Christopher “Topher” Polack began his Apple career as a “creative genius.” He thrived in his job fixing customers’ technology problems and quickly rose through the ranks, getting more on-the-job training along the way. But like most other members of his genius class, he eventually quit. He now works as a freelance consultant specializing in helping older people use technology.
“I wasn’t meant to be a cog,” says Polack, who increased his salary post-Apple.
Polack’s experience provides a blueprint for how to thrive in the modern labor market and points to the future of middle-class jobs. Unlike the industrial revolution, the latest technology revolution diminishes the value of long-term employment relationships and places a premium on individual skills. Workers like Polack are more mobile and take the skills they acquire from one job to the next. Yet America’s institutions haven’t fully adapted, and may be holding the economy back.
Technology — be it Apple software or the steam engine — has always led to changes in how people work. The agricultural revolution fundamentally altered the social and economic relationships that existed for centuries by decreasing demand for farm labor. Before the industrial revolution, small-scale artisans did manufacturing work at home, but then mechanization displaced them. They were replaced by urban factories, which offered steady employment and often terrible working conditions. Eventually employee unions helped introduce better labor conditions, more job stability and generous benefits, which encouraged job tenure.
But retaining employees for many years also made economic sense for employers. As the industrial age evolved, firms increasingly valued employees who understood the routines, machinery and politics of their employer.