living is a zero-sum game. In the podcast I discuss why this isn’t true–why our standard of living isn’t a zero-sum game and how the jobs at the bottom of the economy have evolved over time.

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{ 20 comments }

Hammer April 25, 2008 at 11:55 am

If nothing else, I know I have worked some bottom rung jobs, then advanced into better and better. It would seem to me that those who stay at bottom rung jobs do so by virtue of their own (in)actions. Maybe it is convenient, maybe they don't like to learn new things, maybe they don't like to apply to new jobs, but whatever the case, there is certainly a good bit of mobility possible in this country.

Blackadder April 25, 2008 at 12:13 pm

This was an excellent podcast. Who needs guests! Russ can handle the whole thing himself.

shawn April 25, 2008 at 12:16 pm

ya know…it's funny…I like this format, but Russ just *sounds* different than he does when he's interviewing someone else. I thought the same thing when I heard a monologue on NPR. Not that it's wrong either way, just different.

FreedomLover April 25, 2008 at 7:01 pm

Now shine my shoes.

Doug April 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

Just watch an episode of Dirty Jobs. Some of these jobs truly suck and I do not use that term loosly. I would never do many, if not all, of them. However, many people do and make a very comfortable living doing the things most of us would not.

The lower rung of the job ladder creates wealth and opportunity.

I have not listened to the podcast yet, but I am sure it is good. Thanks Professor Roberts.

Gil April 26, 2008 at 2:40 am

I think I agree with Hammer on this one.
}>;)

Sam Grove April 26, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Unattractive jobs I've had:

Unloading a truckload of 100lb sacks of rice bran while wearing a dust filter.

Screening dynamite (pushing dynamite mix from malformed cartridges through a screen).

Patrick Fitzsimmons April 26, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Look at Japan – they don't import labor so they are forced to automate everything. Going to Japan is like stepping forward 20 years into the future.

http://www.vdare.com/Sailer/japanese_robots.htm

liberty April 26, 2008 at 7:13 pm

What I want to know: did the news correspondent listen to the podcast?

Ray Gardner April 26, 2008 at 7:37 pm

Isn't that a kind of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario?

Let the economy become so affluent that no one has to suck coal soot for a living, and we're outsourcing the heart of American labor to the third world, but what soot-sucking jobs remain, the capitalist market is guilty for keeping Joe Sixpack in a sweat shop.

Kyle Stevens April 27, 2008 at 12:50 pm

Interestingly enough I listened to this podcast, as always, while mowing my lawn. I think that Russ addressed several key points in this podcast. Fundamental to them all is that competition drives people to improve. I think Russ makes a great point about looking over time. I teach at a private school in Dallas where that is what most of our parents do…look long term. Most of our students are on financial aide and many of our parents did not attend college. Some of these parents work two jobs to ensure a better quality of life for their children.

I am excited to hear the upcoming podcast on education. I reflect back to the 7 April podcast on exporting democracy and wonder why our education system is counter to the rest of our society. We promote capitalism and choice however our education system is as centrally planned as the Soviet Union. I am not directing my concern toward NCLB act, rather the centrally planned control of education dating back to the Dept of Health , Education, and Welfare.

As always great podcast and enjoyed the commentary style.

Kyle Stevens
Dallas, TX

FreedomLover April 27, 2008 at 6:46 pm

Kyle – due to the 99% broken public education system, America is falling behind other nations. That's the reason for America's ranking in the 30s in math. BTW, if you know anything about companies like Intel and AMD the lead design engineers are like 90% Asians.

Thomas A. Coss April 27, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Good that you teach a seminar to Journalists. Many of the articles I've read on the issue of poor paying jobs seem sadly overburdened by the subjective. The zero sum reasoning you cited, is tidy to the writer who has constraints on time and writing space along with an often unhealth view of the reader. The good news is that people are smarter and wiser than we think.

Excellent podcast.

Sam Grove April 28, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Thing is, looking back, what I now suggest are unattractive jobs did not seem so unattractive to me at the time.

Tom Walsh April 28, 2008 at 4:47 pm

I believe the standard of living causes people to believe that the low end of society should be doing the lousy jobs. A lot of people choose the job path they take or came here to find the best opportunity for them because there was not one present for them where they come from. A lot of these jobs that are done that people call lousy are what makes their homes look nice inside and out, pick up the trash off the streets to keep them clean. If those workers just said I'm done, we'd have a lot of work on our hands. Also if you were poor wouldn't you want to be poor in the United States society anyway?

FreedomLover April 28, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Tom Walsh:

Spoken like a true elitist. Don't you know that they'd rather be starving to death in …(name a 3rd world country of your choice).

kasey April 30, 2008 at 4:41 pm

I agree fully with freedom – lovers comment. there are a lot of dirty jobs out there and people enjoy them. And yes i believe there needs to be people serving at the bottom of economic status in order to keep things afloat. That is what is great about America. you can work your way up to whatever you want, right?

J Carlton May 1, 2008 at 12:12 am

I think that too many people take their views of the economic system from Dickens and Marx. the problem is that this view has no basis in reality. If you actually talk to people like your garbageman and lawn guy you might find out that they enjoy their jobs and they are not as poor as you might think. In fact even if you look closely at labor in a historical sense you find that the labor picture is not the one that Dickens and Marx presented. As a case in point here's a set of films made around the turn of the last century at the Westinghouse factory:
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/papr/west/westhome.html
While the people working here are doing things that make me cringe, this is certainly no hellhole.
finally my dad has been retired and working at Walmart for some time now. Walmart doesn not underpay its workers.

chelsey May 2, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I do not agree with the whole zero sum idea either. There are many people who are the so called "little people." They have the choice whether or not to better themselves by receiving an education or anything else that will increase their standard of living. These people do help us out a great deal providing the services that no one else wants to tackle but in reality we don't need to push people down in order to get ahead.

Brian Forbes May 8, 2008 at 3:04 am

Granted there are many jobs out there that I would not enjoy doing. But those jobs are few and far between. There are many opportunities for employment that would still have the people "at the bottom" making enough money to support themselves and their family. Also, the worst jobs that many people would not want to do pay rather well. Take for example people working on oil rigs, fisherman (depending on the catch), and certain jobs in the coal mining industry. But these are not everyday jobs that would you consider to be at the bottom like those working in retail or the food industry. It's all a matter of how much effort you put into your work and what kind of motivation you have. If you are satisfied working at the bottom then that is where you belong. But don't attempt to say that the bottom have it that bad. If they wanted to be at the top, they have to work for it.

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