Labor Day is a holiday that just doesn’t fit Silicon Valley. Its purported purpose is to celebrate working men and women and their — our — progress toward better working conditions and fairer workplaces. Yet, few regions in recent times have supposedly done more to “destroy” quality working conditions than the Valley, from the entire creation of the precarious 1099 economy to automation of labor itself.
My colleague John Chen offered the received wisdom on this discrepancy this weekend, arguing that Valley entrepreneurs should take the traditional message of Labor Day to heart, encouraging them to create more equitable, fair, and secure workplaces not just for their own employees, but also for all the workers that power the platforms we create and operate every day.
It’s a nice sentiment that I agree with, but I think he misses the mark.
What Silicon Valley needs — now more than ever before — is to double down on the kind of ambitious, hard-charging, change-the-world labor that created our modern knowledge economy in the first place. We can’t and shouldn’t slow down. We need more technological progress, not less. We need more automation of labor, not less. And we need as much of this innovation to happen in the United States as possible.
The tech industry may have become a dominant force by some metrics, but we are only just getting started. Entire industries like freight have little to no automation. Several billion people lack access to the internet, to say nothing of critical, basic infrastructure. Our drug pipeline is anemic, and costs for education, health care, construction, and government are continuing to skyrocket.
In short, we have barely scratched the surface of what we can achieve with software, with hardware, with better business models and better automation. These aren’t table scraps, but trillions dollar opportunities lying in wait for entrepreneurs to seize them.
And yet, we keep hearing persistent claims that overwork is a problem in the Valley. Discussions of work-life balance are practically de rigueur for startups these days, as are free meals and massages and unlimited vacation time. These demands are coming at a time when some of the most fertile opportunities for innovation in areas as diverse as robotics, space, biotech, cancer, and construction remain ripe for the taking.
It’s a hustlers world out there, and the message that those who want to shape that world should be hearing this Labor Day is simple: work harder. Hell, work today.
Certainly that’s the message ingrained in most places competing with the Valley these days. Mike Moritz wrote a column in the Financial Times earlier this year, comparing the hard-charging work ethic of Chinese tech entrepreneurs and workers with their Silicon Valley brethren. He didn’t mince words, and the piece ignited a firestorm of criticism.
But he’s right, and not just about Chinese founders. Entrepreneurs in developing and middle-income countries from India and South Korea to Brazil and Nigeria now have access to the same tools that top Valley startups use, with experience to boot. And they are hungry to transform their lot in life into something much more ambitious, much more grand.
We need to re-inject their level of urgency back into the Valley ethos and compete ferociously. We can’t rest on companies from the 1990s like Google, or the 1970s like Apple and Microsoft as the final wave of innovative companies. We need the next massive tech companies to be built, and they’re not going to be created 20-hour workweeks at a time.
Entrepreneurship is a rough and solitary life. Hustling isn’t fun, losing deals isn’t enjoyable, and working around the clock under intense pressure is not for the faint of heart. For those who want the easy road, there are many, many pathways today in the modern American economy that will guarantee it, whether that is a big tech giant, or some other Fortune 100 company.
Yet, the spirit of America is always choosing the bigger gamble, the bolder vision. And it is the people who stand up and demand that we make huge strides today — not tomorrow — that are going to own the future.
Of course, founding a company has to be a voluntary choice. No one should have to work for a pittance, or feel coerced into a high-pressure lifestyle when they aren’t ready and willing. No one should be locked into an economic system where they can’t improve their own income and status through tenacity and strategy. Our tech companies should absolutely be more diverse, and fairer to all people. Equity can and should be more widely distributed.
But when it comes to the true meaning of Labor Day in the American sense, we should celebrate the hard-working founders and entrepreneurs who are taking on the biggest challenges and focusing all of their talents on solving these critical human problems. That’s what made Silicon Valley what it is, and it’s the meaning of Labor Day that every founder and dreamer should center on.