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Why work?

December 21, 2011

In his recent Vanity Fair article, Joseph Stiglitz puts forth the following theory about why the Great Depression was inevitable (and in particular wouldn’t have been prevented by the Fed loosening monetary policy). Namely, that our society was transitioning from an agrarian society to something else- which turned out to be a manufacturing society, kicked off in earnest at the beginning of World War II. He goes on to say that we are now going through another great transition, from manufacturing to something else- he calls it service. And he also says there’s no way monetary policy will fix this trauma either- we need to invest heavily in infrastructure in order to prepare ourselves for the coming service society we will be.

Take a few steps back, and we see this picture: a hundred years ago we got so efficient at farming that we didn’t need everyone to farm to be well fed. Then we figured out how to make things so efficiently that we don’t need to worry about having enough stuff. So now, what are we all working for exactly? If service means we take care of each other (medical stuff) and we educate each other, that is fine, but not everyone is a doctor or a teacher. If service means we spend all our time making video games and entertaining each other, than it seems like we need to rethink this plan.

There are two essays I’ve read about the nature of this change that I think will help us rethink work and how our society values work and how it doles it out. First, there’s this highbrow essay on the language of work. From the essay:

Work deploys a network of techniques and effects that make it seem inevitable and, where possible, pleasurable. Central among these effects is the diffusion of responsibility for the baseline need to work: everyone accepts, because everyone knows, that everyone must have a job. Bosses as much as subordinates are slaves to the larger servomechanisms of work. In effect, work is the largest self-regulation system the universe has so far manufactured, subjecting each of us to a panopticon under which we dare not do anything but work, or at least seem to be working, lest we fall prey to a disapproval all the more powerful for its obscurity. The work idea functions in the same manner as a visible surveillance camera, which need not even be hooked up to anything. No, let’s go further: there need not even be a camera. Like the prisoners in the perfected version of Bentham’s utilitarian jail, workers need no overseer because they watch themselves. When we submit to work, we are guard and guarded at once.

What is less clear is why we put up with this demand-structure of a workplace, why we don’t resist more robustly. As Max Weber noted in his analysis of leadership under capitalism, any ideology must, if it is to succeed, give people reasons to act. It must offer a narrative of identity to those caught within its ambit, otherwise they will not continue to perform, and renew, its reality. As with most truly successful ideologies, the work idea latches on to a very basic feature of human existence: our character as social animals forever competing for relative advantage.

The author Mark Kingwell makes a pretty convincing case that people have bought into work just as they buy into other cultural norms. It underlines the real audacity of the #Occupy Wall Streeters who dared to do something with their time than be baristas at Starbucks.

Paired with the Stiglitz view of our culture and its future, though, it makes me think about the extent to which we’ve synthesized work. Mark Kingwell points out that one of the major outputs of workplaces is more work, a kind of purely synthetic made-up idea which we all need to believe in as long as we are all convinced about this work-as-cultural imperative.

The quintessential example of work-creating-work comes from finance, of course, where there isn’t even really a product at the end of the day. It’s essentially all completely made up, pushing around numbers on a spreadsheet.

What happens when people question this industry and its associated maniacal belief in work as moral? I say “maniacal” based on the number of hours people put in at most financial firms, sacrificing their families and even their internal lives, not to mention their associated martyred attitudes at having worked so hard.

This article from Bloomberg addresses the issue indirectly. In it, Richard Sennett talks about what bonds people to their colleagues and their workplace. He compares manufacturing jobs in 1970’s Boston to the recent financial services industry, and notes that people nowadays in finance have no loyalty to each other or to their workplace, and also have very little respect for the bosses. He blames this on unthoughtful hierarchical structures and the fact that bosses are essentially incompetent and everybody knows it. He concludes his article as follows:

These employees were relentless judges of their bosses, always on the lookout for details of conversation or behavior to suggest that the executives didn’t deserve their powers and perks. Such vigilance naturally weakened the bosses’ earned authority. And it didn’t make the people judging feel good about themselves either, as they were stuck in the relationship. On the contrary, it was more likely to be embittering than a cause for secret satisfaction.

Even for those workers who have recovered quickly, the crash isn’t something they are likely to forget. The front office may want to get back as quickly as possible to the old regime, to business as usual, but lower down the institutional ladder, people seem to feel that during the long boom something was missing in their lives: the connections and bonds forged at work.

Although those are fine reasons to dismiss loyalty, as I know from experience, I’d like to suggest another reason we are seeing so much disloyalty, namely that people see through the meaningless of their job, and are wondering why the system has even been set up this way in the first place.

In other words, I don’t think a better hierarchy and super smart bosses in finance is going to make back office people gung-ho. I think that the credit crisis has clearly exposed what people already suspected, namely that they are working hard but not accomplishing much. If we want people to feel fulfilled, wouldn’t it make more sense to work less, and spend more time off with their families and their thoughts? Could we as a society imagine something like that?

Categories: finance, news
  1. Aryt Alasti
    December 21, 2011 at 8:45 am

    A feeling of lassitude has come over me after reading this – all your fault, even if it was a pleasure. Luckily, I just finished my work-week. I could happily retire right now, except for the destitution factor. What we need is an efficiency tithe, so that those to whom the benefits of efficiency, automation and outsourcing preferentially flow can follow that path to the extent that OCD may demand, with enough redistribution of incomes so that the rest of us can get our jollies in other ways. As a proposal, I suppose it could be fleshed out a bit, but that would be work also.


    • Judith de Cantabrigia
      December 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      Many of us, especially those who work for the Government, are quietly aware they are not producing anything; just churning words, regulations, and requirements up and down the bureaucracy, Government is best at checks: usually taking money away from those who work to give it to those who don’t. Enter the marketplace; i.e., the sum total of all individual’s actions; despite some distortions, it is still best for all of us to determine where our money should go.


  2. December 21, 2011 at 10:37 am

    So am I sucker or not? I put in long hours for many years as a graduate student. Like my fellow graduate students I would joke that my life was on hold, but I didn’t really mean it because this was our life, a life of the mind, which is more rewarding than any workaday job. When I left academia for industry, I was pleased to see that things didn’t change that much. I have similar challenges that require a similar level of total devotion. I’m going to take some time over Christmas to write a conference paper. It feels like home.

    I’m not complaining. I sincerely enjoy both institutions. Like the work, like the camaraderie. The NLP/information retrieval/machine learning stuff I do is fundamentally mathematical, and I probably don’t need to tell you that sloshing around in the deep pool of beauty that is mathematics is its own reward. The long hours don’t feel like a wage slave’s trap but rather an artist’s ardor. But in practice they are still long hours. From the outside it sure does look like I’m spending all day at an office. And as for explaining why the particular numbers I push around are beautiful and profound–well, that’s practically a life’s work in itself.

    I actually don’t feel like a sucker. I’m wired for this kind of all-consuming pursuit and would do it even if I wasn’t getting paid, so why not get paid? Still, you can’t be unaware of the context in which this takes place. Some fish do feel the water. In graduate school, people made no money, but looked down on salaried professionals who worked just as hard on something that wasn’t a tenth as deep. That feeling of superiority is what got you through the day. So maybe we do need the bankers after all.


  3. December 21, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    As a software engineer I too slosh around in pools of deep logic in an office all day and enjoy my work. I enjoy taking something as ephemeral as pure thought and building something concrete from it; something real enough to impact on the world. I imagine that poets and novelists feel much the same. That said, I just experienced six months of unemployment from the end of April until mid-October, so I have personal experience that destitution isn’t much fun at all. It will probably be another six months before my personal finances return to stability, so I can no longer pretend to myself that I don’t do it for the money.


  4. Blue cat
    December 22, 2011 at 2:25 am

    Hi Cathy,

    I think the issue of why we work has fundamental questions associated with it. The question of how we relate to our jobs and to our fellow workers is (in my opinion) secondary.

    Most of biology is supply-limited: populations are constrained by the availability of essential elements. Our economy has become demand-limited: we are all in the position of having to sell our services in order to survive. We can’t just go out and hunt and gather. In some ways this is tragic. When there is insufficient demand, what are people to do?

    Yet what is the demand for? Are we all just taking in each others’ laundry? In some ways that’s the case — and I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. We enrich each others’ lives by the services we perform for them. But there is also a fundamental element that’s missing from this picture. For the system to work it must be powered by a source of energy.

    Plants can just sit around and soak up the energy they need. We can’t. But we can produce it with very little per-capita effort, which is what gives us the time to enrich each other.

    There is a lot more to say about this. Normally I wouldn’t inflict this on anyone, but if you are interested here is a link to a description of an agent-based model we are developing to explore these issues: http://goo.gl/jRXsy.


  5. Annie
    December 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    “If service means we spend all our time making video games and entertaining each other, than it seems like we need to rethink this plan.” Why? If our basic needs are met, as they are in our current society, entertaining ourselves strikes me as an excellent way to pass the time.


  6. December 26, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Christmas joke about a Boss at work.

    The office staff of a small company in their Christmas party is surprised to hear their President, whom they’ve always thought of as an unfeeling bully, give what seems to be a caring and even sentimental talk, ending as follows.

    “So in conclusion,” he says, “I want you all to know that the success our company has enjoyed in the past year could not have been achieved without all of you! Or . . . people very much like you.”


  7. human mathematics
    January 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    I can imagine that. It’s called France. 🙂


  8. human mathematics
    January 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    I don’t think that synthetic work is a structural macroeconomic problem. Make-work is a problem for firms in that they are paying for useless labour. But make-work doesn’t necessarily correspond to paper-pushing.

    For example, let’s say I’m a new associate at a law firm. I and my fellow-monkeys spend 3 full days drafting a motion that will never be filed. It’s hoped that the motion will never be filed, because the senior partner wants to have the motion ready when she gets on the phone with the other side’s counsel. The motion-that-will-never-be-filed is just leverage so she can say “I’ve got a motion ready to go, so if you want to go down that road, be my guest.”

    Let’s say her threat works and the other side is thwarted. Then I and my monkey-friends did some pure paper-pushing which measurably added value for our client.


  1. December 29, 2011 at 9:43 am
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