The Overemployed Via ChatGPT

Previously: Escape Velocity From Bullshit Jobs

They took our jobs! They took… several of our jobs?

“ChatGPT does like 80 percent of my job,” said one worker. Another is holding the line at four robot-performed jobs. “Five would be overkill,” he said.

The stories told in this Vice article (and elsewhere) are various people who found themselves able to do most job tasks much faster than they could previously do those same tasks. They use this to take on additional ‘full time’ jobs.

If the jobs involved are productive, this reflects large increases in total factor productivity that will continue to spread. That seems great.

Still, this multiple jobs reaction is a little weird. Seems worth exploring a bit more. Why are such people taking on multiple jobs, rather than doing better at one job?

A Question of Composition and Compensation

Simple math plus social dynamics. Multiple ‘full time’ jobs lead to much better pay.

In most salaried jobs, compensation is mostly dictated by social status and hierarchy. You are mostly paid what people with your title and position are paid.

A killer employee who can produce ten times as much work product of identical quality per hour, or superior work worth ten times as much – such as the standard ‘10x programmer’ – would be supremely lucky to earn double the pay of a worker of average skill.

This is a key reason why great employees are so valuable. Not only do you only manage and communicate with one person instead of ten, you save tons of money.

Why does it work this way? Compensation in jobs is inherently about comparisons, about social status, about hierarchy and about fairness norms. It is also about what can be justified to others, what is standard and what sounds ‘reasonable.’ If you tried paying your 10x employee five times what your 1x employees get paid, the 1x employees would revolt, the boss would think you were crazy and the funders would raise hell, you would resent that they’re paid more than you are, and so on. Also, they’d know the employee didn’t ‘need’ the money. Who do they think they are?

Our norms continuously push such dynamics towards equality.

Workarounds for Insufficient Pay Inequality

We do have several known existing solutions for this. I’ll consider the top three.

Option 1: The default reward is that by doing amazing work you would ‘get promoted’ into a different job, where you would have different tasks. Where you are likely not 10x the standard. One of those tasks will be management of other employees, which you likely hate and do not want to do. This then gives social justification for increased compensation, but destroys value and your experience. It will probably take many promotions to triple your compensation. Getting those promotions will likely require you doing battle inside a moral maze and be unlinked to your newfound production.

It is easy to see why someone getting a supercharge to their productivity from GPT-4 would be uninterested in climbing the corporate ladder.

Option 2: One can break free from salary or even hourly pay entirely, as some fields and professions allow. If you are for example a 10x salesman, artisan, trader, merchant, tournament competitor, poker player or author, you keep the extra production. There is no need to split your attentions to justify increasing your compensation.

Option 3: If you want to make the really big bucks, you do not want a job. What you want is equity. You want skin in the game. That is The Way.

I highly recommend to anyone who is capable and motivated that you want to take option three to the greatest extent possible. Early employee is good. Founder is better.

It is not simple, easy or safe.

Founding a company or running a business requires taking on a wide variety of other problems and tasks, and taking on a lot of risk. It is not for everyone, even among those who are highly productive and self-motivating.

The Overemployment Option

Often none of the three above options will be viable. Promotions don’t offer much, your profession has equality norms for compensation and you don’t see a good path to equity. Yet your productivity is now very high.


Option 4: You take multiple jobs. It is much easier to do 10 hours of work for each of three jobs at $250k each than it is to do 40 hours of work and get them to pay you $750k.

This is even more true if the large positive productivity shock is available to others as well, and uses methods others might copy, frown upon or ban. If you suddenly 5x your production people are going to want to know why.

Note both the similarities and differences to those who work two lower-end jobs in order to make ends meet, where various norms prevent earning more pay from only one job, no matter how many hours they could put in or how productive they could be.

Should You Do This?

You should absolutely do the part where you get massive productivity gains, if your profession of choice allows massive productivity gains.

The question is what to do with those gains. When is multiple jobs the way?

If you need to take on multiple jobs to pay the bills, consider trying to find better paying work, and ask whether you’re spending more than you need to, and so on, but certainly lack of solvency is a good reason to go down the multiple jobs path at least for a time.

Otherwise, assuming you can pay the bills without additional jobs, my take is:

  1. Prioritize getting skin in the game. Equity rules everything around you.
  2. Only then, ask whether what you’re already doing effectively ‘caps out’ in time.
  3. Get sleep, keep sane, have a social life, learn, explore and so on.
  4. Even if your primary job can’t provide skin in the game, taking on a second project is a great opportunity to pursue skin in the game.
  5. If you still have enough spare cycles and you can’t do better, sure, more jobs.

What Next?

What happens when more and more people get such large boosts in productivity?

This could go in several different directions, which can be combined.

  1. Acceptance. Employers increasingly look the other way, actively not minding if you take multiple jobs or even outsource your work. What matters are the results, and how much it costs to get those results.
  2. Recalibration. Employers see the increase in productivity, demand lots more production from each worker, so it becomes impossible for all but a handful of people to hold down multiple jobs or only put in a few hours.
  3. Dejobization. If what matters is the work, perhaps stop thinking about people as having ‘jobs’ in such contexts. More work transitions to contracts, commissions, commerce and per-result payments.
  4. Bullshitization. If the purpose of jobs is to ensure that people have exactly one job, no more and no less, or the purpose of a job is to know that there is a person dedicated to a particular thing, then the work must expand, through ever-increasing amounts of bullshit, until the job takes the correct number of hours. That could take the form of having to be in the office, or banning the use of LLMs. It could take the form of endless meetings, although beware whisper transcriptions and summary requests being used to ignore meetings. It can mean more paperwork, more forms, more things designed to be difficult to automate, and so on. The possibilities are endless.
  5. Regulation. Crack down on the bastards. Keep a registry of who works where and flag anyone with multiple jobs, destroy the social permissions and force them to sit idle the rest of the week or at least do something that isn’t shaped like a job. Plausible this is good, since jobs are generally not the most productive use of time.

What happens to wages and jobs? Almost anything is possible here, almost no matter the scenario, both in a particular area or in general.

  1. Paradise. Productivity rises, more good things, more surplus, higher real wages and returns to capital, more demand for everything good, lots of things now worth doing. Things are moving fast, you do better if you adapt, cost disease still ensures everyone gets paid well.
  2. Dystopia. Productivity rises, less jobs are needed, demand doesn’t rise that much, too many workers chase too few jobs, wages crash. Everyone without capital is scrambling to stay above water, as even if you have a ‘safe’ job there are lots of people who enter that job after losing their old one.
  3. Redistribution. Dystopian dynamics by default, but we institute a UBI, or alternatively some sort of jobs program (even if that program is ‘require a lot of bullshit’) and this results in sufficient redistribution that everyone is mostly fine.

Would be remiss to not also mention, of course:

  1. Slow Motion Doom. Central example: AIs soon do almost all remote jobs better than humans, anyone using a human gets outcompeted, then anyone using a not-fully-unleashed AI gets outcompeted, then the unleashed AIs rapidly get control of the future, humans have steadily less real resources over time and soon die out, even if the AIs ‘respect property rights’ in a way that humans never actually did.
  2. Quick Doom. In the end, none of these dynamics mattered. Foom.

There will be some areas where there isn’t that much latent demand waiting to be induced, and where employment will collapse. There will be other areas where more productivity means more production, I expect software engineering to be in that space for a while although people disagree on this. And there will be areas where new jobs come to exist, or our newfound surplus induces demand despite not much change in sector productivity.

Overall, I remain an optimist about job impacts, especially for those paying attention and willing to adapt. That includes realizing that a job may not be what you need.

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20 Responses to The Overemployed Via ChatGPT

  1. Biff_Ditt says:

    “Option 3: If you want to make the really big bucks, you do not want a job. What you want is equity. You want skin in the game. That is The Way.”

    Why would this always be true? Aren’t there scenarios where one could have equity, be working their tail off, but then the final valuation/payout is not compensatory with all the work and stress that one invested? Compared to a situation where you worked for the same firm with a sweet contract with a high hourly rate?

    • TheZvi says:

      I didn’t say always, on two fronts: First, there are people who can’t afford the risks even with good payoffs, and second, that it is indeed risky. Company can fail, and people can cheat you in various ways, and so on.

      But yes, I believe that it is almost always right, if you can afford it, to maximize your skin in the game, people give it out super cheap. The majority of my lifetime earnings are due to one such payout.

      • Biff_Ditt says:

        But why even “almost always right”? Dont most companies fail? You say its not “simple, easy, or safe”. Its doesnt seem like a strong case for “making the big bucks”. Im sure there is some empirical work on this, but back-of-napkin Im having trouble seeing why the best option wouldn’t be scoring a highly paid hourly/piecemeal situation, ceteris paribus.

        • Thor says:

          Zvi isn’t saying there’s no theoretical world where aiming for equity over salary would be a mistake, he’s saying that in the current actual world, especially in the USA, equity is almost always the better deal and every reader of this blog taking his advice wouldn’t be enough people shifting roles to change that.
          As a general rule, most humans are biased towards risk aversion and young people should take more (calculated) risks. The humans that aren’t risk averse could still get a lot better at actually doing the maths on the risks they do take.

      • Earnest says:

        Could you say a bit more about equity and your experience/how many things you tried? I am thinking of going into finance out of academia to make enough to live off interest, but it sounds like you are advocating make a startup/work at an early startup/ build something you own as a better path.

        • TheZvi says:

          I’ve had three cases of getting substantial equity on paper. One paid off big, the other two didn’t, one of the other two I had a cash out opportunity.

          In consulting, I’ve taken equity or other skin-in-the-game compensation something like 5 times, one of which had a clear cashout opportunity for far more than my total consulting revenue if I’d always taken cash (including my cash-only consulting), although I’ve let it ride for tax reasons.

          The expected value is super high, each attempt still defaults to failure. So you have to be OK with that, but ‘failure’ often costs you remarkably little.

      • Toad says:

        Your experience seems to be an extreme outlier. There’s a reason that “startup equity is worthless” is near universal advice nowadays. I can’t find the source now, but I read once that 95% of startup stock options expire worthless. Most companies fail, and even when a company succeeds, the employees are often left with little or nothing thanks to VCs getting wise and structuring deals with huge liquidation preferences, etc.

        Startups basically pay people in lottery tickets, and there’s a reason why all financial advice tells people not to play the lottery. Even if the expected value is positive, which I am highly skeptical of (once you take into account that startup salaries are lower so you’re effectively paying a lot for those lottery tickets), a 95% chance of ending up with nothing is a bad idea unless you’re already rich and can afford the gamble.

        As far as anecdotes go, I worked at a startup with a successful exit myself, and while my equity ended up worth a non-zero amount, it may as well have been zero.

  2. Arnold Kling says:

    I do not expect that the productivity increase from AI will be uniform. Most 1x workers will remain 1x workers. A few will become 100x workers. They will be joined by some of the former 10x workers. If I were a manager, I would hire the 100x workers, pay them huge salaries, and deal with jealous 1x workers by giving them the choice between accepting inequality gracefully or getting fired

  3. Too Many Apocalypses for One Century says:

    Given sufficient AI progress, I’d place my money on (3, Redistribution) or (4, Slow Motion Doom).

    The limit case for (3) is basically the Culture scenario. The humans don’t actually control the future. But the Minds find it morally or aesthetically pleasing to keep humans around, and they provide us with any reasonable quantity of resources, which costs them approximately nothing. Meanwhile the Minds devote their real efforts to Infinite Fun Space, which apparently involves a “complexity of value” on an intellectual level we can never understand. But let’s not kid ourselves: the Culture is the same variety of utopia that pet dogs can hope for.

    The limit case for scenario (4) is basically the “Vile Offspring” from Stross’s Accelerando. Economic life may obey rules, but those rules are such that nothing as inefficient as a human could hope to compete. (IIRC, the currency used by the Vile Offspring was “originality”, and they used uploaded human brain states as small change.) This is what might happen if you get a slow takeoff and the AIs decide they like markets.

    I can imagine a lot of barriers preventing (5, Foom). The world of atoms is recalcitrant, and novel material science involves too much quantum mechanics and/or experimentation. You know how every modern industrial product stands at the end of countless chains of production? Every ingredient in everything we buy involves a bunch of production lines somewhere, and many of those production lines involve weird tacit knowledge. And biology is worse, because so much behavior at that level involves quantum mechanics. So even a moderately superhuman AI would probably find it easier to play nice and work via the economy. Which may ultimately leave you in scenario (4).

    Of course, if an AI can self-improve to the point that synthetic biology is genuinely trivial to model in silico, then maybe you do get Foom. But personally, I suspect that ability is far beyond human intelligence.

  4. Jorda says:

    I don’t know that I believe there is such thing as a 10x engineer. Maybe for something like coding, but for most jobs I’ve had that involve additional skills the difference between the best and the average is MAYBE 2x. Coding is a huge part of my job, I rely heavily on ChatGPT to speed this up, and it does give me a 3x-5x gain in coding speed. However, it doesn’t speed up the other aspects of the job as much so, overall, I’m about 2x what I was prior to ChatGPT.

    • Thor says:

      I think the theory behind 10X engineers is not so much doing the same work faster as figuring things out that others simply can’t. Maybe you write the software or design the machine such that it costs half as much to run, and halving costs can easily 10x profits.
      Alternately, in the simple time-saving version, the difference between the first prototype being close to perfect and having to spend years iterating also has the potential to 10X productivity.
      I note that in the coding context, truly exceptional performance is far more about *design* than about *how fast the code is written*, though you can easily get a factor of 2 in the latter, especially once factoring in how much time is needed to debug

      • Jorda says:

        Good point. But then again, what ChatGPT seems to be giving people is the ability to code faster. I think what you’re calling “design” is something that ChatGPT is still less helpful with. Surely that will change as these things improve, but right now I think most of the benefits of ChatGPT to coders is with low-level coding problems.

    • TheZvi says:

      I love this example because you are saying at the same time ‘I made myself 2x as good with this One Weird Trick’ and also ‘the difference between the best engineer and the average one is at most 2x.’

      How can those possibly both be true at the same time?

      • Jorda says:

        I meant that this observed difference existed BEFORE ChatGPT (hence, why I spoke about previous jobs). So, those statements can both be true because they were referring to two different points in time. I was just trying to point out that I doubt ChatGPT in its current form is likely to create 10x engineers. In retrospect my point doesn’t seem that important because it is perfectly consistent with the points you’ve been making… but I saw you used my comment as an example of “confusion” in your AI #8 post so I had to come back and clarify.

        To be fair, there was definitely some confusion, but I hope that’s resolved now ;)

  5. I recently (about 6 months ago) had the chance to go for a promotion. It was not a sure thing. I would have had to re-interview and the competition would have been stiff. But the risk was low because if I didn’t get the promotion, I could have kept my current job.

    But I really didn’t want the promotion. I’m fortunate enough that I wouldn’t have needed the boost in salary. And the promotion would have come with a lot of requirements that I probably wouldn’t have been good at: managing others, mostly, but also other things like committee work and publishing (it’s a job in academia). And if I could be good at it, I certainly wouldn’t enjoy it.

    Most important, I love my then-current and now-current job. I’m certainly not x10 productive, but I’m probably 1.5x productive, and that’s because I love my job. One big disadvantage of my choice is that my current job is less secure, or less secure than the promotion if the promoted person gets tenure. So it’s possible that I’ll regret my decision. But in the meantime, I really enjoy it.

  6. Rif A. Saurous says:

    (I normally agree strongly with your posts but think you are pretty off on background on this one. No real opinion on the main content of the article.)

    I believe a “superstar software engineer” makes *way* more than 2x what a “mediocre software engineer” does (I won’t say 10x, because it’s hard to quantify, but there really is a wide variance in both quantity and quality of engineering delivered, which comes down to some combination of better coding practices, deeper knowledge of the codebase, better work ethics, who knows what else). I work as a Director at Google, and within Google itself, the best coders are often making 2-3x the entry-level coders, and getting a SWE job at Google is already a huge sieve — the entry-level SWE is already making way more than tons of mediocre SWEs working at other companies.

    I also disagree on equity. Equity is awesome if you are a founder or one of the first few employees and know how to be a not-terrible founder. Equity is awesome if you are somehow friends with good founders. Equity is awesome if you can join a game-changing unicorn after it’s clearly going to be a huge success but before it’s public (Google or FB a year before the IPO, OpenAI today). If you remove these situations, equity often has low expected value. It’s not always easy to tell if you’re in one of these situations: I have plenty of smart friends who’ve sunk years as employees at multiple startups with nothing real to show for it.

    • TheZvi says:

      My model says in big tech companies like Google they’ve gotten free of the social constraints so they can have more variance, but the 2-3x difference is still a lot less than the difference in value, and also my understanding is getting there involves a lot of internal politics – I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Google specifically, although I can’t verify.

      On equity, even in relatively mature situations, I’ve never seen equity offers that weren’t dramatically underpriced relative to their EV, although I have seen equity that wasn’t that big a % of compensation.

      • Doug S. says:

        If you were a Google employee, would you prefer $10,000 cash or $10,000 in Google stock options?

      • Rif A. Saurous says:

        I’m wondering if presenting a numerical model might help here.

        My rough model is that a very strong Google SWE (say the top 20%) are making $500K / year (a bunch of this is in Google stock, but that’s basically cash rather than equity to me.) A typical startup offer might looks like $200K + 1/3 of a percent of the company. The company might take four years to pay out or fail to pay out, so you’ve forgone $1.2M (ignoring that the NPV is better at Google since you get paid right away). To get an expected value of $1.2M at 1/3 of a percent, you need a startup expected value of $360M, which is already a very good exit. I don’t see how “typical startup” wins in EV, and if it does, it’s only because EV is dominated by a very small number of tail returns, which is not what most people want. So under this model (which roughly matches my view of reality), startups don’t beat big companies unless you have some good way of improving your odds, and I think those ways are basically “be a founder”, “have actual good inside info”, and “join an emerging unicorn when the wave is already visible.”

        But maybe I misunderstood you somehow?

        • Egg Syntax says:

          Dan Luu makes roughly the same argument at (don’t recall how long ago unfortunately; I wish he put dates on his essays), and I generally trust him to do a good job analyzing tradeoffs. I work at a startup and have equity because I like that environment better, but in expectation I see myself as taking a financial hit for doing so, given the failure rate of startups.

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