Are “Knowledge Workers” becoming obsolete?

So many talented people are so underemployed -- or worse.

| Dec 15, 2009


First came a phone call, early on a Monday. One of our friends — I’ll call him S — had been missing for three days. Within hours, another phone call: the police had found him dead in his car, all signs pointing to suicide.

How he did it (fairly gruesomely) is not material here. The point I’ll focus on here was that he was a highly gifted marketing copywriter. He’d been recently laid off by a big telecom company, a place where for several years he’d been well paid, but where the mood had darkened lately as wave after wave of layoffs swept through the place. The office politics had grown increasingly cutthroat, he said. But you didn’t dare try to be above it all because you had to stay in the fray and fight to protect your job.

Now, S had other issues — for one, he was gay and recently unlucky in love. And, besides, is it ever terribly easy to fathom what ultimately drives a person to suicide? He had legions of friends and admirers, a loving family. A video at his memorial service showed him in a myriad of happy venues, surrounded by loved ones, always with a huge and winning smile.

For me, S’s death has become an example of (or at least a metaphor for) the pained existence of the growing number of people I know and hear about who could be classed professionally as Knowledge Workers. Remember that term? We Americans were all going to become Knowledge Workers — manipulators of information — while lowly tasks like manufacturing went offshore. We, with our ability to massage words and symbols, thus adding to their value, would be at the pyramid’s peak of human productivity.

Yet here they are — well, here we are. A veteran book editor lives in poverty near Mendocino because she’s competing against editors in Asia who will work for tiny sums. A Boulder woman in her 50s who ran a highly successful advertising agency asks, “Will I ever work again?” A business reporter I’d managed at the Boulder Daily Camera, who had researched and written stories for me so beautiful I almost cried, now scratches around for substitute teaching jobs. A Boulder videographer who’s made award-winning documentaries makes the rounds of design firms looking for any small video shoots. Highly educated and formerly successful Knowledge Workers all, and all struggling today.

What went wrong?

We know how computers ripped through companies, obsoleting armies of secretaries and bookkeepers, then middle managers. Add to the mix a nasty recession, and the layoffs then spread into “upper” managers. For many of my friends, there’s also the age factor: growing legions of twenty-somethings who may not be good writers, but who assure you they can “write for search engines.”

I think it’s been Google and the Internet that are really wiping out the reporters, editors and videographers. Let me explain why.

During a recent podcast discussion of Rupert Murdoch’s attempts to persuade Google to pay him in order to index content from his publications, someone pointed out that Google’s not likely to give in. The reason is that, while the content in Murdoch’s properties may be good, there’s almost always another provider who’s content kind of gets the job done. If the Wall Street Journal story’s not available, Reuters, Bloomberg and the AP are waiting in the wings.

For today’s information-seeker, the perception is one of an essentially limitless supply of good (or certainly adequate) and free content. If the content’s not readily available from a publication, podcast or on-demand video, a quick Google search will probably yield content that’s at least perceived as coming direct from the source, “unmediated” by publishers and their ilk. What’s changed is what economists call liquidity — the way in which search engines and intelligent aggregators can match up the best of that content with the wants and needs of individual information consumers.

This perception of limitless quantities of free content is enhanced by the role of the aggregators, which display the latest indexed and/or “crowdsourced” stories, pictures, audios and videos. Services like Alltop and Feedly aggregate across broad topic ranges. Others focus in on narrower topics or points of view, one of my favorites being the left-leaning political aggregator Sites like Huffington Post and Daily Beast mix in original content with their powerful aggregating abilities. Bloggers and podcasters pore over all this info-flow, often adding very useful (and entertaining) opinion and analysis. All in all, our cup of content runneth over.

In such a media environment, the scarce commodity becomes not content but the consumer’s time. We breeze through these content-rich sites — so little time, so much to do! We tell ourselves “gee, that’s an important story,” but we have scarcely time to scan all the “important” headlines. Web development firms and their clients all eventually settle on the overriding importance of clean design and verbal brevity. Their mantra: “People don’t read long text.”

When “information liquidity” makes it easy for people to find the best of all that Internet content, demand for those who would create even more content declines. I have a feeling this has much to do with why my Knowledge Worker friends are having such a hard time.

An ultimate irony. My friend learned how to commit suicide guess where. After he’d died, they found the instructions (recipes for a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals) on his computer. From the Internet. Some information, it seems, is all too readily available.

(This article appeared under a different headline in Bob Wells’s blog on Huffington Post.)