July 2009 Early Indications: Love & Work part II

July 27, 2009
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Taking as our cue Freud’s famous dictum that people are defined by their love and their work, last month’s letter looked at online dating. This time around, the focus turns to work, prompted by both the current economic situation and a few books on the topic. What have computers and the digital revolution done to work? Answers vary considerably.

In 1992 Robert Reich (later Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor) devised a tripartite schema to classify the workers of the world, seeing global work forces as already having been divided into three groups: routine producers (e.g., call center reps or assembly-line workers), in-person servers (waiters or nurses), and symbolic analysts who manipulate pure information for large profits (Wall Street quants). Digitization in the service of high leverage made the “symbolic analysts” rich, and skewed income distribution. Seeing the relation of rich to poor less than 20 years later, Reich may have been onto something crucial, but his tepid solution — training and education — has failed to shift the terms of the debate, partly because school systems change incredibly slowly and require levels (and types) of investment that are for a number of


Taking as our cue Freud’s famous dictum that people are defined by their love and their work, last month’s letter looked at online dating. This time around, the focus turns to work, prompted by both the current economic situation and a few books on the topic. What have computers and the digital revolution done to work? Answers vary considerably.

In 1992 Robert Reich (later Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor) devised a tripartite schema to classify the workers of the world, seeing global work forces as already having been divided into three groups: routine producers (e.g., call center reps or assembly-line workers), in-person servers (waiters or nurses), and symbolic analysts who manipulate pure information for large profits (Wall Street quants). Digitization in the service of high leverage made the “symbolic analysts” rich, and skewed income distribution. Seeing the relation of rich to poor less than 20 years later, Reich may have been onto something crucial, but his tepid solution — training and education — has failed to shift the terms of the debate, partly because school systems change incredibly slowly and require levels (and types) of investment that are for a number of reasons politically impossible in the U.S.

A decade later, Richard Florida defined the engine of the new economy as the “creative class,” 38 million of whom comprised 30% of the workforce. For the winners, digitization empowers flexible work that gives great meaning: “In this new world, it is no longer the organizations we work for, churches, neighborhoods, or even family ties that define us. Instead, we do this ourselves, defining our identities along the varied dimensions of our creativity. Other aspects of our lives — what we consume, new forms of leisure and recreation, efforts at community-building — then organize themselves around this process of identity creation.” (Rise of the Creative Class, pp. 7- 8) Surely 30% of the workforce can’t work at ad agencies or Disney. No, says Florida, “I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content. Around the core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care and related fields.” The core and the donut are linked not by geography or income or skills but by a value set: “all members of the Creative Class — whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs — share a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit. For the members of the Creative Class, every aspect and every manifestation of creativity — technological, cultural and economic — is interlinked and inseparable.” (p. 8)

Whatever its relation to life as most people know it, Florida’s book resonated. It led to a thriving consulting business helping cities attempt to become more economically competitive. How? Not with tax incentives for auto plants but by luring more of those 38 million people with more tolerant attitudes, better mass transit, more authentic espresso bars, and the other factors that separate Toronto from Topeka or Minneapolis from Modesto.

In the intervening seven years, however, much has happened to cast doubt on Florida’s vision of the future. What exactly do those creative people do to help the U.S. balance of trade deficit? Movies, M&A deals, and Microsoft all contribute to exports, but not to the degree that farm goods do, and none approaches the aerospace sector’s international impact. What happens when offshore competition threatens large numbers of those 38 million jobs? Legal research, programming, equity analysis, and even movie-making and distance learning are already being produced and delivered from afar in lower-wage settings — what will be next? More fundamentally, just how creative are those 38 million people? Job titles can be deceiving: a good friend of mine was an architect at HOK, the sports division of which has given us such modern monuments as Camden Yards in Baltimore or ATT Park in San Francisco. What was our young Howard Roark’s creative contribution? Bathrooms for the Hong Kong airport.

Matthew Crawford, in a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft, raises similar doubts. Beginning with the observation that many high schools are dropping shop class because it fails to train people to be symbolic analysts, Crawford challenges the reader to think deeply about the value of work. Because it often lacks real output, modern bureaucratic life, defined largely by office automation, can be unfulfilling. In contrast to the carpenter whose windows can’t leak, or the farmer, who feeds people with tangible crops or livestock, the office worker (creative or not) lacks physical boundaries to define the real from the artificial or the possible from the impossible.

As Crawford notes, quoting Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes (now 20 years old), office memos are crafted to be unincriminating no matter how subsequent events play out. Taking a firm stand is often seen as career-limiting, so most eventualities remain unforeclosed; every position is hedged. Along similar lines, after receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Crawford works for a think tank generating position papers that begin not with the facts but with a position, reasoning backward to convenient truths. It is intellectual bad faith of the first order, and he quits. Worse yet, in his circles of occupational hell, are jobs built on teams with their indeterminate appropriation of credit and blame, along with the HR-driven trust-building games that frequently pass the point of self-parody.

In contrast, the author points to his work as a motorcycle mechanic. No symbolic analyst he, Crawford confronts physical limits every day, and pays a steep price for failure. If he drops a washer into a crankcase, there are times when he must tear down the engine block to retrieve it, and cannot in good conscience bill the customer for all of the hours involved. Mistakes, stupid or otherwise, have concrete consequences. On the positive side of the ledger, when he fixes a broken fork, returns a dead bike to life after ten years off the road, or hears the particular sound of a well-tuned engine, he derives great satisfaction. He also contends that mechanical work can be more intellectually engaging than “knowledge work,” implicitly challenging Florida’s new world order.

In some measure, we are fighting a new stage of the battle joined by Descartes, who separated thought from emotion and thereby physicality. Craft work (fixing or building things) joins the practice of medicine, certainly, but also full-throated singing as moments where mind and body unite. Sport constitutes another similar realm, as does cooking, the recent enthusiasm for which might be seen as a reassertion of the satisfaction that can only come when head, hands, and palate unite in a primal act — that of feeding another person.

Compare the gestalt of today’s many cooking shows to the treatment of the modern workplace in current television programming and the contrast is obvious: Julia Child, enshrined at the Smithsonian, is a hero while cubicle America’s cultural icon has yet to transcend Dilbert. Shop Class as Soulcraft also makes the pragmatic point that fixing things cannot be offshored; one can make a healthy living as an electrician, for example, or an auto repairman.

Last time I was in for an oil change my mechanic was telling me about one manufacturer’s switch to a fiber-optic system bus — he knows more computer networking than I ever will. To service appliances or furnaces today is to have studied hundreds of hours of digital control and monitoring technology. High schools, however, generally operate under the principle that college-bound students will have better careers than those who work in jobs that require mere training. But what economists call the education premium can no longer be assured today, much less in 50 years when today’s high-school graduates will almost certainly still be working.

There’s also the matter of permanence. As Crawford notes, many of today’s appliances are built to break and not be repaired. How does today’s work give people the opportunity to build something that will last beyond their life span? For teachers, this is one of the true joys of the profession. For most “knowledge workers,” the answer is less clear. True craftsmen raise a red flag. As Michael Ruhlman, known more for his books on chefs and cooking, reported in a book on wooden boats, “I asked Gannon why wooden boats were important to him — why had he devoted his life to them? Ross seemed surprised by my apparent ignorance regarding what to him was plain, and his blazing eyes burned right through me. ‘Do you want to teach your daughter [then 3 years old] that what you do, what you care about, is disposable?’ he asked. ‘That you can throw your work away? It doesn’t matter?'”

Whether in passing down the family farm or painting “& Sons” on the service van, craft work is often connected to future generations that bureaucracy cannot sustain. This lack of long-term continuity may be another reason why the modern office lacks heroic images in popular culture. A final reason for the current deep unease with the prevalent model of work lies in the fact that we are undergoing several foundational shifts. Global competition and offshoring are familiar, but the aftermath of digitization changes so many aspects of life so quickly that some sense of vertigo becomes unavoidable.

As Carlota Perez asserts in her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (p. 57), every major technology breakthrough in the western world since 1750 progresses through two major historical phases, installation (ending with a bubble popping) and deployment. Between the two often lies a financial crisis: 1848 for the age of steam, 1893 for the age of steel, and 1929 for the automobile and associated industries. Her positioning of 2001 as the start of the computer age’s financial crisis is persuasive, meaning that if the past is a guide, that deployment of these telecommunications and computing technologies will bring both financial growth and structural change.

Work will undoubtedly be very different 20 years from now. Tom Malone of MIT explores that future landscape through the lens of its institutions. In his 2004 book The Future of Work, he lays out various scenarios primarily concerned with the coordination and collaborative facets of organizations. He sees the future as more decentralized, less hierarchical, and more democratic. If it comes to pass, Malone’s vision foreshadows the demise of “The Office’s” Michael Scott and his kin. Pettiness and incompetence are eternal, however, so it is worth pondering both what will happen to a Michael in a Malone-ite world, and what manner of successor will emerge instead.

In the end of any analysis, work cannot be categorized with any precision. It is both universal and specifically grounded in time, place, and individual. It offers both rewards and challenges (some of which may overlap), utilizes groups and solo contributors, and defines us in multiple ways. The diversity of the perspectives mentioned here is itself incomplete, missing, for example, the perspective of the Japanese salaryman, the unionized autoworker, or the classic professions of law or clergy (both of which themselves are in the midst of deep change). We have made no mention of wages, which are retreating in many settings.

The appeal of Dan Pink’s vision of Free Agent Nation (2002), for example, has been replaced by the reality of the less glamorous name for continuous partial employment, “temping.” As to the question, “what have computers done to work?” the answer is probably less clear than it will be in another 25 years, when the changes to economies, workplaces, and individual performance will separate themselves from the end of the oil/automotive/steel age that wound down in the late 20th century. The exciting news comes in the realization that the future of work is not yet defined, making it contingent on the attitudes and actions of many people, professors and motorcycle mechanics hopefully among them.

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