In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, in which he referred to the Great Depression as “a bad attack of economic pessimism” and predicted that by the time a century had passed from when he was writing, “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day”. He foresaw an Age of Leisure, in which at least in Anglo countries, we would have solved the “economic problem”; that is, the problem of ensuring that everyone has adequate food, clothing, shelter, which he called “absolute needs”, and once this point had been reached, we would be free to turn our energies to non-economic pursuits. Presumably things like art, leisure, family time, etc. He was certain enough of this – even in the midst of the Great Depression, which was gripping England while he was writing – that the bulk of his essay is taken up with worrying about how we will fill our time, once we have solved the economic problem, and the kind of existential crises humankind could fall into once we have solved our economic problem. He thought that at least in the “progressive countries”, by which he meant, presumably, England, Canada and the States, Western Europe, and Australia and NZ as well, we would all suffer a collective “nervous breakdown” from living the lives of wealthy wives with nothing to do. As it turns out, obviously, he was wrong about everything except for the insight that “we have been trained too long to strive, and not to enjoy”. And that’s what I want to talk about today – I spend a lot of time on this show talking about specifically marginalized and dispossessed groups of people, but today I’m going to focus on another group. Namely, the class-formerly-known-as-middle, which I’ll just call middle for now, and the problems faced by people who are employed in white-collar or service jobs in the public or private sector. Just like so many things, our favourite brand of capitalism is not only harming those people who cannot fully participate in it, disabled people, unemployed, single mothers, people of colour, but it also harms those people who are participating, as the price of participation rises and the returns diminish.
Needless to say, Keynes was wrong about the coming Age of Leisure, though it wasn’t immediately apparent that he was. For a while it really did look like we were headed that way, as long as you didn’t dig too deeply into exactly who was going to benefit from that leisure – increasing automation throughout the 20th century looked like an indicator of the coming fulfillment of the promises of the Industrial Revolution – that eventually, all the work would be performed by machines, and people would then be free to pursue higher goals of creativity and learning. And until about the mid-70s, there wasn’t too much reason to doubt that was the logical end-point of the industrial trajectory. Of course, it didn’t happen that way, not at all – in fact, just the opposite: over the last 30 or 40 years, the number of hours worked per week and the intensity of that work have both increased dramatically for certain sectors of society, particularly public sector employees.
A brief caveat for inclusiveness before I get into it: this show is about the work lifestyle of the middle class in Anglican countries, which means it is a fairly racially narrow view of work. The people in the affected group are primarily white, as the middle class is primarily white, and there are significant gender aspects that I will not deal with today. It’s not because I don’t think those things are important – usually the overlooked groups are who I try to particularly focus on – but because a comprehensive examination of the history of work, accounting for all class, race, and gender implications is simply too big a topic to cover in one show. So for today, just assume that for everything I say here is disproportionately worse, or felt more, or is more of a problem, for women and people of colour. Because it is.
If you're interested in some statistics, there are lots in these books. I will start from the premise that many people can’t find work at all, and many people who have work are struggling with both the amount of hours they must work, and how hard they have to go while they’re working. These are not, of course, unrelated phenomena, and though the reasons for the shift in work time and intensity are complex, the disappearance of the middle class is closely tied to neoliberal doctrines of deregulation.
Beginning in the late 1970s and really finding its groove in the Reaganite- Thatcherite-Muldoonite 80s, Anglican governments began the ongoing work of deregulating trade, with Rogernomics and the Closer Economic Relationship with Australia marking the shift here in New Zealand (currently, though the Multilateral Agreement on Investment was shelved in the 90s, its much bigger and angrier sibling the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement looks set to go ahead. So that's awesome.). Trade deregulation has immediate and direct consequences on a country’s labour force, as companies are forced to compete on broader global stages and are left more vulnerable to foreign undercutting of things like wages, production costs, and import tariffs. Companies competing on international levels must therefore have the widest possible profit margins to ensure they remain competitive, which often means cutting back on the numbers of people they employ. It does not, however, mean cutting back on the amount of work that needs to be done, which means that companies are often chronically understaffed, and must be able to downsize quickly in lean times, reassign people to different tasks as needed, and they must have access to a large pool of contract or temp labour to assist with surges in demand. The proliferation of contract labour is its own problem, which I’ll talk about another time, but for those remaining full-time employees, it means both an extension of work hours and an increase in responsibility, for which you may or may not be compensated. For most, working those hours is simply a result of 30 years of currency inflation unaccompanied by a rise in average wages, but for some, particularly at the highest levels of an organization, the compensation is not the issue – paid overtime goes a surprisingly little way towards making the people working those long, intense hours any happier about working them. Overtime wage are no recompense for missing your own life or the lives of your loved ones because you’re at work.
So along with the new long, serious hours comes a decrease in the power of the employee to say ‘no’ to working them. Part of the legacy of deregulated trade and increased flexibility in the labour market means that your job is far less secure than it would have been in, say, the 50s, almost no matter what your job is – a big part of the rise of neoliberalism, and related to trade deregulation, was the busting of unions and a cultural discouraging of unions as a dangerous and corruptible form of collectivism. So you watched your office cut in half, or a third, and you watched the inbox on your desk grow to insurmountable heights, and you missed your kids birthdays or plays or having kids altogether, but you know you can’t say anything because your job is in no way guaranteed. And more than that, it’s not only your job which is insecure – the nature of global competition can foment a sense that “we’re all in this together”, that if we don’t all work the very hardest and longest that we can, the company itself may just go under. And who in the world is going to say no to doing that work, if the implication is that if you don’t, it could result in the loss not just of your job, but everyone else’s job too? The very reason for the increased workload is exactly what keeps people working it.
And that fear of job loss manifests itself in the culture of the workplace in the form of “presenteeism” whereby people may put in those long hours not because they’re strictly necessary, but because a couple extra hours a day is simply expected as part of the job and people must be seen to be working them. This is a problem because of the simple physiological fact of our human ability to concentrate – that you can either focus really hard or for a long time, but not both, and every hour you attempt to put in after that optimal period of a couple hours your productivity, memory, and mental agility begin to flag. But in an office where the expectation is that you stay a few extra hours every day, leaving at 5, even if you’ve been more productive than everyone who’s staying later, can be seen as skiving or slacking, and people are made to feel guilty about leaving on time. Whatever the actuality is, it becomes difficult to leave on time if it gives your colleagues or your boss the impression that you’re not doing your share, especially when your job is far from secure in the first place. Though this isn’t the show to talk about this, there are some things to be said about the nature of consent and refusal in general, and what your ability to agree or disagree with a request says about the kind of social privilege you possess in comparison to the person doing the requesting. Read some awesome stuff about that on the supergreat blog A Radical Transfeminist.
The rise in work hours and intensity is exacerbated by another phenomenon that goes largely unnoticed in the day to day, and that is the automation of minor services which used to be someone’s paid employment, and is now a task that we perform for ourselves for free. This kind of unpaid semi-automated labour is called “shadow work” by an Austrian social critic called Ivan Illich in the 80s. He included in his definition all types of unpaid labour, like child rearing and elderly care, and I and many other people have written about that elsewhere so I won’t go into it again here – for this conversation I’m interested in those tasks which used to be done by a paid human for us, and are now done for free for ourselves. This is from a recent article in the New York Times about shadow work:
The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.Examples abound, helping drive unemployment rates. Airports now have self-service check-in kiosks that allow travelers to perform the jobs of ticket agents. Travel agents once unearthed, perused and compared fares, deals and hotel rates. Shadow-working travelers now do all of this themselves on their computer screens. Medical patients are now better informed than ever — as a result of hours of online shadow work. In 1998, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that taxpayers spent six billion hours per year on “tax compliance activities.” That’s serious shadow work, the equivalent of three million full-time jobs.
What this automation often means for those who remain employed in the service sector is that their work hours too have lengthened and intensified with fewer staff to cover them, which in service often takes the form of increased accountability and decreased autonomy and freedom. That often coincides with an increased demand for quality, as companies believe simultaneously that high turnover is key, but that customers will return to a company where they had experienced a genuine, empathetic human interaction. Services workers are required to find the balance somewhere between dealing with as many customers as possible in the shortest possible time period and ensuring that each felt personally and patiently attended to. For example, call centres and places like that offer training in how to make a forced smile look natural and how to make your voice sound like its smiling, while also closely monitoring every word and every second the employee spends with a caller. It’s the commodification of human interaction. It’s kind of fascinating, because although the empathy is required on the part of the employee, it’s not necessarily a reciprocal arrangement. I always felt this as a server or waitress in Canada, and the way servers are treated has definite classist implications; lots of people who are totally lovely to their friends will treat their waiter like crap, or completely ignore the cleaner. I would go so far as to say that there’s a sense that a certain amount of abuse is included in the price, so to speak; it’s part of what you’re paid for. If you’ve got a job in sales or hospitality, you take other people’s crap with a smile all day, a carefully monitored smile, how are you supposed to then go home and feel like you’ve had a productive day, to feel satisfied? The answer, for the employer, is increasingly to convince your employees to believe that they’re taking that crap with a smile in pursuit of a worthy ideal. Here's how that works:
Obviously any increase in the time spent at work is a decrease in the amount of time spent doing things other than work, like raising your children or pursuing your hobbies. And though it’s nice to be fulfilled by your job, for many people a job is a means to an end and they have things in their lives outside of work which fulfill them. With work becoming a bigger and bigger part of some people’s lives, the workplace then has to provide not only a paycheque but the personal, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment they would normally find from relationships and hobbies they no longer have time for. Companies are beginning to find that their employees will not make those sacrifices for something as utterly banal as the company’s bottom line, and so the companies then must create a higher reason for the long hours and lack of a personal life. With less time free outside of work to pursue the things that fulfill them, white collar workers are increasingly encouraged to find fulfillment in the brand, in their relationship to the company itself. Meaning is created in the brand itself, and the employees are encouraged to feel like working very hard all the time for many extra hours a week is a demonstration of their commitment to that higher meaning. People who believe they are working for something greater than themselves will put in enormous amounts of energy. If they become emotionally invested in their work, whether its justified or not, they will work harder, simple as that.
This is the dark side of the lofty ambitions Umair Haque wants businesses to have, as I talked about last week. Take Nike’s grandiose language in its mission statement: “to help Nike, Inc, and its consumers to thrive in a sustainable economy where people, profit, and the planet are in balance”. Obviously, those are not Nike’s actual goals, this mission statement is not genuine – if they really wanted those things they would have to do everything completely differently. They couldn’t be Nike. But if you’re working 60 hours a week as a manager at a Nike office, the balance of people, profit, and planet is a much nicer thing to be working for than the company’s bottom line. And you’ll work much harder for it.
All this is not to dispute that seeking fulfillment in your work is obviously a worthwhile goal, as long as its being honestly pursued. But this manufacturing of meaning through brand loyalty and grandiose messaging is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s the harvesting of human emotion to increase productivity and steal a bunch of hours of free labour from employees. It sounds good on the surface, “we want our employees to be fulfilled”, but what they’re really saying is “we want our employees to work for free because we successfully manufactured brand loyalty”. Underneath, it’s not a message about fulfillment at all, it’s a message about consumerism.
Part of the problem is that a culture which emphasizes consumption leads people to be trapped in their very long hours to afford the payments on the house, the house that, given the lending climate of the last decade and a half, they maybe couldn’t afford in the first place. It’s the dangerous combination of easy credit and a narrative which assures us that there will be more tomorrow – there must be, that’s perpetual growth! That’s where our dissatisfaction is directed, then – rather than to political protest or an examination of the problems with the workplace, we’re told that we can ease our dissatisfaction by believing in the brand of the company we work for, which is really about having faith in consumer capitalism. It is fundamentally neoliberal, as well – to go back to the Nike example, it describes a belief that the problems of the planet can be solved by private enterprise, if everyone just works hard enough. The logical endpoint of that belief is, of course, that you will spend money on that brand, or on brands which espouse the same dishonest premises. So you’re exhausted from work, you feel alienated and dissatisfied but maybe lack the vocabulary to articulate it or the security to be able to act on it, so you do what we’re all told to do when you’re sad: shop. So then the less secure our job becomes the more demanding it is, and the unhappier we are, so we buy things to feel better, but the more things we buy, the more our debt increases, the more we rely on the salary of that demanding job, and the less likely we are to raise a fuss about the amount of work or the number of hours. It’s a lovely little feedback loop, from an economic standpoint. Capitalism and narcissism are mutually reinforcing.