HOW JOBS DESTROYED WORK (PART TWO) by EXTROPIA DaSILVA
THE TRUE DEFINITION OF ‘WORK’
If we should not define work as ‘a job for which you get paid’, how should we define it? If I were to have a stab at that, I would say that work is any mental or physical effort that is directly linked to a reward, and which offers a sense of meaning to those who are doing it. In other words, if you feel engaged in what you are doing; if you feel there is a purpose, for you personally, in carrying out such labour and that if this work is done well you will be suitably rewarded, then what you are doing is indeed work. I would also add that your reward should not come at too much cost to anyone else. In other words, I don’t care how rich you become from conning people, nor how cleverly you scheme; your efforts should never be dignified by calling it ‘work’.
MONEY: THE ONLY REASON TO WORK?
Now, what about this idea that labour, if done well, directly leads to reward? Doesn’t the fact that jobs pay prove that they at least meet this criteria? Well, no, because money is pretty much useless in and of itself. It’s great for buying stuff, that’s for sure, but since it is that stuff we really want, and not the money per se, if we instead receive money our labour is one step removed from what we actually need or want. Think of the tale of the Little Red Hen. As you may recall, the hen labours all day long to cut wheat, turn it into flour, make dough, bake it, and at the end of what must have been an exhausting day she had her reward: A nice tasty loaf of bread. But if she had done all that labour, then received money, and then gone and purchased her bread, when she got her pay she was one step removed from her actual reward.
And here we are assuming that money is always spent on personal items we actually need (such as food) but what if it’s spent on things we have been lead to believe we need but which, in reality, don’t add much value to our lives at all, least not enough enough to compensate for so many hours in a job you hate? In that case, your work is several steps removed from any genuine reward. The more labour becomes disconnected from genuine reward, the more pointless it becomes to the person doing it.
It’s worth staying with this false belief that if you get paid you have all the reward you need, because it brings us to other ways in which jobs destroy work.
Most people who play a musical instrument well don’t make much money at all from their ability, but a tiny minority gain extraordinary wealth. The Rolling Stones, for example, have had decades of hit records and become multimillionaires as a result. Even though they have a combined age of over 270 years, they are still touring.
Have you ever heard anyone say of old rockers like the Stones, “why do they still do this? They cannot need the money!”. I have. What does a statement like that tell us? It tells us that whoever said it believes that monetary reward is the one and only reason to do anything. Once you have earned more than enough to keep you and your family very comfortable for generations to come, you should stop. After all, there cannot be any other reason to continue performing in front of an audience, or writing novels, or whatever it was that made you so wealthy.
Most of us are not going to achieve anything like the fame and fortune of the Rolling Stones. But to make matters worse, the belief that monetary compensation is all the reward anyone needs has lead to jobs that really work against labour that is meaningful to those who do it.
In ‘The Wealth Of Nations’, Adam Smith presented a vision of the employee that fits well with this idea that it is money, and money alone, that motivates us. He wrote:
“It is in the inherent interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, to perform it in as carelessly and slovenly a manner that authority will admit”.
So, what the father of capitalism is saying here is that people are inclined to be lazy. We really don’t want to work at all and when we do, it will be in a ‘slovenly’ and ‘careless’ manner unless the stern guidance of authority forces us to work competently. Furthermore, we see in his statement a long-accepted tenet of economics, which is that if you want to persuade people to do anything, you only need to provide incentives in the form of money.
CAKE-MAKING IS FUN!
If you believe that paying a wage blesses labour with all the incentive necessary, you probably also believe that so long as people are getting paid it really doesn’t matter what their job entails. With that in mind, let’s look at an activity that you might have found enjoyable as a child, namely cake making. Perhaps when you were young your mother helped pass an afternoon by letting you do some cookery. Maybe you found it fun and educational, following the recipe, measuring out ingredients, executing tasks like stirring, sifting, beating and whisking, keeping an eye on the mixture as it baked in the oven so as to determine when it was neither under or over-baked but just right. And if you did everything correctly, you were rewarded with a tasty treat for yourself, your family and your friends.
Cake-making does not just appeal to children. Some people take it up as a profession, developing such skill at crafting sponge, marzipan and icing into fancy and intricate shapes that their work can be considered an artform. Sometimes the end result looks so impressive it is almost a shame to attack it with a knife and consume it.
CAKE-MAKING MADE LESS FUN
How might you take a job like that, an enjoyable activity that helped pass an afternoon as a kid, or that provides a way for some to demonstrate their artistic and culinary talents, and make it dull? You do it by taking what can be complex and challenging work and dividing it up into a sequence of micro tasks, each one simple enough to require minimal skill. Then, you set one person to do one of those micro tasks, repeatedly, for hours on end (crack egg into bowl, crack egg into bowl) another person to repeatedly perform the next microtask (beat the egg, beat the egg) and so on. What you have created is the assembly line model of work.
Labour of this kind owes its its existence in part to the belief that so long as people get paid for what they do, any job is suitably rewarding. If that really were the case, there would be no harm in organizing work by dividing the overall task into many simple, easily repeated, more or less meaningless units. It was such a belief that lead the likes of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of what came to be known as the ‘scientific management’ movement, to use meticulous time and motion studies in order to turn workers into automatons, executing some simple, monotonous micro task like picking up A and putting it on top of B, over and over again. Behavioural studies had shown how rats and pigeons could be engaged in simple, repetitive tasks for rewards of food and water, which seemed further proof that the only reason to do any kind of work was for the payoffs it produces. Management was organised around certain assumptions regarding human nature, namely that without a combination of extrinsic rewards and punishment to keep us motivated, people would naturally tend toward laziness or their minds would wander instead of remaining focused on goals.
And this was the result, as told by Bob Black in his essay ‘The Abolition of Work’:
“One person does one productive task all the time on an or-else basis. Even if the task has a quantum of intrinsic interest…the monotony of its obligatory exclusivity drains it of its ludic potential. A ‘job’ that might engage the energies of some people, for a reasonably limited time, for the fun of it, is just a burden on those who have to do it for forty hours a week with no say in how it should be done, for the profit of owners who contribute nothing to the project, and with no opportunity for sharing the tasks or spreading the work among those who actually have to do it”.
In Black’s statement we see many of the ways in which jobs differ from work as I would define it. He talks about people doing overwork, spending needlessly long hours doing meaningless tasks, mostly for the benefit of people other than themselves.
We’ll get into all of that soon, but right now I think we should take a break from so negativity and say that the production line model of work is not all bad. If you were to ask people to name one good thing that resulted from organizing labour in this way, I would expect most to opt for the increase in material wealth it made possible. Some people have a fondness for self-sufficiency and wish we could have less dependency on others. But the fact is that the more self-sufficient you are, the poorer you are, materially speaking. When it comes to raising prosperity levels, nothing beats specialisation and exchange.
Adam Smith recognised this when he described the output of a pin factory:
“One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head…They could make among them upwards of 48,000 pins a day…But, if they had all wrought separately and independently…they certainly could not, each of them, make twenty”.
As industrialisation spread and the amount and range of material goods that could be produced increased, one might be forgiven for thinking that hours spent in wage labour would go into dramatic decline, freeing up people to do work of other kinds. And, for a while, it seemed like that would happen. In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes predicted that our ability to mass manufacture material goods would become so efficient, the average working week would be 15 hours by the end of the century. In The Overworked American, Schor quoted one postwar expert who predicted to a Senate subcommittee that by the 1990s:
“We could have either a 22-hour week, a 6 month workyear, or a standard retirement age of 38”.
We are now well into the 21st century and the 40 hour work week shows no sign of stepping aside and letting an era of abundant leisure take over. In fact, from the 90s to the start of the new century over 25 million Americans in white-collar jobs were working 49-59 hours per week while another 11 million put in over 60 hours per week. This overwork did not seem to bother the corporations. The car manufacturer, Lexus, ran adverts with slogans such as “sure, we take vacations. They’re called lunch breaks” and “We don’t have a company softball team. It would lower productivity by .56%”.
In part three we shall investigate the phenomenon of ‘overwork’ and argue its existence demonstrates another contrast between ‘jobs’ and ‘work’.