Whither Work in the 21st Century

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Simon & Schuster/ TED (2015)

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology who has taught at Swarthmore College for nearly 45 years, is the author of numerous books synthesizing research in the social sciences, including psychology, sociology, and economics to challenge prevailing paradigms about markets, freedom, and choice. Among these are The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life, The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life, and The Paradox of Choice.

Schwartz’s most recent book, Why We Work (based on a TED talk), is about the meanings we attach to work and how the value of work to individuals has been undermined by particular assumptions about human nature.

Examining the value of work comes at a particularly propitious time as there is much apprehension about the lack of general availability of work in the near future, a concern spurred on by accelerating advances in artificial intelligence made possible, in part, by continuing increases in computer speed and power. Authors from economist Tyler Cowen, business professors Andrew McAfree and Erik Brynjolfsson, and technologist Martin Ford envision a work world where computers take over not only routine labor but also complex tasks such as reading medical images, making diagnoses, and designing products, to mention just a few activities once thought impervious to automation. This is not the first time that such fears have been raised: in the 1960s, thirty-plus thinkers and activists, including Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Michael Harrington, Norman Thomas, Gunnar Mydal, Robert Heilbroner, Linus Pauling, and futurist Robert Theobald, formed the Committee on the Triple Revolution and released a “manifesto,” which among other things claimed that “a new era of production has begun…Cybernation is already reorganizing to meet its own needs…As machines take over production from men, they absorb an increasing proportion of resources, while the men who are displaced become dependent on minimal and unrelated government measures—unemployment insurance, social security, welfare payments.”

Of course, those dire predictions did not (entirely) come true for a variety of reasons, including the dramatic increase in service employment, education and health, the integration of large numbers of women into the labor force that maintained family incomes and effective demand in the economy, and the development of whole new industries. On the other hand, this time may be different, requiring a radical rethinking about how work is shared and who will benefit from dramatic increases in productivity.

There are some important insights in the book, in particular, that structuring institutions to be consistent with ideology (here defined as belief and advocacy of falsehoods) can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, if we believe the only reason people work is for pay, and the workplace must be structured on the assumption that without coercion workers will slack off and produce inferior products, then that is the result we will get. Schwartz supports this with several examples, one drawn from labor history and the exclusion of blacks from unions because of their willingness to accept lower wages, and then the union’s assumptions were “confirmed” when they crossed the picket lines of the unions that excluded them.

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UFCW International Union
Walmart employees and supporters rally outside of a Walmart store in California in 2012, demanding fair treatment and improved workplace conditions.

A second insight is that intrinsic motivations can be “squeezed out” by extrinsic motivations, that is, people may choose to do something because it is the right or moral thing to do; however, when monetary incentives are introduced, the result is a reduction, not an increase, in willingness to undertake the action. Here Schwartz cites a well-known case of this phenomenon, that of a Swiss town whose citizens were surveyed to determine their willingness to locate a nuclear waste site nearby. Initially this was supported by a small majority. A second survey asked the same question but added the incentive of a significant stipend and support plummeted.

However, while understanding how assumptions about human nature frame our expectations about work and the possibilities for creating more desirable employment systems are important and definitely where we must start, it is not nearly enough. Thus, if the purpose of this book is to make the case that we can transform work from the unpleasant drudgery that it is now for most people and make it personally rewarding and even socially beneficial, then it falls short.

One glaring omission is that there is no discussion of what elements define good work, which leaves us without any metrics for determining when one workplace delivers and another does not. Of course, traditional economic analysis would insist that it is defined by individual preferences and what is good work for one person is drudgery for another. This reviewer disagrees. Good work provides security (financial, emotional, and physical), absence of unnecessary pain, a sense of competence, mastery, meaning, hope, excitement, and creativity.

One would get the impression from some of Schwartz’s examples—a custodian at a hospital, a hair stylist, a carpet maker—that it is possible for individuals to make their otherwise uninspiring and often deadly boring work into something that was meaningful, personally fulfilling, and even made life better for others, going so far as to heal the damaged environment.

The problem is that since the advent of the industrial revolution, individuals have not designed their own workplaces. At one time it was General Electric, General Motors, and General Mills. Now it’s Walmart, Amazon, and Apple. More people work for Walmart than for any other private employer in the United States, and none of Schwartz’s numerous referenced studies portrayed a Walmart employee as one able to transform work into something gratifying, important to others, or otherwise made the world a better place.

Particularly disappointing is the book’s treatment of unions, or rather nontreatment. Unions are mentioned twice: once for their racism, a characteristic of the premerger AFL but not of the CIO in its heyday, and the other to show how workers normally produce more than they are paid to do, because during a contract dispute they reduce productivity by “working to contract.” However, it was unions that made life better for workers and improved wages, hours, and conditions, and it has been the destruction of unions that has made work less rewarding, both in wages and personal gratification. However, in as much as we are able to make the case that it is possible to create gratifying workplaces with no sacrifice of productivity, the transformation will not occur without the reinvigoration of unions.

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Michael Fleshman
May Day in New York City, 2013. A coalition of immigrants groups, unions, and Occupy Wall Street members took to the streets to demand reforms for American workers.

By far the biggest problem today is what is happening to work. In the existing economic system, the need for necessary and environmentally wholesome work is disappearing. Technology is in the process of eliminating such work. The work that is being created in this long and inadequate recovery from recession has largely been poverty jobs, and the wealth generated by them goes to the upper 20 percent of the society. It is a workplace designed by and for the corporate elite. There is little regard for the worker, the environment, nor for the betterment of society. The workforce is part of an economy that is not sustainable economically or environmentally. Its logical consequences are poverty, war, despotism, and environmental collapse.

The alternative requires the emergence of a political movement. Schwartz does not mention politics. He does refer to politicians. Once. He refers to a politician as one who “believes self interest motivates all behavior, that people are entitled to keep the spoils of their labors, and that they deserve what they get and get what they deserve. Said politician helps enact policies that erode or destroy this social safety net (p. 79–80).” There are, of course, such politicians, and they are very powerful at the moment and do the bidding of those who designed most of our current workplaces. But there was a time when politicians designed those safety nets, and therein is Schwartz’s dilemma. He has unwittingly described a political problem without providing a political solution, but to be fair, that was not his purpose in writing this book.

The political solution begins with vision. What kind of world do we want to live in? Once a vision is well established, what kind of work does that vision require? What steps are necessary for us to go from where we are to where we want to go? It won’t happen overnight, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The unexpected and largely positive response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign is one indication. The critical component will be education, but not necessarily in schools. Schools must be part of this transformation; however, it is critical that each of us take the responsibility to initiate discussions and engage as many others as possible in a project that moves a small piece of the world in the direction of the vision. As projects grow, so too is created the work of the future. If the world is to be saved it will be when all, or at the very least the vast majority, becomes politically engaged.