Remember when folks used to retire? You know, that pesky thing that makes work finally end for maybe 10-20 years (the latter if you’re lucky) and then you die. Cool, right?
You’ve spent just about 3/4 of your life and now you can finally relax and enjoy your life! Except you’ve still got rent to pay, bills to pay and the retirement money isn’t as good as it used to be. But lucky for you there are opportunities out there for industrious seniors like yourself!
Does it suck that work has left you somewhat crippled or handicapped in your advanced age? Doesn’t it blow that you need ibuprofen all of the time, so much that you need to get a prescription from your doctor? You’ve likely lost the ability to safely drive due to some of your cells decaying and dying over the years, maybe faster due to work, so you’ll need to take the bus.
Or, maybe you’ll need to be reliant on Uber or a friends good graces. Maybe you’re lucky and only need to be partially taken care of and haven’t been left to rot in a nursing home like so many other people. You’re independent after all! No one can slow you down now that you’ve got more time to spend on yourself. But time isn’t money, not unless you’re working for that time. And even with social security finally doing something meaningful (however slight) you still feel pressured to be productive and a fully-engaged member of your larger community. How grand!
Thank goodness Amazon makes that easy:
They’ve got these warehouses, which they call “fulfillment centers,” which to me sounds like Orwellian jargon, all over the country. And when you place an order, it goes through to whichever one is near you and has it. And these warehouses are essentially just huge input/output machines. … Amazon markets this kind of work to old people as a positive thing, using language about freedom and flexibility. But why even worry about optics when they’re dealing with people who are kind of desperate?
Predictably, it doesn’t go well for them. Amazon markets their wages, flexibility, etc. while ignoring the awful fact that this is necessary to begin with. Shouldn’t these people be spending their twilight years away from “flexibility and high wages”. They should be getting money for nothing even if you’re the most die-hard conservative? These people put decades into providing society value and their bodies only for society go, “Yeah, but about how a little more? You know, for fun?” And seniors often feel pressured into it due to the way shame and leisure intersect.
As Bruder writes,
So what I see out there is a lot of people don’t want to say to other people, “Yeah, I’m going to work at Amazon this winter because I’m broke, and I need money.” It’s a lot easier to say, “I’m going to stay active, I’m going to make friends, I’m going for some camaraderie, and, yeah, maybe I’ve gotta take a lot of ibuprofen, but that’s really a weight loss program, the 15 miles a day of walking I have to do.”
People don’t want to say to their friends or family, “Oh I still need a job because the economy sucks!” They want their families to know they’re still worthwhile and in this culture being “worthy” often means you’re producing something. Even for myself, someone who prides herself on being lazy and taking my time with things it’s hard to deny that writing these articles makes me feel good. Or that it gives me a positive boost in my mood, especially when I’m having a tough day.
Part of that is just me loving to write. It’s something I really enjoy because it gives me the chance to better formulate my opinions, emotions and preferences to a larger audience. Even if that audience is just one other person, that’s at least one more person I can connect with. But another part is the feeling that I need to write. I need to be productive or otherwise my day will be a waste! To be clear, the money I get from Patreon is appreciated but never makes me feel like I need to write. It’s the boss in my head that does that, not my lovely patrons.
One of my favorite sayings about writing comes from the anarchist Benjamin Tucker who once said, “[Liberty] will be edited to suit its editor, not its readers. He hopes that what suits him will suit them; but, if not, it will make no difference.” My hope is that when I write, it’ll both elevate myself and others around me, but ultimately as long as I get something out of it, I’m satisfied.
One of the most horrifying aspects of this articles come in here:
…So what do you replace this unskilled labor with that’s easier on the body?
Did I tell you what’s happening in Japan with exoskeletons? This is fucking crazy.
The population is aging in Japan, and there are some employers whose workers have heavy lifting jobs—and they’ve started giving them these exoskeletons so that they can lift heavier loads.
In a weird a way, I kind of think this hybridization is what we’re going to see in the immediate future. Some people look at it as positive, like, “Oh, it makes things easier on your body,” and maybe I’m a bit more cyclical because I think, Oh, wow, you can squeeze even more exertion out of this human piece of meat.
It’s not cynical (which I think is what was meant here?) at all! It’s 100% realistic to call out this capitalistic exploitation for what it is. It doesn’t matter, as Bruder points out, whether automation happens or not but who controls that automation. I’ve been saying this for a while and to see a normal(ish) website have something like that made me smile. Not that it’s a happy thing to reflect on but as I’ve stated before, it’s nice to see your opinion validated every now and then.
I told my partner about the exoskeleton while we were having dinner. She looked at me and went, “What?” I’m not sure she believed me at first, hell, I almost couldn’t believe it myself. There’s something so insidious and destructive about capitalism and I’ve only become more and more convinced about that as I get older, not less. Trying to draw as much labor time from human beings who are old and retired is especially cruel when they should be living their life.
And, as always, our lives are very different from work. The way we act, the things we do and say, I often think about all of the things I’d rather do than go to work. And by the way, I’ve got a pretty cushy overnight shift that doesn’t require much from me. Well, you know besides wrecking my sense of time more than 2020 has already done and my sleep schedule as well. Making my timing with friends and my partner more difficult than it would be otherwise, no big deal though, right?
One last thing on this:
I don’t think that universal basic income without something that allows for social mobility is a solution. If it creates a subsistence level where people are alive and sheltered and whatever, but there’s still no way to better their lot, then that’s not good enough.
I loved seeing this as well. Bruder seems to have a good head on her shoulder about the way capitalism works and the ways it has fundamentally failed our elderly. The same goes for Conti and her pointed questions and responses to what Bruder says.
It’s a great interview and comes highly recommended to my readers!
If you enjoyed this post consider checking out my Patreon link above and giving what you can!
The book does almost no work to address the complexity of using self-reported, self-selecting sources, despite the enormous interdisciplinary literature on such topics.
There’s no effort to address the contingent cultural (or even social) factors that might lead to a person thinking their job is pointless. I can think of quite a few such factors … class, education, gender, the entitlement these things bring, cultural expectations of reward for effort or meaningfulness…
When I read this first part I said aloud, “Yes, thank you!” We’ll get to that bit about “contingent cultural … factors” later on in my discussion. For now, it’s worth noting that it’s always nice to be validated by other folks. Of course, Irving’s validation of my own opinions isn’t consistent (nor should it). There are plenty of places in the article where I think Irving is off base.
For example, Irving says of Graeber’s methodology that:
[it] seems like a canny attempt to capitalize on the article of faith among young leftists on the internet that the victim who speaks should always be believed.
First, Graeber just taking people at their word doesn’t necessarily have to mean he’s capitalizing on any particular branch of identity politics. Taking folks at their own word about their own experiences has been a common thing folks do before #MeToo happened and women came forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of powerful men.
There’s something to be said for taking people at their word. If I go up to my friend and ask him how work was and he says, “It kinda sucked” I’m not gonna sneer and reply, “Well what about all of that cultural baggage and expectations you’re carrying around? Maybe that is what made it suck so much?” And he’d be right to say, “What? No, it just sucked.” Maybe he does have cultural expectations that are unfair, but as I’ll discuss later that says less about him than society at large.
By the way, I say “sneer” because the term “article of faith” is meant to denigrate a solid foundational epistemic claim: That people are often the best judges of their own situations and contexts. Yes, it’s possible people have false memories or that bad expectations lead to bad results, but does it happen often? No, the false reports percentage has always been low and when survivors (not victims) speak up, they should be believed unless there’s strong reason not to.
That isn’t an “article of faith” so much as it’s the right thing to do and something that makes the most sense. If someone calls you out and you say, “Well, yeah, but are people supposed to just take you at your word?” Then folks are gonna quickly take grievance, cause unless you got a great alibi or a terrific personal history, there’s reason to take your response as itself very telling.
I know this is all besides the (anti-work) point but it irked me that Irving would put the idea that survivors should be believed down and it’d be irresponsible of me to say nothing about it.
That said, let’s back up and start from the top
Three days ago, I changed my job title on LinkedIn. The title change was part of a broader restructure at work and was accompanied by a new role description that was really just a superficial tweak to the old one. There was no real increase in responsibility and no extra money.
Irving goes on to say he got congratulations despite the lack of increase in his financial security or role in the company. That felt like bullshit to him and it leads him to discussing Graeber later on.
In the meantime however, he notes how LinkedIn was completely incapable of not sending his “promotion” to all of his friends online. That also seems like bullshit to me (not his story, but LinkedIn) but it isn’t surprising given how social media tends to handle our personal data. I jest but perhaps Linkedin isn’t at fault, but rather Irving’s own bad expectations of social media?
Before Graeber however, Irving mentions other writers named Dardot and Laval who wrote on how our culture’s obsession with self-improvement can lead to dystopian times. Here, Irving mentions the concept of a “Marxian capitalist” and I had to re-read this sentence a few times:
They argue that we relate to ourselves now as a Marxian capitalist is assumed to relate to capital: We want our personal capacity to accumulate at a rate faster than everyone else, so we can remain competitive.
I skimmed the articles in question and specifically went to the concepts that are supposed to explain this passage but came up empty. I’m not sure what “Marxian capitalist” is supposed to mean without further explanation from Irving, which he doesn’t provide. Perhaps I missed something pertinent within Irving’s articles or the linked ones? Apologies if so.
Regardless, I think our personal relations to the self under capitalists are damaged as Irving and co. argue. We constantly want to “improve” even if there’s no tangible improvement to be made to ourselves or we’re just doing it due to Fear of Missing Out. There’s a pressure for gamers, for example, to have the latest hardware like the PS5 that’s coming out and then those who don’t are implicitly looked down upon by some in the community which only ratchets up FOMO.
Getting the PS5 is “self-improvement” because it means your life is more hi-tech, that you’re more “in touch” with the current state of technology and “up to date” with the world. For gamers it means there’s up to date on the latest games and fastest loading times which means they’re not “behind” on the big news of the day. But when do you actually get ahead of such news?
It’s a never-ending quest for “betterment” at the cost of finances and perhaps even your financial security if it goes far enough. You drive yourself mad trying to keep up the world and that’s why I try to keep my time on Twitter and Facebook rather limited. The world can be a horrible place, we can be horrible people and social media often flocks to the negative more than the positive.
[The bullshitter] does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Funnily enough, I own this book and, like so many of my books, have yet to get around to it.
Irving compares LinkedIn to a parody app named Binky which has you “like” useless photos that do not modify what you see later on. Binky is an app where you can’t socialize with anyone else and you’re only able to scroll to your hearts content. The app is non-responsive to you in ways that corporations tend to be non-responsive to the needs of their workers, how apt!
This conversation about bullshit leads us back to Graeber and his book/article on Bullshit Jobs.
Here’s Irving’s takeaway:
Rather than assuming that an ephemeral but hegemonic system has created pointless job descriptions because it can’t figure out how to make a universal basic income work, I think it’s possible to read the anger as a response to work that doesn’t live up to a system of meaning shared by Graeber’s Twitter followers.
This goes back to Irving’s title Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic where the faults of the system come down more to cultural expectations rather than a “ephemeral but hegemonic system”.
However, it’s difficult to know what the upshot of all of this is.
Does this mean we (or at least Graeber’s Twitter followers) are to blame for the faults of capitalism? Do Graeber’s criticisms of capitalism come off as reifying an economic system to Irving? Does he not see capitalism as centrally at fault but something else?
It’s tough to tell so we need to dive deeper:
It’s fairly common to say that that much of the anger and resentment felt by this group of twenty-to-thirty-somethings is because what was implicitly promised has been placed beyond their grasp by a volatile labor market in the throes of apparently permanent and traumatic change. The world they were promised, in short, is now impossible. The skills they have attained are useless. The goalposts never stop moving.
Just a note here: I am a follower of Graeber on Twitter (though I didn’t participate in the book) and I am also a twenty-to-thirty-something. So I’m the exact demographic for Irving’s thesis. Of course, generalizations only work for individuals within the groups being generalized about so well. I could tell you that there’s many gamers who are toxic in one way or another but also find communities that are (on the whole) much better.
Point being, there are always individuals deviating and flying closer to the norm. Sometimes that norm is a flame for moths, and sometimes it’s a good norm to replicate.
Irving sees Graeber’s result and the demographic he cites as revealing a “cultural logic of work” that invites disappointment within millennials. We were supposed to get homes, have full-time jobs, the university was supposed to be our gateway to Better Things. Instead, many of us have to live with roommates in unkempt apartments, live with our parents/family, or live in college dorms and hope that ramen supply doesn’t run out.
This experience is such a wake up call for millennial when they get out of college. I remember dropping out around 10(!) years ago and only recently coming back. College didn’t get me the dream I wanted (professor of philosophy) nor did going out into the “real world”. I had lived in several unhealthy/abusive situations because of my poor financial status. Some of those relationships I made worse, but in all of them I felt disempowered to make my life better.
Irving goes on to list several of Graeber’s categories for bullshit jobs, we’ve talked about them before so no need to go over them again. Instead, here’s Irving on those types of BS Jobs:
I’m not saying these people’s jobs are good.
The experiences they describe sound as awful as Graeber says they are. But there are reasons to suspect that this testimony doesn’t do what Graeber says it does.
The thing that leaps out at me isn’t that these jobs are bullshit—even if the people in them resent the fact that the job feels pointless and fails to excite them or fill their paid hours of employment. … What leaps out at me is that some of the people in these jobs have a radically different set of ideas about what a job should be to the people who write those job descriptions.
This last part may be true. The folks who want these jobs want some level of satisfaction, a decent pay, benefits and to feel a sense of…purpose? Wait a second, these just seem like pretty basic expectations from something you’re going to spend a lot of your life doing, right?
Am I missing something here? Because it seems like the folks who write the descriptions have the messed up priorities and expectations here, not the folks applying!
Again, this comes off as victim-blaming to me.
The fault of capitalism doesn’t lie with the people who write and facilitate these boring, pointless jobs but with the expectations we have because of “do what you love”.
Now, I’ve written on that fallacious idea before and I agree it sets bad precedent for our expectations. Most people can’t afford to work at something they love because of the way capitalism is set up (notably nothing to do with our own expectations). And to instill that idea into young folks that you should reach for something you love and do it 40+ hours a week is a dangerous idea because it can quickly burn you out or even make you hate it.
But again, maybe I’ve got Irving all wrong and famed philosopher Hannah Arnedt will convince me that “Bullshit is just another word for labor”
Arendt’s notion is that labor—the realm of metabolism, maintenance, and consumption—has colonized and supplanted work—the realm of craft, fabrication, and use. Arendt describes the work of labor as both futile, in that it will never end, and necessary, because to be without its products is to die.
The logic of the market that Neoliberalism extends to all spheres of human activity essentially makes everything into labor. I think it’s possible to read Graeber’s sources as reports of people who expected to be working, but found themselves laboring instead.
I read some of Irving’s article on Arnedt’s and her definition of labor, but it came off as too ambiguous, though Irving claimed that as a strength for it. To be fair, conceptual ambiguity can be a strength in some cases as it can encourage conceptual flexibility as Irving argues. But this flexibility should not come at the cost of overall conceptual clarity. We need some sense of what the upshot for her definition and what Irving’s own take on what labor vs. work is. What does this difference in wording get us? What makes labor reducible to “metabolism, maintenance and consumption” while work is “the realm of craft, fabrication, and use”?
I’ll admit it sounds intuitive but I’m not sure there’s a lot of substance behind that intuition. For example, if I labor in my backyard and get hungry but I go to my job and get hungry (thus relating both to metabolism) which is work and which is labor? If I make something at a craft fair for myself with no intention but to hang it up on my wall does this display work or labor?
I’m also unconvinced that labor is “futile” simply because it never ends.
Firstly, as of now transhumanism has not won (not even close) so our lives will inevitably end which means our labor will as well. But, generally speaking, things lacking an “end” does not mean those things are then meaningless, fruitless or can’t contain meaning for those engaged with it. The process of learning has often been called futile because we are all human and therefore fallible and thus will make mistakes. But that doesn’t make our efforts useless or lacking purpose, it just means we have to accept an amount of “two steps forward, one step back” in our lives.
I’m not sure that the logic of “the market” and capitalism are the same, but that’s another conversation so I’ll skip over this second passage for sake of dialogue. I don’t usually look at the last passages of articles as I like to keep some of the original article a mystery for anyone kind enough to read my articles. But in this case it seems too important to Irving’s thesis to omit:
I think many of the people who supplied testimonies for Graeber’s book had looked forward to being engaged in paid activity that produced something lasting, but found themselves in a service or knowledge economy that cares more about the soft skills of maintaining the metabolism or life process of a network of relationships than the hard skills of fabrication.
I’ll be blunt here: This last piece of writing makes very little sense to me. It reads like an academic trying to over-complicate reality with overly-grandiose terminology. And keep in mind, I say this as someone who likes academia and wants to be in academia. I’m not unsympathetic to the plights of having to make philosophical words sound meaningful and intuitive to readers.
Despite my sympathies to Irving’s academic framing here, I can’t help but reaffirm my belief that it amounts to little more than thinly-veiled victim blaming. Make no mistake, Irving has his share of criticisms for capitalism both in this article and on his Twitter page and so I’m not about to begin calling him a pseudo-leftist. But, as far as I can tell, his argument amounts to, “These people had bad expectations and it isn’t the fault of capitalism for failing people with bad expectations“.
At least, that’s the takeaway I’m getting from all of this, I could be wrong.
But given I’ve reached the “this sounds a whole lot like victim-blaming” coupled with Irving’s bizarre taken on the “article of faith” around believing survivors, I doubt it.
In an early letter to Mary McCarthy she says something like, ‘Simone de Beauvoir’s not really worth engaging with. One should just flirt with her instead.’ Arendt was not a feminist…
My point here isn’t that you need to cite feminist authors to make your argument persuasive (though by and large it doesn’t hurt, pending which feminist), but I find the connection here between dismissing the “article of faith” and citing Arnedt compelling given what I know of her.
By that definition, calling LinkedIn the opposite of work doesn’t quite capture the keen sense of drudgery in maintaining a LinkedIn account. The platform is a wonderful metaphor for the failed promise made to millennials.
It only reinforces the anxiety-inducing need to be a productive member of the economy while endlessly increasing one’s market value. It promises both meaning and money, and it delivers neither. It only contributes to the processes of automation and precarity that make work murkier and more tiring.
Is bullshit the opposite of work? My understanding is that Graeber was saying most work is bullshit when it comes to corporate work. Unless Irving is saying this more generally about his own framing? Again, it’s unclear to me exactly what Irving is getting at here or what the upshot of his theory here is. I agree with him about his criticisms concerning LinkedIn and I also agree there were promises made to us millennials that were, to say the least, not delivered on.
But my problems of work don’t begin and end with the expectations I was given by the society I grew up in. The television shows that showed me people generally happy with their jobs, the parental figures (teachers, actual family members, authority figures) who said I could be anything or the media that constantly talks about how the “unemployment rate” means so much.
And neither do Graeber’s for that matter. His problems (as with mine) come not just from the bullshit that work has largely become synonymous from (after all I grew up in the 90s, the decade of Office Space) but also the “ephemeral but hegemonic system” that it comes from.
Sure, you can see the description of capitalism at times as vague (which I think Irving is getting at here with the word “ephemeral”?) but hey, there’s strength in conceptual ambiguity, right?
If you enjoyed this article, consider making a small monthly contribution to my Patreon!
Remember when I wrote that article about how capitalism justifies itself with bogus studies that seems plausible enough or make it sound like capitalism has done a good job? Right, of course you do, because that was literally the last article. Luckily, I totally planned for this next article to be an excellent display of that very phenomenon that I was just discussing! What a genius I am!
In all seriousness, a friend of mine sent me this article from HumanProgress.org by Marian Tupy a while ago and as mentioned, it lines up with what I discussed last time. Serendipity! The article goes over how markets have achieved what Karl Marx wanted: Less work (or labor if you prefer).
Let’s put to the side that Marxism’s (a popular form of communism) main goal is a classless and stateless society where money is abolished and the means of production are collectively owned instead of privately owned. But if you really think about it all Marx wanted was…less labor? Sure.
For the sake of argument let’s grant that reductive perception of Marxism and get to the article itself which proudly compares modern America to the Industrial Revolution:
In 1830, the workweek in the industrializing West averaged about 70 hours or, Sundays excluded, 11.6 hours of work per day. By 1890 that fell to 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. Thirty years later, the workweek in advanced societies stood at 50 hours or 8.3 hours per day. Today, people in advanced societies work less than 40 hours per week. That still amounts to roughly 8 hours per day, because workers typically don’t work on Saturdays. The “weekend” was born.
It’s worth noting, from the start, that this was only achieved not because capitalists wanted it to happen but because society at large forced them through cultural osmosis or because workers literally died for their right to work fewer hours. Whether it’s the radical unions, the reformist ones or individuals striking, these changes didn’t happen without the blood, sweat, and tears from just about everyone except the supposedly noble capitalists in charge.
In fact, these same capitalists often stood in the way of progress. The only reason we have the 40 hour work week is because workers fought for it in the first place. And even when capitalists such as Henry Ford started instituting an 8 hour work day at their own factories it was often in response to the long and desperate pleas from workers for an easier life not because of their generosity.
“That happened more than 60 years after workers, through their unions, began organizing for an eight-hour day in the 1860s,” said David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. “When Ford adopted the eight-hour day for his factory, he was responding to a working force that had been demanding the eight-hour day for a long time.” (Source)
And so change had to come from the bottom up through unions, workers, protests, riots much like any other significant societal change throughout history and across cultures. The capitalists were not the ones largely clamoring for these changes to the worker hours and even when they did these were (as the source I linked states) policies now laws which could be,
…yanked away whenever the cost exceeded profits,” said Robert Bruno, a professor with the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.
Companies that operated this way, Bruno said, often revoked these policies when the Great Depression hit.
So even if we admit the studies findings (more on this in a moment), the changes didn’t happen neutrally or without great amounts of conflict from the bottom to the top. Capitalism is then, at best, highly resistant to the positive change that Tupy is trying to establish here. And so even if capitalism was responsible for less hours (it isn’t, unions are) this is “responsibility” where your friend threw your basketball in the net and you somehow take credit, it just doesn’t add up.
Another problem with these studies is that in this article and where it was originally written there are almost no citations for this data or where it comes from. The article hand waves its limitations more than once by saying that “scholars estimate”, “Data for developing countries is difficult to come by”, ” International comparisons are difficult” and “Whether the United States is representative of a broader trend is unclear”, etc.
The only source given is the American Use Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Americans enjoyed, on average, 5.24 hours of leisure and sports per day in 2017. That was 2.5 percent more than when the survey started in 2003.
When it comes to this survey there’s many problems with it and you can find that just by looking it up with the words “leisure” or just American UseSurvey without any qualifiers:
Even if we did have more leisure time, how it’s measured matters. What counts as leisure when women are still doing most of the housework?
What about conflicting data that show that women in particular are working more? Even if we are overall working less (that’s a big if), women aren’t.
What are we doing with that leisure time anyways? Less reading and more sleep doesn’t seem like a glowing recommendation of the American way of life.
And these are just a few problems with using a study that doesn’t count commute time as your work. Nor does it count household work as work (because it’s unpaid). It also doesn’t count the time the unemployed spend frantically looking for new jobs either. Again, because that’s unpaid labor and therefore doesn’t count as non-leisure time. In short, the methodology is very flawed.
I don’t know about any of y’all but I don’t consider time that I dry and put away the dishes to be leisure time. Heck, I don’t even consider exercise to be “leisure” since it actively tests your body against itself. If I’m watching TV, taking a nap/sleeping, going somewhere with my partner, reading, writing or playing video games then that is leisure time because my body is (generally) at rest and I don’t often feel stressed, nor am I being paid, though that’s hardly the main qualifier.
There’s also a simple explanation for that incredibly mild increase in leisure time besides bad measurements: more participants. It’s likely that when you get more people to respond to a survey, get the survey better known and have better technology from which to access and distribute the survey itself, you’ll get more people involved! And that is going to make it so that certain percentages necessarily get bumped up over time. That doesn’t mean capitalism is great!
Lastly, at this point, it’s hardly, “…undeniable that people have more free time than they used to – at least since our nomadic days.” as Tupy claims. It’s only undeniable if you rely on faulty data, a misguided notion of what constitutes progress and an ideology that’s rotten to its core.
If you enjoyed this article consider donating to my Patreon!
I remember getting into Public Enemy when I was in high school. That’s because of the wonderful band Rage Against The Machine, who themselves were inspired by Public Enemy. So the transition from one band to another makes a ton of sense for my teenage self.
But of course the kicker is: These unemployment rates don’t care how people are employed, just that they are employed. It’s a value that these kinds of studies (and the media itself) don’t account for because it doesn’t really matter to the GDP how you’re producing value. As long as you are producing it, that’s the important thing! Working a shitty job you hate just so you can make the rent? Well, feel grateful you have a job, come on! What about all those other homeless people?
This toxic mentality makes it hard for folks to feel like they’ve deserved much of anything in their life or that they shouldn’t be getting more jobs/work. What about monetizing your passions and making that your part-time job? Not to mention doing that in addition to the full-time job you should so clearly feel thankful for. How many people don’t have full-time jobs? Come on!
Again, this is a terrible framing and it makes it so much easier for people who are in fact hard working to feel lazy or crummy about their lives and efforts. When unemployment statistics ignore these cultural norms that have been built up over centuries, they end up being more than useless, they end up being actively harmful. It lures people into a false sense of security about the economy, when the reality is that there are so many problems here:
For example, while the federal minimum wage remains a paltry $7.25/hour, the minimum wage would actually be $16/hour today had it risen at the same rate as the cost of living from 1968 to 2018, according to Andrew Pacitti, an assistant professor of economics at Siena College.
In late May, the United Way’s ALICE Project (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) project found that approximately 43 percent of the U.S. population — or 51 million American households — are unable to afford basic necessities like housing, food, healthcare, transportation, communications, and child care with their current monthly income. And last year, 44 percent of Americans say they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense — say, an emergency room visit or a broken alternator — without having to borrow from someone or sell their possessions.
These are just two major issues to think about when consulting these kinds of “positive” reports. What about those who are employed with toxic bosses? Those who are employed in jobs they actively hate or make them feel bad? Jobs folks don’t feel passionate about or wish they could quit but they can’t afford to? What if some people have one okay job and two other jobs they absolutely hate? All of these situations and more are possible in such a blind report.
I’m in a fortunate situation where I’m able to get by on a part-time job because I live with three other people. But this really shouldn’t be a “fortunate” position because I only do that by minimizing expenses and going to food banks as much as possible before COVID happened. I am only able to sustain this lifestyle because, frankly, I’m a cheapskate and I don’t like buying a lot of things unless I really need it or it’s a video game I really want (or book). Other than that I usually (hypothetically) ask friends and family members to help me with streaming services or find My Own Way of getting media that I can’t find on Youtube.
I’m doing pretty well but my situation isn’t really that great at the same time.
Sure, I don’t need multiple jobs but that’s only because I live with 3 other people in the same apartment. It can get crowded, smelly and unpleasant when you’ve got 4 people in one place in the Summer! Not only that but it’s tough to have your own sense of space when you’re living with roommates. Which is a necessity in today’s economy given the statistics cited above. But not everyone wants roommates and that means they have to find more jobs or strike a deal with a landlord, find somewhere super cheap, one really good and stable job, etc.
In other words, the economy tells us we must go to huge lengths just to find some sense of stability and independence from others. Not that living with others can’t be great! My roommates (including my partner) are generally pretty great folks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d like to live with a couple less people at this point and am ready to explore other living situations. But that’s just not a realistic option under today’s economy. But hey, who cares right?
People have jobs!
Economists have, in the recent past, cast doubt on glowing jobs numbers given the harsh reality millions of struggling Americans face when attempting to reconcile stangant wages with rising costs of living. In August of 2017, macroeconomic consultant Komal Sri-Kumar penned an op-ed for Business Insider cautioning Americans to withhold their optimism about a July 2017 jobs report that showed the unemployment rate had hit a 16-year low.
Sri-Kumar argued that even though the economy had technically recovered, the “recovery” applied almost exclusively to investors, rather than typical wage earners.
And this is the other big caveat to studies like this. Although it’s true that employment has gone down, who does this benefit exactly? It benefits those at top to the detriment of those at the bottom, no surprise there! So not only is this study harmful because it glorifies toxic cultural norms surrounding work but it also glorifies sacrificing our well-being for those at the top.
But hey, at least we’re all employed, right?
If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to my Patreon!
On a previous version of this thread I had articles regarding liberal articles that are heavily critical on modern day capitalism. My takeaway was this: They’re well-meaning but lack political backbone in their solutions. For instance the “solution” to work isn’t to make it involve more play, to let workers get a couple dollars or to devolve a mild amount of autonomy is enough to fix the core problems with our current system.
Making workplaces “open”, making them have shorter hours, more breaks, fewer meetings, more time to cry and be yourself, none of that is cutting at the roots. Getting to the heart of what makes work so awful is capitalism itself as well as the governments that encourage it.
Unfortunately, for all of Jeffery Pfeffer’s solid analysis of the problems work creates for the workers, he doesn’t get this either. And so he becomes another case of liberal centrism and how that kills us, by short-circuiting our imaginations and convincing us only minor tweaks are possible, necessary and worth trying for. That’s a huge limitation to put on all of us and it’s one that robs the liberal vision of having any sort of political punch to it.
Work harms employees in two fundamental ways. In the US, employment status and your employer determine your access to health-care … Second, employers affect the stress-inducing conditions of work: work-family conflict, long work hours, absence of control over one’s work environment, and economic insecurity.
It’s worth noting that Pfeffer is a “…A giant of business scholarship” and “…teaches one of Stanford’s most popular courses, on office politics and power.” So this kind of analysis is likely the pinnacle of the Educated Liberal who has some Serious Criticisms about how our system currently operates. Except both of the “fundamental ways” in which work harms workers is, while technically correct (the best kind!) is ultimately not actually getting at the fundamentals.
Because while lack of health care and workplace stress due to bosses are important facets of why work sucks, these are symptoms of a larger issue. These might be some of the biggest symptoms, I’d be willing to concede that much. But ultimately they are not the cause of the problem so much as they stem from the problem(s), that being capitalism, the state, hierarchy, etc.
Even if capitalism somehow self-regulated itself into a more caring and gentler version of itself you’d still have unjust power dynamics that lead to toxic relationships and unequal pay and decision making mechanics within a corporation. Which is, in of itself, an entity that is historically prone to corruption, greed and using violence against workers when they dissent.
So OK, disentangle the current apparatus from healthcare (without completely changing the system somehow) and make bosses a little nicer so employees don’t have to get addicted to alcohol or pills to deal with their jobs. What then? That leaves so many workplace based issues and issues that intersect with work very much untouched in the process. But that’s precisely the point for liberals who’d rather us make some “major” tweaks and then call it a day.
All of this said, it’s hard to disagree with Pfeffer says:
Companies do not act on the basis of the best evidence. They merge even though much research shows that mergers destroy value. They use forced-curve ranking systems for performance reviews even though extensive evidence documents the harmful effects. There is no reason to believe they would behave any differently with respect to their human capital.
Exactly! If companies don’t care about what studies show concerning the thing they constantly go on about (stocks, money, investors, etc.) then why would they care about the things they don’t constantly talk about (their workers, safety standards, autonomy etc.). There’s so many more press conferences about how a company is monetarily doing as opposed to how well they’re treating their workers and how they think they can improve on this in the future.
You can always treat people better and can always improve yourselves. But there’s only so many ways you can disappoint your shareholders for the millionth time. And all of this should go to show that the issues with this system go much deeper than just healthcare and basic humanity shown (or not shown) by bosses towards workers, but for Pfeffer it just doesn’t click.
Here’s another frustrating (but slightly valid) take, this time on AI:
Although governments might act to mitigate these adverse impacts through extensive job retraining programs and income maintenance efforts, most governments already face large budget deficits and an ageing population.
Moreover, states in the US and the government in Britain have been reducing their expenditures on higher education for decades. Thus, I see little reason to believe that state action will mitigate the disruptive effects of AI.
Well yeah, when governments are largely owned and operated by the rich and so is automated machinery, it makes sense it’s not going to go well for anyone else. Workers are likely going to see massive layoffs (and have in some cases) and the reason they are is because they have very little say over what their workplace conditions look like in the first place. Never mind the kinds of conditions that may eventually replace them.
Then again, Pfeffer’s analysis here is slightly simplistic. Yes, it is likely many workers may lose their jobs but this also happened to farmers and the agriculture industry. Many of those people found jobs in other industries just the same. That doesn’t mean it’s the same exact situation (automation impacts many more industries than just agriculture for one thing) but that there’s at least some precedent for us to not be gloom and doom about it. There’s some reason for speculative positivity, especially if workers gain more power and bosses gain less.
But OK, what’s Pfeffer’s (lackluster liberal) solution?
We can—and should—measure the dimensions of work environments, including work hours, that we know affect health. Measurement would be the single most important thing we could do, particularly if we highlighted those workplaces doing the best—and the worst—on the various measures.
No one has ever thought to make corporations simply self-report their own statistics in order for them to be property regulated and then sorted out, right?
This is the kind of lackluster conclusion that is all but inevitable to most liberal analysis. Because the foundational analysis lacks any sort of political backbone, the conclusion shows it at its weakest point possible. That’s why it’s always the point I harp on the most, well, usually.
But this time, I think the “solution” speaks for itself.
If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to my Patreon!