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new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986

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Useful work or useless toil

We need to divide work equally rather than promise non-existent jobs. Richard Swift believes we should start by asking why we work.

The first thing that a newly-arrived prisoner saw of the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz was the sign over the front gate. It said in cold iron lettering Arbeit macht frei or 'work will make you free'. Many of those who passed under that sign were simply worked to death. The Auschwitz sign is a dramatic example, but it is not too different from the other promises that are made about work. Work hard and you will get ahead'. 'If people in the Third World had a proper work ethic they would soon bring an end to world hunger'. or perhaps 'getting a job will straighten you out'. Somehow the reality of work never seems quite to live up to the promise.

Work is held to be almost universally a good thing whether it's running a literacy campaign or building nuclear submarines. Those who proclaim this self-evident truth most loudly - managers, shareholders, and politicians - tend to be those in a position to benefit from the work of others. The rest of us have always gone along with it simply because a job was the only way available to make a living. Our jobs have defined who we are, where we spend the better part of our waking hours and how we feel about ourselves - and those who are close to us. This experience unites the Brazilian gold miner with the filing clerk in Melbourne. Even those who don't have a regular job - on welfare in Birmingham or shining shoes in Lusaka - are defined by a society that saves its greatest rewards for those who are employed or benefit from the employment of others. If you don't fit into either category you'll have to scramble just to survive.

But the world of work is changing in ways we are just beginning to understand. It is happening first in the industrial North where there is money to invest in the latest technologies and where industry has a strong incentive to replace decently paid union jobs. In the Third World - where most labour remains cheap - the effects are being felt more slowly. But the eventual spill-over effect will in time mean that the whole world has to start thinking about work and why we do it. The changes are leading to some work situations that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

As the desert sun rises slowly over Phoenix it quickly heats up the earth to the baking point. It's 8.00 am and the convicts at the Arizona Department of Corrections' Center for Women begin arriving from their cells for another day of work. What kind of work? A chain gang? Sewing mail-bags? Actually the 30 convicts sit behind word processors and deal with reservations for one of the world's biggest hotel chains - Best Western International.

These imprisoned hotel reservation clerks are one example of what's happening in the world of work. For one thing there no longer has to be a definite 'work site' where jobs - particularly data-processing jobs - must be located. Work of this type can be done in the home or in suburban workshops where space can be rented cheaply. Employers can make substantial savings by not running large downtown head offices.

This new flexible notion of the workplace may change the whole way we live by making it unnecessary to commute or pay high rents in crowded cities.

Data-processing jobs like those done by the women at the Phoenix Corrections Center are becoming a standard form of employment for millions of men and women. But these new microtechnologies are eliminating far more jobs than they are creating. According to the reckoning of one writer three out of four jobs presently being done could be automated away by the end of the century.1 Hardly anyone is immune. Manufacturing jobs are continuing to melt away to be replaced by robots and other computer-assisted forms of production. In the US alone one in five factory jobs have been eliminated since mid-1979.2 Bank tellers are giving way to automatic banking machines. Millions of clerical jobs are at risk in financial centres like London, Toronto, New York, Sydney, and Tokyo. Jobs in the retail trade - which has until now been picking up some of the slack from other areas - stand to be wiped out by automatic inventory-control and cash - register systems. Even highly trained engineers, draughtspeople, managers, medical and laboratory technicians are at risk. I have even heard talk that the number of journalists and editors could be substantially reduced.

It is possible to see the outlines of a new economic world taking shape. At the time of the last industrial revolution the world of most people was turned upside down. The old landed aristocracy began to lose much of its prestige and power. A new middle class of bankers and entrepreneurs emerged.

The ordinary folk of the countryside were forced to abandon the natural work rhythms of the seasons and submit to the timeclock and the 'discipline' of 16-hour factory days.

The new industrial revolution promises changes that are every bit as profound and perhaps just as painful. Jobs are becoming a scarce commodity. The primary sector of the economy - banks, car manufacturers, government, the electrical and energy corporations - is relying on much less human labour. But what jobs remain will be quite well paid, at least in comparison to the people whose labour the system no longer needs. An increasingly large part of the population is becoming marginalized into part-time or temporary employment. These are non-union jobs - waiting table or cleaning up offices - in the low-paid-job ghetto all too familiar to women workers. For many others, particularly the young or people of colour there are no jobs at all. In Italy, 60 per cent of young people are unemployed.3 Those without jobs are forced to subsist on meagre and reluctantly-given government handouts. Trade unions which used to try and represent the interests of all the workers stand in danger of becoming the voice of a shrinking elite trying to cling to the relative privilege of a full-time job with benefits.

The outlines of these 'new economic realities', as economists are fond of calling them, appear far from attractive. The likely by-product will be increased social tension as the gap widens between those who have hope and possibilities and those who don't.

It doesn't take a genius to foresee some of the consequences: more crime on the streets; more guard dogs and police; more battered wives and molested children; more alcoholism; and a general deterioration in the quality of life.

If the present way we distribute and do work doesn't change, people will have to survive in ways that will be familiar to those who know the streets of São Paulo or Jakarta. Shoe shines, begging, prostitution, repair work, selling street food - these activities will probably be supplemented in rich countries by some minimal welfare handouts from the government In the Third World formal employment by government and industry has always involved only a minority of workers. The rest of the population survives with what little support family and community can provide. This is not likely to change. The International Labour Organization estimates that one billion new jobs will have to be created by the year 2000 if there is to be full employment. The Director-General, a realist, concludes that 'It has to be fully understood that there will be no situation of full employment if we are speaking of conventional employment'. 4

But the politicians keep promising jobs in order to get our votes. For some it's just a matter of returning to the old Victorian values of hard work and initiative. For others it's a matter of speeding up growth and investment. Some say less government Some say more government. But none of the traditional recipes seem to be working. Cutting public spending and relying on the market has not produced jobs in conservative Britain. A policy of growth and public enterprise has done no better in socialist. There is a general reluctance to admit that the emperor has no clothes - or maybe no job. In uncertain times it is far more comforting to fall back on old certainties.

But these old certainties are a lot more comfortable for some than they are for others. Those without jobs or any other way to make a living cannot be expected to eat promises. Some creative thinking about the distribution of work and income is much more to the point. If we can go beyond the limited logic of muddling through, we just might realize that there is something to gain by some real changes in how work is organized.

We could make a good start by tackling the alienation and boredom that most workers feel on their jobs. The reservation clerks at the Arizona Department of Corrections are literally prisoners. But how many others think of their jobs as some kind of prison? The sociologists of work have been providing evidence that the number is very large indeed. Signs of worker dissatisfaction - absenteeism, drugs on the job, worker turnover, vandalism and poor-quality work - are all on the increase. All clear signs that workers resent jobs which give them little say and provide little variety or challenge.

Workers have figured out some ingenious ways of avoiding their jobs. Two office workers in Vancouver, Canada, for example, whiled away the hours with a magnetic chess board in the empty drawer of a filing cabinet ... or how about the insurance company where management found the employees going out to the parking lot at regular intervals to take naps in their cars or the hidden sleeping room between the factory walls.5 Almost everyone you talk to has a story like this they can relate from their own work experience. As the joke goes among Soviet workers - experts on the subject - 'we'll pretend to work as long as they pretend to pay us'.

But management is fighting back. Their view tends to be that workers are actually owned by their companies - at least during their time at work. One pulp and paper company went so far as to insist that their employees could only read company publications during their lunch hour because it was time paid for by the company. Employers go to great lengths to monitor employee behaviour. Microtechnology is proving very useful here. Employers can count keystrokes per minute and flash signs on to an employee's VDU screens - 'You are not working as fast as the person next to you'. Trips to the bathroom and personal telephone calls are monitored. This type of monitoring increases employee stress and anxiety, resulting in a number of health complaints including heart disease. According to one union local president 'You begin to wonder whether you are pursuing a career or whether it's pursuing you'.6

Management is concerned not only with control over work but increasingly with control over workers. The craze in the US for employee drug testing is a good case in point. One company, Georgia Power, runs an anonymous drug hotline where you can phone up and report an employee, who then must submit to a mandatory drug test the next day or be fired on the spot But there are much more sophisticated 'carrot' approaches to worker motivation. Whole libraries of journals are related to the subject of trying to get unwilling workers to work harder. In short, the workplace has been turned into a battleground between a demanding boss and a reluctant worker.

Given the negative experience that so many people have in their working lives it is somewhat surprising that work and jobs should hold such a hallowed place in the scheme of things. One obvious reason is that jobs are the only way to put a meal on the table. But there are some less obvious reasons. Work is a way of participating in the world. A way also of joining with others in a common effort. A way of shaping the environment and - at least in traditional societies - a way of caring for your community and the others who live in it.

This notion of work still has some power for most of us. But the modern idea of 'a job' has distorted it in significant ways. The power of decision has been taken away from most workers and the work they are 'given' is often poorly paid and unsafe. The variety has been taken out of most jobs so that they quickly become tedious. The pace of work is often out of the hands of the worker which increases frustration. Some may be lucky enough to have jobs that contribute to the health of society but many jobs have the opposite effect - polluting the environment, victimizing others or helping to build the latest weapons system. Jobs are scarce so you take them where you can get them.

The advent of microtechnology and the unemployment crisis that it is bringing about offer us a good opportunity to rethink the whole area of jobs and working. This would have to mean a substantial shift from the way we do things now. For one thing the wealth produced by machines would have to be evenly distributed and not allowed simply to flow to the owners of the machines and their shrinking workforce.

If we distribute work equitably there will be a lot less for each of us to do. This need not lead to idleness - although a bit more of that is not necessarily a bad thing. People could spend more time working on their own projects. There is already a lively interest in do-it-yourself, in gardening, in community volunteer work and in travel. These are some of the roots of a non-passive leisure that goes beyond simply recharging ourselves in front of the TV screen for the next workday. Less time on the job would allow men to spend more time with their families, thus relieving women of some of the burden of the double day and making possible a more equitable sharing of child care - this kind of work after all is not going to be banished by the computer. Changing work patterns would mean women having more opportunities to do challenging tasks and an end to the demeaning economic dependence of women on 'their' men.

Things are already changing. Many more people are working half-time or are self-employed. In Australia the number of people working part-time increased by 138 per cent between 1964 and 1978. The number of self-employed people in the UK is going up five per cent a year.7 People are changing jobs much more often than they did a generation ago as they look for more variety in their work. In Canada in 1975 13 per cent of the workforce held the same job for more than 20 years. By 1985 it had fallen to 9.5 per cent.8 But with the breakdown of the full-time union-protected job there is every danger that employers will try and take advantage by depressing wages and treating workers in a high-handed manner. A decent guaranteed income - not at luxury levels but beyond the present mere-survival welfare rates - would take the desperation out of looking for a job. We could decide which jobs were worth doing, asking if we were personally interested in doing them or if they made a worthwhile contribution to the community. Serious environmental problems might be tackled or new ways of helping the Third World devised. Jobs themselves could be redesigned so that workers had a lot more say over the pace of work and the division of tasks. Necessary but unpleasant work could be divided up rather than having it fall to one person to collect the garbage or do the typing all the time.

'A pretty picture,' you might say, 'but we are a long way from that now and things aren't exactly moving in that direction'. True enough. There is no shortage of people with a stake in the way work is presently organized - people who see new technology not as a potential boon to all humankind but as simply a way of increasing the bottom line on the corporate statement. If they have their way the second industrial revolution will marginalize many of us into a ghetto of poverty and poorly paid temporary work. Jobs will become a luxury and we will have to accept them under almost any condition.

There is an interesting story that people still tell in the union halls and bars of Detroit. It seems Walter Reuther, the crusty old head of the United Auto Workers union, was inspecting the latest assembly-line technology at a new Ford plant in the company of Henry Ford himself. They were surveying the latest robots when Ford looked at Reuther and said:

'Those machines aren't going to be paying any union dues, Walter'. Reuther thought for a moment and then replied: 'That's all very well, Henry, but who's going to buy your cars?' The point is that without finding ways for wealth and resources to circulate in society everyone will be poorer in the long run. The streets will not be any safer for the rich than they are for the poor. You can't have prosperity for the few and poverty for the many without its affecting the quality of everybody's life eventually.

Nowadays it seems ridiculous to ask someone why they work. It's like asking why you live in a house or why leaves fall off the trees in the fall. But it is strange that this should be so. Work should be useful - a way of caring for the community. The new industrial revolution may be bringing us closer to a time when 'why work?' is no longer a ridiculous question.

1 Working at Leisure, Barry Sherman, Methuen 1988.
The Uneasy Eighties, Arthur Cordell, Science Council of Canada 1985.
Lloyd and Leadbetter, The Changing World of Work, Financial Times of London, 24 July 1986.
Op. Cit 1.
Worklife Magazine, Non. 1984.
Computer Monitoring and Other Dirty Tricks, Report by National Association of Working Women, Cleveland, April 1988.
The Future of Work, Charles Handy, Blackwell, Oxford 1984.
Statistics Canada. The Labour Force, May 1985.

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New Internationalist issue 166 magazine cover This article is from the December 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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