Our Ultimate Quest for the Meaning of started with a Brief History of Work, where I tried to analyse the evolution of the meaning of work across time, with a specific focus on western culture. It then moved to explore the concept of the Discourses of Work that evolved, trying to establish how Work impacted societies and cultures (and was impacted by them) over time.
With this fourth article in the series, I will go more in detail in analysing the Fifth Discourse, the one that is today still present around most of our work. It is the one that looks at Work as a Process and is visualised by the concept of Job. Together with the idea of employment, this is a relatively new notion in the world of work, also considering the span of history we analysed. But it comes with significant consequences on the tissue itself of society. The Job becomes the central focus of the community, both in terms of development, as well as social growth. It also comes at a cost, with unemployment becoming one of the big battles that contemporary states fight to resurge their financial results. Jobs also becomes the basis for the measure of individual success, that gets measured in terms of career progressions, in a triumph of apparent social mobility. But let’s see more in detail the Discourse of Work as a Process or Work as Job.
The Discourse of Work as Process or Work as a Job.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, an entirely new concept of Work started developing. The idea of division of labour began to take an altogether new meaning, as observed initially by Adam Smith. Dividing not only work by profession or speciality (an element that had existed in the past, where different crafts were needed to complete a building for example) but by task, transformed the entire relationship between individuals and work. Even before the application of the reductionist principles suggested by Taylor, Work was changing in several ways.
- The worker did not own the tools to perform their work anymore. These now belonged to the entrepreneur. It was a novelty, which developed in parallel with the new meanings that private property was taking across the economic and social discourses.
- The worker did not own the result of their work, because, through a process fragmentation, he would only see a portion of the process, and not the end results.
- The worker would apply external instructions and learn a process, not apply their Mastery. The reductionist approach moved away from a holistic competence approach and delved into the idea of solely developing specific atomic skills. As such, the worker would also not own their competence anymore.
The Industrial Revolution allowed for capital and labor to consolidate on a scale formerly impossible. And this is precisely when we see “capital” and “labor” begin to be reified as opposing interests. In an economy of yeomen and small producers, capital and labor are almost inseparable; under the new industrial conditions, there was a class of people associated with each. Former craftsmen and their descendants now found themselves competing with, or joining the ranks of, a new class of wageworkers and renters—people who expected indefinitely to live in a more or less unpropertied state.Aaron Jacob, How Work Became and Job, Palladium Magazine
The concept of wage is one of the principal innovation that this discourse carries. Individuals get paid for quantities of work, not for defined outputs anymore because it is the job of someone else to define the best way to achieve results.
It is the separation of objectives from activities of Work that makes this discourse so wholly new.
These elements, together with other, will constitute one of the main critiques that socialist authors will give to the so-called capitalist system, as the only residual ownership that workers had was of their “work” intended as fatigue. Work gets transformed into a highly engineered job. And people needed to fit the Job Descriptions created. All of what we consider modern Human Resources is born into this discourse.
The Worker Metaphor of this discourse is the Blue Collar worker, correctly represented by the famous movie of Charlie Chaplin Modern Times. In it, the actor perfectly represents the dis-humanising work of a worker in an assembly line, always obliged to repeat the same movement, unable to find a border between the work-life and his private one. But this discourse is not limited to what socialism identified as the proletariat. However, the impact of a lowly educated and poor workforce that moved to industrialising cities has built many social and political consequences.
Hierarchy changes once more, into a model broken down by role and authority. Correctly described by the Bureaucratic model analysed by Max Weber, it develops in parallel with the great scientific discoveries of the XIXth century, in a world that seems remarkably driven by determinism.
The Assembly Line theorised by Frederick Taylor and eponymously built by Henry Ford, becomes the Organisational Metaphor for this discourse. Each worker is only responsible for one piece of the work, one task develops a high specialisation, and only Managers are paid to overlook the entire process. The metaphor extends to the upper ranks of a corporate structure, including white-collars and management levels, up to the executives, in a siloed system designed to optimise deterministic efficiency, like a clockwork.
The Factory is the typical workplace of this discourse, together with the office. Both are designed to increase productivity and performance, both by applying deterministic choices in the way that workers use their skills.
The defining antagonism of this era is that between the Employer and the Employee. But there is a second polarisation that builds, that between employed and unemployed. This piece of narrative is essential because it is the first time it appears in history. For sure, some people did “not work” also in the past, but they had never been associated with a specific movement. Work as a concept was a lot more variegated. With this discourse, instead, people get neatly classified into “employed” and “unemployed”. Country statistics abound on the two, bringing up several contradictions. Work at home and elderly care, for example, were traditionally perceived as “work”, even if often culturally relegated to women, these were acknowledged. But now, that is not the subject of an employment relationship. Contemporary positivism imposed a definition of Work linked to contracts rather than the individual activities, building up the distinction between “employed” and “self-employed”.
This discourse is highly based on the satisfaction of personal esteem. Career ladders in a corporation are riddled with status symbols: reserved parking spots, desks and office sizes, plants, assistants, technology devices. All are looking at a deterministic approach also to Motivation. Yes, because we can’t forget that at the foundation of this discourse, we don’t only have Taylor, but also Mayo. The Human Relations Movement, with all its consequences, is a critical component of this discourse, that evolved through a myriad of tools and approaches of Job Design, Job Crafting, Job Enrichment. It’s a world that created performance management, compensation scales, succession planning, career maps, competency models, feedback tools, incentives. Both Theory X and Theory Y perfectly inhabit a world where the concept of Job as a discrete description of tasks and requirements, has never been put under question.
Career and Status are probably the most massive social constructs linked to this discourse, as both are work-related. Although the Craftmanship discourse still exists at this stage, the idea that individuals reach a personal status through work is still there. Yet, there is also another essential social construct that appears, that of socialism. For the first time, an entire ideology builds on the concept of Labour, with all its historical consequences. Socialism, through all its forms, brings Work to a status that it had never reached before, being enshrined in constitutions, celebrated in specific occasions, nurturing a continuous social and cultural debate. Yet, the meaning of Work in this discourse was rarely challenged. Contribution to the destiny of a brighter world for the masses, without consideration of the individual, always a simple cog in a broader machine.
The impacts on society at large
This discourse is most obviously present today, and we can trace it also in areas of human activity that for a time, had applied other paths.
- Education Systems have been carefully designed to develop adequate amounts of workers, split by speciality, through carefully engineered processes built on the assumption of matching personal traits and capabilities to needed skills and experiences. Creativity and self-expression have become an exception. If you think this is a residual of some decades ago, think about the narrative of focusing on STEM studies…
- Social Welfare has been designed to protect the unemployed and bring them to any work as quickly as possible. Not only, but this discourse has also created a narrative whereby you get instructed, you work, you contribute to the society, and you then get time off paid by the state through a retirement system.
- The Arts have also been contaminated by a narrative that looks at efficiency and productivity.
- Everything gets consumerized because consumers are the driving force behind the economic engine that keeps all of this afloat.
The Role of Leisure
The Discourse of Work as Job also introduces another important element of narrative, linked to the development of capitalism. As mentioned above, Workers were separated from the control of the factors of production, creating a new cleavage in society between capital and labour. We feel this might be normal, as we all studied this in the classical economy, but it was an innovation. When the first factories started developing, the concept of waged jobs was criticised immensely by contemporary craftsmen.
Slowly, the development of capitalism created something new: the necessity of a new “mission” for work. The scientific positivism also instilled in Work an appetite for continuous Progress. It is not by mistake that Wikipedia defines today under Job “an individual’s role in society“. Because of this contribution to Progress of human society was seen as a key component t of each of our roles. What was needed was a change in modern anthropology. After millennia concentrated on Work intended as a way to “produce”, we move into an entirely new setting where it is the consumer who drives society.
Indeed, in the 20th century it became established that consumption—the inconspicuous consumption of the common people even more than the extravagances of the wealthy—would pave the way for the uplift of workers. Reforms would be able to reduce socioeconomic extremes and accommodate the pursuit of happiness by bringing workers into the role of consumers who could exercise an expanded capacity for choice. To insist on finding meaning in dignified work was to pine for an abolished past; satisfaction and contentment could be found instead in an abundance of goods and services that more and more people could afford—and in a newfound room for leisure.Aaron Jacob, How Work Became and Job, Palladium Magazine
Interestingly, Leisure becomes a central feature of this discourse of work. Not defined anymore by its output, Work is now described in time spent. Socially, this means that there is a clear difference between the time at work and free time, an entirely new construct. Yes, people had time to do other stuff also in the past, but the realm of human activities was not so variegated. Moreover, real leisure was probably reserved to the upper part of the social hierarchy, ora as a gift from the king or the emperor to the broader population. The Panem et circenses politics made known under the Roman empire was a principle that resisted across many of the discourses we have seen. Here Leisure instead becomes an entirely new industry.
In modern society, instead, what happens is that the employee has several hours to spend, and entire industries are built to fill this time so that people can spend their money, creating virtuous cycles for employment. In the current Covid-19 situation, we are seeing the great danger of a model where this cycle is interrupted. The people that lost their job immediately were part of those industries linked to leisure time, the one directly hit by the impossibility for people to leave their homes.
Time has also been the element of big social fights. Many can probably remember the battle to reduce the working week to 35 hours in France. The result? After few years requests for salary increases, because people had more time to spend and the economy needed more money to support its leisure time.
Consumerism is, in essence, a Leisure Based Economy. It got so developed, also through the technology evolution, that today everyone is competing for a “share of the attention” of the consumer, following a new trend of the experience economy.
Four pillars of the Discourse of Work as Job
Let’s drive to the conclusion of this article. But first, I want to include a few notes of some fundamental aspects of this discourse that exist today. Any transition to a new Discourse will need to challenge all these assumptions thoroughly. I have partially mentioned some of these in my Reinventing Work article, but I want to reference them here as well quickly.
- The legal difference between Employment and Self-Employment. This apparent minor element, is critical in the current discourse, as it produces a foundational distinction of types of work related to the control of the capital. This aspect creates difficulties in even thinking about different ways of working. The above also means that work beyond these two types is not recognised.
- The concept of Labour as Cost. Accounting principles have ingrained the idea of Labour as a cost because companies “don’t control labour”. The main consequence is that any form of automated work has an unfair advantage over human labour because it can be considered an investment.
- The concept of Wage. The fact of getting paid not on the output, but instead based on time as a proxy of effort, has created a self-reinforcing system. It has institutionalised a hierarchic approach to wages that are only in theory based on a free market: there still is a clear perception of “good” and “bad” work. Collective bargaining originally intended to overcome this issue, instead has further strengthened the problem, creating a disparity between people that can negotiate their salary, and those that cannot. The Equal Pay issue related to women and minorities is a clear example of this element.
- The concept that Jobs are Fungible. The entire system is built on the separation between the individual and their role in the organisation, which is why it’s possible to move a job from the US to East Asia, or automate it, or substitute an old and experienced employee with a much younger (and cheaper) one.
None of these elements is necessarily positive or negative. After all, this discourse has been valid in the two centuries that have seen the most significant development in human history. Well, development measured by the same principles of this same discourse.
Job as an Ethic phenomenon
The last critical aspect that I would like to mention about this Discourse of Work is that the Job becomes an “Ethical” element in the life of individuals. Again, that definition I have said, whereby job defines an individual role in society, is true in many context and cultures. Many political ideologies have embraced the job as the central piece of their political action. And many cultures have evolved around the concept of work as dedication, contribution to progress, the advancement of society. As Jobs is measured in hours and status, many cultures reward working long hours, up to exhaustion. Something that spans multiple national cultures, from Japan to the US.
This Ethic phenomenon is new in the way it developed, although we can trace its root in the Work as Salvation discourse. However, the reading of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethics can only explain a part of this narrative. We have something more involved here at work, that is deriving from the stratification of many different cultural and social elements, and above all the development of economics as a positive science. It is through this development that Labour, in general, is indicated as the engine for the economies, and thus pushed social actors into making of the Job an ethical stance in the approach to politics. This evolution from an individual moral asset to a social-ethical one is one of the most compelling and far-reaching consequences of this discourse. It is also the one that is more complicated to verify.
I think that the most evident demonstration of this stance can be seen at the gates of the concentration camps in Nazi’s Germany. Arbeit Macht Frei is globally known as an almost abnormal take on the concept of labour. Instead, it shows precisely the core of this ethical concept of work.
In their plan to eliminate differences, the Nazi’s needed a “cover”. What better could be than work as re-education effort. A central concept in what Hannah Arendt would define The Banality of Evil. This raises immediately the question of the role of labour elevated to a byproduct of the governing ethical system. Fascism, Socialism, Communism, all have attributed to Work a central role in their ideologies. But the same is true for modern democracies. Most democratic constitutions elevate a specific position for labour as an asset in the construction of democracy and freedom. The ideology built from classical economics is still pervasive today in the social judgement of people that willingly choose not to work.
Overcoming this element of the discourse is the biggest challenge in future developments of the new discourse that is emerging.
I believe we can all easily see the characteristics of this Discourse, simply because we have grown into it. We hardly can imagine an alternative. The first feedback I collected about the other discourses, clearly pointed out at an opposition between something that is “old” and the current one, which is “new”, and the fruit of Progress. Yet, we are in a period where some are starting to discuss this concept of linear progress. Is it really so? The expense that we have incurred to achieve this, think about Global Warming, were they worth it? Is there an alternative path?
At an individual level, there are several early warnings that something is not working as it should (pun intended). People are dissatisfied with work. The number of work-related illnesses is growing. The question do we live to work, or work to live is gaining new answers. Social experiments such as some forms of universal income are trying to move away also in terms of traditional economics.
This will be the content of the next post in this series, where I will try to explore what a possible new Discourse looks like, based on the trends that are forming. This will go way beyond the narrative about most Future of Work reads out, because these are almost always grounded in the narrative of a work that is efficient and productive, measured from a capitalist point of view. We instead need to move into new domains of enablement, exploring how work can be genuinely reinvented.
This article is the fourth in a series of seven posts on the Meaning of Work. Please feel free to add any feedback to this article in the comment section.
Cover Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash