It is a trite, well-established truth that people like being useful. But there’s more to it than that, or rather, there’s also a stronger version of that claim. People do like being useful, but useful is a very broad term. Stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, in that it’s a thing with a use, which needs to be done. And it’s true that some people may in fact actively like a job stocking shelves at a Walmart. But on the whole, it’s not something most people would consider particularly enjoyable, and it’s certainly not something that is considered fulfilling.
Let us then upgrade the word “useful” to the word “needed”: people like to be needed. While stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, the person doing it is fundamentally replaceable. There are millions of others around the world perfectly capable of doing the same job, and there are probably thousands of them just within the immediate town or city. If our fictional stocker were to suddenly vanish one day, management would have no trouble hiring somebody else to fill their shoes. The world would go on. Walmart would survive.
Now this is all well and good, but I would argue that there is an even stronger version of this claim: people don’t just like to be needed, people actively need to be needed. Over a decade ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay called Why Nerds are Unpopular; it’s a long essay with a number of different points, but there is one thread running through it that in my opinion has gotten far too little attention: “[Teenagers’] craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere”.
The important thing to note about this (and Graham does so, in a roundabout sort of way) is that teenagers in a modern high school are not exactly idle. They have class, and homework, and soccer practice or band practice or chess club; they play games and listen to music and do all the sort of things that teenagers do. They just don’t have a purpose. They are literally unneeded, shut away in a brick building memorizing facts they’ll probably never use, mostly to get them out of the way of the adults doing real work.
This obviously sucks, and Graham stops there, making the assumption that the adult world at least, has enough purpose to go around. Teenagers, and in particular nerds, just have to wait until they’re allowed into the real world and voila, life will sort itself out. And it’s true that for some, this is the case. A scientist doing ground-breaking research doesn’t need to worry about their purpose; they know that the work they are doing is needed, and has the potential to change lives. Unfortunately, a Walmart stocker does not.
To anyone who has been following the broad path of the news over the last decade , this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It seems like every other day we are confronted by another article suggesting that people are becoming less happy and more depressed, and that modern technology is making people unhappy. Occasionally it is also noted that this is weird. We live in a world of wealth and plenty. The poorest among us are healthier, better-fed, and more secure than the richest of kings only a few centuries past. What is causing this malaise?
The simple answer is that we are making ourselves obsolete. People need to be needed, sure, but nobody wants to need. Independence is the American dream, chased and prized through the modern Western world. Needing someone else is seen as weakness, as vulnerability, and so we strive to be self-sufficient, to protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt. But in doing so, we hurt others. We take from them our need, and leave them more alone than ever before.
Of course, Western independence as a philosophy has been growing for near on three centuries now, and modern unhappiness is a much more recent phenomenon. There are two reasons for this, one obvious and the other a bit more subtle. To start with, our modern wealth does count for something. A small amount of social decohesion can trade off against an entire industrial revolution’s worth of progress and security with no alarm bells going off. But there is a deeper trick at play, and that is specialization.
In traditional hunter-gatherer bands, generally everybody was needed. The tribe could usually survive the loss of a few members of course – it had to – but not easily. Every member had a job, a purpose, a needed skill. That there were only a handful of needed skills really didn’t matter; there just weren’t that many people in any given tribe.
As civilization flourished, the number of people in a given community grew exponentially. Tribes of hundreds were replaced by cities of thousands, and for a time this was OK. Certainly, there was no room in a city of thousands for half the adult men to be hunters; it was both ecologically and sociologically unsustainable. But in a city of that size there was suddenly room for tailors and coopers and cobblers and masons and a million other specialized jobs that let humanity preserve this sense of being needed. If it was fine to be one of the handful of hunters providing food for your tribe, it was just as fine to be one of the handful of cobblers providing shoes for your town.
To a certain extent, specialization continued to scale right through the mid-twentieth century, just not as well. In addition to coopers and masons we also (or instead) got engineers and architects, chemists and botanists, marketers and economists. But somewhere in the late twentieth century, that process peaked. Specialization still adds the occasional occupation (e.g. software developer), but much more frequently modern technology takes them away instead. Automation lets one person do the work of thousands.
Even worse than this trend is the growth of the so-called “global village”. I, personally, am a software developer in a city of roughly one million people. Software development is highly specialized, and arguably the most modern profession in the world. At the end of the day however, I too am replaceable. Even if I were only one of the handful of developers in my city (I’m not), modern technology – both airplanes and the internet – has broadened the potential search pool for my replacement to nearly the entire world. My position is fundamentally no different from that of the Walmart stocker – I would not be missed.
At the end of the day, humanity is coming to the cross-roads of our need for need. Obsessed with individuality, we refuse to depend on anyone. Women’s liberation is slowly freeing nearly half of the world’s population from economic dependence. Technological progress, automation, and global travel are all nibbling away at the number of specialized occupations, and at the replacement cost of the ones that remain. The future is one where we all live like the teenagers in Paul Graham’s essay: neurotic lapdogs, striving to find meaning where fundamentally none exists. Teenagers, at least, just have to grow up so they can find meaning in the real world.
How is humanity going to grow up?