I just read the Jill Lepore essay in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” It’s yet another semi-sweeping assessment of the sort I get to see and choose to read periodically about what has decayed about the relationship of Americans – ordinary Americans, the 99% – to work. The conclusion I reach is always the same.
We are doomed. Increasingly, moment to moment, day by day, and it’s been a fate imposed for some time now, at least a half century. It would appear from the way Ms. Lepore has structured the factual underpinnings of her thesis that 1970 or so is a watershed in the turning of a delicate balance between the rewards to management and owners of business off the sweat of their workers whose wages, and mixed ragged assortment of benefits, they paid, and the just compensation that the workers received in this transaction that permitted them to feel like they were supporting themselves, not just by way of scant and necessary sustenance, but in such a way that there was sufficient surplus that there was a basis for feeling like they were thriving, or at least leading productive and satisfying lives. I’ve avoided the use of the word “meaningful” for the reasons that Lepore examines, wherein during the history of radical deconstruction of the relationship of work to the sense of the quality of life enjoyed by the people, that is, the preponderance of the working population, who do the actual work. As here:
“Meaningful work” is an expression that had barely appeared in the English language before the early nineteen-seventies, as McCallum observes. “Once upon a time, it was assumed, to put it bluntly, that work sucked,” Sarah Jaffe writes in “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone” (Bold Type). That started to change in the nineteen-seventies, both McCallum and Jaffe argue, when, in their telling, managers began informing workers that they should expect to discover life’s purpose in work. “With dollar-compensation no longer the overwhelmingly most important factor in job motivation,” the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange wrote, “management must develop a better understanding of the more elusive, less tangible factors that add up to ‘job satisfaction.’ ” After a while, everyone was supposed to love work.
That is, there was a shift in the basis of perception and the value of work was transmuted into an assessment of how meaningful the work was to the person who performed it, with the suggestion that such a value transcended and superceded the actual emolument in material forms, such as wages and benefits to which a dollar value could be attached.
In other words, we are doomed because somehow a great grift was performed whereby the American worker was not merely in some blunt, if not brutish, way traduced, but subtly and slowly, to most people imperceptibly in real time, induced to accept – not to believe necessarily, but to accept as an ineluctable quality of the nature of work in the larger fabric of their day-to-day existence – an abstraction, hardly provable, and always elusive, dependent as it was on a too-often fleeting and evanescent sense of their internal state of well-being, as a substitute for the hard material reality of adequate compensation in the form of sufficient coin of the realm to meet their needs for subsistence, plus something else, also usually in the form of abstractions, that allowed them to feel that life is “worth living.”
We are doomed now, because we have systematically, if obliviously (which is a polite way of saying being willfully unheeding of what is as plain as the most stark quotidian realities, like whether the sun is shining, or the color of the sky overhead during daylight hours – probably not for the sake of plausible deniabiity, because there clearly are no penalties for the omissions, transgressions, and impositions put in place, each another brick in the wall, a small brick, always, but many of them, and relentlessly and unceasingly being laid which resulted in a barrier to the kind of former life enjoyed by workers, who had secure jobs, with regular and predictable hours, and whose wages were not some egregiously monstrously tiny fraction of the compensation of their bosses. One of the more repugnant testimonies provided, involuntarily, as a quote by Lepore of the CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts, whose compensation was doubled to over 10 million dollars a year, yet who called the proposed rise in minimum wage for salaried and hourly workers in the organization to $15 an hour, “outrageous” (easy for him to say, computing as it does, absent any other benefits, to an annual wage of just over $31,000, that is, 3/10 of one percent of his income for that same year).
These would seem to be inequities that will be hard, even over a long period of time, to bridge to a condition that approaches being called egalitarian by reasonable human beings, who might still posit some faith in the economics of capitalism in a true democracy. Not without punitive (and doubtless insupportable by the current crop of legislators, who would have to craft the political and legal and economic apparatus necessary to effect such a change, even incrementally) sanctioned measures to bring down the highest allowable income level of American executives (in the way that certain other Western democracies have instituted, especially in the Scandinavian countries), even while raising the minimal salaries, and other necessary paid benefits, like sick leave, universal health insurance, parental leave, and job stability (though I’m not sure what this would mean in a way that is conceivable in an economy now largely based on service-related jobs within the current management apparatus designed to provide predictable just-in-time efficiencies while also optimizing the level of profit potentially to be derived, that is, in a labor market that has been gutted of any structure that supports the needs of the workers, except in the form of what we now glibly, if not merely unthinkingly – see notes on “willfully unheeding” above – refer to as a “gig economy.” It always seemed to me long since that the more apt term would be a gag economy. In every sense: it’s a joke of universal proportions, and it’s designed to keep workers in a state of perpetually feeling like they’re just short of being choked to death.