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?