Perspectives on Work

I recently finished James Suzman’s fascinating book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots (Penguin Press, 2021).  He chronicles humans’ work practices over many millennia.  The meaning of work has changed dramatically over this period.  Perspectives that we take for granted emerged much more recently than one might have expected.

We were hunter gathers until 10-12 millennia ago.  Work involved finding enough food to consume that day.  Such work required roughly 15 hours per week.  Once agriculture emerged, the time worked increased to enable harvesting and storing food for the future.  This was caused, in part, by dramatic drops of temperatures that meant one could not live off the land for the whole year.

Time spent working continued to increase, but this was not driven by the “food quest” as he terms it.  The work required to feed ourselves – per capita – has steadily decreased.  1.3% of the US population is engaged in producing food.  10.9% of the population is involved in processing and serving food, more than half of which work in food service establishments.  Thus, the work of roughly 9 out of 10 US residents do not directly involve the food quest.

A key insight is that the hunter gathers did not have much “stuff.”  Any stuff they had, they had to carry as they moved about.  Consequently, they were not the consumers on which our current economy is totally dependent.  Conspicuous consumption emerged much, much later.

The agricultural revolution enabled population growth that depended on sustained growth.  Circumstances often prevented this.  Subsequently, the industrial revolution enabled population growth that also depended on sustainable growth.  Other circumstances prevented this.  Both led to periodic starvation, accompanied by public health issues challenges due to population growth that led to declining adult life expectancy.

John K. Galbraith (1908-2006) argued that Americans had everything they needed and wasted money purchasing things they did not need.  Advertising stoked consumer demands, as it continues to do.  Advertising was created by Benjamin Franklin in 1729 to sell his brainchild Franklin Stoves via his Pennsylvania Gazette.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) predicted that linear economic growth cannot compete with exponential growth of population.  He missed the prospects of technological innovation. Suzman discusses other perspectives of various thought leaders on the economic value of labor, including Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-1790) aphorism that “time is money,” Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) The Wealth of Nations, David Ricardo’s (1772-1823) Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) Utilitarianism, and Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) Das Kapital.  They all wrestled with defining the value of work in contrast to economic value not attributable to work.

Suzman argues that dogs were, effectively, the first robots, used to do work rather than being eaten.  This was a rather unique argument to me.  He includes other domesticated animals in this argument as well, although Sony and others have yet to provide robotic chickens, pigs, and cows to help out around the home.  He notes that horses replaced oxen and cattle as workers; the latter became food.

Suzman moves on to slavery.  While Aristotle imagined machines replacing slaves, Rome eventually was substantially dependent on slaves to enable the agricultural ecosystem.  Clearly, the goal was to delegate physical labor to other peoples – or species.  Our pursuits of automation nicely fit here.  The goal was to avoid the costs of labor unless, of course, one owned the labor.  Then, one wanted to minimize the costs of sustaining the labor resource.

Agricultural productivity yielded surpluses that enabled feeding others, leading to the growth of cities with populations that consumed rather than grew food.  New jobs included soldiers, architects, construction workers, and shop keepers.  People tended to affiliate with people in similar jobs, often clustered in the equivalent of neighborhoods, to form communities of practice.  Family affiliations were diluted a bit when so many neighbors were not relatives.

Literacy enabled cities to establish functioning bureaucracies and legal systems to organize and manage large populations and projects.  Economic progress led to economic differentiation among the wealthy, middle class, and lower classes.  This led to what Keynes termed “relative needs,” or keeping up with the Joneses.  Inequality, Aristotle argued, became an inescapable fact of life.  Suzman points out this was not the case for hunter gatherer communities.

Cotton and sugar from slave labor if the US and Caribbean fueled the economies of Europe with increasingly machine-driven textile mills leading the way.  Growing agricultural productivity quickly reduced the needs for human labor, driving people to the cities to work in the mills.  Coal became the primary energy source for steam engines, while also fouling the environment.  Suzman reports that the jobs in these mills were miserable, in terms of both working conditions, safety, and health.

The industrial revolution led to a stream of new products and novelties, ushering in the embrace of conspicuous consumption, first for the wealthy but trickling down over time to everyone.  Clothing tended to the luxury of choice.  Without the demands for mass-produced goods, the many factories would not have been built and the enormous numbers of manufacturing jobs would not have been created, paying wages that enabled these workers to also buy these mass-produced goods.

Suzman reviews Frederick W. Taylor’s (1856-1915) scientific management.  Taylor helped Henry Ford cut production time per vehicle from 12 hours to 93 minutes.  He set the stage for human resource management.  Taylor felt that people worked to make money to buy things.  They did not make products; factories did.

Unions were legalized in the UK in 1871 and in the US in 1935.  Work hours per workweek steadily declined until Henry Ford popularized the five-day 40-hour work week in 1926.  During the Depression, Kellogg cut workdays to 6 hours, until workers lobbied to return to 8-hour days, leading to larger paychecks.

By the 1980s, worker productivity and wages became decoupled.  The rising costs of employment benefits, namely healthcare, depressed wage increases.  Deregulation played a role as well.  “Since the Great Decoupling, asset ownership has proved a far more lucrative way of generating additional wealth than hard work.”

Between 1978 and 2016, US workers gained 11.7% in wages; CEOs saw a 937% increase in renumeration, due mostly to McKinsey’s deceitfully framed “war for talent.”  This contributed to the 2008-2009 crash that undermined the public’s confidence in economists, and subsequently climate scientists and epidemiologists.

He discusses the growth of service sector.  Manufacturing absorbed displaced agricultural workers and services are absorbing displaced manufacturing workers. He contrasts valuable jobs (e.g., teaching, medicine, farming, and scientific research with pointless jobs (e.g., corporate lawyers, public relations executives, health and academic administrators, and financial service providers).

“There is evidence of bureaucratic bloat everywhere, but the scale of it only becomes clear when looking at how it has afflicted organizations and institutions like universities, whose basic purpose has not changed substantially for centuries.”  Over 20+ years, teaching faculties have increased by roughly 3% while administrative staff have grown by well over 200%, while the number of clerical, service, and maintenance jobs decreased by one third.

Suzman addresses death by overwork.  Mental health challenges are common as is workaholic tendencies – the unhappy union of high drive and low work satisfaction.  “The global aggregate from Gallup data collected in 2014, 2015 and 2016 across 155 countries indicates that just 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their job. Two-thirds are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged.”

“Since the Great Decoupling, the wealthiest 1 percent of people globally has captured twice as much of the new wealth generated by economic growth as the rest of us. The richest 10 percent of people on earth now own an estimated 85 percent of all global assets, and the richest 1 percent own 45 percent of all global assets.”

Suzman concludes with, “History is a better guide to the future on the nature of change. It reminds us that we are a stubborn species: one that is deeply resistant to making profound changes in our behavior and habits, even when it is clear that we need to do so. But it also reveals that when change is forced upon us, we are astonishingly versatile. We are able to quickly adapt to new, often very different ways of doing and thinking about things and in a short time become as habituated to them as we were to those that preceded them.”

Work, a very long ago, involved simply finding enough to eat that day, consuming roughly 15 hours per week.  The agricultural and industrial revolutions dramatically changed this.  Much more time was required, often involving harsh, unsafe, and unhealthy working conditions.  Life is easier in the service economy, but apparently not particularly rewarding.  Inequality has dramatically escalated and, for many, the quest for food — and clothing, shelter, health, etc. – has become an increasing challenge.  Automation technology may exacerbate this unless we revisit and transform the relationship of work productivity to income and sustenance.


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