Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Tuesday, December 20, 2011 11:53 AM
Anyone who has waited tables or cooked in a restaurant kitchen knows the backbreaking work, the questionable conditions, and the meager rewards. Now, it’s easy to find the restaurants that treat their employees right with the 2012 National Diners’ Guide, presented by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). The guide outlines the pay and benefits of 186 of the country’s most popular eateries, from fast food to fine dining.
Before you look at the guide to see where your favorite establishment stands, check out some of the reasons why the ROC says the ethical treatment of restaurant workers is vital:
With a federal minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped workers and $7.25 for non-tipped workers, the median wage for restaurant workers is $8.90, just below the poverty line for a family of three. This means that more than half of all restaurant workers nationwide earn less than the federal poverty line.
90 percent of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers surveyed by the Restaurant Opportunities Center report not having paid sick leave, and two-thirds report cooking, preparing, and serving food while sick, making sick leave for restaurant workers not only a worker rights issue but a pressing concern in public health!
Women, immigrants, and people of color hold lower-paying positions in the industry, and do not have many opportunities to move up the ladder. Among the 4,300 workers surveyed, we found a $4 wage gap between white workers and workers of color, and 73 percent reported not receiving regular promotions on the job.
Jaeah Lee at Mother Jones has distilled the ROC’s guide into an excellent Zagat-like reference for diners. (See, at a glance, that Starbucks’ employees don’t get paid sick days, but Chipotle’s do.) And, also on MoJo, Utne Reader visionary Tom Philpott takes a moment to look on the bright side of the report, pointing out that the “ROC isn’t just dishing up the restaurant industry’s dark secrets. It’s also working with restaurant owners across the country to come up with fair labor standards.”
For me, waiting tables at the Tic Toc Supper Club at the end of my teenage years was a crash-course in a range of adult matters: wine bottles are harder to open with a tableful of people watching; wearing a skirt gets you better tips; and the boss will rarely give you more than the bare minimum of what is required by law. Thanks to the ROC, restaurants just might be encouraged to give that bare minimum a boost.
Sources: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Mother Jones
Image by rbnlsn, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 14, 2011 2:07 PM
You’ve probably never thought of yourself as a supporter of slavery, but the online tool Slavery Footprintreveals evidence of forced labor in your closet, your garage, your refrigerator, and every other corner of your life.
“Last month marked the anniversary of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, which we all know ended slavery for good 149 years ago, right? Wrong,” writes Yuka Yoneda for Inhabitat. She continues: “While that’s what we in America are taught in our textbooks, slavery is still alive and well around the world (including in the U.S.). In fact, most of us have several slaves working for us at this very moment.”
Complete Slavery Footprint’s artfully designed survey to calculate the number of slaves who work for you, based on your lifestyle and the products you buy. Included are questions about family, housing, clothing, electronics, make-up, sex, and food, along with disturbing facts of modern-day enslavement. For example, Slavery Footprint writes:
Bonded labor is used for much of Southeast Asia’s shrimping industry, which supplies more shrimp to the U.S. than any other country. Laborers work up to 20-hour days to peel 40 pounds of shrimp. Those who attempt to escape are under constant threat of violence or sexual assault.
Numerous products, down to the sporting goods in your hall closet, are the result of forced labor, asserts the website. “In China, soccer ball manufacturers will work up to 21 hours in a day, for a month straight.”
The site offers hope for consumer redemption (even if your score is as shamefully high as mine: 38!), with a free download of their antislavery app. “With the Made in a Free World app, you can check in at stores, asking brands about slavery in their supply chain as you shop,” they write, “and use it to counteract your slavery footprint.”
Image by Slavery Footprint.
Friday, October 07, 2011 2:47 PM
I came to Minneapolis
after college, I took an internship at the book publisher Milkweed Editions
while working a paying job as a proofreader for personal ads. (That’s right.
SWMs ISO SWFs need editors, too.) Milkweed gave me a weekly stipend that
covered my lunches and bus fare, but nothing else. It didn’t matter. The
internship paid me in other ways, from experience, to friendship, to a
fortitude that helped me see a future beyond the hundreds of ads for
walks on the beach and candlelight dinners I read every week.
valuable are unpaid internships? In The
Oxford American, Emily Witt critiques Ross Perlin’s book Intern
Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy and
writes about her move from New York to Arkansas to be an unpaid
intern at The Oxford American. She
[I]n my nine months in Little
Rock I had some of the most fun I have ever had. A careerist
in my position would have stayed in New
York, would have smiled and combed her hair and made
herself cheerfully obedient, would have pleasantly harassed people until she
got a job, would have been plucky and assertive and enthusiastic and all the
things I was not. I have since become that person, more or less. But back then
I instead went South, gained twenty pounds, got drunk most nights, and made
some very good friends.
now an established reporter at the New
York Observer, continues:
At some point, one wants something that looks like a job, and
the way in is often an unpaid internship. Today I revel in the luxury of paid
employment: the biweekly paychecks deposited to my bank account, the automatic
withholding of taxes, the certainty of a fixed address, the health insurance,
even the routine of my alarm clock and daily commute, the florescent lights
over my cubicle, my desk phone, my business cards—all the usual symbols of
drudgery. Those who can’t do, intern; but it’s also true…that an internship
gives one both an appreciation for the importance of proficiency in the many
banal and thankless aspects of work, and the confidence to insist that such
commitment deserves to be rewarded in kind.
Check out the rest of Witt’s review and rumination here,
and tell us about your experiences as a poor, unpaid intern in the comments
section below. (We appreciate your reminiscences, but, alas, we can’t pay you
for those either.)
Image by _foam, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 4:37 PM
Your therapist’s happiness level rises when you visit her couch. Firefighters are delighted to help you get Kitty out of a tree. Sins to confess to your priest or minister? He’s tickled to hear them.
Psychologist, firefighter, and clergy are included in the list of the “10 happiest jobs” based on data collected via the General Social Survey of the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago, reports the Christian Science Monitor. “Since experts say that social interaction drives job satisfaction, it makes sense that clergy are happiest of all,” Christian Science Monitor writes. “Social interaction and helping people [is a] combination that’s tough to beat for job happiness.”
This formula explains why teachers and physical therapists are on the list, but also included are autonomous, creative professions like author and artist, and labor-intensive jobs like operating engineer. “Operating engineers get to play with giant toys like bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, scrapers, motor graders, shovels, derricks, large pumps, and air compressors,” says the Monitor. And, “with more jobs for operating engineers than qualified applicants, no wonder they are happy.” The full list follows:
3. Physical therapists
5. Special education teachers
9. Financial services sales agents
10. Operating engineers
Interestingly, many of the occupations that fall at the bottom of the job-satisfaction list involve information technology, which can create isolating work, notes Forbes:
1. Director of information technology
2. Director of sales and marketing
3. Product manager
4. Senior web developer
5. Technical specialist
6. Electronics technician
7. Law clerk
8. Technical support analyst
9. CNC machinist
10. Marketing manager
Where does your job fall on the happiness scale? Are you bolstered by the helping hand you extend to others or satisfied by what you create—or should you pack it all in and learn to drive a bulldozer?
Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Forbes
Image by velvettangerine, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 11:50 AM
“Don’t take too many pictures,” my father advised before my first trip to Europe, encouraging me to get out from behind the camera and engage with what was in front of it. The truth is, I had a ten-mile list of things to see and pictures to take on the three-week five-country trip that would exhaust my savings and me—Paris: Eiffel Tower; London: Tower Bridge; Venice: St. Mark’s. Check, check, check.
This kind of breakneck travel is an unfortunate trend, says BootsnAll, a site that bills itself as the one-stop indie travel guide. “So much of modern culture pushes us at a frenetic pace,” they write, and continue:
Americans seem to be the worst of the bunch, with 30% of people not taking their allotted vacation time and 37% not taking more than a week a year. For the rest, a sad 33%, we tend to vacation the same way we live: at warp speed with emphasis on performance and “box checking.” Hence, the proliferation of tours that cram three countries and five cities into two weeks and keep travelers moving on an itinerary that feels like anything but vacation. Sure, they get home with a lot of nice pictures, but have they accumulated much else in terms of experience, depth or personal growth?
BootsnAll—and a blooming slow travel movement—reminds us that traveling is not a contest and gives us several points to consider when embarking on mindful travel: Be present. Realize that true understanding takes time. And go deep instead of wide—rather than filling your vacation with three different cities, pick one and get to know the people and culture as well as the sites, whether they’re a country away or two towns over.
Several years after my first jam-packed venture overseas, I went back to Venice with my partner. It was a misty November and the floating city was mostly devoid of tourists, with tides that flooded the streets until 11 in the morning. We stayed in bed late, frequented the same osteria until the owners knew us, and sunk into the magic of the place.
One night, on a late walk, we stumbled upon a soup supper outside a church and were invited to join in. Chords from a guitar drifted across the cobblestone streets, and an old woman hiked her skirt above her ankles to dance an impromptu solo. While we clapped along with the small crowd, all of us huddling closer to beat the chill, the man tending the pot of soup motioned me over to refill my bowl. That simple, unexpected night remains one of my favorite travel memories. And a picture wouldn’t do it justice.
Image by Frank Kovalchek, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011 4:02 PM
Work finds a way to slip under our front doors and into our personal lives. We check email while making dinner and return phone calls on the weekend; we think about our jobs as we’re falling asleep at night and when we’re washing our hair in the morning. It’s no secret that Americans are overworked. What’s surprising is how overworked we are—and how much corporations benefit from our around-the-clock labor.
According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, report Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery in Mother Jones, even as jobs are cut and American workers put in longer hours for static salaries. What were once manageable 40-hour-a-week appointments have morphed into “superjobs,” overladen with increased tasks when staff is downsized.
Workers are left scrambling to get everything done at the office and at home, often ignoring spouses, skimping on family time, or avoiding community commitments—shortcomings that may feel like failures. But: “Guess what: It’s not you,” says Mother Jones.
These might seem like personal problems—and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion—but they’re really economic problems. Just counting work that’s on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.
Take time to check out Mother Jones’ infographic collection “Overworked America: 12 Charts that Will Make Your Blood Boil.” And then, take a look at your calendar…aren’t you due for a day off?
To read more articles on work in America, see our January-February 2011 issue on the topic.
Source: Mother Jones
Image by luxomedia, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, April 07, 2011 10:50 AM
This article was originally published at
A longer version of this essay appears in "Lines of Work," the Spring 2011 issue of
Lapham's Quarterly. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch and Utne Reader thank the editors of that elegant journal for allowing us to preview Lapham's essay here.
To read more articles on work in America, see our January-February issue on the topic.
Man must be doing something, or fancy that he is doing something, for in him throbs the creative impulse; the mere basker in the sunshine is not a natural, but an abnormal man.
-- Henry George
The news media these days look to outperform one another in their showings of concern for the lost battalion of America’s unemployed. Consult any newspaper, wander the Internet or the television talk-show circuit, and at the top of the column or the hour the headline is jobs. Jobs, the bedrock of America’s world-beating prosperity, the cornerstones of its future comfort and well-being -- gone to Mexico or China, deleted from payrolls in Michigan and Ohio, mothballed in the Arizona desert.
The nation’s unemployment rate, officially pegged at 9.4% but probably nearer to 17%, in any event no fewer than 25 million Americans, a number more than equal to the entire population of North Korea, out of work or on the run. The metrics, so say President Obama, the Wall Street Journal, and A Prairie Home Companion, are not good. The stock markets may have weathered the storm of the recession, as have the country’s corporate profit margins, but unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.
Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don’t question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man’s work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help.
Speaking Tools Versus Busy Bees
The framing of the country’s unemployment trouble as an unfortunate metastasis of the servant problem should come as no surprise. The country is in the hands of an affluent oligarchy content with Voltaire’s observation that “the comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” During Ronald Reagan’s terms as president, the income that individual American families received from rents, dividends, and interest surpassed the income earned in wages. Over the last 30 years, the wealth of the emergent rentier class has been sustained by an increasingly unequal sharing of the gross domestic product; the percentage of GDP accounted for by manufacturing fell from 21% to 14%, and the percentage accounted for by finance rose from 14% to 21%.
The imbalances become greater over time; as between compensations awarded to the high-end baskers in the sunshine and those provided to the low-end squatters in the shade, the differential at last count in 2009 stood at 263 to 1. With wealth comes power in Washington, so it’s also no surprise that the government, whether graspingly Republican or scavengingly Democratic, adopts the attitudes and prejudices of the monied sultanate. So do most of the nation’s news media, their showings of concern expressed in the lawn-party voices of the caterers distributing the strawberries.
The lines of work are as numberless as the hooks in the sea, but they divide broadly into employments bent to one’s own purpose and those bound to a purpose other than one’s own. It is the former that reflects the founding idea of America. The Puritan settlers of the seventeenth-century New England wilderness arrived from an old world in which the civilizations both east and west of Suez fetched their food and shelter from the work of variously denominated slaves.
The ruling classes of antiquity, like those in medieval and early Renaissance Europe, regarded the necessity of having to earn a living as a mortification of the body and a degradation of the mind. Aristotle had classified slaves as “speaking tools,” available for every purpose except their own, and for the next 2,000 years, in Asia as in Europe, it was generally understood that the terms of a man’s employment were settled at birth. The newfound land of North America afforded an escape from the burdens of the past imposed by the divine right of inherited privilege as well as those enforced by Barbary pirates and British naval officers, the architects of the New Jerusalem bringing with them the Protestant belief that it was by a man’s work that he was known, not only to himself, but also to God and to his fellow men.
On no less an authority than that of John Calvin, they had been given to understand that there was “no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our own vocation) as not to appear truly respectable and be deemed highly important in the sight of God.” The thought embraced St. Benedict’s Catholic certainty that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul,” as well as the meditation of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who likens the work for which men are by their nature born to that of “craftsmen who love their trade,” equivalent in turn to that of the “sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his own part toward a coherent world order.”
Further searches for a coherent world order on the western shores of the Atlantic encouraged the authors of the Constitution to conceive the document as a tool turned to the making of things, of laws as well as of ships and cider mills and songs. As with the plow and the surveyor’s plumb line, the instruments of government were meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. In answer to questions being asked in Europe about what sort of persons were likely to be well received in the new republic, Benjamin Franklin in 1782 published a pamphlet, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, in which he observed that in America people “do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do? If he has a useful art, he is welcome… But a mere man of quality, who on that account wants to live upon the public by some office or salary will be despised and disregarded.”
The love of country followed from the love of its freedoms of thought and action, not from a pride in its armies, its monuments, its manners, or its debts. Thomas Jefferson, writing his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, envisioned a republic of free-standing husbandmen who till the earth, “the chosen people of God… whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” The newfound land and its newfound independence both were to be cultivated by employments bent to purposes of the individual, their joint venture resting on a democratic holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they were rich or beautiful or famous but because they were fellow citizens.
The Elephant on the Table of American Politics
So at least was the spirit and intent if not always the practice or the case. In return for the Constitution’s ratification by the Southern slave-holding states, the politicians in Philadelphia in 1789 had compromised the principle that all men are created free and equal. They assumed that slavery was soon to become extinct, certain to be swept away on the rising tide of freedom, and so they allowed the Southern planters to temporarily retain their prize collections of speaking tools.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 remanded the case for liberty to the higher court of money. Between 1800 and 1860 the demand for cotton on the part of Britain’s satanic textile mills furnished the newly minted United States with its richest flow of capital, serving the purpose that the Saudi Arabians now extract from oil. The opulence of the trade (60% of America’s export in 1860), in large part conducted, to their immense profit, by New York banks and New England ship owners, financed the country’s westward expansion and the early development of its commerce. Without cotton, there would have been no industry, and without slavery, no cotton.
The “darkies” said by Stephen Foster to be singing sweetly in the fields subsidized the music that Walt Whitman heard elsewhere in the country in the singing of “the carpenter,” “the deckhand,” “the mason,” “the shoemaker,” “the hatter,” “the woodcutter,” and “the plowboy” -- the voices of America’s leaves of grass, the fellow citizens in the 1830s and 1840s plying trades in Massachusetts and Ohio, felling trees and building roads in Illinois, piloting Missouri and Mississippi River steamboats, tinkering with farm equipment and firing pins, going west to Texas and California.
Victory in the war with Mexico added another 529,017 square miles
to the inventory of spacious skies and purple mountain majesties acquired in the Louisiana Purchase; the population went forth and multiplied (9,638,453 in 1820; 31,443,321 in 1860), its restless collective energies geared to vocations apt to prove to be their own reward. Frontier people holding fast to what Mark Twain later claimed as “a maxim of mine that whenever a man preferred being fed by any other man to starving in independence, he ought to be shot.”
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the shooting would have needed to become extensive. The Civil War had rousted slavery from the plantations of the South, but the industrial revolution in the North required an even greater supply of hired hands bound to purposes other than their own. The employments on offer in the Kentucky coal mines and the Pennsylvania steel mills matched Karl Marx’s job description of alienated labor -- a “diabolical activity,” entailing the loss of self. “What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”
How then to accommodate both man and beast under the same beach umbrella of the American dream, make the freedom-loving argument that Franklin’s craftsmen and Jefferson’s husbandmen differ only in their angles to the sun from the hostess in the bunny costume checking coats in a Playboy club? By the turn of the twentieth century, the question of what constitutes the meaning of labor as well as a fair return on its performance was the elephant on the table of American politics.
An alienated proletariat had been imported from China to build America’s western railroads, from Ireland and Eastern Europe to service its eastern factories, and between 1870 and 1914, the bitter, often violent division between the differently purposed lines of work was made manifest in the financial markets and the streets. The great railroad strike in 1877 moved Thomas Alexander Scott, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to suggest that the strikers be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” State militia and federal troops complied with the suggestion, killing more than 100 strikers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The putting down of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, and the breaking of the Homestead Strike in Andrew Carnegie’s steel works in 1892, reinforced the rule of money; the bank panics of 1893 and 1907, preceded by heedless speculation in the stock markets, led to widespread unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and depression.
The disputes varied in their particulars (the protective tariff, the prices paid for gold and silver, the legitimacy of the labor unions), but in every instance what was at issue were the terms of service as defined on the one hand by President Teddy Roosevelt in a Labor Day speech at Syracuse, New York, in 1903: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”; on the other hand by Woodrow Wilson, still president of Princeton University in 1909, speaking to the New York City High School Teachers Association: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
Wilson’s way of looking at things aligns itself with what was to become America’s chrome-plated future, Roosevelt’s with its homespun past. The Rough Rider was trading in nostalgia, looking back to his days as a young man, a young man who also happened to be rich, shooting buffaloes in the Dakota Territory. The sentiment shows up in Norman Maclean’s remembrance of the way it was out among the tall trees in the summer of 1927, “As to the big thing, sawing, it is something beautiful when you are working together -- at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness -- maybe even something more deeply disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right.”
It is here that one finds the dignity of labor and the expression of man’s humanity to man. One can illuminate the feeling on which Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, mounted his candidacy for U.S. president in the election of 1912, attracting over 900,000 votes on the strength of his belief that “the workers are the saviors of society, the redeemers of the race.”
Wilson didn’t think so, and Wilson won the election, defeating Roosevelt as well as Debs. The establishment in 1913 of the Federal Reserve Bank overruled the prolonged objection by the instruments of labor to their uses in the hands of capital, shifting control of the nation’s currency from the public to the private sector.
The Labor of Consumption
It is man’s nature to be doing something, or at least to fancy that he’s doing something, but to what purpose, and for whom? Satisfactory answers to the questions lately have been hard to find, not only for the unemployed poor but also for the underemployed remnant of what was once a diligently aspiring middle class. It isn’t simply that the consumer markets don’t value work worth doing; it’s that the society’s ruling and possessing classes regard working for a living as the mark of inferior or damaged goods.
The attitude made its first appearance on the American scene during the Gilded Age, dancing with the newly crowned kings of finance under the ballroom chandeliers in Newport and New York. Thorstein Veblen took note of the arrival in 1899, his Theory of the Leisure Class suggesting that it is the conspicuous consumption of the product of other people’s time and effort that makes up the sum of one’s own worth and meaning. Not the doing of the work, the digesting of it. “Leisure, considered as an employment,” said Veblen, “is closely allied in kind with the life of exploit, and the achievements which characterize a life of leisure and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much in common with the trophies of exploit.”
During the years prior to the Second World War, the attitude was safely confined to a small number of people preserved in the aspic of what was then big money. The victories over Germany and Japan fostered extensions of the franchise. Rescued by force of arms from the Great Depression, America seemed blessed with the enchantments of both Croesus and Colossus, the indisputable proofs of its wealth and military power giving rise to the notion that all its children were the inheritors of a vast fortune and therefore deserving of the best of all possible worlds that money could buy. No reason not to have it all -- a new frontier, a great society, guns for a splendid little war in Asia, butter for the old folks at home, a house in the country, a boat on the lake, the face and fortune in the ad for one of Ralph Lauren’s tennis dresses.
Much of the world in 1945 was either bankrupt or in ruins, and the refurnishing of it supplied the American economy over the next 30 years with an abundance of jobs that afforded the means of independence and a measure of self-worth, while at the same time bringing forth the trophies of exploit to a consumer market more wonderful than the wonderful world of Oz, seeding ever broader acres of the nation’s human topsoil with the presumptions of entitlement favored by Veblen’s Newport heiresses. Don’t worry, be happy; go forth and shop. Leisure considered as employment.
Which was all well and good until it turned out, somewhere in the middle of the 1980s on the yellow brick road with Toto and the Gipper, that the Wizard was easy access to conspicuous credit. For how else could the American leaves of grass join their top-dressed companions on a golf course unless they borrowed money? The country’s working and middle classes discovered that it wasn’t the value of the work itself, or its manufacture of a decent living (as architect, bus driver, sales clerk, actress, lathe operator, automobile mechanic) that made up the sum of the country’s wealth and well-being.
Their great collective enterprise was the labor of consumption, and with it the derivative of debt, a byproduct, like the methane exuded by factory-farmed pigs, that funded the patriotic service owing to God, country, and the American Express card. The work was maybe mindless, a substitution of what is animal for what is human, but it fattened the gross domestic product, enriched the insurance companies and the banks, welcomed the second coming of an American Gilded Age, and now accounts for the increasingly grotesque disparity between the income earned as wages and the revenue collected as rent, interest, dividend, stock option, and year-end bonus.
Americans with jobs imagine they now work longer and harder hours than did their forebears on Mark Twain’s Missouri frontier; if so, their labor serves a purpose other than the one in hand. Finance accounted for 47% of total U.S. corporate profits in 2007; 58% of Harvard University’s male graduates in that same year (the heirs and assigns of Woodrow Wilson’s small class of persons deserving of a liberal education) took up careers as high-end traffickers in the drug of debt. It’s a lucrative trade, up to the standard of the cotton export from the dear old antebellum South. That it doesn’t add to the sum of human happiness or meaning is probably why the gentry on the lawns of Connecticut, together with their upper servants in Washington and the news media, talk about the lost battalion of America’s unemployed as a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than as a body of fellow citizens.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of
. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Lines of Work," the Spring 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Copyright 2011 Lewis H. Lapham
Source: TomDispatch, Lapham's Quarterly
Image by Charkerm, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010 1:03 PM
This article is printed here courtesy of
, where it originally appeared as a letter to the editor in response to the article “Less Work, More Life.”
The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.
Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.
It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.
The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.
Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.
But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?
And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?
And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?
More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?
And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?
A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:
What work are we talking about?
Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?
How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?
Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?
For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?
What are the ecological and social costs of your work?
If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.
I don’t think anybody can honorably object to the proposition, in theory, that it is better “to reduce hours rather than lay off workers.” But this raises the likelihood of reduced income and therefore of less “life.” As a remedy for this, Mr. de Graaf can offer only “unemployment benefits,” one of the industrial economy’s more fragile “safety nets.”
And what are people going to do with the “more life” that is understood to be the result of “less work”? Mr. de Graaf says that they “will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less.” This happy vision descends from the proposition, popular not so long ago, that in the spare time gained by the purchase of “labor-saving devices,” people would patronize libraries, museums, and symphony orchestras.
But what if the liberated workers drive more?
What if they recreate themselves with off-road vehicles, fast motorboats, fast food, computer games, television, electronic “communication,” and the various genres of pornography?
Well, that’ll be “life,” supposedly, and anything beats work.
Mr. de Graaf makes the further doubtful assumption that work is a static quantity, dependably available, and divisible into dependably sufficient portions. This supposes that one of the purposes of the industrial economy is to provide employment to workers. On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.
So there could be fewer working hours to divide, more workers among whom to divide them, and fewer unemployment benefits to take up the slack.
On the other hand, there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.
We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.
Port Royal, Kentucky
Mr. Berry’s letter originally appeared in The Progressive (November 2010) in response to the article “Less Work, More Life.”
Source: The Progressive
Image by jimbowen0306, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010 12:45 PM
This article is printed here courtesy of
. To read a response to it by Wendell Berry, go here.
A few years ago, after finding my way through an incredible jumble of bicycles outside her building, I met with a University of Amsterdam professor who studies work-life balance. She recounted a conversation she’d just had with the manager of the Dutch division of an American company who had come to Holland from the United States two years earlier:
Professor: Do you notice a difference between the approach to work time and free time here compared to the United States?
Manager: Yes, it dawned on me my second week on the job. It was a Friday evening, eight o’clock, and we had an important shipment to get out on Monday. I called my assistant at home, and told her to call some of the workers to get some things done on the weekend in preparation.
Professor: What did she say?
Manager: She said she didn’t work on the weekends, and didn’t expect to be called at home when she wasn’t working.
Professor: And what did you say?
Manager: I said, “Well, excuse me, but I’m the new manager here, and we’re a company that competes in the global economy, and we have an important shipment to get out, and we appreciate employees who are team players.” She said, “OK, I can do what you ask of me, but under Dutch law, you have to pay me double time for unscheduled, overtime, weekend work. And if I call these people, they’ll just get mad at me for interrupting their family time. Don’t worry, we’ll come in Monday, work hard, and get the job done.”
Professor: What did you say then?
Manager: I said, “Oh, forget it!” I hung up the phone in frustration and stewed all weekend.
Professor: And then what happened?
Manager: They came in Monday and got the job done. They work very hard when they’re working so everything was fine. And that’s how it’s been ever since. I’ve gotten to like it that way because now even I have a life.
Less work, more life. It’s a tradeoff that a lot of American workers might appreciate.
Pollsters find time stress a constant complaint among Americans. Until the current recession, Americans were working some of the longest hours in the industrial world.
Conservatives say this is all voluntary: American just like to work a lot. But Gallup’s daily survey finds them 20 percent happier on weekends than on workdays—what a surprise! And when Americans rank the pleasure their daily activities bring, working ends up second from the bottom (socializing after work is second from the top!), more pleasurable only than that mother of all downers, the morning commute.
By contrast, the Netherlands boasts the world’s shortest working hours. Dutch workers put in 400 fewer annual hours on the job than American workers do. And yet, the Dutch economy has been very productive. Unemployment (at 5.8 percent) is much lower than in the United States, while the Netherlands boasts a positive trade balance and strong personal savings. A Gallup survey ranks the Dutch third in the world in life satisfaction, behind only the Danes and Finns, and well ahead of Americans.
The Dutch have been reducing time on the job through work-sharing policies since the 1982 Wassenaar Agreement, when labor unions agreed to modify wage demands in return for more time. Their Working Hours Adjustment Act (2000) require that employers allow workers to cut their hours to part-time while keeping their jobs, hourly pay, health care, and pro-rated benefits.
Anmarie Widener, a health researcher and part-time instructor at Georgetown University, was impressed by the Dutch devotion to time for family and recreation she witnessed while getting her Ph.D. in the Netherlands. Her dissertation compares life satisfaction among Dutch and American parents. Not surprisingly, she says, “My polling showed that in almost every area of life, Dutch parents are substantially more satisfied than their American counterparts.” And so are their children. A 2007 UNICEF study ranked children’s welfare in the Netherlands as the highest in the world. By contrast, the United States was twenty of twenty-one wealthy countries studied, barely edging out the United Kingdom.
Work sharing may be all the more important in times like the present. Economist Dean Baker argues that any further economic stimuli should include Kurzarbeit, or “short work,” a German policy that encourages employers to reduce hours rather than lay workers off when times are tight. Instead of cutting 20 percent of the workforce, a German company might reduce each worker’s load by a day. Unemployment benefits kick in for the reduced work time, so workers earn roughly 90 percent of their former incomes for 80 percent of the work.
Other countries have followed suit—the French believe in “working less so all can work.”
Here in the United States, a bill sponsored by Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, would allow federal unemployment benefits to be used to top up salaries of reduced-hour workers in the United States. When the bill was discussed in Barney Frank’s House Financial Services Committee, not only did Dean Baker testify in favor but so did Kevin Hassett, an economist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Hassett pointed out that even though the Germans’ economy tanked like ours did in 2008, their unemployment rate hasn’t risen—thanks to Kurzarbeit. The law allows companies to retain workers instead of having to rehire later, he said. It’s good for them, good for the workers, and doesn’t really cost any more than traditional unemployment payments. It’s a win, win, win. Nonetheless, not a single Republican has supported the bill and not all Democrats do either, so it remains in limbo.
Shorter working hours—the roses of “Bread and Roses” fame—are part of a long and progressive American tradition. A famous Dorothea Lange photo from 1937 shows a National Association of Manufacturers billboard on a hardware store. It reads: “World’s Shortest Working Hours—There’s No Way Like the American Way!” A bill passed the U.S. Senate in 1933 that would have made the official workweek only thirty hours long. Presidents from FDR to Richard Nixon called for reducing working hours.
In our time, feminist and women’s groups, including MomsRising.org and the National Partnership for Women and Families, have led the way in promoting work-life balance policies, demanding paid family leave, paid sick days, and flexible hours. Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida has introduced a bill calling for mandatory paid vacations, guaranteed by law in almost every country. The United States joins Burma and a handful of others that don’t offer this basic benefit.
As Juliet Schor makes clear in her new book, Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth, shorter work time also makes environmental sense. Planetary restraints and climate change require us to reduce our consumption of resources. Demands for quick extraction of resources lead to catastrophes like the oil volcano beneath the Gulf of Mexico.
As productivity increases, we seem faced with a choice between environmental disaster or massive unemployment. Unless, of course, we slow down by reducing working hours and sharing the work. Half a century of economic growth has not increased our happiness. More free time might well do so. It will certainly improve our health.
Americans will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, volunteer more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less. We need full employment, but not by returning to the unhealthy overwork of recent decades As Derek Bok puts it in his new book, The Politics of Happiness:
“If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our gross domestic product?”
Progressives would do well to advocate reduced working hours instead of demanding unsustainable growth. Suzy Ross, who teaches at San Jose State University, told me that when her co-workers found that they would have to take furlough days and commensurate pay cuts in response to California’s budget crisis, they all responded in anger. Now, she says, they appreciate the extra two days off each month, and few want to give them up, though they could use the money.
Reducing work hours and sharing available work is essential for our families, health, economic security, and the environment.
It’s time to get on with it.
This article originally appeared in The Progressive, September 2010. To read a response to it by Wendell Berry, go here.
John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker, director of Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org), and co-author of “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.” His new book, “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?” will be published by Bloomsbury Press in 2011.
Image by dizid, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, April 29, 2010 3:31 PM
Back in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Public Art Review, I read a short piece by Arlene Goldbard, author of New Creative Community. It was about jobs—well, jobs and artists, public attitudes and social values, and what’s necessary to spur national economic recovery. She made a couple of points that I can’t shake, so I wanted to share them here.
Goldbard begins with a simple question: “What sustains us?” Her answer, in short, is storytelling and art. “Communities derive nourishment from stories that offer inspiration, empathy, and guidance, that help possibility to bloom,” she writes. “We create stories on walls and other sites of public memory, in dance and theater, moving-image media, print, music, digital communication. . . . Under even horrific conditions—in prison, in refugee camps—we make art.”
The connection to the economy is straightforward: Artists are culture-makers, and “culture is the crucible for changing perceptions and feelings, for communicating hopes and fears, and creating choices in places of desperation. How people feel about the economy, for instance, is as central to recovery as any regulatory intervention.”
Overlooking or excluding of the arts from recovery programs fails to capitalize on this power. Goldbard, in a video interview (below) on her website, additionally makes the point that a job, after all, is a job. “You give people a salary, and they pay the rent and buy groceries, and that puts money into circulation, starting the flow that can restore the economy,” she says. And that includes jobs for artists.
Sources: Public Art Review, ArleneGoldbard.com
Wednesday, January 06, 2010 12:13 PM
Supervisors around the country are lying, cheating, and stealing from their employers to give workers a fair shake. One supervisor at an East Coast restaurant chain, profiled by the American Prospect, has created two time sheet systems: one real, and one fake that she reports to her employer. This allows workers to take time off and tend to their families, breaking company rules, and not get fired. “I couldn’t go along with their rules,” the supervisor told the American Prospect. “It was ridiculous, like I’m going to tell this mother with a 4-year-old, ‘No, you can’t leave to pick him up.’” The idea harkens back to a quote by Paul Newman in the film Cool Hand Luke: “Calling it your job don’t make it right.”
Source: The American Prospect
Image from the Seattle Municipal Archives, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 1:58 PM
Last spring, Utne Reader scrutinized the rise of obligatory office fun, a trendy corporate core value that the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash dubbed a “condescending infantilization” of the workplace. Whether the intentions were noble or purely monetary (happy is good; happy employees are also more productive), it was clear that top-down injections of joviality into the workplace weren’t panning out. We were left to wonder: When did our jobs become jokes?
Fast forward to just over a year later. Unemployment is projected to continue rising throughout the next year and to remain elevated for 5 years, reports the Washington Post. Those of us who do have jobs feel the strain of keeping them, and/or having nowhere else to turn. What was tacky—funsultants, gleetivities—has become downright distasteful.
Somber as the mood might be, this isn’t the time to abandon the pursuit of happiness in the workplace, say the editors of Greater Good. On the contrary: It is precisely in this climate that we should be thinking about what “employers and employees alike [can] do to make their workplaces happier, more satisfying places to be.”
To that end, the online-only magazine, a publication of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, has devoted its July 2009 web exclusives to the question of happiness in the workplace. Journalist Alex Frankel shares a few lessons he researching his book about workplace culture, Punching In. Frankel’s first piece of advice, especially for hourly employees, is to “go for flow.”
“Most hourly jobs treat time as monochronic,” Frankel writes, meaning work is viewed as a linear progression of tasks, each happening without overlap. This mindset drives employees toward clock-watching, which is problematic, since “perceptions of time . . . are closely linked to the employees’ feeling of freedom: The more constrained the environment, the slower things moved, and the less happy employees were.”
Frankel experienced the alternative while working at a computer retail store: “At Apple, the polychronic view of time prevailed, so that we could do several things simultaneously, manage our own tasks, and feel pride in accomplishing things, as opposed to just waiting out the hours.”
Greater Good also taps an Australian positive psychologist, Timothy Sharp, for his two cents. Sharp’s advice is geared more toward the organizational level, practices that wise managers might take note of to nurture employee morale in unhappy times. Sharp asked 50 people to name the top “keys” to happiness in the workplace. The responses, which he characterizes as “remarkably consistent,” included providing leadership and values, communicating effectively, giving thanks, focusing on strengths, and—wouldn’t you know—having fun. Just hold the gleetivities.
Sources: Weekly Standard, Washington Post, Greater Good
Image by joshuahoffmanphoto, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 08, 2009 2:09 PM
Busy executives don’t have time to fire all the employees they need to in the midst of this financial crisis, and human resources departments can be expensive. Writing for McSweeney’s, Marco Kaye came up with the idea of a Netflix-style service called Netloss, where execs can send pink slips automatically through the mail. Managers create a queue of all their employees, and Netloss will fire them automatically. No late fees, and no need for a messy talks. There’s even a program that can suggest other employees to fire based on your firing habits and preferences.
The service sounds like a great idea, but it lacks that personal touch that only a trained HR professional can provide. In an episode of This American Life, Ira Glass sat down with someone who has fired more than 1,500 people. He never uses the term “fired” in fact. Instead, people are “exited” or “part of that downsizing” or there is simply “a parting of the ways.”
, licensed under
Sources: McSweeney’s, This American Life
Thursday, July 31, 2008 12:17 PM
Sexual harassment is essential to human survival, a Russian judge has ruled. “If we had no sexual harassment, we would have no children,” said the judge, the Telegraph reports. And if we had no older bosses impregnating younger female employees (in this case, the defendant was 47, the plaintiff, 22), maybe we wouldn’t have as many premature babies, either. Perhaps we can find middle ground by encouraging same-age sexual harassment?
The judge’s ruling demonstrates a desire to increase Russia’s population by any means necessary, and puts Russian women uninterested in sleeping with an aggressive boss or coworker in a precarious employment position. International observers laughed when a Russian governor gave citizens a baby-making break last fall, but this latest procreation push lacks humor.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008 5:08 PM
The Spanish were on to something with the idea of the siesta. Science News reports that taking an afternoon nap is the best way to combat work-place drowsiness, according to researchers at the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England. The study tested people in the height of the post-lunch slump, around 2:00, and tried different strategies for keeping them awake. Taking a quick, 20-minute nap was even more effective than getting more sleep the night before. And although the nap worked best, the researchers also suggested a more socially acceptable way to wake up: drinking a cup of coffee (or six).
Wednesday, October 17, 2007 12:00 AM
Explicit and taboo language can help relieve stress at work, the BBC reports. Researchers at England’s University of East Anglia have found that swearing at work can build team spirit and help co-workers deal with stress.
The researchers did caution, however, not to swear in front of customers.
Yeah, no $%#*. -- Bennett Gordon
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