I have been meaning to comment on labor day, this past Monday all week.
There is some kind of irony in Bucknell’s lack of observance of labor day. Do we not think learning and teaching are “work”? Of course some classes of employees are off, but not students nor faculty. I am not whining about wanting a day off, just wondering what the institution is say9ing, or not, in its scheduling choices.
Bucknell aside, what are they key “issues” of the day, as C. Wright Mills would have us describe them? What is the state of working for a living in the ol’ US of A?
The NY Times provided two interesting views on labor on the day in question. First, Robert Reich, professor (but Micheal Reagan thinks this is a disqualification to speak on matters of bread and butter), former Labor Secretary under Clinton, author, and very funny short man (one of his book titles was Let Me Be Short) tackles the two big issues of the day: the stagnant economy and rising inequality.
Reich provides an interesting set of graphs to accompany his points. (Click to enlarge). First, the evidence: productivity is up, incomes are flt, and the wealthiest are wealthier at a faster rate than everyone else. Whether this is a problem or not can be divided into two pieces. First- are there negative effects to rising inequality? Second- can rising inequality understood not as a problem, but as the outcome of a more virtuous process? In this case, the process would be a well-functioning economy that allows individuals to find their own optimal point of rewards in the labor market relative to what they put into it (effort, capital). In other words, a free market will produce inequality as a result of liberating the engines of wealth-seeking.
I’ll leave it to a reader to determine whether or not the inequality is a problem. The data are clear and it should be beyond debate that there is increasing inequality. His chart sums up the explanation of why. Wages stagnated starting around 1980, but the great “middle class” of America kept spending thereby creating enough demand to sustain economic growth for the producers of America (and the world). How did they do it? First,WOMEN. The women moved into the workforce in massive numbers. Whether it was to express their autonomy, enact a feminist vision of gender-equality, or to make the ends meet, the raw fact is they entered the economy. AS historians and sociologists have pointed out, this was really a re-entry into labor as the myth of the domestic, lesiure-oriented housewife was a historical anomaly. From hunter-gatherers to pioneer homesteads to early industrial work in homes, women did much, if not most, work.
Second, taking on debt. Lots of it. At some point in the recent past, the average US household savings rate was negative. Negative! I remember when I heard this , it was like a punch to the stomach. You can’t sustain that. Blind faith in rising house prices and the slick sales pitches of elements of the mortgage industry played a big part in the bloating of debt. Anyway, that brings our story quite nicely up to the stories of the housing bubble, the role of Wall street in the bubble, and then AIG and the other Wall Street players at the center of the “great recession.”
The other article, by Harvard Business school professors (woo hoo! Go Management Scholar), Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, shifts our focus from the buig picture to the small details of everyday work. At their conclusion, they offer this seemingly unobjectionable thought: “Work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit.” This reminds me of another irony of labor day- shouldn’t we work on labor day? My grade school had school on MLK day so we could learn about him and the history of civil rights in our country. Anyway, digressions aside, what Amabile and Kramer found is disheartening: most professionals are disengaged, frustrated, and disatsified with work.
They are unhappy.
Using a HUGE amount of data (12,000 diary entries form 238 “professional” employees), they found that 33% were unhappy. What would make them happier? Is it some sort of Enron-like PRC with huge bonuses attached to the best reviewed? No. Is it little rewards and trophies? No. Is it more pay overall? No. Is it getting to lord over a prized working spot over co-workers? No. What is most motivating is making progress on meaningful work. So, Edward Freeman’s “responsibility hypothesis”– that people innately want to take responsibility for their work, finds some empirical evidence.
Meanwhile, I am reminded of a clip from a food documentary I saw at our campus theatre the other day: Fresh. Chicken Farmers talk about how it is so hard to find people to “process” chickens (butcher) that they use work crews form a local prison to do it.
Can manual labor be as meaningful as the professionals in Amabile and Krmaer’s study long for? Can butchering chickens be experienced as meaningful work? Or would simply paying more (and thereby reversing a little the flow of wealth Reich talks about) do more good?
Do my students feel their academic assignments are meaningful work? Do I, as a professor-manager, provide the tools to enable them to be motivated by progress on meaningful work?