A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.

On Masters in Old Age, Loving the Work, and Never Retiring

In a remarkable piece in The New York Times, Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s.

Here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 81:

Q: What has been the most surprising thing for you about moving into your 80s?

A: Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have. . . . It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’’

On the persistence of Carmen Herrera, age 99, who sold her first painting at age 89:

Q: You painted for decades, but didn’t sell your work until just 10 years ago. What kept you going?

I do it because I have to. I have my ideas. I do my drawings. I make my paintings. It’s my love of the straight line that keeps me going. This has not changed.

Q: What was your reaction when you sold your first painting at 89?

I was never bitter. I always wished others well. I thought maybe the market would be corrupting. Without commercial success you can do what you want to do. There is freedom to be working alone. But, oh, when my work began to sell! I thought, Damn it, it’s about time!

Christopher Plummer, actor, age 84 on loving the work you do and never retiring:

Q: I keep hearing that staying in shape is crucial past a certain age. Anything else?

A: Yes. And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.

I really appreciated the quote from The Once and Future King, quoted in the piece, on always learning:

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

The whole piece is a must read and worth the click for the photographs as well.

On Having Fun at Work

I am an advocate of making work fun, and this New York Times piece is a good primer on the movement:

Despite the sobering economic shocks of recent years, the Fun at Work movement seems irrepressible. Major companies boast of employing Chief Fun Officers or Happiness Engineers; corporations call upon a burgeoning industry of happiness consultants, who’ll construct a Gross Happiness Index for your workplace, then advise you on ways to boost it. (Each week, Warby Parker asks “everyone to tell their happiness rating on a scale of zero to 10,” Mr. Blumenthal explained.)

Countless self-help bloggers offer tips for generating cheer among the cubicles (“Buy donuts for everyone”; “Hang movie posters on your walls, with employees’ faces replacing those of the real movie stars”). It’s all shudderingly reminiscent of David Brent, Ricky Gervais’s wince-inducing character from the British version of “The Office”; or of the owner of the nuclear power plant in “The Simpsons” who considers distracting attention from the risk of lethal meltdowns by holding Funny Hat Days. 

However, I appreciated reading conflicting evidence as well:

The attempt to impose happiness is self-sabotaging. Psychologists have shown that positive-thinking affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse; that patients with panic disorders can become more anxious when they try to relax; and that an ability to experience negative emotions, rather than struggling to exclude them, is crucial for mental health. 

Amy Poehler on Her First Summer Job

A delightful piece by Amy Poehler, past cast member on Saturday Night Live and star of Parks and Recreation on NBC, on her first summer job and how it was a catalyst for her to go into acting:

Chadwick’s was one of those fake old-timey restaurants. The menus were written in swoopy cursive. The staff wore Styrofoam boaters and ruffled white shirts with bow ties. Jangly music blared from a player piano as children climbed on counters. If the style of the restaurant was old-fashioned, the parenting that went on there was distinctly modern. Moms and dads would patiently recite every item on the menu to their squirming five-year-olds, as if the many flavors of ice cream represented all the unique ways they were loved.

There was a performance element to the job that I found appealing, to begin with. Every time a customer was celebrating a birthday, an employee had to bang a drum that hung from the ceiling, and play the kazoo, and encourage the entire restaurant to join him or her in a sing-along. Other employees would ring cowbells and blow noisemakers. I would stand on a chair and loudly announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are so happy to have you at Chadwick’s today, but we are especially happy to have Kevin! Because it’s Kevin’s birthday today! So, at the sound of the drum, please join me in singing Kevin a very happy birthday!”

I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to be an actor. I was planning to go to Boston College as an English major and maybe become a teacher, like both of my parents. But when I stood in the dining room and demanded attention I was reminded of things I already secretly knew about myself. I wasn’t shy, I liked to be looked at, and making people laugh released a certain kind of hot lava into my body that made me feel like a queen.

I love this line: “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.”

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If you’re a subscriber to The New Yorker like I am, I highly recommend the entire series:

“Piano Man” by Jeremy Denk

“Caught Napping” by Nicole Holofcener

“Labors” by Norman Rush

“Pure Bleach” by Ed Ruscha

Improving Office Productivity via Musical Chairs

By shifting employees from desk to desk every few months, scattering those who do the same types of jobs and rethinking which departments to place side by side, companies say they can increase productivity and collaboration. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Proponents say such experiments not only come with a low price tag, but they can help a company’s bottom line, even if they leave a few disgruntled workers in their wake.

In recent years, many companies have moved toward open floor plans and unassigned seating, ushering managers out of their offices and clustering workers at communal tables. But some companies—especially small startups and technology businesses—are taking the trend a step further, micromanaging who sits next to whom in an attempt to get more from their employees.

“If I change the [organizational] chart and you stay in the same seat, it doesn’t have very much of an effect,” says Ben Waber , chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a Boston company that uses sensors to analyze communication patterns in the workplace. “If I keep the org chart the same but change where you sit, it is going to massively change everything.”

Mr. Waber says a worker’s immediate neighbors account for 40% to 60% of every interaction that worker has during the workday, from face-to-face chats to email messages. There is only a 5% to 10% chance employees are interacting with someone two rows away, according to his data, which is culled from companies in the retail, pharmaceutical and finance industries, among others.

Want to befriend someone on another floor? Forget it. “You basically only talk to [those] people if you have meetings,” Mr. Waber says.

Some psychological effect is at play here:

Aspects of a worker’s disposition can, in fact, be contagious, according to Sigal Barsade , a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “People literally catch emotions from one another like a virus,” she says. Her research has found that the least-contagious emotional state is one marked by low-energy and sluggishness. The most contagious is a calm, relaxed state—which she nicknamed “the California condition.”

People with similar emotional temperaments work best together, Ms. Barsade says. But if a manager is trying to get a stressed-out worker to brighten up, the best strategy is to surround her with lots of cheerful, energetic people.

I think all corporations (not just start-ups) should be paying attention to this research.

What Defines a Workaholic?

I learned something new today via this short piece in The Atlantic.

Wayne Oates, who published 57 books in his lifetime, coined/invented the word workaholic in 1968. While there still isn’t a standard medical definition of a workaholic, Jordan Weissman digests some papers on the subject:

What, precisely, qualifies someone as a workaholic? There’s still no single accepted medical definition. But psychologists have tried to distinguish people merely devoted to their careers from the true addicts. A seminal 1992 paper on how to measure the condition argued that sufferers work not only compulsively but also with little enjoyment [1]. Newer diagnostic tests attempt to single out those who, among other behaviors, binge and then suffer from withdrawal—just as someone would with, say, a gambling or cocaine habit [2].

Even as the precise outlines of workaholism remain a bit fuzzy, various studies have tried to identify its physical and emotional effects. At the risk of carrying on like a Pfizer ad: research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression [3]. That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages [4]. Having a workaholic parent is hardly better. A study of college undergraduates found that children of workaholics scored 72 percent higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics. They also exhibited more-severe levels of “parentification”—a term family therapists use for sons and daughters who, as the paper put it, “are parents to their own parents and sacrifice their own needs … to accommodate and care for the emotional needs and pursuits of parents or another family member” [5].

How many people are true workaholics? One recent estimate suggests that about 10 percent of U.S. adults might qualify [6]; the proportion is as high as 23 percent among lawyers, doctors, and psychologists [7]. Still more people may be inclined to call themselves workaholics, whether or not they actually are: in 1998, 27 percent of Canadians told the country’s General Social Survey that they were workaholics, including 38 percent of those with incomes over $80,000 [8]. (Even among those with no income, 22 percent called themselves workaholics! Presumably some were busy homemakers and students.)

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(via Andrew Sullivan)

The Man with the Longest Postal Route in America

Jim Ed Bull is a letter carrier with the United States Postal Service. He is 72 years old, but that is not his claim to fame. Jim has the longest postal route in America: 187.6 miles (301.8 kilometers) across some of the loneliest territory in the country. Bloomberg reports on his fascinating story:

Into the mailbox goes the weekly Southwest Oklahoma Shopper and a letter from Stockmans Bank, and slam, the door shuts tight. Snap-and-slam wasn’t always the soundtrack of Bull’s workday. He was a high school principal, coach and referee who retired in the late ’90s only to come back to a payroll. Now he’s one of 7.2 million Americans who were 65 and over and employed last year, a 67 percent jump from 10 years before.

They work longer hours and earn more than they did a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent are full-time compared to 52 percent in 2002, and their median weekly pay has gone up to $825 from $502. In the second quarter, government data show, Bull and his peers made $49 more a week than all workers 16 and older.

This was the most surprising part of the piece: USPS doesn’t supply rural drivers with vehicles. So Mr. Bull uses his own truck:

The Postal Service doesn’t supply rural carriers with vehicles, and Bull eschews modifications to his truck or special equipment. Instead, he sits between the two front seats, his body in the middle of the cab. His left hand holds the steering wheel, his left foot operates the gas and brake, and his long right arm inserts the mail.

mr_bull

Amazing.