28 March 2009

What About Work?

Freud said that work and love is all there is. And yet work, like air, is nearly invisible to us.

I saw "Working" at the Old Globe last night. It reminded me of why I found Studs Terkel's book so fascinating decades ago. Hearing people talk about their jobs is sort of like listening to them talk about incomes or private sex lives. There is, oddly enough, a kind of intimacy when Terkel's characters confess to their ambivalence or resignation or dreams that makes us realize how little we really know about the daily work of people all around us.

All of business and economics stems from work and yet it seems as though business management and economic theory ignores work, or takes it for granted. This is a huge mistake and could easily undermine the bright and noble aspirations of Obama's bright and noble economic team.

Work gets defined by the economy and the economy by work. In an agricultural economy, work is subordinated to seasons and the demands of the animals and livestock. In an industrial economy, work is subordinated to the rhythms of machines and factories. In an information economy, work comes from applying algorithms or knowledge to tasks. In every economy, productivity is largely determined by big economic trends like industrialization and these trends, in turn, are defined by changes in work. Work matters and its demands are always larger than the individual.

Which brings us to today's economy and theories about how to move out of the recession AND again increase stagnating wages.

Obama's economic team believes that the Great Depression was ended by Keynesian policies. A sizable portion of their conservative opponents believe that the recovery was simply a natural consequence of the dynamics of capitalism and if anything, Keynesian policies just slowed things down. The players in this debate both seem to ignore work.

Peter Drucker thought differently. He attributes the massive increase in productivity in the 20th century (the average worker produced about 50X more per hour by 2000) to Frederick Taylor's application of knowledge to work. If he is right - and his is a credible claim - than the efforts of capital markets and Keynesian policy makers alike would have been for naught without this. We would still be working 3,000 hours a year (about 50% more than we do now), living a mere 47 years (rather than 77), and would have about 1/50th of the goods and services we now have. (And if you are past the age of 47 and say that this does not sound so bad, just consider the fact that in such a world your opinion would count for little: you'd be dead already.)

All that to ask, What is the theory of Obama's team about the source of progress for this next century? Now that the portion of our work force making and moving things has dropped to about 10%, Taylor's application of knowledge to work offers less promise. Now we have to transform knowledge work, and - just as we offered the children of manufacturing workers knowledge work as an alternative, a means of progress - we have to offer the children of knowledge workers the next stage of work.

It is not enough to pump more capital into the same markets. We've done that to create a series of bubbles. Capital - like labor - needs broader movements to harness onto in order to generate greater and greater returns. And it is not enough to stimulate an economy that isn't steadily improving the foundation - the work - upon which everything else builds.

Until we start talking seriously about work and how we expect it to change and improve in this next century, it seems as though any stimulus packages by governments and investments by Wall Street will simply translate into more drag and bubbles.

Economists, business managers and investors like to think of themselves as the keys to progress. They matter. But without changes in work, the machine breaks down. And work continues to be the most ignored of these vital elements. Maybe it is time to change that. Perhaps it is time to turn our attention from Treasury Secretary Geithner to Labor Secretary Solis. Money just change the score: work changes the game.


Lifehiker said...

Yes. And that is the big problem, or "challenge", as the more optimistic of us would say.

"Work" has outputs. Those outputs were once measured per day in bushels of wheat, pairs of shoes, or tons of steel. Later, they were measured in lines of code, loans processed, or circuit boards produced.

Now, computer asssisted design, automated mass production, instant communication, outsourcing,and other "work-saving" technologies have dramatically reduced the number of people required to make what we "need". What will everyone else do?

Maybe the era of the subsistence farmer will come back. My yard is big enough for a large garden, a chicken coop, and maybe even a piglet or two!

Life Hiker said...

Oh, and I forgot to add, in between the subsistence farmer chores there will be plenty of time for socializing, reading books, hearing music, and assisting others in their "work". Life could be pretty good in the new world.

Anonymous said...

it has long terrified me that we don't seem to produce much. i felt like our economy was a house of cards.

guess i was right.