3 min read

The Modern Spontaneous Creative

“AI will create more jobs than it destroys. It’s just like the Industrial Revolution.”

– Pompous Mansplainer

You’re the CEO of a multinational with 100,000 employees, and AI truly is creating more jobs than it destroys. In fact, it doesn’t seem to destroy many jobs at all. Instead, technological deprofessionalization actually lifts demand at the lower end of the skills ladder (remember Fig. 3, from a million years ago?). This is the exact opposite of our original thought experiment. There are lost roles within your company as demand for expensive, high-skill-but-routine labor drops, but there are still many more low-pay, low-autonomy jobs available. Technically, those new jobs aren’t actually within your company–they are with a third-party contractor that fills your service economy needs. This arrangement gives you both greater flexibility and lower human capital costs for the same productivity. So, while those jobs have left your books, they still exist.

The good news is that your company isn’t staring at the 80,000 layoffs of low-skill workers from the original thought experiment (just a whole lot of outsourcing), but as revealed in Fig. 4, demand for elite talent across the entire creative economy[1] seems unquenchable. Unfortunately, most of your 20,000 high-skill employees are no more qualified than their lower-skilled co-workers to fill this huge increase in demand. Their skills are sophisticated but entirely substitutable. Many predictions about augmented intelligence assume that cognitive automation boosts everyone equally, just as industrial automation boosted everyone during the Industrial Revolution. But as you now know, AI’s impact on routine labor is largely additive while its impact on creative labor is multiplicative. Whether AI or intangible capital, creative complementarity only augments creative labor. This isn’t 20% of your current workforce, or even 10%. That differential lift for the creative vs. the routine will dominate long-term trends in the labor market, and you’re left to figure out how a few thousand of people can fill tens of thousands of creative jobs[2].

And there won’t be enough Archies, Steve Shirleys, or Grandpa Daimlers to go around. Most of your competition will settle for using AI to substitute for people. This strategy will quickly lower their human capital costs but at the price of their future capacity. In contrast, a small number of your most successful competitors have already learned the value of creative complementarity. They are your true competition, and the fight for that limited talent pool will be one of the defining features of the future of work.

Your company doesn’t need five times as many high-skill employees; it needs ten to twenty times as many creatives. At least with the myth of the 10x A-player, your HR department could leverage university degrees or professional social signals. Now, given everything you’ve learned about network capture, you’re left wondering if those social signals have been reducing the human capacity of your company all along. Network capture reinforces some of the worst habits of risk-averse hiring, and even worse, it limits growth opportunities for the majority of qualified individuals. These effects become even more pronounced in noisy networks, where cultural transmission[3] crowds out spontaneous creatives.

How the hell do you fill all of those new roles if the existing talent pipeline is tapped out, upskilling is treading water, and the gig economy erodes dynamism? Those who’ve learned to love the chasm are right, and the lazy myths of the Industrial Revolution are wrong–people don’t become creative just because of free time, cheap technology, university degrees, programming, STEM skills, microloans[4], market demand, or the Industrial Revolution. What’s truly perverse is how many people embrace the chasm and the lazy myths at the same time.

If you don’t believe that even a minority of your workforce can be retrained to fill those new jobs, you are in good company. Like most of the Tech industry, Walmart and Starbucks don’t, either. A growing number of companies believe so strongly that people can’t change that they pay large sums of money to ensure their non-nons happily walk away. This isn’t villainy; it’s an economic choice:

  1. If you see employees as a cost, don’t fill those roles at all–steal from your future capacity and substitute for everyone.
  2. If you’ve come to love the chasm, gear up for the talent war–every superfirm in the world is now your direct competitor.
  3. If you believe that people can change, build up where all others dig in–confront the uncertainty of creating creatives.

[1] Did I mention the subsistence and rentier economies? Those are quite important too, just not in corporate hiring.

[2] But at least you’ve got the smoothies and linguistics covered!

[3] Cultural transmission even persisted through the purges of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Good luck with your “meritocratic” D&I policies.

[4] Three Nobel prizes have been awarded for work on microloans. Unfortunately, the research behind the third award shows that five years after a microloan, recipients are no better off than those that didn’t receive them. The one exception: micropreneurs. If a recipient was in the process of starting an enterprise before the loan was offered, that tiny boost can dramatically lift their outcome. Creative complementarity strikes again.