My good friend and ex colleague, Ron, emailed to wish me “Happy Labor Day” even though we’re out in the pasture with the herd of the retired. We proudly earned our branded hides: workers.
As my older son Chris proclaims, life is work. We’re always trying to find a balance but when your job is enjoyable, and you find it meaningful, life and work negotiate a successful merger. During my career I was tempted to bring it to the next level in a major publishing organization. It would have meant leaving the company I was joyfully building and moving overseas to London, a city we love. But the thought of engaging in corporate politics, vs. the hands-on experience of running a stand-alone publishing company made me hesitate and I’m glad I did.
My favorite section of the Sunday New York Times is their Sunday Review, mostly thoughtful, opinion pieces. This past week’s had two relating to the above, “Friends at Work? Not So Much” (by Adam Grant) and “Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work” (by Arthur C. Brooks). The former cites factors such as the disappearance of a job for life, flextime, and the rise of the “virtual office” that has potentially impacted the loss of meaningful relationships for life. I always considered colleagues friends as well as fellow workers. There is much to be said about the virtual office but it is a steep price to pay for true collaboration and trust that develops through personal interaction.
The second article also speaks directly to my working years. As the article asks, “Why don’t people just keep the jobs they like?” The answer is we are sort of hard-wired to achieve success by climbing the next wrung in the ladder, and then next, etc. I climbed to the extent that I found a place in the working world that made me happy. Why go any further, indeed? Simply for more money? Bad reason I thought.
I always felt that I was responsible not only to my employer, but to my employees, our vendors, authors, as well, everyone who makes up a publishing company. As the article concludes: “In our interconnected world and global economy, our work transforms the lives of countless others. Sometimes the impact is obvious: Managers and executives directly inflect their employees’ happiness and career success. But everyone, in every industry, affects the lives of co-workers, supervisors, customers, suppliers, donors or investors.” If we all realize this in our working lives, perhaps work would not be a dirty four letter word.
Speaking of the latter, the prior week’s Sunday Review (August 30) carried still another meaningful article on work, “We Need to Rethink How We Work,” accurately reflecting on what motivates people. As Barry Schwartz, the author of the article points out, it was Adam Smith’s view that people just dislike work, writing in his enormously influential The Wealth of Nations, that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.” Schwartz thinks that his notion has clouded the science of management ever since, viewing workers as beasts of burden which a whipping stick, or at least a carrot and a stick might be the best motivators. Hence, employees are being constantly monitored, as the wickedly funny movie Office Space satires as the “TPS Reports.”
Employees thrive on a measure of independence and fair compensation should be the natural result of people working at jobs they find meaningful. “When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things….[We] should not lose sight of the aspiration to make work the kind of activity people embrace, rather than the kind they shun…..Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good. But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.”
I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity (thus far, brilliant!). More on that book in a later entry, but early on in the novel there is a techno-utopian view of work expressed by participants in a Wiki-leaks-like cult movement:
Their theory was that the technology driven gains in productivity and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs would inevitably result in better wealth distribution, including generous payments to most of the population for doing nothing, when Capital realized that it could not afford to pauperize the consumers who bought its robot-made products. Unemployed consumers would acquire an economic value equivalent to their lost value as actual laborers, and could join forces with the people still working in the service industry, thereby creating a new coalition of labor and the permanently unemployed, whose overwhelming size would compel social change.
At this point there is a discussion as to why a person changing bedpans in a nursing home for a $40,000 salary wouldn’t want, instead, to be a paid as a consumer at the same remuneration. One of the participants in the discussion comes to the conclusion: "The way you'd have to do it is make labor compulsory but then keep lowering the retirement age, so you'd always have full employment for everybody under thirty-two, or thirty-five, or whatever, and full unemployment for everybody over that age."
Is that the future of work? Sounds more dystopian to me. Franzen’s unique social observations have a clarion ring of future verity. Maybe that’s where we’re heading: let robots do the work, and we’ll lay about consuming streaming video all day. Thankfully, that is not my future, but we ought to be careful about what we wish for.
Nonetheless, getting back to Labor Day, I’m now many years into retirement and my working life seems more like a dream some stranger went through for those four decades. I like the way my friend Ron put it: "I have accepted the fact that we were merely hired ballplayers. While working we were respected, valued, and even ostensibly loved as long as we could pitch, field, run, and hit. Once retired, we were just old ex ballplayers. Now, there is hardly anyone at our companies who remember us or would even recognize our names let alone appreciate what we did. It is the way of the world, and I have accepted it.” To that analogy I added, in my response, “I like to think we played it well -- and now don't even get invited to an old timer’s game. I still think I can reach home plate from the pitcher’s mound though :-)."
OK, no more pitching for me, but we know what we did and we know that our careers led to thousands of publications that might not have seen the light of day, and those went out into an Internet-less world at the time, and affected change and hopefully progress. And we were part of working communities, dedicated as much to one another as we were to the work itself. As I said, it was a merger of sorts. My very first entry in this blog on the subject of work and my first job out of college still resonates.