By Jim Miller
Recently the New York Times did a thorough exposé of life inside Amazon’s “bruising workplace” where the managers celebrate what they call “Purposeful Darwinism.” The focus of the piece was not on the poor folks turning around the goods in the warehouses but on the presumably more privileged white-collar workers who are encouraged to regularly challenge and report on one another when they are not busy answering texts at 3:00 AM or pushing themselves to work 80 hours a week.
In the jungle of Amazon, everyone is subject to this kind of sadistic postmodern Taylorism, and they have the choice to either like it or leave.
Of course, only a fraction of those who start at Amazon stay for any length of time, but that is all OK according to the good folks there because their survival of the fittest model helps them keep only the best.
Indeed, as the story tells us, some of these fortunate Übermensches even teach their kids the Amazon way, presumably so they’ll be able to survive the rigors of late capitalism while their less fit friends and classmates are thrown on the junk heap of history.
This might just be a story about the excesses of one corporate giant but, sadly, it is not. As the Times notes:
Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.
“Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade,” said Clay Parker Jones, a consultant who helps old-line businesses become more responsive to change.
So it goes on relentlessly with millions of us slaving away at jobs that steal our lives from us in the service of moving products that millions of the rest of us don’t need.
In an economy that thrives on heedless overconsumption and waste (and all the excess carbon and related environmental devastation that comes with it), most of us are killing ourselves in an effort that is literally killing the world.
It’s death-in-life and death for the planet, a daily dystopia of our own making.
Call me crazy, but this might just be why more and more of us hate work.
In another recent New York Times piece, “Rethinking Work,” Barry Schwartz confirms this:
Gallup regularly polls workers around the world to find out. Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from their jobs. Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.
Schwartz then goes on to explore why this might be as he ponders whether:
One possibility is that it’s just human nature to dislike work. This was the view of Adam Smith, the father of industrial capitalism, who felt that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is the interest of every man,” he wrote in 1776 in “The Wealth of Nations,” “to live as much at his ease as he can.”
This idea has been enormously influential. About a century later, it helped shape the scientific management movement, which created systems of manufacture that minimized the need for skill and close attention — things that lazy, pay-driven workers could not be expected to have.
Today, in factories, offices and other workplaces, the details may be different but the overall situation is the same: Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to. The call center employee is monitored to ensure that he ends each call quickly. The office worker’s keystrokes are overseen to guarantee productivity.
But Schwartz rejects Adam Smith’s view of human nature and goes on to cite several studies showing that people are frequently more motivated to work better and more efficiently when they are given jobs that deliver them a sense of social value and personal satisfaction. For many of us, he insists, meaning is more important than money.
If you are thinking that this is not rocket science, Schwartz agrees, but his analysis of why so many of us labor in ways that dehumanize, demoralize, and depress us is worth considering:
This is admittedly not news. But that only raises a deeper question: In the face of longstanding evidence that routinization and an overemphasis on pay lead to worse performance in the workplace, why have we continued to tolerate and even embrace that approach to work?
The answer, I think, is that the ideas of Adam Smith have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: They gave rise to a world of work in which his gloomy assumptions about human beings became true. When you take all opportunities for meaning and engagement out of the work that people do, why would they work, except for the wage? What Smith and his descendants failed to realize is that rather than exploiting a fact about human nature, they were creating a fact about human nature . . .
Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good. But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.
And the wasting of lives is the business of the modern world where we’ve become so accustomed to sucking on the sugar-coated turd that we have come to confuse it with chocolate. Hence, we lie to ourselves and it is only in moments of unexpected revelation or crisis that we recognize the truth that we’ve been lying to ourselves all along.
Such was the realization of Linds Redding, a New Zealand-based ad executive who, before he recently died of cancer at age 52, published a remarkable essay where he rejects “The wholesale industrialization and mechanization of the creative process” and the cult of speed, hyper efficiency, and the fetishization of technology that comes with it.
In sum, Redding takes on the Amazonization of the advertising world and, more devastatingly, the big lie at the heart of most of our work lives. Indeed, he comes out against work as we know it:
And here’s the thing.
It turns out I didn’t actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did. I know this now because I occasionally catch up with my old colleagues and work-mates. They fall over each other to enthusiastically show me the latest project they’re working on. Ask my opinion. Proudly show off their technical prowess (which is not inconsiderable.) I find myself glazing over but politely listen as they brag about who’s had the least sleep and the most takeaway food. “I haven’t seen my wife since January, I can’t feel my legs any more and I think I have scurvy but another three weeks and we’ll be done. It’s got to be done by then. The client’s going on holiday.
What do I think?”
What do I think?
I think you’re all fucking mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality it’s not even funny. It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody gives a shit.
This has come as quite a shock I can tell you. I think, I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a bit of a con. A scam. An elaborate hoax.
Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…
This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It wasn’t really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients’. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.
So was it worth it?
Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling.
This is stark stuff from someone who made a good living practicing the craft of creating desires in order to sell us more things. But he’s right.
There are better lives to be had if we can gain the courage to start to say no– individually and collectively.
So maybe, if we believe there is something more to human existence than shifting product, we ought to stop, put down our various distracting devices, and think about what it means to be here, now, in this fleeting moment.