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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Presenteeism: Working 9 to 5 Isn't Getting Us Ahead

Tumble outta bed
And stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
Yawnin, stretchin, try to come to life
Jump in the shower
And the blood starts pumpin
Out on the streets
The traffic starts jumpin
And folks like me on the job from 9 to 5

The Industrious Age
The Industrial Revolution was a period of unparallelled productivity.  For that reason, it's been suggested that it would be more appropriately called "the industrious revolution." 
We didn't get to the peak of manufacturing capacity without some hiccoughs, however; the rise of the economic might of the manufactured economy was not a simple matter of a few Horatio Algers building the means of production and offering decent wages for decent work.  A whole host of other factors had to come into play to result in the ultimate widget-building system.
You can't have an industrial revolution in a sparsely populated, agrarian society.  No one can spend their day travelling from the farmstead to town to punch a clock nine-to-five, play the role of HR cog in a production line and then get home, milk the cows and till the yard.  Industry requires density, specialization and a complex economic system that makes people more reliant on each other.
Let's look at this from another angle.  If dad is out working the fields and mum is sewing clothes, doing dishes or tending to five children and every family follows more or less the same model, you have neither the ability to have an industrial economy nor the need to have an industrial economy.  There's little need for education, either; everything you need to learn to get ahead in life can be learned at home by folk who've been doing the exact same thing their whole lives, as have their parents.
A functioning industrial economy required a fundamental change the way we view not only work, but the way we define family.
Work in Agrarian Society:  That thing that you do to directly support the life and livelihood of your family.  When the work is done, or temporally done (can't harvest what's just been planted), you rest, spend time with family - relax.
Work in an Industrial Society:  That thing you do to earn money to buy the goods and services (food, made clothes, kitchen tools, furniture, lodging) you need to support your family.  When the work is done, you unwind - or, because there are manufactured goods and new services, you goods and services to supplement your life and add value to your day.
Family in an Agrarian Society: Larger, more complex, multi-generational.  Family is the thing that comes first and work is done to support it.
Family in an Industrial Society: 2.5 kids, so that the stay-at-home parent isn't overwhelmed.  The go-to-work parent is the "bread-winner" earning the coin needed to buy the goods and services needed for life.  There may be grandparents in the mix, but that changes the hierarchical structure (the workin' man deserves to be in charge, after all, not the enculturating stay-at-home grandparent).  Besides, isn't success defined by independent property ownership and copious consumption?  Grandma doing the knitting just messes that all up.
Well, to a degree.  More people working on the line means more people buying stuff; when this happens, costs starts to go up (because the end goal is profit, so if you have more people you can sell to, why not jack the prices?  The people will compete to have ownership of stuff and therefore portray themselves as better off than the Joneses) and the need for increased income rises.  There are only so many middle-management positions available so eventually, parent #2 needs to go to work, too.  Schools, not homes, become the depository for kids during the day - and an opportunity to learn more skills leading to a demand for more out of work than just the assembly line.  What's the point of spending all that time in school if you aren't going to get a job better than your unschooled parents had?
Then, there's the actual work itself.  For the most part, working on an assembly line sucks.  Simple, mind-numbing repetitive tasks aren't fun for most people and the end product isn't even something you're likely to enjoy yourself (doubt that, go live with the average factory worker in Brazil or Bangladesh for a couple of weeks).  What's the motivation to go through such an uncomfortable day when you could be on the farm, enjoying the fruits of your own labour?
The myth of Horatio Alger is good enough for some, at least for a while.  Over time, though, it will quickly become clear to many that the myth is just that; it's simply not true that anyone can be President or CEO.  Instead of striving to be the best, we satisfy ourselves with being better than someone else.  That, plus we need something to sweeten our mad existence.  There's a reason why sugar played such an important role in the industrial revolution - it made for an excellent carrot to motivate employees and played a hugely important role in shaping the evolution of the global economy.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that sugar makes an excellent sweetener for energy-nurturing beverages like tea and coffee, which surprise surprise, also play a big role in the development of a manufacturing-based industrial economy.  Keep your workers caffeinated so they work and through in some sugar at the end of the day; that, plus the threat of being replaced if you don't work fast enough are pretty good motivators for producing more widgets per hour.
That's not enough, though.  When you have workers coughing up lungs, losing fingers or generally being upset at the fact that they're busting their buns for meagre pickings while their bosses where fine suits and live in mansions, something has to give.  The 1% can and will tend to deny this fact for as long as possible, trying increasingly conflated confabulations to justify their fungal lifestyle but eventually, the aurora of entitlement wears off.
Whether by choice or by force, the playing field has to even out a bit.  Employers invest a bit more in their workers - training, benefits, vacation time, etc. - and lo and behold, productivity goes up.  Healthy, marginally happy workers with something to look forward to (even if it is just the TGIF roundup on the telly) are more productive than Concentration-Camp workers.
That's what it took for the perfection of the manufacturing economy - the empowering and properly motivating and stimulating of labour, the 9-to-5 workday, the breaks for tea and the odd week off to get away from the job.  Provide those things and you'll get the most bang for your buck.
The Manufactured Bleed
The rise of Western Society (best exemplified by the US) was build on the industrial revolution - whole populations grew, flourished and became more urban (and therefore more socially integrated and systematically dependent) and productive as a result.  It's taken a while and a few revolutions of the bloodier variety, plus some failed flirtations with communism for non-Western societies to fully embrace the industrial model.  And to be honest, in most cases, they haven't fully gotten there - poor infrastructure, low wages, little or no training or support have proven to be less of an impediment than it was to Western Countries because of much larger and more desperate population bases.
Products made in sweat shops in China, Brazil or Bangladesh might be cheaper made, but they're cheaper to buy, too. 
We Western folk, programmed by our own industrial revolution to want more of everything as recompense for our own labours tend not to pay so much attention to what happens behind the productive curtain - until, that is, we are exposed in thrilling fashion to horrors like the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh for which we, as consumers of the products made on that floor, are ultimately responsible.
This also brings us to the biggest flaw in the laissez-faire free market model favoured by the likes of Stephen Harper or Mitt Romney.  It's all well and good to suggest that, eventually, systems become balanced, wealth gets invested in labour and all the other top-down approach thoughts to economic growth, but this is a variant of the mentality that fuelled robber barons and czars.  The boss can be impatient and push for more production; they can even use labour employed as security and paid/resourced better than the masses to reinforce the point.  At the end of the day, though, there are always more ants than grasshoppers and the grassroots can always topple their leaders, if they become impatient enough for their own opportunity.
Yes, Western economies are suffering from the bleed of manufacturing jobs to countries like China, Bangladesh and Brazil, countries that have raced through industrialization.  At the same time, those countries are going to find themselves racing through the labour revolutionary process, putting them back where we were until the 90s.  Trying to scale back our economic evolution to the production equivalent of horses and bayonets won't only not get us ahead, it also won't fly - not with a populace that has been trained to expect more.
The Knowledge Economy
When you step back and line up the evolution of the manufacturing-based industrial revolution and the information/social-media tech-fueled Knowledge Economy revolution, all kinds of fun parallels line up.  The traditional definition of family doesn't mesh well with the labour requirements of the age - stay-at-home parenting is almost impossible for any family that wants to live comfortably.  More goods from Wal-Mart isn't making people happier.  The carrots, sticks and sugar model of labour motivation that worked so well for widget-making isn't keeping countries like Canada at the head of the innovation pack; heck, we can't even compete in pure knowledge productivity.  The 9 to - 5 workday, lived in one setting doing one task, no longer applies - we now need to have our heads all over the place and be multi-tasking, even innovating the work we're paid to do, yet the expectation is that will happen between 9 and 5 while sitting at one desk.
It's a bit ironic - while employers call for deregulation and an opportunity to keep more of their funds to themselves, somehow assuming that's all it takes for modern-day success, they don't see the value in freeing up their labour in the same way.  Especially in Canada, we are doing a terrible job of training and motivating our staff to produce the work/services/products we're demanding of them.  Across the board we're seeing average folk Occupying themselves with this imbalance; as the gap between their quality of life and that of their employers rises despite their clear importance to the production chain, the worker is Idle No More.
What has happened before shall happen again, etc.


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