30 Days of Blog

Work in the 21st Century: Human Pack-Mules[30 Days of Blog 22]

This post is part of my 30 blogs in 30 days series. More details here.

Modern work is still valued as if it was done in the 18th century. This has created an unmotivated workforce that wastes most of its time on busy work.

In The Beginning

When Adam Smith wrote about labor specialization in “The wealth of nations”, the world was different. He gave us an example of a pin manufacturer that specialized each step of the process, lowering the time it takes to produce a pin exponentially. This was division of labor at the dawn of the Industrial Age, giving rise to mass production. According of Smith, nations that adopt this method of producing see “universal opulence”. Of course it came with new kinds of pressures on the laborers doing the production. Efficiency meant producing more pins in the same time. This meant a worker’s productivity was measured in how many pins, or the generalized ‘widgets’, is produced per hour or per day.

Labor has since changed and so has production. Yet we still cling to outmoded ideas of the time, work and value. Pins can be produced by machines at factors of thousands compared to manual labor. Most of the labor in the production of pins is now logistics and accounting. Until recently, these jobs too required a lot of labor. But since the streamlining of digital technology, that too can be made more efficient. Yet culturally we expect the same things from our workforce as we did in 1776.

We have skilled workers, race horses, that we are saddling with busywork, like a bunch of pack-mules.

Horses vs Mules

Mules are important animals, still. They require less maintenance than a horse, and they can be easier to handle than donkeys. They are effective at traveling to mountainous areas. However in the pre-industrial era the fastest way to travel was by horse. To the point, we still measure car engines in horsepower. Mules will get you there, and carry your weight, but horses will do it faster.

The modern workforce is fast, effective, skillful and able to learn new skills. They are like horses. What we expect of them is to press the same buttons, write the same reports, and act the same way, day in, day out. This extends not just in the industrial settings, but at craftspeople and professionals as well. Your electrician will take longer to do the job than required because a job done fast is not considered valuable. A lawyer must rack up billable hours because that’s the only ‘objective’ manner we can come up with measure her productivity. We still treat our skilled laborers like they pack-mules, and their only worth is how much weight they can carry. This has lead to an epidemic of peopel bullshit jobs, whose sole justification for existence is how much busywork they can do, or create.

Bullshit Jobs

Anthropologist David Graeber, in his now seminal essay ‘On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’, recalls John Maynard Keynes:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen.

Yet workers are working longer hours, doing jobs they don’t believe in and should not exist, and we are no where near the scale that technology promised.

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