Monday, 12 July 2010

Pile it On

Should work carry a health warning?

…what I’m saying is that our characteristic assumption that pleasure in work, pride in work, is either unrelated to or negatively related to the value of the output is related to a particular stage of social history, namely capitalism, in which human beings are tools of production. It is by no means necessarily true. For example, if you look at the many interviews with workers on assembly lines… that have been done by industrial psychologists, you find that one of the things they complain about over and over again is the fact that their work simply can’t be well done; the fact that the assembly line goes through so fast that they can’t do their work properly. I just happened to look recently at a study of longevity in some journal of gerontology which tried to trace the factors that you could use to predict longevity – you know, cigarette-smoking and drinking, genetic factors – everything was looked at. It turned out in fact that the highest predictor, the most successful predictor, was job satisfaction. (Noam Chomsky)

Yes, if you want to keep the pension bill down, increase those boring jobs!

In so many ways this position feels old fashioned, though Chomsky was only speaking in 1976. Since then we have seen the financialization of the economy, the rise of free market ideology, and the monopoly of consumerism – now we are shoppers before we are citizens. The Obama election was the apotheosis of this historical trend, beating Apple for the best advertising campaign of the year. Politicians can be marketed like products because it is the latter that forms the ground bass to our lives: we see the world through Toyotas and Rice Krispies; inevitably our values and our preferences are coloured (increasingly, perhaps, formed) by them.

We want cash, and thus we accept the shoddiness of our jobs; their lack of meaning and purpose. We resign ourselves to being bored and oppressed; for we have little fight to change the nature of our work. A view encouraged by the growth of enormous organisations, which reduce the status and power of the employee; reinforced by the decline of the unions. Because it appears nothing can be done, we sacrifice job satisfaction for greater consumption. And if the research above is still correct, we are killing ourselves for wide-screen TVs and the latest iPhone.

To do a good job! It suggests there’s a need inside us to shape and control our activities. Not unrelated, perhaps, to the need to interpret and fix our environment, so as to live and breathe. Eg. if we perceived the world as a chaotic mishmash we could not even cross the road, for the first car would kill us - we would have no idea what a car was, and the damage it can do. Is job satisfaction analogous to the achievements of the artist or craftsman? And that need to make an object, and the resultant buzz; of achievement; of a glory in the things we do; of the wonder in the creation of the unexpected and the satisfaction in its completion? All speculation, of course. But whatever the reason, we should encourage it; we should include the necessity of job satisfaction in a political programme to change our economy.

Although the piece feels old-fashioned, it has strong echoes of today – too many things to be done too quickly. This organisational trend has extended from the assembly line to the office. With the growth of computers and the email the office has become a factory, and the pressures to do always more have increased… It is not just offices. Diane Ravitch talks of how in America the new foundations that look to run schools remove older teachers and replace them with twenty-somethings, just out of university – working them to excess, ensuring burn out after 10 or so years.

We all are dissatisfied now.

Up the 1970s there was still a hope, perhaps even the expectation in some circles, that technology would reduce the working day, automate the repetitive tasks, thus freeing up labour either to be more creative, or to provide leisure time to develop wider interests. Like the typewriter, these views seem to belong to a by-gone age. Can we reclaim them?

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