What’s gone wrong with work – 2

back to part 1 – what I think has gone wrong with work

On here at the moment I spend far more time on breaking free of the rat race than on living intentionally. Part of that is for journalistic reasons. Pick up any paper and most of the articles are about stuff that has gone wrong  it gives a more dramatic story. It is also the area which takes up most of my time at the moment.

So is work getting worse or not?

My job is getting worse. It has been getting less intellectually interesting since the year 2000. From an income point of view this is somewhat offset by me rising up the greasy pole. It’s become more stressful all the time. Some of that is because some old clauses in the pension scheme make it expensive to have compulsory redundancies, so HR is trying to bully the weaker people out with nasty perfomance management system abuses and buy others out with voluntary redundancy.

This is an enervating environment to work in, but is understandable; the company clearly has too many people and would dearly love to replace them with Indian IT guys at a lower cost. So I feel the chill winds directly and am only shielded somewhat by the idealism of the people that negotiated the pension scheme terms in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m lucky enough to be old enough that soon I will have enough to be out and free of this rat-race.

Obviously my vision is coloured by my own experiences, and heck, it’s my blog and if my experience of work is that it’s going to the dogs then that’s what I’ll be ranting about. However I do generalise about work getting worse, and Monevator is quite right to pull me up on that. So, after considering the issues let’s take a look at the whole related areas of education and work –

What’s gone wrong with school

I don’t have children so I don’t have personal experience of this. However, the damage that has been done to the qualifications systems by moving away from norm referenced grading means that you can’t tell bright kids from dumb ones. That’s good for the self-esteem of the dumb ones, but probably not so good for the UK’s competitiveness. This crabby old git from the QCA describes the UK exams system as diseased. Call me old-fashioned, but I also always like to see people leave school able to read and write and use a calculator to add up a bill. I don’t expect them to be able to write deathless prose, solve quadratic equations or know what Gauss’ theorem means, but you need some basic skills to survive in an industrial society.

What’s gone wrong with university

University degrees are worth a lot less now than they were 30 years ago, but they cost students a lot more. How did that happen? We bottled the tough task of telling dumb people they were dumb in the name of equality. That meant we couldn’t tell which were the clever ones that would give the taxpayer a return on investment, so we said let everybody pay.

There’s a recurring theme here. If you want to treat everyone equally, then by definition you can’t identify the bright from the dim. That’s fine if the aim of education is to build students’ self esteem. That’s bad if the aim is to target scarce resources at the able so they can invent and discover new technologies and stuff, or create inspirational designs. It’s also, incidentally, bad if you want to target other scarce resources at the dim to enable them to make the bst they can of themselves. If no child is left behind, then no child will get ahead.

On the upside, nowadays university is mainly about finding the money. It appears you don’t have to be that smart to go to uni. On the downside, you now start people off in their working lives with more unsecured personal debt than I have ever borrowed in my life. Is it any wonder that people get personal finance wrong? When I borrowed £3k to buy a car early in work it scared the hell out of me and I focused on paying that back ASAP, it was gone in less than a year. If I already had 30k of personal debt at the time it would look so huge in comaprison to my outgoings I’d go whatever and borrow the £3k and not be scared by it.

In the past you had to be bright to get into university.

Monevator explains

The small number of 50- to 60-somethings who were educated in the grammar school system after passing their 11+ and who went on to university were cut from entirely different intellectual cloth to the great mass of the near-50% of students that now enjoy higher education.


All students from across the eras were not created equally. The 11+ passer was the elite achiever of his (or more rarely her) generation – the equivalent of today’s multiple A* student who aspires to earn a fortune in law or The City or medicine. And if anything, those that climbed out of the comprehensive school system were even brighter.

So students are getting a different deal nowadays – less work needed, fewer rewards in the end and more debt. Me, I’d take the old version of harder work needed and no debt, but then I would say that wouldn’t I, it worked for me. The 93% of my school cohort that didn’t get to uni might feel differently, though as I recall it they were too busy driving fast cars and pulling girls to be that bothered – there were jobs waiting for them, remember. Other European countries have the same system we used to have, such as the German numerus clausus.

I haven’t got great experience working with Gen Y’ers because my company takes on very few graduates – they’re trying to reduce numbers so this is only to be expected. Monevator seems to find a lack of work ethic there

chimes with my own experiences. Well, I find originality/smart thinking much more than 10% of the time – maybe 30% – but it’s too often outweighed by their ‘what are you doing for me?’ attitude. They seem to take an employer as the next step of their academic career, rather than at the point where they start paying back (for their mutual benefit, of course)

I think I’ll have to charge him with being more of a crabby old git than me there. In my first company I was a cocky young pup, educating the digital design engineer in a troubleshooting meeting that the reason we were having grief was that a virtual earth input is a low impedance, the clue was in the name, rather than the high impedance he thought it was. This is an issue in analogue electronics, not digital electronics, so he wasn’t necessarily to know that, but I was a complete and utter tw*t. I was right, but in the wrong way. I didn’t quite understand why when I related this story to my mother she suggested that might have been unwise. The qualities than make a decent engineer are not a million miles from those that make a sociopath, particularly when combined with the arrogance of youth. Never did work out why it seemed hard to get ahead in that firm, but I left after 9 months so it didn’t matter 😉 I also wasn’t that dependable, and the Television Centre bar was the location of many a long lunch. There at least I was taking a lead from the old hands…

I think the their ‘what are you doing for me?’ attitude goes with the patch of being young. They also think they know it all, which is different from knowing it all. When young folk stop thinking they know it all and that the world owes them a living, the human race is doomed 🙂

What’s gone wrong with scientific and technical jobs

In startups and small to medium companies, probably not too much. We’ve got more of these than people give credit for, because a lot of them are B2B and therefore tucked away in anonymous industrial estates. I’ve only had experience of these as a corporate customer and consultant once I left my first company way back in the 1980s. Obviously job security ain’t all that in small companies and startups. In big companies, well, line up the usual suspects

  • bureaucratic management
  • death of leadership
  • outsourcing to lower-wage economies
  • ossification due to the above

My company has peculiar issues of its own, but looking at what happened to other great British engineering companies many of the pathologies are replicated. Something very nasty has happened to the management of multinational companies, it has become sytematized and dehumanised. In the past they offered great career paths, training, less of the dead mens shoes progression of small firms and chances to job-hop for the ambitious. Now they are front-ends for outsourcing jobs. Project management is the thing to go for to get places in vaguely technical fields there.

What’s gone wrong with manual jobs

Most of them disappeared! That’s a bugger if you’re academically challenged. I fully agree with Monevator that a lot of these were crap, but when I part company with him is viewing the absence of a job as a better option to a crap one. It’s nice to at least have the choice.

What’s gone wrong with skilled manual jobs

they’ve largely disappeared. We don’t fix or custom build things where we can avoid it, commercial off the shelf is king.

Work in general has gone wrong in some areas across the board

  • pensions – largely gone in the private sector
  • job security – what’s that?
  • training – employers want to hire in from abroad rather than train graduates

This litany of lament applies to regular jobs where you become an employee. Against that should be set the vastly improved opportunities for the self-motivated to set out their stall and sell their skills as freelancers and consultants. This employment pattern suits the self-motivated, the talented and the entrepreneurial among us – computers, the internet and better communications generally allow these guys to compete with the big guys for a fraction of the cost.

Unfortunately, they are at the extremes of the bell curve. Most people don’t want the stress, they want an employer to deal with the risks. So the opportunities are opening up massively for a minority, while closing off for the majority. I’m not at the extreme of that bell curve, and I’ve been a company director for more than a decade before packing it in because I hated the sales side of things.

So the overall problems with work is that the opportunities for the majority of averagely skilled Brits are fast disappearing, big companies are ossifying into shell companies for outsourced workers elsewhere, UK unemployment is well into double digits when you factor in all the not economically active adults of working age. Monevator comes across as a bright and above all, highly entrepreneurial chap and is probably drowning in opportunities, but I’m not sure that experience is so widespread. It’s the people that would once upon a time have staffed the office typing pool, the auto shops and the book-keeping department that are taking the shaft, and they are going to be bored and very pissed off at the lack of jobs.

what I think has gone wrong with work

Ever the cheery optimist, UK PF blogger Monevator has made some pretty good observations about some of my views on work, and takes issue with a recurrent theme on here that basically work has gone to pot over the last 30 years. He’s not actually saying that work is a bed of roses –

It’s my contention though that work was mostly always rubbish for the educated classes, and that it’s only nostalgia that causes people to believe otherwise.

I didn’t have this experience of work being rubbish, at any rate once I’d job switched a couple of times early in my career. It is only towards the end in the last few years, coincident with globalisation and business process outsourcing. Looking back, however, the rot set in in the late 1990s, but for various reasons I was sheltered from it.

Monevator continues

Ermine’s post follows a coherent and consistent line on his blog – modern life is rubbish, it’s increasingly justifiable to hate work, and he’s determined to get out.

It’s largely a fair cop. Guilty as charged, though I’d say modern working life is rubbish rather than modern life is rubbish. There’s actually rather a lot to be said for modern life, though much of it is unsustainable and I expect living standards to decline very seriously in the West at some point. I don’t think short-haul city breaks are going to be common in 10 years’ time, at least for the average income punter.

I’ve had a pretty rose-tinted experience of work for most of my 30 years of it. I was one of the grammar school kids that was among the 7% or so that went to university. Science and engineering were what I was interested in, and I pursued design and research jobs in industry, I’ve never worked for the public sector, other than having the local council as a customer for a web design and software company I ran as a sideline for several years.

Work, what’s it all about and what is it for, anyway?

Monevator makes a fair point that a lot of the gritty manual work of the past we are well shot of. Although things like coal mining and car construction employed whole towns, it seemed, the jobs themselves were pretty ropey and industrial accidents and degenerative effects like deafness, respiratory ailments and suchlike were a high human cost of this sort of employment, which often led to early death due to the physical toll it took.

These rotten jobs have been replaced by a combination of two things in our society now. One of them is the equivalent sort of rotten jobs but with fewer of the physical costs – these are generally service industry jobs like call centre workers, shop workers and the like. The other thing that has replaced this sort of work is unemployment – although the figures have been fixed by changing the criteria of what counts as unemployed these days. It is shown in the suspicious variance between the official unemployment rate of 8% and the official employment rate of 71%, in 16-64 year olds. When I went to school, 8% and 71% didn’t add up to 100%, so the true UK unemployment rate is greater than 8% and could be as high as 29%.

Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong with work. Most people want to live life, and work gives them cash to do it. They want to have a good time, find love, raise kids in many cases and enjoy life. For many, work is a means to an end, rather than the aim of living, though there does seem to be a strong Calvinist streak in the PF blogosphere that seems to be of the opinion work is good for the soul. I think they’re nutters, but each to their own 🙂 In modern industrial societies, you need a certain amount of money simply to exist, and you sell some of your productive capacity to do that. In return, people grow food for you, dig stuff from the ground and generate power for you, rent you a roof over your head. You may also buy trinkets and gewgaws to amuse you, Christian Louboutins to make yourself look good/connect you in your mind’s eye with people richer and prettier etc etc.

Productive capacity, in terms of intelligence, diligence, smarts, brawn and physical prowess is not even spread evenly throughout humanity. As a result, as a society we need jobs across the spectrum to match people’s capability to wealth production. In the past we had such a spectrum. It is a tragedy that most people are of average ability and so they need mostly averagely stretching jobs. Previously, we managed this because communications and transport were expensive, and as a result we needed to do many things in the countries they were consumed. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that we humans have an economy to enable us to trade things with each other to enhance our quality of life, we aren’t actually indentured servants of a pre-existing economic system created by God. The economy is a human/societal construct, and if our economy doesn’t work for us, it behooves us to change the damn thing so that it does work for us. That’s the theory, at least.

Monevator makes a good case for free trade,  and so far it has been the least worst of all the alternatives tried. His example of North Korea shows what the opposite, called autarky is like, but free trade and autarky are extremes. Very few real-world optimal outcomes are all one thing or all another.

What we call free trade isn’t really that free at all. For instance there are all sorts of subsidies to large-scale agricultural production in the West. From one perspective these should all be removed, and we should give up growing food in the West. The sun shines stronger in equatorial regions for simple physical reasons, and equatorial regions are far more productive as a result (I rudely simplify a lot of issues, for instance the Sahara might be put to better use for solar panels rather than attempting to grow carrots, but in general Northern Europe isn’t the most efficient place to grow lots of food compared with parts of the US, Africa and Asia). Not only do we have passive distortions like that, but we have active ones too. The World Bank spent millions to get people in Peru to grow asparagus to sell to the UK market. We can grow it here. They get them to do it in unsustainable ways that destroys their water supplies. It’s all part of free trade, apparently…

This shows one of the really bad downsides of free trade, it has a nasty habit of trashing the environment, because environmental downsides tend to show up in the longer term, a long time after the money has been made. Or they affect people who aren’t part of the group making the money, so their costs aren’t factored into the trade price. Slash and burn free trade works, but the aftermath isn’t pretty. The wandering invisible hand of the free market needs a good smack every so often to stop it straying into all sorts of places and making a mess there – places like the Niger Delta show this all too well. Compared with that BPs tribulations in the Gulf of Mexico were a paragon of virtue. You can’t have economic activity without risk, but you should make the polluter pay for restoration…

Since free trade is an extreme position let us look at where it would go. Do we really want to become megacities in the West and depend entirely on imported food? With true free trade we would probably have done that, however, should oil become scarce we may come to value the fact that we can still produce food in Europe… The agricultural subsidies in the UK are a historical relic of the Second World War when Britain found itself cut off from supplies, and there is some case to be made for retaining some capacity for the basics of life, even at the cost of some inefficiency. Resilience and efficiency are often at odds.

There are all sorts of trade-offs, distortions and horse-trading that make free trade more free for the stronger trading parties and less free for others. Some of the issue we are starting to have now is that we are used to the West giving other countries the shaft, and rather less used to being shafted by others, hence for instance the current US/China spat about the value of the Chinese currency being held down relative to the dollar.

It is also worth observing that a lot of our Western lifestyle isn’t really sustainable in the long-term (another 50 years or more) – it was built with a lot of equity that was effectively pillaged from external sources. These sources include the energy stored over millennia by life-forms that were converted into oil, and some pretty unsavoury practices carried out on other groups of people.

What seems to be going wrong now for Western workers is globalisation. The upside of globalisation in that we get cheap TVs and DVD players. The downside of globalisation is a lot of those jobs for average ability people are disappearing, because average ability is to be had cheaper in China and India. Hence the increasing unemployment and economically inactive people here, some of which was disguised by Labour in inflating public sector employment and some of New Labour’s public works. More jobs and buildings are good, but not so good when they do this to the economy.

Public spending relative to income
Public spending relative to income

Somewhere around 2002 it all started to go pear-shaped as the cost of public sector employment and works outstripped government income. There is a theory that some of the business process outsourcing to India was the result of the rush to work on the Millennium bug, that was beyond the capacity of Western IT departments, and the work jumpstarted the Indian IT industry. That would stack up with the great sucking force of back-office administrative and IT jobs in the UK due to BPO after the dot-com bust. Sure, these jobs weren’t inspiring, but for many people they put food on the table and paid for the annual package holiday to Spain. What do we want those people to do now?

Although my background was in physics and electronics, I moved to IT as my company’s focus shifted in the direction. To outsiders, IT is some really hard techy geekfest, but it has a dirty little secret. The vast majority of IT work is routine. IT qualifications such as Cisco’s CCNA are largely memory tests of the worst kind, and even the higher-level ones test for skills that are gained by repetition and honing response times. It doesn’t involve the creativity needed to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, or even the originality and creativity to write a decent short story. That’s not to say some of the qualifications aren’t hard to pass, but they’re not intellectually demanding.

My company is all for professional development in IT qualifications. I switched to using a legacy skill rather than jump through these hoops. I’ve got ten years to go, tops, before reaching normal retirement age for the company. There’s no point in me doing these IT qualifications because a) I can’t be arsed to do the memory cramming and b) I’ve got eyes in my head even if my company’s  management hasn’t. This sort of work will be outsourced within the next two years. The very fact that they are trying to standardise and template designs point that way.

There’s a big picture going on here, and it isn’t good for a lot of people in the West. Early Retirement Extreme’s Jacob is brighter than me and has summarised the trends pretty well. I didn’t see quite as much of the big picture until my nose was rubbed in it in 2007, but once it was, I made it my job to find out because I don’t like being sideswiped by crap flying out of the blue.

Monevator makes the excellent point that the world has been getting richer over the last 100 years. Someone on unemployment benefit today has a better standard of living than a middle class family in the 1970s, in purely material terms. Unfortunately what we have also been doing with the world is filling it up with people, so I don’t know whether the world has been getting richer per capita.

Much of those riches have been predicated on cheap oil, and we may be having issues with that in the not too distant future. The good thing about oil running out is that it will kill off the excesses of globalisation, and the world will become a bigger place again. The bad thing about oil running out is that a lot of that so called wealth will disappear, but unfortunately all the extra people we’ve been adding to the world won’t. I don’t have a good answer for what to do about that.

on to part 2 what’s gone wrong with work 2