Work is a market

With remote work on the rise, I've seen people debating the fairness of companies adjusting pay based on one's location and cost of living. As if there ever was an intrinsic justification to compensation. Spoiler: there isn't.

Work is a market
Photo by Jeet Khatri / Unsplash

A few years ago, the building I lived in in the Paris area was undergoing some renovation. Every day, men shoveled gravel, broke asphalt, cut concrete panels and laid them down.

Amongst them, there was an old man. There was a grandfatherly air to him. An old man with the heavy build of those who eat too much. The belly of one that drinks too much beer. Discheveled grey hair, a short unkempt beard, and the big reddish nose typical of those who drank too much alcohol for too many years.

While much younger ones manoeuvered a small excavator to break down the parking lot's coating, he filled wheelbarrows of dirt with a shovel. While much younger ones unrolled layers of waterproofing coatings, he carried his heavy wheelbarrow across the whole parking lot.

Seeing him filled me with a strange sort of sadness. There he was, at the end of his work life, and still he had to put his aging body through this rough, physically damaging, ordeal.

And all for what? Minimum wage? One and a half times minimum wage? Was that what we paid those who rebuild our buildings' parking lots, our streets? Those who actually build and maintain all the infrastructure we all need in our daily lives, at the cost of ruined joints, arthritis, their whole physical health? Why were they paid so little compared to I, who merely contributed to vaguely useful dating apps or grocery delivery platforms?

Why was I, back when I worked at McDonald's, when I actually made food for hundreds of people every day, burning my hands and forearms several times a week, paid so little compared to now?

Return on Investment

The first reason is  scalability. Write once, run everywhere. Software's innate scalability in today's connected world means that what I am paid to build can sold or used to sell to thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of customers. Meaning that if the software has a market fit and management is reasonably smart, the product will probably bring in much more revenue than whatever cost my work could represent.

Supply and demand

The second reason is that, today, work is a market. We are paid as little to do something as enough of us are willing to get paid to do it. It is not a matter of the skills involved, the knowledge required, or the intrinsic value of what is accomplished through that work. It is purely a matter of supply and demand.

Work is a market, governed by supply, demand, and return on investment

Many of us are willing to get paid very little to ruin our back pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks or burn our hands and arms making hamburgers. Sure most of us won't like it. But enough are willing to nonetheless.

On the other hand, some "highly skilled" jobs pay much more than one would earn by working as a construction worker or fast food employee. Still, why am I, as a software engineer, paid much more than most teachers in the world? Why are medical interns with over 6 years of study, and actually saving lives on a regular basis, only paid as much as Paris' garbage collectors?

If some skills and knowledge are valued today and lead to better pay, it's only because enough of two reasons:

  • the work that can be produced using these skills and knowledge can be used, one way or another, to bring in more revenue than what the people with these skills and knowledge are paid to do that work
  • most, or enough of the people with those skills and knowledge won't work for less

Conclusion

A degree doesn't mean we'll get a better or better paying job. Skills won't either.

The only reason I am paid more today building and maintaining apps and backends than I was years ago flipping burgers, is because there are fewer people who know how to create software than there who can make a burger, and enough of us aren't willing to paid less to do our job.

But if we don't get yourself skills that are in demand, and ways to prove we have them, then all we have to offer is that we are cheaper than the automated alternative, are easier trained for a job than a monkey, and have a working body we are willing to ruin for a price.