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He lives in New York. Brought to you by curio. Edited by Sam Haselby. Work means everything to us Americans. These beliefs are no longer plausible. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line — and so a fifth of American children live in poverty.
The market in labour has broken down, along with most others. No one can doubt the moral significance of the movement. But at this rate of pay, you pass the official poverty line only after working 29 hours a week.
What about the job market of the future? Well, yeah — until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. Rise of the Robots , a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction. Certainly this crisis makes us ask: What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life — as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back?
That is why the Citizens United decision of applying freedom of speech regulations to campaign spending is hilarious. The Supreme Court has conjured a living being, a new person, from the remains of the common law, creating a real world more frightening than its cinematic equivalent: But the bottom line is this. You heard me right. Since the s, economic growth has happened even though net private investment has atrophied. What does that mean? It means that profits are pointless except as a way of announcing to your stockholders and hostile takeover specialists that your company is a going concern, a thriving business.
I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster. So investment decisions by CEOs have only a marginal effect on employment. I might as well become a gangster like you. The differences between them are over means, not ends, and those ends include intangibles such as the acquisition of character. Which is to say that everybody has doubled down on the benefits of work just as it reaches a vanishing point.
Sort of like securing slavery in the s or segregation in the s. Because work means everything to us inhabitants of modern market societies — regardless of whether it still produces solid character and allocates incomes rationally, and quite apart from the need to make a living. T hink about the scope of this idea. Since the 17th century, masculinity and femininity have been defined — not necessarily achieved — by their places in a moral economy, as working men who got paid wages for their production of value on the job, or as working women who got paid nothing for their production and maintenance of families.
When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world. There never was a free market in labour in these united states. Like every other market, it was always hedged by lawful, systematic discrimination against black folk. You might even say that this hedged market produced the still-deployed stereotypes of African-American laziness, by excluding black workers from remunerative employment, confining them to the ghettos of the eight-hour day.
And yet, and yet. We have defined ourselves for centuries by what we do, by what we produce. By now we must also know that this principle plots a certain course to endless growth and its faithful attendant, environmental degradation. How would human nature change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all? Until now, the principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible.
By now they do. Adherence to the principle of productivity therefore threatens public health as well as the planet actually, these are the same thing. By committing us to what is impossible, it makes for madness. They must try to avoid tasks that, either due to intellectual property issues or for other reasons, are too company-specific.
Linus Huang, a sociologist at Berkeley, saw this happening in the Silicon Valley startup where he was working when Java was first becoming a popular programming language. Employees wanted to have practice with Java, however, because Java would make them more marketable in the future. Workers began to evaluate projects in terms of whether they would improve their Java skills. They had no trouble, on the other hand, finding people to work on the few Java projects.
When you work a job that presumes you will quit before too long, the tasks that are good for the company might not be good for you. The calculus of quitting also changes the nature of being co-workers, and not just because they are jockeying over who does which tasks in a new way. While you might always have wanted to get along with your co-workers, the quitting economy introduced a new instrumental reason why collegiality is especially important.
Workers who used to get ahead by impressing their managers by being steady, self-effacing and conscientious no longer have the time to establish the appreciative audience they used to within a company. As a result, these types of workers might no longer be steadily promoted.
If their co-workers appreciate them, however, then they might, when it comes time for them to look for their next job, have supporters at other companies.
After all, everyone works in the quitting economy, and everyone knows it, creating a different incentive for people to get along with their co-workers. Today, when every job opening has too many applicants, having an insider in the company who can be an ally can make all the difference.
The environment of the quitting economy also brings about a change in the emotional life of the worker and workplace. When you start imagining yourself as always on the verge of quitting, the emotions you feel for your work change.
When companies decided to do away with company loyalty, businesses had to find a new way to help workers foster an emotional connection to work. In the US especially, there is a strong cultural consensus that people should feel passion for their work, and work hard. One hiring manager explained to me that he always chose people who seemed passionate about their work over someone who seemed to have the most experience.
He could teach them any necessary skills, he explained, but his need for them to work very long hours meant that he needed people with passion. Since company loyalty is no longer around to guarantee committed workers, passion is now supposed to be the driving force. Intriguingly, this passion that workers are supposed to feel is restricted to the tasks at work or to learning certain skills.
People are not supposed to feel passion for working with particular people. Nor do workers talk about having passion for augmenting the reputation of the company for which they work. Not surprisingly, the market-specific problems for which workers feel a passion for solving are usually the problems that a range of companies might face.
In the quitting economy, you have to work for passion, and working for passion means focusing on the task, not the company. Cultivating their feelings of passion for tasks that bring market remuneration makes workers more mobile. It is easier for them to consider moving to another company where they can still do the work about which they feel passionately. One executive recruiter told me she used this focus on passion to help convince executives to leave, regardless of the financial incentives put in place by their current company.
She would tell an executive she was trying to recruit that if they no longer felt any passion for their work, then they were harming all their colleagues at work, who now had to work with someone who no longer enjoyed work to its utmost. In short, when one of the main reasons to work somewhere is because you feel passion, when you stop feeling that passion, it is easier to quit.
In a way new to the world, and begun by the re-orientation of companies to maximise shareholder value, quitting work is now central to what it means to have a job in the first place. People apply for jobs with the conscious plan to quit, with an eye toward what other jobs the job for which they are applying might help them get.
Managers welcome new employees by promising to position them as advantageously as possible to quit in a few years. Co-workers, the ones who like you, are now hoping you will quit — since if you do, you might help them get a good job somewhere else.
As is often the case, history brings unintended consequences, even to doctrinaire and theoretical ideas. This is what intelligentsia is about. About Donate Newsletter Facebook. Become a Friend of Aeon to save articles and enjoy other exclusive benefits Support Aeon. Ilana Gershon is associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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