There’s a heartwarming Internet meme making the rounds this week. Rather than describe it, I’ll just post the meme itself.
Its fairly straightforward. This taxi driver works ridiculous hours to provide for his family. One of his kids wrote a beautifully simple note thanking him for his hard work. He hung it on his steering wheel to motivate himself through those long workdays/work nights.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my initial reaction was to feel as if my heart was growing in a grinch-like fashion (12x if I remember the story correctly).
But I had a secondary and arguably more profound reaction shortly thereafter. I remembered that taxi drivers are a dying breed, and not just because of the looming threats posed by Uber, Lyft, etc.
Uber drivers are also a dying breed. All commercial drivers are a dying breed. Automation is already taking hold in that sector, which employs several million Americans, so it is only a matter of time before those jobs completely vanish.
This means that within a matter of a few years our meme dad will go from working around the clock driving around to provide for his family to being unemployed and seeking out a new line of work.
The good news, in theory, is that this guy is super hard working, so he will find a way to make ends meet for his loving children. But this is where my third and arguably most important realization took hold.
Virtually every human I have ever met subscribes to the “work hard” ethos. You know the one. That old “Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees”, “Get a job!” mindset.
We are all taught that working hard (e.g. working long hours) is the key to getting ahead in life or at the very least it’s the key to making ends meet and not starving and ending up on the streets.
Well almost all of us.
I have met some people that were not taught this ethos. They were all born into wealth to some degree. They subscribe to a different ethos; one that emphasizes owning land and/or capital (e.g. business assets). Many a popular book has been written on this contrarian concept, from Rich Dad, Poor Dad to The Four Hour Work Week. The concept is quite simple and straightforward. Learn to use your capital (e.g. land, properties, or business assets) to make more money.
Make no mistake about it. This is the American Dream.
And there’s nothing wrong with it. I subscribe to it myself. It’s why I chose to gradually build up a humble online furniture business to the point where it allowed me to free myself from the 9 to 5 grind. It’s how every titan of business makes their money. It’s the essence of arguably the most influential financial text of our time; Security Analysis.
But it has nothing to do with “working hard” (e.g. putting in long hours like our friend thand taxi driver). In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Or one of my old friends, a titan of business in his own right, once put it:
”If you have to work long hours on your business, you don’t have a business.”
That’s what Tim Ferris is positing in his aforementioned book, “The Four Hour Work Week.” A business is a financial instrument. It is literally a money making machine. And when placed in the hands of people who know how to operate such instruments (people like Warren Buffet, for example) these machines essentially automate the process of generating incremental capital with minimal human input beyond tracking and optimizing the financial fundamentals (read Security Analysis, like Mr. Buffet has, and you’ll know what I mean by fundamentals).
Now where does this leave our hard-working taxi driver? If automation will do away with what is currently his best means of making a living and more more industries are being made obsolete by automation, what should he turn to next? Perhaps he should read those aforementioned books and buy some property or start a business?
Nice idea, but you need money in the first place in order to do that, and not everyone is fortunate enough to be born into wealth so that thy can tap into friends or family for the needed funds.
Perhaps he can educate himself and climb the corporate ladder in order to generate incremental income necessary to buy property and/or invest in a business (that was the route I chose, by the way)?
Not so easy, especially in a United States that has experienced soaring education costs for decades on end. Besides, I think it’s safe to say that if he had the werewithall to seek an education and develop highly valued skills he probably wouldn’t be driving a taxi around the clock in the first place.
So what’s a hard-working guy like our meme father to do? Seems like he’s destined to scrounge around looking for whatever mineal work is left over, dooming him to a life at or near the poverty line. That’s a pretty sad story unfolding, right? But worst part of the story has already transpired; revealed by this allegedly heartwarming meme.
That guy has essentially missed most of his kid’s life.
It bears repeating, so let me say it again.
This guy has essentially missed most of his kid’s life. He’s been too busy working. Sure, he likely makes it to the big events; birthdays and recitals and what have you. But hour by hour and day by day he has missed the little moments that make up a childhood. Tying shoes and mending cuts and walking into school.
That’s the real tragedy, and it has played out millions if not billions of times over the last few centuries since the advent of industrial revolution. Traditionally, it has been the dad in two-parent households that had sacrificed watching their kids grow for the sake of making ends meet. But a fair share of single mothers and fathers as well as head-of-household mothers have also manifested this sad reality.
And perhaps saddest of all are the high achieving parents. The dual earners that put their children into daycare within a few months of birth so that they can back on that corporate ladder and make the amount of money necessary to live in the right neighborhoods, pay for the right schools, but the right clothes, and swing a progressively more guilded sword in the everlasting battle to keep up with the Joneses.
Commiserating with coworkers about how they wish they could be with their kids more often, these individuals lament all of those red-eye flights and late meetings that leave them with precious little energy to be aware, mindful, and in the moment when do get to spend time with their kids.
They also have lovely little notes from their kids on their cubicle desks. They are just like our taxi driving friend. It’s just that they happen to live in nicer houses and have fancier titles.
But they are all working their lives away, at least in part, to keep those financial instruments doing what they’re designed to do.
Talk about a conundrum.
But there are scalable and long-term solutions. Here are two worth noting:
1) Some of the greatest economic thinkers of all time have expoused the virtues of two very powerful economic tools that can level the playing field and ensure that the ever-growing financial fruits of land, property, and capital are more evenly distributed. These two tools are land value taxation and universal basic income. And fortunately, both are beginning to truly see the light of day.
2) A cultural shift is in order. One that deemphasizes the “hard work” and “long hours” ethos. There’s nothing wrong with work. I have nothing but respect for scientists working long hours building particle accelerators or telescopes, just to give a few examples, but long work hours shouldn’t be the defining activity of a human life, especially if it comes at the expense of raising children or investing in longterm health (eg exercising, lowering stress levels, etc). An individual’s worth should not be based on how many hours they clock into their time sheet, year in and year out, into perpetuity.