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Monday, November 07, 2020

Overworked and under-concerned

Maybe people are finally getting the message that overstimulated work ethic doesn’t provide sound values for life. A survey by the Families and Work Institute In New York reports a third of Americans feel chronically overworked, while the American Sleep Institute claims 50 percent of people are willing to accept less pay in return for shorter hours.

It’s even reaching cartoons. A cartoon by Rich Tennant shows a man working on his laptop in an airport lounge, while all around him people have cell phones to their ears. “I can be reached at home on my cell phone,” the man says, “and on the road with my pager and PDA. Soon I’ll be reachable on a plane with e-mail. I’m beginning to think identity theft wouldn’t be such a bad idea for a while.”

In his book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré blames Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management” for some of the problem. Taylor said, “In the past, the man has been first. In the future, the System must be first.”

This creed of subordinating human needs to the demands of efficiency and productivity has become the norm in Western industrialized society. We’re constantly told that time is money. Maybe we even believe it, though there’s no logical link between them. Many of the richest people alive make money through their investments, doing nothing while the money piles up. Left-wing commentators blame the problem on institutionalized greed and the capitalist agenda of profit as the only measure of success. Right-wing pundits talk about the vast increase in living standards (at least in that same industrialized world) and talk about self-reliance and the intrinsic value of hard work.

The truth is more complex and less obvious. Faced with a choice between using technology to increase output or reduce input, organizations have chosen the former. We use our machines to produce more, not to maintain output and work less. And since it’s assumed people are an expensive resource, we’ve added the notion that cutting their numbers is the best way to increase profitability. Do more with fewer people is the modern mantra. In the work that cannot (yet) be mechanized, this can only mean making the reduced number of people work faster, harder and longer hours. Meanwhile, politicians worry about unemployment and outsourcing jobs to Third World economies. As usual, we want it all: greater production, more profit, fewer employees and full employment. How we propose to square that circle isn’t clear, though current actions suggest we’re trying to do it by increasing consumption.

What we’re creating is a feedback loop. To raise profits, jobs are cut. That means fewer people with spending money. But sales must also rise, because output is increasing and lower sales will once again limit profit. Those who have money must spend more of it on consumer goods. Profits go up, but no one is satisfied. Back to cutting or outsourcing jobs. Is it any wonder the right and becoming fewer and richer and the poor are becoming more plentiful and poorer. Keep the feedback loop going long enough and you’ll have all the necessary conditions for widespread social unrest and terrorism. Is that what we’re already seeing in large parts of the world?

Elephants are large, slow and live long lives. Shrews are small, incredibly fast and active and die within two years or so. Giant tortoises move incredibly slowly and live for centuries. Nature has fixed a link between speed and shortness of life. In our rushed and harried world, we rely more and more on medical technology to fend off the diseases due to the stress our lifestyle produces. I wonder how healthy and extended people’s lives would be if we could devote our know-how to that objective, instead of patching up our walking wounded?

As long as we do nothing and accept the status quo, we cannot expect anything to change. Politicians and industry leaders always ignore inconvenient problems and hope they’ll go away. Look at global warming. Even after the destruction of this year’s hurricanes and floods around the world, there’s little urgency to take actions that might interfere with the usual pursuit of profit. Of course, in time change will be forced on the world. Nature is still stronger than man, especially when it comes to man’s own biology. Do you want to wait until some crescendo of disasters forces us to slow down and recognize that man, after all, has to come first?

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6 Comments:

Glen said...

I love most of the OTHER postings at this blog, but here it doesn't seem like you've made much effort to understand the arguments on the other side of any of these positions. (Even calling them "positions" seems like an overstatement. It's almost an economics-free zone.)

1:54 PM  
Glen said...

Climate: The climate changes veeeeery slowly and we are only gradually acquiring more information and understanding about the processes involved. "Slow leadership" seems like what the U.S. is actually practicing on climate.

Jobs: The "employment rate" doesn't change much over the years. The fact that specific large companies are cutting jobs doesn't mean the economy as a whole is, so the "That means fewer people with spending money" step in your reasoning is false.

rich/poor: The poor aren't becoming more plentiful or poorer. There were fewer starving people in the world in the last quarter of the 20th century than the last quarter of the 19th -- not just as a percentage of the population but in absolute numbers. Both "rich" and "poor" are getting richer.

2:15 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comments, Glen. I'm glad you like most of the posts.

Slow Leadership, as you know, isn't about being slow per se: it's about doing things at the correct pace, instead of always doing them quickly.

I think I understand the economics of business reasonably well -- I started my career working as an economist, and my last job was as CEO of an organization -- but this is an opinion piece, not a balanced attempt to argue a position. The financiers and economists have many opportunities to present their points of view. What I'm trying to do is show an alternative -- and a viable one, at least from where I stand.

5:11 PM  
Glen said...

Your posting seemed strangely Malthusian for an economist, especially the paragraph about job losses and offshoring. Companies that employ thousands of people sometimes consider big layoffs as a way to become more efficient and increase profits. Meanwhile, a thousand tinier companies getting larger don't garner the same headlines. So let's see if I can rephrase the offending paragraph. How about this:

"To raise profits in large, inefficient, declining industries, jobs are cut. This frees up workers to move to smaller and more dynamic industries causing the economy to grow, which means more people have more spending money, so sales rise."

Oops, now there's no "circle that needs squaring" and no "feedback loop", just a strategy that sometimes produces positive results.

As for "As usual, we want it all", the "we" in that sentence is a lot of different players with a lot of different wants, many of them conflicting. When "we" want things that are in conflict, some of "us" are bound to be disappointed. For instance, "we" want every team in the NFL to win. :-)

Regarding climate change, this earlier comment of yours describes Kyoto perfectly: "leaders who rush into ill-considered actions, simply because they feel they must be seen to be doing something...Don't join them. Thinking, reflecting and considering in depth is doing something – something essential."

Shouldn't Slow Leadership bias us not to act when the only actions being proposed are expensive, have no clear benefit, and the simple passage of time is likely to make the right path clearer and cheaper?

6:01 PM  
Kathleen Fasanella said...

There is another way, another alternative. Gestated by Deming & Juran and brought to full term by Toyota, it's called "Lean Manufacturing". Maybe one of the best descriptions of what this means can be found on the web; it's Chapter 7 of Natural Capitalism: http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/art13.php?pageName=Book%20Excerpts%20and%20Downloadable%20Chapters&article;_refresh=%2Fsitepages%2Fpid20.php%3FpageId%3D20

A lot of us are blogging on Lean manufacturing. With lean, you don't have to make trade-offs btwn capital and workers; the greater evil is defined as waste in all its myriad of forms (7 different kinds). I can only hope more manufacturers will learn what this means and evolve to make the transition.

10:05 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Kathleen

Thanks for a great comment. I'll follow this up and post any links I think could be useful.

10:45 AM  

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