In Between Stability and Change
I have been writing less since I started fundraising. I find it hard, these past weeks, to think deeply about anything other than The Vision that I pitch to investors and The Plan that will shape my work for the next few years.
I am becoming a monomaniac. Partially this is because fundraising voraciously consumes my mental energy and, of course, my time, leaving precious little left-over.
But there is something else: an instability, a future unknown, that scrambles my thinking. Where will I be in a year or two, what will I be working on, and with whom? Multiple answers are possible depending on how this process goes. It is uncomfortable. Thinking deeply about anything else is like trying to sketch in my notebook while sitting on the deck of a boat on choppy waters.
Stability is Good
I remember reading about this amazing study described by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their book Poor Economics. The economist David Atkins looked at data from towns in Mexico where maquilladoras had opened up, factories that primarily employ women. It turns out that the children born in those towns were much taller than the children born in similar towns without factories.
The obvious interpretation is that the women who got jobs at those factories earned more money, were able to feed their children more (and more nutritious) food, which led to better health and thus taller children. But here’s the most interesting part that stuck in my head [emphasis my own]:
“Atkins shows that the effect of a job in a maquilladora on the level of family income is nowhere near large enough to explain the entire increase in height. Perhaps the sense of control over the future that people get from knowing there will be an income coming in every month – and not just the income itself – is what allows these women to focus on building their own careers and those of their children… A sense of stability may be necessary for people to be able to take the long view… a steady and predictable income makes it possible to commit to future expenditure and also makes it much easier and cheaper to borrow now… This is why a ‘good job’ is important. A good job is a steady, well-paid job, a job that allows a person the mental space needed to do all those things the middle class does well.”
Stability and a predictable future, in other words, are necessary for human flourishing.
These thoughts come to mind when I think about the “gig economy”, this movement from the tech industry to break down work into discrete tasks and then farm those tasks out to a marketplace of freelancers. This “uberization” has already taken over taxi and delivery driving, and now it is swallowing whole tutoring, grocery shopping, health care, childcare, house cleaning, hospitality… the list goes on.
Opponents of the Gig Economy point out that we are collectively replacing “traditional” jobs that had some stability (and worker protections!) with uberized jobs that have zero stability, no opportunity for advancement, and unregulated work conditions. In French, these jobs are appropriately called “précaire”.
If stability is necessary for human flourishing, then presumably the gig economy is a step in the wrong direction.
Maybe we are like infants that feel at peace when wrapped up in swaddle blankets, unable to move our arms and legs, but safe.
Change is Good
The swaddle image obviously leads to the flipside insight: human flourishing requires freedom. A swaddle is a straightjacket. Instability can be uncomfortable, yes, but it also allows the possibility of movement, change, and growth.
The proponents of the Gig Economy point out that the jobs it creates are flexible, efficient, respectful of a diverse range of personal constraints, and ultimately allow millions more people access to jobs.
There’s this idea, popular today, that society was better off in the past when people had stable factory jobs and built their families and careers in the same towns where they grew up. This imagined, exaggerated nostalgia is powerful. But, of course, it is not fully accurate: those factory jobs, when they did exist, were frequently backbreaking or toxic. The women and minorities who make up a majority of humans were locked out of jobs and locked into a forced kind of stability that precluded most forms of self-realization.
Stability is sometimes an inhibitor of personal freedom and growth.
The entrepreneur and writer Scott Belsky, a thoughtful and prescient guy with a big following in Silicon Valley, publishes annually his 10 forecasts for the near future. This year, forecast #2 is that “The next generation of top talent will have ‘Polygamous Careers,’” and he clearly sees this as a good thing. He writes,
“Our brains, interests, and potential have never been single-threaded nor confined to a singular interest or skill. And yet, the traditional labor market since the industrial revolution has placed us in one job at a time — for years at a time… The next generation of talent entering the workforce will overwhelmingly opt for what I’ve come to call “polygamous careers”... One’s profession will be a portfolio of projects, whether you’re a designer, engineer, sales person, or investor. The idea of “exclusivity” in an offer letter will be laughable faster than we think.”
Openness and flexibility are necessary for human flourishing, even when that requires the discomfort of instability.
Finding harmony in between stability and change
So if stability is a necessary good, and change is also a necessary good, isn’t that contradictory? Yes, it is, but I think we all seek both in our own lives. This contradiction is one of the unstable reactions at the root of our individual psyches and our societies, too.
It seems to me that finding the right balance between stability and change is a delicate art. Both are important ingredients to a good life, a good job and a good society.
I don’t know how society should react to the Gig Economy, but as a phenomenon it is certainly a mix of good and bad. Adaptation, not rejection, is called for.
This brings me full-circle to my own case, where I started this note: I am uncomfortable with the instability in my life right now, it is not a pleasant feeling. But I do not regret being an entrepreneur and I wouldn’t choose any other job in the world. The range of possibilities in front of me is exhilarating, and by putting myself in some discomfort I am opening the door to change, progress, and growth. Even if it means less writing in the short-term.
The perfect harmony is something to fight for in our own lives, in our jobs, in our cities and countries. The perfect harmony will fall out of tune, inevitably, and has to be reconfigured regularly.
When you find that harmony, it is precious.
Addendum: The weirdness of the French elections
Impossible to write this note today without briefly mentioning the French presidential elections.
What I find so weird is that five years ago, when Macron and Le Pen were facing off in 2017, Macron was the candidate of change and progress. Le Pen was the candidate of traditional small-town values. Change versus stability. Macron had the support of the youth vote and large portions of the left-wing, and Le Pen drew her support from the right.
Five years later and the roles are reversed: Macron is the candidate of stability and status quo, and Le Pen has a message of change and social progress. Stability versus change. Macron now draws his support from older voters and large portions of the right-wing, and Le Pen draws her support from a younger, formerly left-wing base.
I am reminded of a fantastic book about politics, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Governments. The authors show that voters are not rational, and as a consequence, elected representatives (including the President) have less power over policy than we tend to think. The most significant source of power in modern politics comes from well-financed lobbies.
Neither Change nor Stability is the right political strategy, yet our politicians use them as easy rallying cries. In reality they are not selling deeply-held ideas, they are just selling themselves.
Finding the right mix of stability and change in diverse domains is required to govern a complex society. It is difficult work. I wish I was a French citizen so that I could vote for the more capable candidate.