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GP 30 November 2005: Men at Work

Business as Usual.  Bursting out of Australia in 1982, the New Wave group Men at Work became a huge global hit, its Business as Usual at the top of the charts in America longer than a first album from any other group.  But then  they quarreled.  Two members left the group.  By 1985 they were just a memory, and today this fallen star is on few lips.

Nonetheless, they’re part of the Australian Surprise.  Many of the Anglo-Saxon economies have performed awfully well in the last 15 years, a function of both ideology and culture.  But the Aussies have outdone us all, based on some shrewd governance and the wealth of natural resources generated there that have been wolfed down by hungry Asian economies. As we implied in “The Australian Attraction,” the land down under produces more than its share of firsts, because it is just far enough away from things to think a bit differently.  While the conventional research tanks in the U.S. medical establishment labored over dietary and psychological explanations for ulcers that flattered the egos and filled the pockets of the American healthcare system for better than half a century, Australian doctors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren spotted the pylori that were the basis of 95% of ulcers.  For this they won the Nobel Prize

But, as we said, Men of Work fell apart.  Victims of the polarization that has now afflicted all of American politics and a host of our institutions, they lost it all, subject to the cancer of the spirit that taxes anybody who labors for fame and fortune, and not for the love of the game.  This splintering apart affects men at work in several venues. 

There’s a movie called The Legend of Bagger Vance, lovingly put together by Robert Redford, about a 193l golf match in Savannah, Georgia between Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, and a local hero that we and others have watched innumerable times.  Oddly enough, we have not read the novel by Steven Pressfield, but it will be one of our New Year’s resolutions to do so.  Somewhere someone says in the movie, “Golf is not a game you can win.  All you can do is play the game.”  Surely that’s life.  And for damn sure it’s what work is all about where most everybody tries to win, but where you can only play the game.  Try to win, and you and those around you will surely fall apart. 

Slaves at Work.  In the November 28, 2005 issue of the New Yorker, its one-page business columnist James Surowicki frets about “No Work and No Play.”  By and large, or so he claims, the Europeans (particularly the Germans and French) work about 25 to 30% less than Americans.  Basically he attributes this to the strength of the labor unions on the Continent.  According to Surowicki, this has led to higher rates of unemployment in Europe since the service trades such as foodservice and domestic care have not flourished there as in America.  The Europeans don’t eat out as much or use as many household helpers.

As near as we can tell from all the surveys, job satisfaction has gone into the tank for both Americans and Europeans.  But at least the Europeans are working less—or not at all, so they have less to be dissatisfied about.  We should note that mental anguish and depression are rampant in all developed cultures, which we take to be a result, at least in part, of the mindnumbing nature of modern work, work that has no end.

Depression aside, economists rave about rising productivity in the U.S.—but one has to look carefully at all this.  Some would say that the productivity miracle in the U.S. is less than meets the eye.  One bright Wall Street analyst theorizes that Americans have not become more productive, but are simply working longer hours.  We find that this is particularly true of middle managers, whose ranks have been thinned out by corporate cost-cutting and who are taking up the slack by putting in 14 to 16 hour days.  Barry Lynn talks of multinational corporations that have become far too lean in End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation.  There is evidence, incidentally, that suggests that the much maligned French are more productive than U.S. workers, but that their economic output falls short of ours simply because they are cumulatively working less hours.

School Drudgery.  The draconian work ethic has affected us in ways we never imagined.  School kids now have long days that threaten burnout by age 13.  They have too many courses, too much homework, and out-of-control athletics that spring from politicians, school administrators, and parents that don’t know the meaning of “enough is enough.”  They’re too busy to become educated.

David Brooks, the apologist-columnist for the New York Times, back in April 2001 wrote of “The Organization Kid” at Princeton (and most other schools) in The Atlantic:

One senior told me that she went to bed around two and woke up each morning at seven; she could afford that much rest because she had learned to supplement her full day of work by studying in her sleep.  As she was falling asleep she would recite a math problem or a paper topic to herself….  I asked several students to describe their daily schedules, and their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America….  One young man told me that he had to schedule appointment times for chatting with friends.

School, incidentally, never quite lets out, even after college.  The long hours continue. Our professional service trades—lawyers, doctors, consultants, accountants, and the like—basically charge by the hour.  To this end, they work at racking up billable hours, because it’s the hours, not the results, for which they will get paid.  In their own lives they often put no value on time or leisure, inclined to put in more hours than the next fellow, readily participating in a host of meetings that drag on and on.  In this kind of existence, one’s value is determined by how long one works, not how well one works. There is an implied heroism in burning the midnight oil.

We talk about this with some embarrassment since in our work we get paid to contemplate in a leisurely way at great length in order to find the shortest distance between two points.  That is we are rewarded for ideas that will net big rewards and that can be executed with a minimum of complexity.  This flies in the face of consultants, lawyers, accountants, et. al., who earn their keep by coming up with incremental improvements that are wrapped in great complexity.  So we are not traveling around the office at 65 mph.  And we suffer from a surfeit of good cheer. 

The Future of Work.  There is no prospect of relief from this harried regimen that is the lot of the working person.  First off, there’s a reasonable chance that the age of retirement will edge up well past 65, perhaps to 70, for several reasons.  Days of rest are receding into the future.  Social Security and the rest of our pension systems are underfunded: ultimately the way to make them solvent will be to keep people working, either part-time or fulltime, til they can work no more.

Moreover, some of these seniors will be needed to fill vacancies where skilled workers are in short supply.  As our society ages, we will be scrambling for experienced hands: “In industries already facing labor and skills shortages, thinking companies are recruiting, retaining and developing flexible work-time” arrangements for senior workers, according to the Conference Board in “Managing the Mature Workforce.” 

Continuous Education.  As well, a goodly part of the workforce will be self-employed, and will have to continuously hone its skills to get work from large organizations.  Charles Handy says, “We are beginning to see the end of the employee society … as a result only about half the working population is working inside an organization….”  About a third of all workers are now so-called knowledge workers.  See Charles Handy, “The Future of Work in a Changing World.”

For Handy, in this new workplace, we will have to spend 10 percent of our time “renewing our brainpower,” adding skills that will keep us relevant in a changing marketplace, but, as importantly, adding breadth to our depth.  For example, it won’t be enough to be a great computer programmer.  Since we will probably be self-employed, we will need to know how to sell our services as well.  We will all be as busy as those sleepless Princeton students David Brooks met, adding the skill sets that make us marketable.  It’s not altogether certain how each worker and the whole of society will bear up under such stress.  Says Peter Drucker in “The Age of Social Transformation,” “The knowledge society will inevitably become far more competitive than any society we have yet known—for the simple reason that with knowledge being universally accessible, there will be no excuses for nonperformance” (The Atlantic Monthly, December 1995).

Bad Work.  Once again Time Warner visited one of our sites last week, its television and wireless networks askew.  For us this is an annoyance.  For Time Warner it should be a major worry, since its somewhat improved results reported for the last quarter  depended in large part on in its cable activities.  The cable business appears to be inherently flawed.  It suffers, tis more the pity, from the same weaknesses as the cellphone companies.  Free of regulation, they provide us with severely under-built networks and tinsel equipment with too many functions and not enough engineering.  We’d hazard a guess that a mighty percentage of the excess work that weighs down our society stems from our patchwork infrastructure. 

Mario, The Cable Man at Your Service, came by.  Eighty percent of the complaints he handles result from poor routers, but the supply-chain wizards at headquarters ignore the distress calls from its field workers.  The grunt staff at the office and in the trucks can only ruefully smile, knowing full well that subprime systems and brittle equipment will falter sooner or later.  He replaced our router but we’re still having troubles at that office because the service and technical staffs do not really understand what makes their complicated system tick.

Mario, and thousands like him, work 16 hours a day but cannot at the end rejoice in a job well done.  That is the dilemma.  If people are to labor without pause, they need to know their work adds up to something.  But the system turns them into robots programmed to ladle out bad porridge.

Doctoring.  When asked about the state of medicine, our favorite doctor chortles, “The practice of medicine is wonderful.  But the medical business is terrible.”  At our last 3-hour meal together at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, where we drowned our sorrows in 6 varieties of oysters and a New Zealand  sauvignon, he gave rise to much laughter when he told us how bean counters throughout the medical system were studiously enforcing rules that dramatically lower the productivity of surgeons on certain hospital staffs.  There’s a host of meddlers in all our workplaces who actually increase costs and lower quality. 

In this vein, we are most impressed with Rachel Noami Remen’s “Recapturing the Soul of Medicine” in the Western Journal of Medicine, January 2001.  She allows that “An unprecedented number of physicians nationwide, many of them young, are dropping out or seeking early retirement,” distressed as they are about how medicine has stumbled.  She answers that the task is to once again find meaning in the work. 

She recalls the many-times-retold tale of 3 stonecutters working on a cathedral in the 14th century, which we first heard from Colin Forbes, now retired, who led the international graphic design firm  Pentagram into such prominence.  When queried as to what they were doing, the first said, “I’m cutting stones, which I will do til my death day.  The second said he was providing a living for his family.  But the third said he was building a great cathedral, a beacon of hope for all his countrymen, a sacred creation to last a 1,000 years or more.  The third stonecutter, investing his work with meaning and quality, had the right idea, of course.  It’s the only way to deal with a 1,000 or 100,000 stones. 

Remen feels her medical colleagues need to achieve “meaning,” which is “the antecedent of commitment, and the original meaning of our work is service.”  Whether we are to work a 1,000 hours or cut an infinite number of stones, we require the spiritual education that colors our labors with meaning.

Craftsmanship.  Last week, in our “New York: Chacun A Son Gout,” we toured New York, visiting with three artisans—two concerned with spices and one with knives—who were totally into their work, long hours and all.  For those of us who know we are to work countless hours but want to put the soul back in our work, this will be a road we will probably travel.  We will flee jobs where somebody else controls our output to one where we can accept responsibility for what we think and do.  That is probably why Neal Rosenthal is now an upstate New York wine merchant, instead of a New York City lawyer.  Or why the chap in Santa Barbara has left Wall Street to fly travelers through all sorts of weather.  They have learned to take part in sports where the object is not to win, but to play the game.

Warning Signs.  Our workplaces are littered with warning signs.  Exhausted and demoralized personnel.  Systems on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.  Meaninglessness.  They’re not unlike all the signs throughout New York that once shouted, “Con Ed at Work,” which only lacked the subtext, “Because we’re broken.”  Berlin and other places about the world have a handsome collection of markers that tell us about patchwork in progress.  There’s a whole slew of beautiful visual metaphors strewn about our culture that celebrate men at work on things that are not working.  Now, can we put it all back together so we work on the workable and pound our fist on the table when we do something worth doing? 

John Gardner long ago urged us to get it right: 

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy.  Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

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