Things, People, and Symbols, 6/30
How jobs differ and how it affects our society
Some jobs involve working with things: mining, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and transportation.
Some jobs involve working with people: child care, teaching, social work, therapy.
Some jobs involve working with symbols: finance, law, government regulation, software development, writing, arts and entertainment
Some jobs are not predominantly one or the other. An automobile plant supervisor might combine working with things with working with people. A chemical engineer might combine working with things with working with symbols. A doctor might work with things, people, and symbols.
The preference for working with things or working with people is highly gendered. The preference for working with symbols, on the other hand, reflects the extent to which one is an abstract thinker.
The distinction between concrete thinking and abstract thinking that I have in mind is popular among K-12 educators. If I teach statistics to an abstract thinker, I can just start with “Suppose that the probability that a person tests positive for COVID is .08.” With a concrete thinker, it works better to say “Suppose that out of 100 people tested for COVID, 8 are found positive.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break down job categories along the lines I propose. But I would guess that as of 1950, counting stay-at-home parenting as working with people, the breakdown in the United States looked something like this:
working males: 70% things; 20% people; 10% symbols
working-age females: 80% people; 15% things; 5% symbols
Treat those as very rough estimates. Today, my guess would be:
working males: 40% things; 25% people; 35% symbols
working-age females: 45% people; 15% things; 40% symbols
Regardless of the exact numbers, I am claiming that there has been a dramatic shift away from jobs working with things and toward jobs working with symbols. We have reduced the demand for concrete-thinking men and increased the demand for abstract thinkers of both sexes.
In addition to the drop in the percentage of employed men who work with things, there has been an increase in the proportion of men who are not in the labor force. This is another result of the shift away from jobs working with things.
In 1950, a typical marriage might have been between a male factory worker and a female who was a stay-at-home mom or a teacher. Most households were familiar with both the world of things and the world of people.
Today, a typical marriage might be between two symbol-using professionals, perhaps a lawyer and a securities analyst. They may not have any friends who work with things. They may have no sense of how their food reaches them, or what materials went into their laptop computers. They may have great difficulty empathizing with concrete thinkers.
Many concrete-thinking males may be out of the labor force altogether. To the extent that they become unattractive as marriage partners, the marriage market becomes unbalanced, with a shortage of marriageable males. Many women will remain single, even if they bear children.
As Daniel Cox points out, young educated women have a tendency to feel relatively less attracted to men and relatively more attracted to left-wing politics. Pointer from Ed West, who has other interesting links as well. Incidentally, I am glad that so many of West’s links go to Substack, which continues to feel like a revival of the golden days of the blogosphere.
I doubt that the prevalence of abstract thinking has risen as much as one might infer from the change in job composition. Instead, I suspect that we are letting concrete thinkers get college degrees in the hope that they will qualify for jobs that in fact require abstract thinking. I have no direct evidence for this—it is a speculative hypothesis. It would be interesting to find out if this is a real phenomenon and, if so, what its consequences might be.