A Brief History Of Why Work Sucks – Part 3 of 4: The New Economy

There, I said it: Many things about work just suck. While there’s also a lot being done to turn the suck into a delight – it’s what I’m working on myself – it doesn’t hurt to pause and ask ourselves: How did work become like this in the first place? When we compare the current state of our working life to the past we tend to walk away with the notion that „At least things are better now than they used to be“ because we no longer have to slave away in coal mines starting on our twelfth birthday.

However, there is obviously more to it as the nature of work evolves constantly, alongside humanity as a whole. To provide a useful context for comparisons, I personally identify four major stages in the last 120 years:


Elaborating on these stages in detail would fill several books of their own – in fact it already does. I could only do a poorer job of rewriting those and I don’t plan on doing that: I will use this series of articles only to provide a quick, simplified glimpse into the origin and establishment of the individual stages’ major principles that are still governing our working life of today.

Part 3 of 4: The New Economy

When I was a child, I didn’t know a single adult that was a production worker. It seems like factories didn’t really exist during my school years and when I got to visit my first shop floor in my 20s it seemed very exotic and like a world completely different from mine. I can’t even remember anyone speaking to me about production during my childhood – this was the  late 1980s/1990s and there was only one topic regarding the working life: The rise of the service economy and the increasing importance of services compared to the industrial sector.

In the context of this article, the most relevant impact of the service economy is the change it brought about in the perception of human work: To provide a service, you must design a service – that is just as true for a web service and an ATM as it is in consulting or for a call center: It doesn’t matter if the service is performed by a person, it still needs to be designed by one. As a result, knowledge workers became creative workers; and for the first time ever the people performing the work, the actual human beings behind their role descriptions were perceived as creative subjects. This constitutes a massive shift in the perception of work (remember the principles of Taylorism) and to me it seems surreal to imagine myself working in a world before it now.

Human work is now widely regarded as companies’ most valuable resource – which in itself is a good thing. But as a result of this economical assessment as well as general developments of humanity and society (better worker rights, occupational safety and health regulations etc.), labor has become quite expensive – especially compared to other operational costs that have dropped, thanks to the savings made possible by individualized production. Looking back to the times of a young Frederick Taylor, we’ve kind of reversed the value assessment of human/non-human resources:
A 19th century coal miner’s life may have been deemed less valuable than the tools he was supplied to do his job. If a salesperson today bricks their company-issued iPhone, it’s not even worth talking about – the real value to their employer lies in the skills and expertise the salesperson applies.

This benefits employees as it means they no longer have to work under life-threatening conditions and can negotiate salaries and perks that workers of times past never would have dreamed about. But it has a downside: As creative subjects with such high operational costs, workers are also regarded as optimization objects.

How We Feel The Results Today

If human work is the most valuable resource organizations have, it obviously deserves to be managed and compensated appropriately. Peter Drucker once famously said that „Whatever gets measured, gets managed“. But while Frederick Taylor only needed to count the pieces produced at the end of a shift to measure the value added, the business impact of the output generated by modern creative work – such as programming, marketing, design etc. – is not as simple to assess. In lack of a better metric, the leading standard for measuring work has become the time it takes to do it:

Measuring „work“ by measuring „time spent at work“ is easy and seemingly allows everyone to assess how individual teams or workers are performing, without the need for high-level executives to be able to grasp the complexity of the work being done or the output achieved in their area of accountability.

This choice of metric however, results in a fatal loss of reality: It reduces a highly complex, multi-facetted activity (work) to a single external aspect accompanying it (time spent at work). Within this one-dimensional time-only framework we can’t perceive and value work as the fascinating, rewarding endeavor it is; we can only perceive office hours because that’s what we measure, report on and base decisions off.

The supremacy of hierarchical decision-making and the clinging to top management’s interpretational sovereignty make this reductionism appear necessary and justified: We equate work with time spent at work to fuel the numbers game that is being played to broker between the operational dimensions of top management and workforce by means of middle management, reports and strategy papers. As a result, human creative work is reduced to a slice of the TCO pie chart (total cost of operations, similar to total costs of ownership). It’s reduced to an expense that needs to be brought down. A factor that needs to be optimized. A problem that requires fixing.

Albert Einstein once said that „Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.“ It would appear that the new/service economy instead adopted the motto of „If it can’t be measured, I can’t be bothered“ – bothered to value the work that’s being done and to conceive a way of management worthy of it, that is.

This article is the third in a series of four about how the history of work relates to today’s work life realities. If you’d like to receive a notification when new articles are published you can submit your email address here.

Other articles in this series (this list will be updated as new articles are published):

Part 1 of 4 – Taylorism
Part 2 of 4 – Post-Fordism

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