You like getting raises at work?
Hope not. It’s starting to look like raises are dead. For most of us, anyway, and for the foreseeable future.
The puny 0.2 percent that overall U.S. employment costs—wages and benefits, that is—grew during the second quarter was the lowest amount measured since the index was started 33 years ago. Raises for American workers, in other words, have virtually ground to a halt, with no restart in sight.
Given that, the two most interesting questions now are why, and what should you do about it?
Pressed on the problem, economists—who use statistics the way Siegfried and Roy use white tigers—come up with a variety of fascinating, counterintuitive storylines supported by obscure data series to explain (and sometimes contradict) the current, rather depressing income narrative.
You can read academic papers and web polemics on the subject from here to insolvency, and you’ll finish no more confident in the answer. Low productivity growth. Lack of capital investment. Demise of unions. Too low minimum wage. Too high minimum wage. Overseas outsourcing. Unmeasurable psychic income from Facebook. BarackObamaGeorgeWBush.
Think “we’re” going to fix the problem? Yeah, probably not.
Looking at what’s changed in the world since raises started dying, the best gut-level guess I can make is that raises appear to have been murdered by the mercilessly inanimate advance of computer code. If you can describe a non-physical labor process, you can outsource it. If you can outsource it, you can translate it into code. If you can translate it into code, it’s you against the machine.
Give you a raise? Dude, you’re 10 lines of code away from hitting the street.
Can we resurrect raises? Not unless we restructure our entire work lives—skills, expectations, education, employment law, everything—around the realities of an information-soaked economy. And that will happen…20 or so years from now, if ever. And certainly long after the damage to your bank account is done.
The gut-punch reality is this: In our information-inundated world, we can know every fact ever known to humankind, monitor and/or mimic every process occurring in the world, and increasingly predict with greater and greater accuracy exactly what will happen next in any business or service delivery organization. That means traditional measures of employee competence—knowing a lot, or knowing how to do something the right way over and over again—just ain’t worth as much as they used to be.
Not only that, basic competence is worth less and less every day. The better we get at capturing, storing, sifting, and using all that information to make ourselves more efficient, the less gray matter we need. It’s a matter of supply and demand. And your brain’s on the wrong side of the equation.
So if you want more money, you better be adding something coders and robots cannot. That requires creating things. Not in the artist/poet sense (just ask your friendly neighborhood broke musician/unemployed English major), but more in the way of synthesis: taking that which exists already and fusing it in some off-the-roadmap way to create something new and valuable.
Computers still aren’t that good at thinking creatively. Yeah, Google’s got some psilocybin data-art going on, and Stephen Hawking’s all worried about artificially intelligent entities taking over the universe, but most of us have to worry about paying the babysitter rather than worrying when Skynet will become self-aware. For some time forward, your brain is still way better at thinking abstractly than any server array in Mountain View is.
If you boil it all the way down to hard-core career advice, it’s this: You better learn to play offense. Create value from things of less value. Create ways to sell more of whatever it is your company sells. Processing things someone else hands you, or doing something they instruct you on how to do, gets less and less valuable every day. If no opportunities for that kind of creativity exist at your company or in your job, start figuring out where the exit door is. Your company’s going to be roadkill.
If you’re just entering the work world or considering where else you might expend that gray matter of yours, avoid any profession where jamming facts into your head for future reference is currently thought to be important (law and medicine as traditionally practiced, for instance) unless you’re fundamentally bringing an attitude of disruption with you into the field. Otherwise, code will bring you to sorrow.
What’s the most creativity-as-value-generator-friendly field right now? No surprise: business. Figuring out better products and processes and getting paid for it is what business has been about since a couple Japanese guys formed the world’s first company (a construction contractor!) in the sixth century AD. Better, more creative approaches quickly destroy earlier ones, and to the victor go the spoils.
Raises are dead. Making more isn’t going to come from excelling on traditional measures of employee competence. Deal with it. Create.