Digital Taylorism – Why our Jobs are Getting Worse

This brilliant article from the Grauniad absolutely hit a nerve with me. It describes the reasons why I hate the management edifice around what my job has become, though at the moment what I do is okay – if only the blasted System would let me get on an do it with death-by-bureaucracy.

When I started work at my current company as a lowly grunt Assistant Engineer, I had the authority to fill in a purchase requisition for up to £500 without higher level authorisation, and that was about right for the level of work. It wasn’t generally abused, either.

Now I have to get authorisation from the next level up simply to buy a rail ticket, and that next level has to get the okay and a reference number from some other part of Business Operations. I don’t know what you have to do to buy pens and paperclips these days. The company’s perfectly entitled to introduce all this bureaucracy, but it was all snuck in while talking about employee empowerment and BS like that.

Software development used to be a creative process. It is now a revolting straitjacketed system where an idea gets posted to s Star Chamber whose purpose is to destroy anything that is innovative or potentially risky, then fire anything that gets through into another bureaucratic process to make sure it fits in with a morass of process and policy definitions. Presumably the original purpose of the Star Chamber was something else but my description fits the most obvious results. For some reason we seem to take longer to get anything involving software to market, so we outsource more of  it to India. The main advantage the Indian guys have is they don’t seem to have to go through this process, though they don’t always have the gumption to apply common sense to the results, ending up with some classic howlers. This isn’t a Daily Mail-esque rant on Indian IT people – the contracts seem to be written in some peculiar way that almost prohibits initiative. These guys are bright enough but their hands are tied. You gets what you pays for, and we don’t want to pay for them to think. So we or our customers end up debugging the results, but hey, the cycle time is shorter, and Agile development is all about failing fast and frequently. Well, that’s how we seem to do it, it is meant to work differently.

Fortunately I got out of software into a one-off hardware project that will hopefully see me out 🙂 I’d have throttled one of the process monkeys by now if I were in software now.

The problem is that technology has allowed bean-counters to micromanage our jobs at arm’s length. Taylor introduced ‘scientific management’ as a way of getting the American worker to do as they were told; it had the side effect of deskilling workers and de-humanising the workplace. As the Philip Brown from Praxis puts it

the twentyfirst century is the age of digital Taylorism. This involves translating knowledge work into working knowledge through the extraction, codification and digitalisation of knowledge into software prescripts and packages that can be transmitted and manipulated by others regardless of location.

The Graun follows on:

From now on, believe Brown and his colleagues, “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers in the UK”. The rest will be turned into routine and farmed off to regional offices in eastern Europe or India.

Nice. I want out of that sort of environment. Working without thinking is like living without breathing to me.

The actual paper itself is a fascinating read. Basically, we are hosed.

Companies are using the very latest
technologies to produce high value-added goods and services
in the midst of third world poverty as they no longer require the
full array of institutional supports to provide the skills base that
we are accustomed to in the West.

Fasten your seat belts, folks, and adopt the brace position. If these guys are right we are stuffed in the West – there is nothing we can do to compete in the race to the bottom. As the Philip Brown et al say on page 15

The growth of this high end capacity in emerging economies is
likely to cause a serious challenge to the West as differences in
productivity and quality narrow, contributing to a reverse (Dutch) auction, reflecting a weakening in the trading positions of large numbers of middle class professionals, managers and technicians in OECD economies.

38 thoughts on “Digital Taylorism – Why our Jobs are Getting Worse”

  1. …or not, as those countries in turn get richer, require nail bars and iPads for themselves, and stop letting kids work at 12 so they too can have the right to study Ancient Hindu Nose-Piping at the University of their choice.

    As for the jobs, I agree they’re rubbish but I’m pretty sure they always were. I think ermine you’re really describing how big corporate companies were a fun place to work 20-30 years ago, but aren’t now. The bright jobs are in start ups or finance or working for yourself these days.

    The old days, whether tugging at Mr Mainwaring’s forelock or working down a pit or being a shop girl in Woolworths was no fun.

    At least you don’t die at 50 of coal dust inhalation now if you’re a bloke down a pit, or have to put up with the boss calling you a ‘silly girl’ between pinching your bum in the typing pool.

    (When I say ‘you’ I mean of course the fairer sex! ;)).

    Thought provoking stuff as ever, mind.


  2. Well I can definitely say I’ve never had my bum pinched at work 😉

    I see what you’re saying, however I do think there are macroeconomic forces that point to living standards in the West falling. Even if we ignore resource shortages, the sheer numbers are shifting the balance of power. We have been top of the food chain until now, but no longer, and our workforce is outnumbered by the new middle class aspirants of the East.

    We have taken more than our fair share of resources to date, and been getting away with using three Earths worth of resources because only a small proportion of the Earth’s population have been doing that. The next couple of decades will bring a lot of more middle class aspirants onto the scene as you indicated, and at some point consumption x consumers > earth’s available resources in key areas – my guesses would be oil and clean water first.

    If that doesn’t happen, however, we are increasingly in a winner takes all world. In the 1960s many towns had a football team made up of players from the local area. Now there are a small number of top teams drawing players from a small worldwide talent pool, and a bunch of also-rans. The situation with employment is similar, though it is first apparent in transnational corporations. This is the reason why we have so many economically inactive people – our economy hasn’t got any use for increasing numbers of average ability people, only the brightest. The middle is getting hollwed out – the economy seems to need either geniuses or grunts.


  3. Okay, but now we’re talking about what is going to happen, not what has happened.

    Also, where is the evidence that we’re going to suffer? Why have the equations of free trade been overturned?

    China and India have been growing at 7-12% a year for decades, and until the recent crisis of our own making, the West’s GDP had been doing just fine. Before that the Asian tigers, and before that Japan. Real standards of living (if not real average incomes in the US, but that’s a political issue) are hugely higher now than in 1980.

    Also, on resources, Western GDP has for 100 years been ever less resource dependent. Again, why should this change?

    I don’t want to clog your blog up with my views, and I do really like your eloquent laments, but I’d caution it’s important not to fall into the ‘good old days’ trap that has ensnared people since Horace.


  4. p.s. I agree with some of the winner takes all stuff, but that’s a domestic political issue. Compare with Sweden, for instance.

    Also, we have lots of economically inactive people because we pay them to be economically inactive, as evidence by all the Eastern Europeans who were happy to work in Starbucks at the bottom of the food chain, and the millions of vacancies in the job centres.


  5. I like your comments, they make me think and in this post I probably did ham it up a bit as this paper really did indicate what went wrong with my company. Well called – keep ’em coming – if working without thinking in meaningless living without thinking is even worse 🙂

    > Real standards of living […] are hugely higher now than in 1980.

    In terms of Stuff, and communications of information, without a doubt you’re spot on. In terms of community I am not sure. Oliver James’ Affluenza made a good case for the degradation of the human support network over the years.

    There is far more stress and low-level mental health problems than even in the mid-1980s when I started work, though physical health problems due to work are much improved now.

    The work environment for employees does seem to be getting worse. My company is nowhere near the pits for that, they still do some things quite well. People under 30, however, seem to be getting the shaft from employers, unless the people I know are an unrepresentative sample for some reason.

    > Why have the equations of free trade been overturned?

    Resource limits, Peak Oil… The West could get away with our level of consumption when not too many other people were doing it. We can’t carry on like this where > 50% of the human population wants a lifestyle which if everybody had it would need 3-4 Earths. We’ve enjoyed it so far, but I’d suggest Brazil, China and India have a bit more cultural fire in their bellies than the West has now. If their end of the boat goes up then ours sinks, on a finite Earth. ERE talks about this better than I could. Free trade and its benefits are predicated on an absence of significant resource constraints.


  6. > I’d caution it’s important not to fall into the ‘good old days’ trap that has ensnared people since Horace.

    You’re quite right 😉 That paper was depressing, and perhaps the darkness overtook the light for me reading it….


  7. Stop talking out of your bottom. there are not millions of vacancies in job centers but you would’t know that now would you. I have recently gained employment after being unemployed for 1 year and that was through the job center( I don’t say this to have my back slapped as this is a given when your looking for work is it not?). Again stop talking out of your bottom it makes you look foolish.


  8. I think there’s a further aspect to this – even bleaker to “Westerners” if not swiftly addressed. Monevator actually mentions it on the blog in the context of immigrants “overdelivering” when working here.

    Well, they do the same in their home lands!

    I recently met ermine in real life (we live in the same part of the UK) and he will know that I do not drive a car, but ride an electric bicycle everywhere (I used to ride a normal one – but found the e-bike vastly extended my range turning a 10-25 mile ride which would start to be a chore into a pleasure).

    My e-bike was designed in Britain, but constructed in South China. It certainly wasn’t cheap (cost a 4 figure sum) and its build quality belies the stereotypes about China. The director of the firm is very transparent about his business practices, a strong believer in customer service (he gave me his personal mobile phone number even when I was just talking about buying that model) and regularly travels to China to ensure both the factory working conditions and product quality are acceptable. (In fact a lot of the manufacturers of higher end e-bikes do this).

    You can in fact view on youtube a couple of films they made of the factory, one showing the quality check of a production bike, another a custom model being designed for a world tour (although both are made to the same standard!)

    what I saw as a spotlessly clean and spacious factory, and the smiling faces of eager young workers genuinely passionate about the end product (it appears they rotate the positions so no one ends up in a rut just assembling the same part of the bike). It wasn’t a Chinese propaganda film (I have seen those and their falseness shows through) – it looked like a genuine “fly on the wall” view like a UK company 20-30 years ago or even in the more optimistic days of the dotcom boom.

    The British chap who runs the company also pays for his best staff to visit England and interact with dealers and customers so they can improve their English and the ensure that feedback on the bikes, both positive and negative (as of course occasional quality problems occur) is sent back to China and improvements made.

    Also the motor (which is the most important part) is built in conjunction with investment from Singapore – where the Singaporeans insist on high quality and customer service standards (they in fact consider British companies to be “too slow!”)

    *This* is what Britain and Europe is competing against, not just “Chinese sweatshops”.


  9. Hi Alex,

    Interesting that the chap who runs the company is a British geezer though. I don’t actually have a problem with manufacturing in a low-cost area. Britain was once the workshop of the world but that baton passed to Japan, then Hong Kong, , then S. Korea, now China, perhaps next Africa.

    Your description is more one of good manufacturing business practice, to be honest you can probably have success with that wherever in the world you operate, as long as you are addressing a niche market which can cope with the margins – e-bikes is at this stage at the moment. Anything sold to the end-user for a four-figure sum falls into that category – your power train alone is probably worth more than any bike I’ve ever owned 🙂 I’d say the likes of ARM or Pace Micro still have some of this ethos even here, though Pace make their stuff in Eastern Europe now.

    The problem is that all of these will be after the top-slice of ability. Whereas 20-30 years ago there was a place in industry for rewarding work one could raise a family on for people of average ability, this winner-takes-all effect means the middle is hollowed out, leaving space for a thin top layer and turning the rest of our jobs into micromanaged grunt work trending towards minimum wage work.

    Which is probably a recipe for a lot of very pissed-off people in Britain sometime in the future…


  10. Gruntwork existed in British industry until the 1970s (possibly sparking the bad industrial relations of that time) – indeed, there was a popular book of the 1950s set amongst workers in Nottingham’s Raleigh bicycle factory!

    IMO the “good times” of the 1980s are gone not just because of manufacturing industry decline – even so many low value low skill items are still manufactured here such as janitorial supplies – as close as Haverhill and Thetford!

    20-30 years ago, even 10 years ago – there was still a greater demand for British made stuff – not just mainstream items but also profitable niche markets like specialist electronics and music / lighting equipment associated with the entertaintment and creative industries, as these produced content which was sold for real cash and harder to pirate.

    Both the “stars” (britpop bands and superstar DJ’s) and the wannabes created a big market for these items.

    Also the governments of the times despite differening reasons and ideologies ended up turning a bit of a blind eye to the rampant drug-and alcohol fuelled hedonism that kept the 1980s to mid 2000s nightlife going which was a major part of the consumer society (its only now the impacts on the NHS are becoming apparent)

    but today there is much less money in the entertainment industry due to the download / pirate culture and much more competition for genuinely paying positions – young folk are given the idea they can become a DJ or pop star or creative artist and make a career out of it, yet in reality I know loads of former artists who have been forced “back to the day job!”

    And so, the pissed off people in Britain are already there and on our doorsteps.

    As you are (only just) a few years older than myself, in a long term relationship and with a settled/stable lifestyle you may not socialise as much with the younger crowd like I did myself until recently – they are indeed realising how “bleak” the future can be – worse as they have grown up with a sense of entitlement

    However, it is much more difficult to riot than in 1977 or 1981 or 1985, the cops have much better surveillance, intelligence and tactics.

    Ironically the Eastern constabularies are now “better” at “dealing with this” than metpol as there is a history of a stubborn populace and radical activism dating back centuries, so those in power here have honed their skills on how to keep a semblance of order and control.

    so what happens is the pissed off peopel turn on each other instead – as witness the spiralling levels of domestic violence and violence associated with social events which attract younger folk in the region.


  11. Re: Job vacancies, perhaps I wasn’t clear – I didn’t mean right at this moment, I meant over the past 10 years when the millions of immigrants turned up and found work – there were regularly over a million advertised vacancies (and of course you have to consider turnover, and non-advertised ones).

    Even today there are 500,000 job vacancies, though I fully agree that’s less rosy in context of much higher unemployment.

    Also, I have to say why this nostalgia for ‘grunt labour’? Seriously, ermine may understandably lament the passing of middle class corporate fiefdoms, but the factory slog was a miserable one for millions of peoples for decades. (Witness 50s kitchen sink drama etc!)


  12. I don’t have nostalgia for grunt work, I’ve worked as a kitchen porter, rolled beer barrels and cleared tables in my time. Nevertheless, there is a wide spectrum of intelligence and capabilities in the UK. We need a correspondingly wide spectrum of employment. At the moment there seems to be a race to the bottom countered by some quite outrageous cream-skimming at the top (hello Sir Fred Goodwin, here’s looking at you, kid).

    Too much of that and 99% of the UK workforce will be doing minimum wage grunt work and 1% will be trying to work out where to park the Lear Jet. It’s the chopping out of the middle that worries me. Not only is it bad in itself, but it creates a huge chasm for anybody who wants to work their way up. I started out as a kid junior test engineer, (if we discount the grunt jobs) then left that company and got on the next rung at the BBC etc. There was a concept of advancement and structure.

    In the end economic activity is there to enhance human life, not an end in itself. When it starts to fail a large number of the population, people start to take matters in their own hands and get nasty with iron bars and pickaxe handles…


  13. The above is *already* happening in some parts of this region, particularly Mid Suffolk (despite claims this is one of the “best places to live in the UK!”)

    The only things really stopping it kicking off are that cheap alcohol and recreational drugs remain relatively easy to obtain, as well as either the aforementioned grunt work or state benefits.

    But when people have these taken away, they do indeed explode, particularly young (and not so young!) A quick glance at the crime news of the local papers shows a massive rise in various forms of serious crime amongst the 18-45 age group. not even “gang” type activity which isn’t as prevalent in Suffolk but grown men just losing it, and going on a self-destruct mission – often trying to take as many others as they can with them.

    I’ve only lived in Ipswich 4 years myself but there are things I know about I dare not discuss on a public blog but I could fill a whole true crime book with…


  14. Pingback: Do you hate work?
  15. I want to thank you all for such an interesting, challenging and respectful debate. I have just found this site – and love it, especially when I am unsure if I fully agree. But the quality of the posts in response is refreshing and energising. I’ll be stalking from the shadows, as a newly-ensconced Essex resident, beginning to see life beyond London.


    1. Indeed – scary, eh? There’s not so much in the narrative I’d change, the app-based smartphone management and metrics collection for the likes of Uber and delivery has taken the Taylorism to a new level. I suspect all that working from home may come with a side serving of surveillance. I am glad to be outta there!


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