A few years back, I crossed a demographic Rubicon. I turned 50. In that instant, my societal relevance plummeted. Marketers, pollsters, and countless other makers and trackers of taste, trends, and zeitgeist lost interest in me. That’s OK, since I’ve been losing interest in them – and in current pop culture. I couldn’t pick a Taylor Swift song out of a lineup, and when I read the name Billie Eilish in news about the Grammy awards, I thought, “who?”

That’s all OK – it’s the way things go – and I don’t seek to diminish pop culture by being “that guy.” That said, I was not, nor did I become, a total Luddite or cultural hermit. While my social media presence is mostly on the “older people’s” forum, Facebook (youngsters use other platforms, I am informed), I do range elsewhere from time to time.

This includes YouTube, where I’ve been finding myself a bit more frequently (in part, due to an intermittent and insufficient desire to learn to play bass guitar). I “discovered” something there, something that younger folks will roll their eyes at and go “of course.” That discovery is that there is a cottage industry of “reaction” videos, where someone or someones videos himself or herself or themselves listening to a song or watching something, and reacting, commenting, and deconstructing it.

The first to catch my attention was a channel called Lost in Vegas, with two guys whose musical taste runs to hip-hop did first listens to heavy metal songs. Metal being my favorite genre, I found it quite fun to watch people hear some of my favorite songs for the first time, and have the same sort of positive “wow, I love it” reaction I did when I first heard them. That shared happiness, the smile at someone else discovering something you already knew, and the like, are rather infectious. There are a few others I’ve found that I like among the many who don’t quite succeed (at least in resonating with me), and I’ll name RebeccaVocalAthlete as another standout.

It wasn’t hard, after the advent of YouTube, to predict that people would be able to make a living posting instructional videos. But, who’d have guessed that posting 10 minutes of yourself simply reacting to and commenting on a song could be a money maker? The two channels I mentioned have nearly a million and 750k subscribers, respectively – and that’s just on Youtube.

The reports on income generated from such an endeavor suggest an extremely wide range, and it takes both work and a certain something (I’d say ‘je-ne-sais-quoi,’ but four years of high school French did not make me twee or a cheese-eating surrender monkey) to make a living this way – but it is a fact that people do. And, they do by producing forms of content that no one would have guessed at 20 or 30 years ago. Whodathunk that reacting to stuff could be a money maker? Or, for that matter, recordings of yourself skillfully playing a video game?

There’s an economic lesson here, ushered in by six paragraphs of prologue:

The free market figures things out.

This is why I don’t worry about predictions of automation creating permanent unemployment. Those predictions date back centuries, to the first farm machines that were predicted to displace and permanently un-employ millions of farm workers. Ditto for ice delivery, buggy whip makers, stenographers, typing pools, and countless other obsolete professions.

We’ve never had mass unemployment as a result of technological innovation or disruptions. Those who speculate that we will because automation will eventually eliminate all low-skill jobs – that this time things will be different – are, I believe, merely lacking in imagination. That’s forgivable, of course. Who would have thought that people could make money off videos of themselves listening to songs? Or playing video games? Or holding up a particular brand of mascara in an Instagram picture? Or taking selfies in cool places?

One of our great failings is not trusting Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” despite its being responsible for virtually all the ease and comfort we enjoy. Your average working class family today enjoys things that the richest men of a century ago did not. New types of jobs arise when old ones become obsolete, and predicting that this pattern will “break” at some point is, in my opinion, more contrarian “look at me” attention-seeking than deep insight.

One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” — Thomas Schelling

Humans are incredibly inventive, and since there are 7.53 billion of us, there’s a whole lot of potential for invention. Yes, it may very well turn out that countless jobs and professions go away because of automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the like. I don’t fear that one whit, from an economic perspective, because I trust the lessons of history, old and recent. That “invisible hand” of the free market will, if permitted, figure out new ways for people to create “stuff” that others are willing to pay for.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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