Saturday, August 18, 2012

Working for the Man

"Puritanism." Even though we as Americans are taught to be repulsed by it, many of us still define our lives by its supposed tenets. The idea that a moral life is one, not of work for the sake of productivity, but of simple toil for the sake of toil, lurks under every stone. When I was a child, I grew to love nothing more than to draw. I would spend hours designing and illustrating fantastic characters and costumes, and as I continued on, placing them into carefully penciled settings with as much detail as I could muster. (Which, granted, wasn't much, if you really look at it.)

My father frowned upon this. Artistry, no matter how intricate, was not work; it was not something worthy of an adult life. Rather it was a childish thing to be indulged in only when the real work was done. And, like an idiot, I learned to believe this. I do not spare myself a harsh judgement in this because looking back on it, I recall that my uncle, my father's bother-in-law was a professional illustrator with a well-paying job working for one of the largest retailers in the nation at the time. And I knew this - yet rather than counter my father's arguments with the living proof of my uncle's life and lifestyle, I dutifully sought out a line of work for which I could manage my distaste well enough to try to buy back the right to do what I loved. Eventually, that flame flickered and died, smothered by a joyless work-a-day world where the salary did not make up for the stressful and unpleasant nature of the work. The ashes cooled and blew away, and too late I realized that I had been mislead by well-meaning, but deeply flawed, parental advice. I had became a good "Puritan," working day in and day out, effectively in the role of a drudge, and taking the proceeds and attempting to buy back some enjoyment with them. (Of course, this is a misuse of the word "Puritan," as the Puritans were less about work and toil than they were about bring properly, and perhaps precisely, godly.)

Once, I was speaking to an acquaintance, an ex-boss (who was soon to be my boss again). He had been noting the difficulty of getting greater efficiency out of the many contingent staff that worked at the company. My own experience as a manager (I'd had his old job some time after he had left it) had taught me the answer to this. Work, I explained to him, expands to fill the time allotted to it because there is no intelligent reason why it should not. Many people who hire contractors, temporaries or whatever else you wish to call them, immediately put them into a direct conflict of interest. While managers want work to be done quickly and efficiently, for someone who is being paid by the hour, getting a week's worth of work done in four days results in one of the following sorry fates - either the worker is simply given more work to do, they must spend a day trying to look busy when they actually are not or they are dismissed and sent home, and lose a day's wages. Where is the benefit there? When I was a manager myself, I quickly learned that the best way to get people to work quickly and efficiently was to place my team meeting in the middle of the afternoon on Friday. Anyone whose tasks for the week were done was free to go home the moment the meeting ended. Within a couple of months, the team was creating, and sharing, innovative ways to shave a few hours from a forty-hour schedule, and by 3 o'clock on most Fridays, none of my team were anywhere to be found. (This is one of the benefits of having a salaried, rather than hourly, workforce.)

But the culture of paying people for an exclusive lien on their time rather than their output was deeply engrained, and I fought more than my share of battles with HR over this. The fabled (and slandered, I think) Protestant Work Ethic was showing its head again, in the idea that despite what we told people when they signed up, the 40-hour workweek was a minimum, and extra hours were to be extracted whenever they could.

But productivity is not the same as hours worked. Working is a means, it is not an end. Businesses are not monasteries, and labor is not a humbling experience, to be engaged in specifically to remind us that we are lowly. Work is supposed to create goods and services that ultimately enrich people's lives - or at least convince the buyer that they do. An application is an application, a toy is a toy and a washing machine is a washing machine. These things are not made better simply because more time is spent on them - even if to make them better requires that more time be spent.

The society that we were promised technology would bring, with its shorter workdays coupled with better overall standards of living, was thwarted by simple economics. Given that workers always come with a certain level of overhead costs, paying one worker for 40 hours is nearly always less expensive than paying 2 workers for 20 hours each. And as fiat money is an open door to inflation, the buying power of saved money is constantly degrading, making saving for the future more difficult. So the endless treadmill of work, still a necessity, is still held up as a virtue. Modern political rhetoric treats jobs as charity and, for many on the political right, the rightful primary target of taxation.

So rather than a society that encourages the pursuit of excellence by promoting the idea of making passions into professions, we are left with a society that views merely having a job, often one specifically designed to make money for someone else, as the most moral way in which to behave. While this is an attitude that employers might wish to promote, it does very little for the rest of us, and perhaps it is past time that we did away with it.

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