What did you want to grow up to be, when you were a kid? Where did you actually end up? For a few weeks now, I have been idly wondering about the atavistic psychology behind career choices. Whenever I develop an odd intellectual itch like this, something odder usually comes along to scratch it. In this case, it was a strange rhyme that emerged in Britain sometime between 1475 and 1695, which has turned into one of the most robust memes in the English language:
tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor
richman, poorman, beggarman, thief
Everybody from John LeCarre to the Yardbirds seems to have been influenced by this rhyme. For the past week, it has been stuck in my head; an annoying tune that was my only clue to an undefined mystery about the nature of work that I hadn’t yet framed. So I went a-detecting with this clue in hand, and ended up discovering what might be the most fundamental way to view the world of work.
The Clue in the Rhyme
With the tinker, tailor… rhyme stuck in my head, I was browsing some old books in a library last week. A random 1970s volume, titled In Search of History, caught my eye. In the prologue was this interesting passage:
Most ordinary people lived their lives in boxes, as bees did in cells. It did not matter how the boxes were labeled: President, Vice President… “butcher, baker, beggarman, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief,” the box shaped their identity. But the box was an idea. Sir Robert Peel had put London policemen on patrol one hundred fifty years ago and the “bobbies” in London or the “cops” in New York now lived in the box invented by Sir Robert Peel…All ordinary people below the eye level of public recognition were either captives or descendants of ideas… Only a very, very rich man, or a farmer, could escape from this system of boxes. The very rich could escape because wealth itself shelters or buys identity…And farmers too…or — perhaps? — not even a farmer could escape. After all [in the 1910s] more than half of all Americans lived in villages or tilled the fields. And now only four percent worked the land. Some set of ideas…must have had something to do with the dwindling of their numbers.
It was rather a coincidence that I found this passage just when I was thinking of the tinker-tailor rhyme (the “butcher, baker…” bit is an American variant). A case of serendipitously mistaking the author, Theodore Harold White, who I’d never heard of, for Terence Hanbury White, author of The Once and Future King, which I love. That sort of coincidence doesn’t happen too often outside of libraries, but oh well.
The important insight here is that the structure of professions and work-identities is neither fundamental, nor a consequence of the industrial revolution. Between macroeconomic root causes and the details of your everyday life, there is an element of deliberate design. Design of “profession boxes” that is constrained by some deeply obvious natural laws, and largely controlled by those who are not themselves in boxes. The tinker, tailor… archetypes began emerging four centuries before the modern organization of the workforce took shape, during the British industrial revolution (which started around the 17th century).
Besides the peculiar circumstances of late medieval Britain, and the allure of alliteration and rhyme, ask yourself, why has this rhyme become such a powerful meme? We’ll return to this question shortly. But for now, let’s run with Theodore White’s insight about professions being conceptual boxes created by acts of imagination, rather than facts of economics, and see where it gets us. We’ll also get to the meaning of a revealing little factoid: the rhyme was originally part of a counting game played by young girls, to divine who they might marry.
And yes the basic political question of capitalism versus social justice rears its ugly head here. Choosing a calling is a political act, and I’ll explain the choices you have available.
The Central Dogma in the World of Work
There are three perspectives we normally utilize when we think about the world of work.
The first is that of the economist, who applies the laws of demand and supply to labor markets. In this world, if a skill grows scarce in the economy, wages for that skill will rise, and more people will study hard to acquire that skill. Except that humans perversely insist on not following these entirely reasonable laws. As BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) statistics reveal, people insist on leaving the skilled nursing profession perennially thirsting for new recruits, while the restaurant industry in Los Angeles enjoys bargain labor prices, thanks to those hordes of Hollywood hopefuls, who are good for nothing other than acting, singing and waiting tables.
Then there is the perspective of the career counselor. That theatrical professional who earnestly administers personality and strengths tests, and solemnly asks you to set career “goals,” think about “marketability” of skills, weigh income against “personal fulfillment,” and so forth. I say “theatrical” because the substance of what they offer is typically the same, whether the mask is that of a drill sergeant, guardian angel or an earth mother; whether the stance is one of realism, paternalism or romanticism. Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of motivational talk, resume critiquing and mock interviews, they manage to cleverly hide a fact that becomes obvious to the rest of us by the time we hit our late twenties: most of us have no clue what to do with our lives until we’ve bummed around, test-driven, and failed at, multiple callings. Until we’ve explored enough to experience a career “Aha!” moment, most of us can’t use counselors. After we do, they can’t really help us. If we never experience the “Aha!” moment, we are lost forever in darkness.
And finally there is the perspective of the hiring manager. That hopeful creature who does his or her best to cultivate a pipeline of fungible labor, in the fond and mostly deluded hope that cheap “talent” will fit neatly into available “positions.” It is a necessary delusion. To admit otherwise would be to admit that the macroeconomic “purpose” an organization appears to fulfill is the random vector sum of multiple people pulling their own way, with some being fortunate enough to be pulling in the accidental majority direction, while others are dragged along, kicking and screaming, until they let go, and still others pretend to pull whichever way the mass is moving. Mark Twain’s observations of ants are more applicable than hiring managers’ ideas that “talent-position fit” is a strongly-controllable variable.
Here’s the one common problem that severely limits the value of each of these perspectives. There is a bald, obvious and pertinent fact that is so important, yet so rarely acknowledged, let alone systematically incorporated, that each of these perspectives ends up with a significant blind spot.
That bald fact is this: it takes two kinds of work to make a society function. First, there is the sexy, lucrative and powerful (SLP) work that everybody wants to do. And then there is the dull, dirty and dangerous (DDD) work that nobody wants to do. There is a lot of gray stuff in the middle, but that’s the basic polarity in the world of work. Everything depends on it, and neither pole is dispensable.
The economist prefers not to model this fact. The career counselor does not want to draw attention to it. The hiring manager has good reason to deny it.
This brings us to the central dogma in the world of work: everyone can simultaneously climb the Maslow pyramid, play to their strengths, and live rewarding lives. That somehow magically, in this orgy of self-actualization, Adam Smith will ensure that the trash will take itself out. Like all dogmas, it is false, but still manages to work, magically.
The dull, dirty and dangerous work does get done. Trash gets hauled, sewers get cleaned, wars get fought by cannon-fodder types. And yet the dogma is technically never violated. You see, there is a loophole that allows the dogma to remain technically true, while being practically false. The loophole is called “false hope.”
The False Hope Tax and “Dull, Dirty and Dangerous” (DDD)
The phrase dull, dirty or dangerous became popular in the military in the last decade, as a way to segment out and identify the work that suits UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, like the Predator) the best. It also describes the general order in which we will accept work situations that do not offer any hope of sex, money, or power. Most of us will accept dull before dirty, and dirty before dangerous. Any pair is worse than any one alone, and all three together represent hell. There’s a vicious spiral here. Dull can depress you enough that you are fired and need to work at dull and dirty, which only accelerates the decline into dull, dirty and dangerous. And I am not talking dangerous redeemed by Top Gun heroism. I am talking “die in stupid, pointless ways” dangerous.
William Rathje, a garbologist (a garbage-archeologist) notes in his book, Rubbish (to be reviewed), that once you get used to it, garbage in landfills has a definite bouquet that is not entirely unpleasant. But then, he is a professor, poking intellectually at garbage rather than having to merely haul and pile it, with no time off to write papers about it. Dull, dirty and dangerous work is stuff that takes scholars to make interesting, priests to ennoble, and artists to make beautiful. But in general, it is actually done by some mix of the deluded hopeful, the coerced, and the broken and miserable, depending on how far the civilization in question has advanced. You might feel noble about recycling, but somewhere out there, near-destitute people are risking thoroughly stupid deaths (like getting pricked by an infected needle) to sort your recycling. Downcycling really, once you learn about how “recycling” works. On the other side of the world, ship-breakers are killing themselves through a mix of toxic poison and slow starvation, to sustain the processes that bring your cheap Walmart goods to you from China.
The reasons behind the mysteriously perennial talent scarcity and inelastic wages in the nursing profession, or the hordes of waitstaff in LA hopefully (Pandora be praised!) waiting for their big Hollywood break, are blindingly obvious. The obviously germane facts are that one profession involves bedpans and adult diapers, to be paid for by people on fixed incomes (so there’s a limit to how much nurses can make), while the other involves tantalizingly close-at-hand hopes of sex, money and fame.
False hope is the key phrase there. Nurses hope from afar, waiters in LA hope from the front row. The trick Adam Smith uses to get the dull, dirty and dangerous work done — work that took slavery and coercion until very recently — is to sustain hope. American Idol is the greatest expression of this false hope. A quick ticket from dull, dirty and dangerous to sexy, lucrative and powerful. The fact that one in a million will make it allows the other 999,999 to sustain themselves. It is one year of hope after the other, until you accept the mantra of “if you don’t get what you like, you’ll be forced to like what you get.”
That is why the Central Dogma of work is never technically violated. You could self-actualize, no matter where on the SLP-DDD spectrum you are. It is just that in the Dull, Dirty and Dangerous part of the world, the probability that you will do so becomes vanishingly small. To believe in a probability that small, you have to be capable of massive delusions. You have to believe you can win American Idol.
But that one technically possible, but highly improbable piece of hope can replace the whips of an entire class of slave-drivers and dictators, and replace it with something called “democracy.”
Snarky probability theorists like to call lotteries a “stupidity tax” imposed on people who cannot compute expected values. What they don’t realize is that most professions (probability theorists included) carry a heavy “stupidity tax” load: the extraordinarily low-probability hope of leaping into the world of Sexy, Lucrative and Powerful. The only difference is, unlike the lottery, you have no option but to participate (actually, by this reasoning, the hope of winning a lottery is possibly more reasonable than the more organic sorts of false hope embedded in most work).
Sexy, Lucrative and Powerful (SLP)
The promised land may not be all it seems to those who aren’t there yet (rock stars certainly whine, with drug-addled words, about it), but it certainly exists.
Again, the order is important. Just as dull, dirty and dangerous is a vicious spiral towards a thoroughly stupid death, sexy, lucrative and powerful is a virtuous cycle that gets you to a thoroughly puzzling nirvana. If you can do rock star or model, it is a relatively easy slide downhill from sexy to lucrative and from lucrative to powerful. If you are not blessed with looks or a marketable voice (and Beyonce’s dad), but can hit lucrative by say, starting a garbage-hauling business staffed by Mexican immigrants, you could still claw uphill to sexy. Or you could start with powerful and trade the gossamer currency of influence for hard cash, and hard cash for sex (figuratively and literally).
I have much less to say about sexy, lucrative and powerful because most of you know all about it. Because, like me, you’ve been dreaming about it since you were 10. You can easily tell SLP work apart from DDD work by the structure of labor demand and supply. In one sector, people are dragged down, kicking and screaming. In the other, they need to be barricaded out, as they hurry from their restaurant shift to auditions. You don’t need a behavioral economist to tell you that career choices are not entirely defined by the paychecks associated with them.
So let’s move straight on to the reason little girls play their tinker, tailor counting games.
The Developmental Psychology of Work
In Time Wars (to be reviewed), Jeremy Rifkin cites a study that shows that young girls typically switch from fantasy career dreams to more pragmatic ones around the age of ten and a half. For boys, it is about eleven and a half. For both, the switch from fantasy to reality occurs on the cusp of adolescence. It is fairly obvious what drives childish job fantasies. Little children like being the center of attention. They like to feel important and powerful. What drives realism-modulated adolescent dreams, which have a more direct impact on career choices, is less clear. What is clear is that the SLP dreams of pre-adolescents are not abandoned, merely painted over with some realism.
The first profession I can remember wanting to join desperately was “road-roller driver.” Growing up, my house was down the street from a lot where the city administration parked its road rollers. They were big and powerful, and I wanted to drive one for the rest of my life. Later, I expanded my horizons. An uncle who worked in the railways took me for a ride in a tower wagon (a special kind of track-maintenance locomotive), and I was convinced I wanted to drive some sort of locomotive for the rest of my life.
When I hit adolescence, my twin passions were military aircraft and astronomy. I was already realistic enough to not hanker after Top-Gun sexy (revealingly, my one classmate who joined the Indian Air Force dropped out within a year). I was headed for engineering or science, which were neither sexy nor lucrative, but held out a vague promise of powerful. Somewhere in college, by turning down an internship at a radio astronomy center, and picking one in a robotics lab, I abandoned the slightly more romantic world of astronomy for the less romantic world of aerospace engineering (I did work on space telescopes in grad school though, so I guess I didn’t really grow up till I was 30).
You probably have your own version of this story. You think it is heartwarming don’t you?
In actual fact, this sort of story reveals something deeply, deeply ugly about childhood and adolescent yearnings; something on par with Golding’s Lord of the Flies: our brains are prepared for, and our environment encourages, a hankering for sexy, lucrative, powerful. No kid ever dreams of a career sorting through smelly, toxic garbage. Or even the merely dull (and not dangerous or dirty) work of data entry.
But the world does not run on SLP alone. It needs DDD, and no matter how much we automate things, it always will. By hankering after SLP, we are inevitably legitimizing the cruelty that the world of DDD suffers.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Sailor
Let’s circle back and revisit tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief.
Why did little 17th century girls enjoy counting stones and guessing who their future husbands might be? Was their choice of archetypes mere alliterative randomness?
We tend to think of specialization and complex social organization as consequences of the industrial age, but the forces that shape the imaginative division of labor have been at work for millenia. Macroeconomics and Darwin only dictate that there will be a spectrum with dull, dirty and dangerous at one end, and sexy, lucrative and powerful at another. This spectrum is what creates and sustains social and economic structures. I am not saying anything new. I am merely restating, in modern terms, what Veblen noted in Theory of the Leisure Class. From one century to the next, it is only the artistic details that change. Tinker, tailor… evolves to a different set of archetypes.
We’ve moved from slavery to false hope as the main mechanism for working with the spectrum, but whatever the means, the spectrum is here to stay. Automation may nip at its heels, but fundamentally, it cannot be changed. Why? The rhyme illustrates why.
At first sight, the tinker, tailor… rhyme represents major category errors. Richman and poorman are socioeconomic classes, while tailor, sailor and soldier are professions. Tinker (originally a term for a Scottish/Irish nomad engaged in the tinsmith profession) is a lifestyle. Beggarman and thief are categories of social exodus behaviors.
Relate them to the DDD-SLP spectrum, and you begin to see a pattern. As Theodore White noted, Richman enjoys the ultimate privilege: buying his own social identity at the SLP end of the spectrum. Poorman is stuck in the DDD end. Beggarman and thief have fallen off the edge of society, the DDD end of the spectrum, by either giving up all dignity, or sneaking about in the dark. Sailor and Tinker are successful exodus archetypes. The former is effectively a free agent. Remember that around the time this rhyme captured the popular imagination in the 17th century, the legitimized piracy and seaborne thuggery that was privateering, had created an alternative path to sexy, lucrative and powerful; one that did not rely on rising reputably to high office (the path that Samuel Pepys followed between 1633 and 1703; The Diary of Samuel Pepys remains one of the most illuminating looks at the world of work ever written). The latter, the tinker, was a neo-nomad, substituting tin-smithing for pastoralism in pre-industrial Britain.
The little girls had it right. In an age that denied them the freedom to create their own destiny, they wisely framed their tag-along life choices in the form of a rhyme that listed deep realities. Today, the remaining modern women who look to men, rather than to themselves, to define their lives, might sing a different song:
blogger, coder, soldier, consultant
rockstar, burger-flipper, welfareman, spammer
Everything changes. Everything remains the same.
The Politics of Career Choices
Somewhere along the path to growing up, if you bought into the moral legitimacy argument that justified striving for sexy, lucrative, powerful, you implicitly took on the guilt of letting dull, dirty and dangerous work, done by others, enabling your life. If that guilt is killing you, you are a liberal. If you think this is an unchangeable reality of life, you are a conservative. If you think robots will let us all live sexy, lucrative, powerful lives, you are deluded. You see, the SLP-DDD spectrum is not absolute, it is relative. Because our genes program us to strive for relative reproductive success in complicated ways. There is a ponderous theory called relative deprivation theory that explains this phenomenon. So no matter how much DDD work robots take off the table, we’ll still be the same pathetic fools in our pajamas.
Can you live with what you’ve chosen?
Here’s what makes me, at a first approximation, a business conservative/social liberal. I can live with it, and shamelessly pursue SLP, without denying the unpleasant reality that starving and poisoned ship-breakers and American-Idol hopeful garbage haulers make my striving possible. In my mind, it isn’t the pursuit of SLP that is morally suspect. It is the denial of the existence of DDD.
So what are you? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman or thief?
There is a trail associated with this post that explains the history of the rhyme.
I wrote this post while consuming three vodka tonics, so if it turns out to be a successful post, I might change that link down there to say buy me a vodka tonic instead of buy me a coffee.