Posted: March 3, 2010
hop Class as Soulcraft and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work are meditations on how paid employment helps and hinders our efforts to fashion good lives. The publishers' bad luck finds the volumes arriving in bookstores during the worst economic downturn since 1945. The latest reports, for example, show that one out of every six Americans is unemployed and looking for work, or out of work and so discouraged by the absence of job opportunities as to have quit trying to find one, or involuntarily working part-time while seeking a full-time position. Millions of people, in other words, would be grateful and relieved to have (or have back) the soul-crushing jobs—on assembly lines, in cubicles, and behind cash registers—lamented by Matthew Crawford and Alain de Botton.
Such basic economic considerations are peripheral to Crawford and de Botton's investigations, which consider work sociologically, psychologically and, above all, philosophically. Crawford has an argument about his topic, and de Botton has an attitude toward it—inquisitive, reflective, and resigned. Both believe that our chances for happiness will be significantly improved by performing, and even losing ourselves in, "work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it," as Crawford writes.
Unlike Crawford, however, de Botton acknowledges the possibility that expecting fulfillment while earning a living may be fundamentally misbegotten, a way of investing in hopes that will almost never be realized:
The strangest thing about the world of work is the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy. For thousands of years, work was viewed as something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religion. Aristotle was the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living.
Given the reality that nearly all of us are obliged to earn a living, and wish to be as free and satisfied as we can, careers in the skilled trades are likely to be better for both your net worth and your self-worth, Crawford argues. Citing economist Alan Blinder, he says,
[T]he crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, ‘You can't hammer a nail over the Internet.' Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.
The default option pressed on a vast, ever-growing segment of the American population, however, is to "round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle," commencing four or five "enervating" decades as so-called "knowledge workers." The result, writes Crawford, is, "Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day?"
By contrast, he says, "people who do work that is straightforwardly useful" satisfy a "basic human need." De Botton agrees, contending that "the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money." Thus, "the adults who feature in children's books" are "shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers—people whose labour can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life." No such book leads children to dream of becoming regional sales managers or "brand supervision coordinators."
* * *
Both authors make acute observations about the knowledge worker trapped in his cubicle. Crawford earned a doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before quitting a job at a Washington think tank to open his own motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. ("For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.") He notes that, in political terms, the vast modern organization has come to be governed in an inscrutable, baffling manner:
Given our democratic sensibilities, authority cannot present itself straightforwardly, as authority, coming down from a superior, but must be understood as an impersonal thing that emanates vaguely from all of us. So authority becomes smarmy and passive-aggressive, trying to pass itself off as something cooperative and friendly; as volunteerism.
This problem didn't beset the "man in the gray flannel suit" 50 years ago, when deep thinkers worried about a crisis of conformity. Over 16 million Americans served in uniform during World War II. The experience of life in the military, modern nations' least democratic institution, was democratized. An entire generation of American males returned to the civilian world accustomed to giving and taking orders.
Today's manager, shaped by the anti-establishment 1960s rather than the command-and-control 1940s, would be mortified if anyone compared him to a drill sergeant. As a consequence, writes Crawford, "He is not so much a boss as a life coach." Rather than communicate clear, objective goals by which a subordinate's job performance will be evaluated, the manager extols and transmits the "corporate culture," urging and constantly helping "team members" identify with and "buy in" to the organization's "mission." "This higher purpose typically remains on a meta-level, vaguely specified," notes Crawford. "But the absence of specific content to this higher purpose is its main feature. All the moral urgency surrounding it seems to boil down to an imperative to develop a disposition of teaminess." Clear directives to do X but not Y would actually hinder the team member's crucial progress in personal discovery and transformation.
They would, moreover, require the boss to take risks it is crucial for him to avoid. In Crawford's words,
A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It's important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can't back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.
The infuriating absurdity of workplaces shaped by such imperatives was captured by the 1999 movie, Office Space. In one scene Joanna, a waitress in a restaurant that emphasizes "atmosphere, attitude, and fun," is confronted by her boss for not wearing enough "flair," buttons on her uniform that say things like, "We're Not In Kansas Anymore." But I'm wearing 15 pieces of flair, she says. Isn't that the minimum? "Now, it's up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum," he tells her. "Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don't you?"
When, some days later, the waitress is still wearing just 15 buttons, the manager takes her aside: "Let me ask you a question, Joanna. What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?" "Let me tell you what I think," she says, struggling to remain composed. "If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair...then why don't you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?" Sidestepping this challenge to issue a direct order, the manager says, "Well, I thought I remember you saying you wanted to express yourself." Enraged, the waitress gives him the finger while quitting and storming out, exclaiming, "There's my flair! And this is me expressing myself."
If Office Space were leftwing agit-prop, Joanna would have been the clear proletarian victim, her boss the capitalist villain. But a workplace organized so that no one ever receives or imparts clear commands or standards makes everyone a victim. "With the cold war now safely decided," writes Crawford, "we may consider anew, without a sense of mortal political threat, the Marxian account of alienated labor." The absence of a mortal threat doesn't take us very far, however, in wresting something comprehensible and useable from Marx's account of un-alienated labor. "Supposing that we had produced in a human manner; each of us in his production would have doubly affirmed himself and his fellow men," Marx wrote in his early notebooks. "My work would be a free expression of my life, and therefore a free enjoyment of my life."
* * *
A Swiss writer now living in London, De Botton also discerns, however, something about the modern work experience that causes workers, even top executives, to negate rather than affirm themselves. At one point in his book, an examination of ten different industries, he spends several days hanging around the European headquarters of "one of the world's largest accountancy firms." Before finally getting a chance to interview the chairman, de Botton observes the same thing as Crawford: "It is by posing as a regular employee that the chairman stands his best chance of preserving his seniority.... [He has] been forced to surrender his right to bark orders. He cannot scold graduates of...Wharton. The one tool left to him is persuasion." And so the chairman travels, several times a month, to one office or another around the world, flattering audiences of thousands of accountants while recommending improvements "in the humble and supplicating manner of a preacher in an age of declining faith."
De Botton's 30-minute interview with the chairman, chaperoned warily by the firm's director of public relations, is revealingly opaque. The chairman gives a writer trying to understand the experience of running a big corporation nothing but responses that would fit into one of his PowerPoint assisted pep-talks:
Does he like travelling? "We are fortunate that we are already part of a successful global business, but we must do more to commit fully to our global organisation and the global market." How does his firm differ from its competitors? "Our people are our brand in our clients' eyes, and a differentiated client experience can only be created through our people living our values."
The author's first reaction is scornful exasperation at being stonewalled by an executive who, being so determined not to say anything, should never have granted the interview to begin with. His second thought, however, is to consider the possibility the chairman is exercising a kind of candor by making it clear that PowerPoint slogans are the only things he hasto say:
But perhaps he speaks like this not so much because he wishes to keep secrets as because years of circumnavigating the earth, breathing conditioned air and headlining conferences, have hollowed out his personality. It may have been a decade since he was left alone in a room with nothing to do. I feel my boredom turn to pity for someone who one might otherwise imagine had precious little to be pitied for.
The surrealism of modern economic life extends beyond the employment relationship. Another industry on de Botton's list is "biscuit manufacture." If you imagine that a big company like United Biscuits, "the number-one player in the British biscuit market and its second-largest producer of bagged nuts," comes up with new confections in its kitchens, and then sees if the most appetizing can be priced and sold at levels that will please its shareholders, you need to get out more. "Biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking," he learns.
U.B. launched its "Moments" brand after a two-year development process. The key step was a series of focus groups where marketing experts questioned "low-income mothers" about their lives, "in an attempt to tease out of them certain emotional longings that could subsequently be elaborated into the organising principles behind a new product." Those longings turned out to be for sympathy, affection, and "me-time." U.B.'s brand managers set out to position their new product as one capable of assuaging these desires. This required making decisions about the "width, shape, coating, packaging and name" of the new cookie, since the right combination of these details "can furnish a biscuit with a personality as subtly and appropriately nuanced as that of a protagonist in a great novel."
De Botton finds the extensive division of labor necessary to create and produce a single cookie both impressive and dispiriting. The headquarters staff includes branding executives, packaging technologists, and strategic projects evaluators. "Some had attained extraordinary expertise in the collection and analysis of sales data from supermarkets, while others daily investigated how to ensure a minimum of friction between wafers during transit." The jobs in a Belgian factory that actually produces Moments are just as specialized and arcane. He is led to observe, "The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful, but the extent to which the activity can seem to be so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen different manufacturing sites." United Biscuit employees may gain the satisfaction of doing their varied jobs well, but only at the highest level of abstraction can they imagine themselves to have helped a Moments consumer enjoy some me-time.
Crawford is even more emphatic in arguing that hyper-specialization has led to the "stupidification" of the work experience. The economic success of Henry Ford's production techniques and the popularity of F.W. Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) made the assembly line the paradigm of modern industrialization. "Scattered craft knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the employer," according to Crawford's description of its essence, "then doled out again to workers in the form of minute instructions needed to perform some part of what is now a work process." That transformation of manual labor is now being visited upon mental labor. He quotes The Electronic Sweatshop (1989) by Barbara Garson: "Extraordinary human ingenuity has been used to eliminate the need for human ingenuity." The culmination of this trend is to eliminate the need for human beings altogether, as when TurboTax software captures the activity of preparing a tax return in an elaborate, digitized if-then decision tree. In a chapter titled, "The Separation of Thinking from Doing," Crawford tells us, "the basic logic of the modern economy" is "cognitive stratification."
Even when we do look up from our narrowed- and dumbed-down labors, the ultimate destination visible on the horizon is often disheartening. After de Botton has spent time with United Biscuit employees carrying out various slivers of the vast process that puts Moments on store shelves, "I wondered whether the biscuits might not be part of the very problem that they had been designed to address, whether their production and marketing was not indeed contributing to precisely the feelings of emptiness and nervous tension which they claimed to alleviate." He wonders further "why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things," leaving us "experts at swiftly assembling confectionary" while "we were still searching for reliable means of generating emotional stability or marital harmony."
De Botton provides a very red-state rejoinder to his own blue-state line of inquiry:
[T]here has always been an insurmountable problem facing those countries that ignore the efficient production of chocolate biscuits and sternly dissuade their ablest citizens from spending their lives on the development of innovative marketing promotions: they have been poor, so poor as to be unable to guarantee political stability or take care of their most vulnerable citizens, whom they have lost to famines and epidemics. It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centered and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.
Crawford has little to say about these macroeconomic realities. "It remains for others, better versed in public policy and shrewder about its unintended consequences," to devise measures that increase our chances of realizing a "humane economy" where "the virtue of independence is cultivated, and a diversity of human types can find work to which they are suited." He declines to be carried away by his own powerful rhetoric into the revolutionary's "exaggerated fantasy of world changing." He chooses, instead, the "Stoic" path of "seeking out the cracks" in the modern economy to find those places "where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one's own life."
* * *
Such cracks exist, as the careers of skilled tradesmen attest. The logic of economic progress, however, is apt to make these microeconomic niches, where work offers "prospects for full human flourishing," ever more micro. There was once a time when shops that repaired televisions, radios, and small electric appliances could provide their proprietors with a decent living. Opening such a business today would be as shrewd a career decision as becoming a blacksmith or wheelwright. Improvements in quality and reliability, spurred by international economic competition, make today's appliances far more dependable than the ones in our grandparents' houses. They're cheaper, too, which means that when they do break down or wear out it invariably makes more sense to replace than repair them.
For all the manly pride evident in his enthused, detailed discussions of intake manifolds and oil pumps, Crawford's own business has something of the boutique about it. In the first place, Americans' motorcycles are almost always recreational equipment rather than practical necessities, more like sailboats than refrigerators. They are owned by people who drive automobiles, rather than by those who need personal transportation but can't afford cars. Crawford's clients appear to be a subset of connoisseurs within this universe of toy owners. His shop specializes in foreign motorcycles, especially those so old that replacement parts are difficult or impossible to locate. His customers, then, have the desire and means to keep a rare, temperamental bike on the road, while cyclists who can't afford such an indulgence would give it up for a new, easily maintained Yamaha. Both motorcycling in general, then, and the ability to ride away from Crawford's shop on a collector's item are made possible by higher and wider prosperity, a development thoroughly intertwined with the spread of dehumanizing work that he deplores.
The economic viability of Crawford's repair business is similarly hazy, since it is either possible or necessary for him to spend part of his time writing articles and books while serving as a research fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He argues for a "more integral sort of life" than the one led by the mortgage banker who works hard all year in order to climb Mount Everest on his vacation, accumulating money in the one activity to spend it for the "psychic nourishment" provided by the other. Crawford clearly draws psychic nourishment from fixing old and rare bikes, but whether others in the same business, lacking his rare set of moonlighting opportunities, could derive enough revenue to support a family from such work is an important practical detail Shop Class as Soulcraft doesn't address.
Seemingly to remind himself as much as his readers, Crawford occasionally punctuates his reflections on the role of work with observations like, "We are recalled to the basic antagonism of economic life: work is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else's interests. That's why you get paid."
* * *
It appears, however, that many of us think differently about this whole getting paid thing than Crawford. Like many philosophers, he believes that people with fewer and simpler needs are generally happier. In the prelapsarian days of capitalism "it was found that when employers would increase the piece rate in order to boost production, it actually had the opposite effect: workers would produce less, as now they could meet their fixed needs with less work." This doesn't sound like a hard problem for the economist—the "backward bending supply curve of labor" is a well-documented phenomenon—or the capitalist, who should welcome the chance to reduce the piece rate to where it had been and end up with more products to sell at a lower cost per unit.
What happened instead, argues Crawford, is that the employer class went to extraordinary lengths to foist upon the workers, whose simple wants were easily satisfied, an artificially induced appetite for an endless list of consumption items: "the only way to get [workers] to work harder was to play upon the imagination, stimulating new needs and wants." New links in the chains that tie us to our increasingly degrading jobs were forged when the advent of consumer debt made it possible, even irresistible, to get deeper and deeper in hock and, like Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, spend our lives working desperately to make payments on things that fall apart by the time we finally own them free and clear.
'Tis a gift to be simple and a gift to be free, as the old hymn goes. The argument that economic tyranny has inflicted on us the need not to be simple and, thus, the inability to be free is neither new nor sturdy. In The Consumer Society(1970), Jean Baudrillard decried "the system's" determination to saddle us with artificially induced needs to keep us weak and itself steadily more powerful and malevolent. "The industrial system, having socialized the masses as a labor force, was forced to go further, in order to finish the job, and socialize them (which is to say, control them) as a consumption force." His list of self-evidently useless extravagances the system beguiles us into demanding included automobile windshield wipers able to operate at more than one speed.
There is more logic and evidence supporting the proposition that we have consumerism because consumers want it than because it has been insidiously imposed on them. Producing and consuming are directed to our basic biological needs but, because we are political animals, also to our social and psychological ones, which are felt no less acutely. Our understanding of what it means to have the "bare necessities" rises steadily with the advance of prosperity. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation pointed out in 2007 that 97% of American households officially categorized as poor have a color TV, 89% have microwave ovens, and 80% have air-conditioned homes, something only 36% of all Americans enjoyed as recently as 1970. Nearly three quarters of poor households owned a car, he says, and 31% had two or more.
As the poverty threshold keeps inching up, so does the minimum level that defines respectable affluence. This problem is compounded by the inherently comparative, even competitive, nature of so much modern economic activity. In The Social Limits to Growth (1976), Fred Hirsch distinguished between material goods, like color televisions or air conditioners, and "positional" goods. The supply of material goods can be expanded indefinitely, but positional goods, like homes in the most desirable neighborhoods or degrees from prestigious colleges, are inherently scarce—if everybody could acquire them then what makes them worth acquiring would be lost. At the dawn of the modern economic era John Locke praised the multiplication of material goods: "a king of a large and fruitful territory [in America] feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England." That economic advance has led us to expect the similar mass-production of positional goods, which guarantees disappointment. As Hirsch wrote, "What the wealthy have today can no longer be delivered to the rest of us tomorrow; yet as we individually grow richer, that is what we expect."
Furthermore, as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue in Nation of Rebels (2004), many material goods are also, in part, positional goods that carry a "competitive premium." A popular new restaurant with lines of people waiting to get in is likely to raise its prices to take advantage of the high demand for what it sells. One portion of each diner's bill will cover the material goods and services provided, and another will reflect the positional premium created by people on the waiting list who bid up the price of getting a table.
The per-square-foot cost of an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can be ten times higher than the market value of many houses around the country—not because it is ten times better appointed, but because the competitive premium created by people who want to live in one of the city's most sought-after neighborhoods is priced in. A couple squeezed into a million-dollar, one-bedroom condo may sincerely prize being able to walk to Central Park and the Met for its own sake, rather than because they like to brag about it to their outer-borough or fly-over-country friends. Their straightforward preference will, nevertheless, require them to commit as unreservedly to their lucrative careers as if their sole motive were the invidious desire to keep a tax-bracket ahead of the Joneses.
* * *
To secede from the positional economy is, then, a more complex matter than renouncing snobbery and status anxiety. It's very hard to undertake or assess economic activities out of context. (Cornell economist Robert H. Frank reminds us that H.L. Mencken defined a rich man as one who earns $100 a year more than his wife's sister's husband.) Moreover, the decline of governmental competence and social capital means that many "private" consumption decisions are driven by external realities. If the homes in a metropolitan area that a family can easily afford are in sketchy neighborhoods with mediocre public schools, status concerns will have nothing to do with their decision to buy, in a different neighborhood, a house that is more expensive, bigger, and fancier than they really want—and the resulting decision to tough it out in a depressing job rather than pursue less lucrative work in a more satisfying career.
Working and consuming, making money and spending it, are not only inextricably linked, but related in complex and counter-intuitive ways. Journalist Jonathan Foreman wrote an article 12 years ago describing his previous career as a lawyer in one of those Wall Street firms where, in a typical week, associates log more hours at work than most people spend being awake:
[T]o make the life bearable, you found yourself spending a lot of money. After a particularly long and dreary project, or a humiliating interaction with someone of higher rank, I would often slip out to buy myself a little present, perhaps another Ferragamo tie. It's a way of reminding yourself that despite your misery you are a highly paid professional: you may feel like a serf, but you can afford to spend $80 on a beautiful strip of silk. This becomes a way of life. Some people eat chocolate to make themselves feel better; lawyers buy stuff. As they claw their way up the ladder, they buy more and more. Before they know it, they cannot imagine living without an enormous salary.
Foreman offers an extreme but not particularly rare instance of what Leo Strauss called the "joyless quest for joy." Work is no longer the means and consumption the end. Consumption becomes the means to validate the end, to keep at bay all thoughts that the decision to spend three years in a law school whose name your parents eagerly mentioned to their friends, and run up over $100,000 in student loans, might have been a huge mistake.
In an earlier book, Status Anxiety (2004), de Botton chronicled how work was revolutionized by the modern economic transformation:
In 1800, just 20 percent of American workers had an employer other than themselves; by 1900, the figure was up to 50 percent, and by 2000, 90 percent. Employers were also getting larger: whereas in 1800, less than 1 percent of the American workforce was employed in an organisation having five hundred or more employees, by 2000, the figure stood at 55 percent.
It has become much harder, then, but for that reason much more important, to remember that in the final analysis we are all self-employed, each the sole proprietor of his own Me, Inc. We take that self to the market, trying to find the best terms on which to sell what we have and do, and provide what others want. Some of us wind up corporate vice presidents and some paint houses, but all of us wind up making choices and living with them.
Crawford disavows reforming or regulating the markets for our labor and de Botton never expresses any interest in the subject. Their advice is that for our self-employment to make us happy, or at least reduce the likelihood and severity of our unhappiness, we need to know that self as well as we can, and assess the markets we confront as shrewdly and knowledgeably as possible. What are our talents and aversions? What are our tolerance levels for work that involves tedium, or carries the risk of physical danger or public humiliation? What tradeoffs are we prepared to make between job satisfaction and financial compensation, and which would be intolerable? What are the kinds of work we can most readily imagine ourselves getting lost in and being proud of? Do we see ourselves being successful and happy as "alpinists of organisational pyramids," in de Botton's phrase, or does the prospect fill us with despair?
Such questions are unlikely to issue in a tidy recipe that leads to a successful career and happy life. But failing to ask them leaves us at the mercy of the default options presented by the market, and by the educators and career counselors, options that can be as lamentable when they are devised by people who think they have our best interests at heart as when they issue from people who certainly do not. Such reflections increase the likelihood that, in de Botton's words:
Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.