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These rotten jobs have been replaced by a combination of two things in our society now.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


7 thoughts on “what I think has gone wrong with work”

  1. Thanks for continuing the debate, we seem to have hit a rich vein here!

    I’d just like to temper the sunny optimist assessment by saying I’m not optimistic about everything.

    In particular, I’m extremely gloomy about the environment: http://monevator.com/2010/05/14/environmental-degradation-and-wealth/

    Also, we’ve previously established that I’d take the pill to be 25 again because I seem to be slightly more realistic about the possibilities of living forever than certain other PF bloggers… 😉

    Anyway, two good and thoughtful articles that I’ve linked to again today, lots to chew over.


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