Here’s a story about some Silicon Valley tech workers protesting outside a Hillary Clinton event co-hosted by a venture capitalist and George Clooney. One might expect that these people are protesting Clinton because their political preferences lean toward the Libertarian or Conservative side. But then, one would be wrong.
They are mostly Sanders supporters. And they feel oppressed by the industry that they are in, and especially by the VCs who fund the companies where they work. Here’s the complaint of a 26-year-old software engineer:
“They sell you a dream at startups – the ping-pong, the perks – so they can pull 80 hours out of you. But in reality the venture capitalists control all the capital, all the labor, and all the decisions, so yeah, it feels great protesting one.”
“Tech workers are workers, no matter how much money they make,” said another guy, this one a PhD student at Berkeley.
Now, one’s first instinct when reading this story–at least my first instinct–is to feel contempt for these whiners. Most of them are far better off financially than the average American, even after adjusting for the extremely high costs of living in the Bay area. And no one forced any of them to work at startups, where the pressures are well-known to be extreme. They could have chosen IT jobs at banks or retailers or manufacturing companies or government agencies in any of a considerable number of cities.
Looked at from a broader perspective, though, the story reminded me of something Peter Drucker wrote almost 50 years ago:
Individually he (the knowledge worker) is an “employee”…but the knowledge worker sees himself as just another “professional,” no different from the lawyer, the teacher, the preacher, the doctor, the government servant of yesterday. He has the same education. He has more income. He has probably greater opportunities as well…This hidden conflict between the knowledge worker’s view of himself as a “professional” and the social reality in which he is the upgraded and well-paid successor to the skilled worker of yesterday underlies the disenchantment of so many highly educated young people with the jobs available to them.
There is much truth in this, I think…as any field becomes a mass employer, it is likely that a substantial number of the people working in that field will feel that they are not getting the high status and rewards that they should have. And the frustrations about which Drucker writes are surely greatly exacerbated when large numbers of people in a field are concentrated in the same geographical area. And in the case of Silicon Valley, the high living costs–driven by both the over-concentration of the so-called “tech” industry in that area and the anti-growth policies of the political elites–serve to further increase these frustration levels. There are also the downward wage pressures driven by the H-1B visa program and the offshoring of entire functions to India and other places.
On the other hand, the SV concentration does offer most employees the opportunity to job-hop without geographically moving in many cases…and the nature of these startups provide technical employees with promotional opportunities that might not be available to them elsewhere. If you a talented programmer in a software or Cloud company, you will have a shot at a range of non-programming jobs…product manager or sales support manager, for example…that you would be unlikely to have much chance for in, say, a bank or a metal-bending company.
Here’s Drucker again:
But no matter how good a job we do in the management of the knowledge worker–and so far, we have barely begun to work in this area–his status, function, and position in modern society are certain to be a central problem, politically as well as socially. It is likely to be the social question of the developed countries for the twentieth and probably the twenty-first century.