In the beginning, our race lived in small clusters. Everyone had a job of some kid, whether it was collecting berries, hunting, holy man, chief, or whatever. Not many people slacked off, or at least I assume they didn't. This small communal system worked very well. If it succeeded, usually one subgroup would splinter off and form their own group. Small familles became tribes, where trade sometimes occurred.
This started to change, however. Primitive people began to had tribal events where several tribes would get together. Ideas of multiple tribes were exchanged at such events, including making better tools, hunting techniques, and so on. Goods must have been traded. At one point, someone got the idea that certain goods were more valuable than others. Food you could get pretty commonly, but tools? Took time. A few tribes must have realized that if one guy in their group just made tools, and got really good at it, they had a more valuable trade for other goods. A well sharpened spear by Running Bear was worth several baskets of berries, or maybe two hides. This idea probably caught on quickly, and soon, tribes probably had "specialists" who never went on the hunt, but simply created value for the tribe at the next opportunity to trade. Probably a few tribes got very rich and powerful fairly quickly.
For the longest time, mankind had to roam about with the seasons or with the migrating herds. Then someone realized how seeds worked. If you plant a seed, you get a whole new plant later. With more seeds. Mankind began to invest in the future. Mankind also began to look at land not just as hunting territory, but also as agricultural territory. Soon, staying in place to keep one's stake in land was a good idea. This led to problems with hunting, and thus, we started to domesticate animals. Agriculture has this problem, tough. Most of the time, you sit and do nothing. Then, a few times a year (depending on what you grew and where), you needed a buttload of help to gather all the food and store it. But how do you get those people? How do you feed them? And what do you do between times to work?
A system worked out on its own of people who lived to toil the fields, and then had a lot of free time. But they had to stay in the same place. So they found things to do, and suddenly arts and crafts exploded, which could be sold for food and other arts and crafts, like tools or storage solutions. Meat could be gotten from wandering hunters who wanted to trade, or from domestic animals. Suddenly, it became very advantageous to stay in one place, in large groups. Civilization began to form.
But as this got more complex, the "barter system" became harder and harder to use. Maybe you don't need anything now. The meat might spoil before you finish it. Certain things (like winter clothing) fluctuated in value. Civilization could only get so big if they just did 1 for 1 exchanges. Besides, how do you compensate your workers? Before you could just give them some of what they harvested, which they could eat or trade, but what if they wanted multiple things? Carrying wheat or your herd of sheep around all the time was a hassle. There had to be some common form of exchange. Something everyone could agree had a certain value that would be only one thing to worry about fluctuation.
Money is a very advanced concept. Basically, you have to have a whole group of people believe that something small and portable was valuable. The first step had to have been something common, but needed and lasted a while. It was probably pelts. Maybe salt. Luckily, a rare item became available, a type of metal that was used in crafts: gold. Gold had no real use to a practical man: it's too soft for tools, too rare to make stuff like jugs and baskets out of. But it had one very odd, "magical" property: it never corroded. Gems probably were used as well. But now you could say "this pelt is worth 5 ounces of gold" and you knew that 5 ounces would buy you more than that pelt would. The trader became a merchant, and a business man. The more of this gold he collected, the more he could buy. Or persuade others to do something for him. Money was the distilled essence of value and abstract power.
Here's where the story starts to fork off into many directions, like how value of money is determined, how governments were formed, and so on. But the thread I want to stay on is employment.
A few thousand years ago, you had a kind of hybrid of societal value. Gone were tribal clusters in major cities. You had family groups, belief groups, and occupational groups. Your value was how you placed in the society. For a majority of people, value was directly placed on value and skill of work. A guy who made good harnesses would sell more than one who made crappy ones. Someone who did something really hard and complicated would have greater value because there was less of him. This value was still abstract, really. But now almost everyone was specialized in some way. Very few people "did it all," and if left in the wild, most would probably die.
This went on for a while. People bartered a lot, and money was the core value that everyone spoke. In the Far East, some governments were so powerful that paper money, printed a certain way to keep forgery low, was replaced instead of gold. Now, suddenly, a government could control the value of this paper by restricting its circulation. Gold was finite, but if you needed a little extra value, you just printed more money. But if you printed too much, the value dropped. So you had to be smart about it. But the only way for the average person to get money was to specialize in some way, what's known usually as a job skill.
As time progressed, specialization stayed about the same until cities started to get really big. Then the overspecialization began. I am thinking it began around the time of the industrial revolution. This is where people become so specialized that they simply cannot live without the civilized infrastructure. There were always those sorts of people, but now most of us have become very dependent on civilization to keep us going. Sure, there's always a few of us who could live in the wilderness for the rest of our lives, but now it's very unlikely.
Civilization has become our habitat. Employment has become a niche in this habitat.
For example, my job. I test networks for a living. I program in several computer languages, know how to build a standard x86-based computer system. My specialization is making tools that use tools that use other tools that humans use to ... well, get information or make more tools. I don't do one thing from the ground up to ensure my basic survival. I depend on stores to have food so I can eat, I haven't once made any of my own clothing, and making a fire is only something I know how to do because I was in scouts.
If you put me in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere, my skills at survival would be those of a primitive child. My survival rate would be very low. It might be more than most, because of scouting background and this weird fascination with facts and nature, but would be sharply less than, say, my friend Travis.
The biggest problem with my specialization is the name with any animal in the wild, I am dependent on my niche. If I get laid off, I can't just go, "Okay," and take the next job that comes along. I have to take a job that pays equal or more than I make now, plus needs the skills I have. I have to fit into their niche. I am always flexible, but there's only so much I can do with a family to support. And when the waterholes are drying up, the competition gets fierce.
I don't have a college degree. In the wild, this would be equivalent to a bad limp. While some animals with bad limps to manage to survive, they are on the cusp of survivability. The next bad winter, or the next drought, those who can walk or run faster will make it to the best caves or last remaining waterholes faster than I will. Being so long-lived with a limp, it's not as much as a handicap as if it were a fresh wound, because at least I have experience that, in theory, overcomes the limp. But it's a limp nonetheless.
It makes me vulnerable.
I like what I do. Sometimes I don't like the work environment, but for the most part, I enjoy building and programming computers. I could do this for a long time before I burn out. But I may have no choice. Companies are like organisms, too. Then need to eat and grow to survive. They feed on money, and money alone. They can replace employees, especially employees like me, with little long-term damage. They have been doing so before and they are doing so now.
In the 1970s, a lot of textile jobs got shipped overseas. People who made clothing and that sort of thing. Why? Because it's cheaper to hire overseas workers. Their lifestyle is far more basic, and doesn't require a high maintenance salary for the same job. Those back in the US who lost their jobs often found new work was hard to come by, especially in small towns. They protested, passed some laws, and so on, but in the end, the ones that survived were the ones that were far more adaptable and flexible than I am now, and they work elsewhere or died off. Now my types of companies are shipping my type of work overseas. If I don't do something soon, I will be driven out of my shrinking niche, limp and all.
I must evolve.
But, being the kind of human that I am, I am lazy. I don't want to evolve. I am 35 and set in my ways. But that's death now. I have to keep changing, keep moving. Every year it gets harder. It seems that time is speeding up. When I was a kid, a year was a damn long time, but now I am losing track of what year it is. I have to mathematically think of my age, as birthdays blow by like background scenery. So job skills, especially in the tech industry, whiz by like bullets. I spend a good several hours a week, at home and at work, studying new trends. It's hard to believe how much has changed. I recall when the 486 computers came on the market, and how badly I wanted one. I recall when the "powerhouse desktop servers" I used to work with were Pentium 166 machines with 64mb RAM. Now I won't even take a free one. It seems like only yesterday I started in the tech industry, but I am rapidly approaching my ninth. Soon I will overtake the number of years I had spent in my previous retail management life. I'm not ready for a change yet.
The main thing that's calling me in my writing. These last two months have been so stressful, that my writing has suffered terribly. But my brain keeps thinking about it. Maybe my new niche should really be the unstable world of writing novels and stuff. Trouble is, that niche is really competitive, suffers vast whims of the market, and doesn't pay very well unless you are one of the few that are lucky and skilled enough to make it big.
I am beginning to wonder where I fit in. Maybe this is what a "mid-life crisis" means.
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000474.html