Motivation 2.0 vs. Needs

I am in the generation of millenials who was taught that I better learn to code and fast.

Going to college and taking in the general climate in 2008 (and for my master’s in 2014), I was under the impression that the humanities was (and still is) falling apart at the seams, and the myriad ways in which the department tried to prove its value by connecting itself with technology was pitiable.

Now here I am writing all kinds of posts on the benefits of literacy and not having to program a single line to get it up and running.

Another shift in jobs concerns all these “2.0” mantras, from motivation to emotional intelligence.

I have been reading Daniel H. Pink’s Drive, a book which discusses intrinsic motivation and its growing importance in a prosumer and digitized economy. Much like Alfie Kohn’s work in education with Punished by Rewards, Pink simply applies the current realization that people have irrational desires that cater to their work ethic in ways that extrinsic “carrot and stick” motivation simply cannot address.

The first and most obvious example takes the difference between Wikipedia and…well..every other encyclopedia from before. It really was a watershed moment in the organization of knowledge around the world, and it was not done by a few top-down historians in ivory tower universities, but rather a bottom-up amateur way.

And almost totally for free.

On the one hand, I am all for Pink’s thesis. I am about to leave a school that highly utilized “carrot and stick” methodologies on staff and students, as they hoped to engineer success. The actual result was jealousy at the individualized winners, and guilt and shame socially applied to all the losers.

But I think Pink’s argument (and others like his) hides a larger looming point about employment in the United States. Pink correctly assumes that much of the menial, repetitive labor is being outsourced to other countries and to automation. What is missing is the concept that other jobs are waiting for these 2.0 motivated people at the end of the line.

Let’s take my first example about coding. Every teacher would not stop talking about coding, and for many people, programming represents a way to use a language in a way that gives instant feedback, and can be used to do anything from create algorithms to video games. The tool is there and the intrinsic motivation leads to insight, despite the fact that the starting learning curve is quite high.

But as of 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 250,300 jobs are available.

And by 2028, they expect a decline in number of jobs by 7%.

If we were to assume that every student took that advice, they would be waiting in line.

Let’s take WordPress as another example. It powers 30% of the internet, we are told, which means it follows the “winner take all” system we hear about when it comes to tech companies. With a few amount of employees, fewer than the typical industrial workforce in manufacturing, they managed to create a platform which leverages a much higher revenue, so they collect wealth substantially.

They got lucky, and for the few people who apply motivation 2.0 in their lives, have a happy and wealthy home life, receive the right technology at the right time to push their ideas forward, they are going to receive the benefits of Daniel Pink’s thesis by an economy of open arms.

But for the rest of us who have a “side hustle” that we don’t want to talk about during lunch for fear of embarrassment, all we have to show for it is dwindling employment opportunities.

Flipping burgers, teaching, nursing. The service or caring economy, the ones that really matter are the ones facing deep uncertainty, pressure, burnout, and therefore high turnover.

America has a “hierarchy of needs” problem. No offense to Pink, but I am sort of sick of these self-help books about motivation 2.0 encouraging jobs and educations to turn towards intrinsic motivation for productivity when we pay what we do for our health premium. When people cannot afford their rent. When housing costs and college costs ballooned.

Meanwhile world is collecting the Crash Courses made by dedicated teachers and public intellectuals on YouTube to be used forever with or without our consent. We are working harder and going nowhere.

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