For some reason, however, more and more people seem to be finding the very nature of modern work intellectually intolerable.
Is this due to the changing reality of work? Or is it due to the growing post-Boomer-era feeling of self-empowerment – and dare I say self-entitlement?
Why you hate work
I’ve been having this very discussion over on Monevator reader ermine’s excellent blog. In Digital Taylorism – Why our Jobs are Getting Worse he writes:
When I started work at my current company as a lowly grunt Assistant Engineer, I had the authority to fill in a purchase requisition for up to £500 without higher level authorisation, and that was about right for the level of work. It wasn’t generally abused, either.
Now I have to get authorisation from the next level up simply to buy a rail ticket, and that next level has to get the okay and a reference number from some other part of Business Operations. I don’t know what you have to do to buy pens and paperclips these days.
He goes on to explain that he used to find software development a creative process, but now finds it as rigid as any production line. He quotes a Guardian article that itself quotes an academic paper on the subject:
[From now on] “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers in the UK”.
The rest will be turned into routine and farmed off to regional offices in eastern Europe or India.
Ermine’s post follows a coherent and consistent line on his blog – modern life is rubbish, it’s increasingly justifiable to hate work, and he’s determined to get out.
It’s well worth a read.
Work was never all that for most people
It’s my contention though that work was mostly always rubbish for the educated classes, and that it’s only nostalgia that causes people to believe otherwise.
As for the ‘working classes’, only a fool would want to die at 50 after three decades working underground in a pit, or to sew buttons onto jeans in a factory all day.
I understand the sense of community that went with those jobs, but even that was a corollary of a far tighter social straitjacket than any modern workplace will lock you into.
The music changes, the technology too, but young and idealistic people keep getting older, and in my view that’s why people hanker for a crummier past.
As I commented to ermine:
In my view, you’re really describing how big corporate companies were a fun place to work 20-30 years ago, but aren’t now.
But these days the bright jobs are in start-ups or finance or working for yourself.
The old days, whether tugging at Mr Mainwaring’s forelock or working down a pit or being a shop girl in Woolworths, were no fun.
At least you don’t die at 50 of coal dust inhalation now if you’re a bloke down a pit, or have to put up with the boss calling you a ‘silly girl’ between pinching your bum in the typing pool.
Graduating to office politics
Another mistake when comparing then and now is to believe the hype about education and social mobility.
The small number of 50- to 60-somethings who were educated in the grammar school system after passing their 11+ and who went on to university were cut from entirely different intellectual cloth to the great mass of the near-50% of students that now enjoy higher education.
That’s not to disparage people trying to better themselves – it’s a statistical fact.
All students from across the eras were not created equally. The 11+ passer was the elite achiever of his (or more rarely her) generation – the equivalent of today’s multiple A* student who aspires to earn a fortune in law or The City or medicine. And if anything, those that climbed out of the comprehensive school system were even brighter.
It’s therefore madness to compare the average earnings of that small number of graduates from 30-50 years ago with the vast body of graduates today and to be surprised at their declining average fortunes, when the talent pool is so different.
Similarly, it’s dangerous to conclude jobs are getting worse because lots of graduates find themselves doing rote tasks once employed.
Plenty of people graduating now would have been in the typing pool or junior bookkeepers or the equivalent 30 years ago. They wouldn’t have moved along the same escalator of progress enjoyed by the educational elite that dominates the chattering classes. They wouldn’t have been thinking much in their jobs 40 years ago – and they’d have had to call the boss ‘Sir’ and wear a suit in summer, and beg the bank manager for a mortgage and a lot of other restrictions, too.
The problem is fairly average students have been sold the lie that they can do and be anything they want. The average wage in an average office that awaits them is a big comedown for the thousands who graduate with degrees in theater, music technology, photography, or marine biology.
Besides, post-Industrial Revolution progress has been about taking something done by specialists or artisans and finding a way to do it using less skilled operators and machines so it can be mass-replicated at a lower price.
Those bemoaning how much software engineering or surveying have become routine tasks perhaps don’t realize that it’s financial engineering and architecture – or even interior design – that are attracting the truly smart thinkers today.
If we’d stood in the way of this trend, we’d still be buying woolen waistcoats for a month’s wages and darning them two decades later.
(Just ask your nearest Luddite).
The 1970s: Just as easy to hate work (and your boss)
Of course, as I discovered when I challenged the strange draw of sweatshop manufacturing or the equally perverse hatred of free trade, the idea that our jobs are getting worse is probably too deeply embedded in the popular imagination to be easily assuaged.
People forget the downsides of yesteryear – the numbing computer-less record keeping, the drab offices, the strict hours, the routine bullying and sexism, the choking paternalism (and cigarette smoke!), the one-company-or-you’re-out career paths, the lack of Facebook at your desk – to focus on today’s vague existential problems, which are a lack of self-fulfillment or intellectual stimulation.
But even these woes are nothing new.
One of the best TV sitcoms ever was The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Adapted from a novel of the same name, it was all about a middle-aged, middle manager’s inability to find happiness at Sunshine Deserts – a bland corporation on a featureless trading estate on the edge of the commuter belt.
Not only was the hero Reggie driven deranged by those supposedly halcyon bygone days – when the format was updated in 2009 it didn’t really work, because the new Reginald Perrin was free to flirt with his female co-workers, play with email, and work from home.
As for the non-spiritual annoyances – the overly enthusiastic upstarts, and the boss promoted beyond his competence – they were just the same as ever.
The hollow middle-classes
I’m not dismissing anyone’s views about work out of hand, and there is certainly a discussion to be had here.
Even The Economist has been on the case, citing a study called Job Polarisation in Europe that purportedly shows the middle-class being hollowed out:
In the 1970s and 1980s employment in quintessentially middle-skilled, middle-income occupations—salespeople, bank clerks, secretaries, machine operators and factory supervisors—grew faster than that in lower-skilled jobs.
But around the early 1990s, something changed. Labour markets across the rich countries shifted from a world where people’s job and wage prospects were directly related to their skill levels. Instead, with only a few exceptions, employment in middle-class jobs began to decline as a share of the total while the share of both low- and high-skilled jobs rose.
On the face of it this backs up the critics’ case, but I’d need to dig a lot deeper into the research before I accepted the conclusion that IT has replaced swathes of back office middle class jobs, to the detriment of that cadre of employees.
I don’t deny computers have had this affect (I saw my father do it at company after company, like some Grim Reaper of the CPU-powered Apocalypse) but I don’t accept the outcome was bad.
While they may have had some prestige to them, most jobs replaced by computers were routine. Moreover, the introduction of IT enabled more people to do more interesting stuff – witness, for example, the huge explosion in magazines and newspapers in the 1980s that occurred once desktop publishing had freed writers and designers from the tyranny of the typesetter and the print shop.
This benefit is reflected in the hollowing out study, which shows higher earners making up a greater total share of hours worked. I’d say this was due to people moving up the food chain, in refutation of the dumbed-down work hypothesis.
As for the also-increasing total hours of lower-earning work that’s seemingly come at the expense of middle-class incomes, well yes, there’s no doubting call centers and retail have replaced some rungs on the corporate ladder, but as I’ve argued those lost jobs were hardly great, anyway.
There could be other trends at play, too, like more women entering the workforce but choosing to take on less intense employment in the service sector, and so swelling the total lower-paid hours worked.
By all means hate work, but…
I’m the last person to defend most jobs and office work as anything but a means to an end. I’d like financial freedom to choose exactly what work I do, and I see the attractions of retiring early (even though I’ll likely always do something gainful on the side).
But what I do dispute is that work has got worse. On the contrary, I think for most people it’s got better.
Today’s office drones are fretting about their meaningless roles while booking holidays on LastMinute, chatting on first-name terms to the CEO in the kitchen, and listening to Lady Gaga on their iPods. They can hardly imagine the strictures of yesteryear.
No era is perfect, but I’d rather be a cubicle slave now than a ’60s office drone.
Readers, what do you think? Am I – against all odds – an excessively sunny optimist? Please let us know where you think work is going in the comments.