The Place of Work: Part 1

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© Andrew Metcalf    


Work and Non-Work

What is work?

It is as frustrating to try and categorise work as it is to struggle with what it means – except in statistical terms: how many work, what do they do, where do they work and for what periods of time? It is then a deeper exercise to ask how we find ourselves at work and whether we are happy in doing so. Work is pervasive in daily life and its literature extensive; it’s the hemisphere we couple with “life” when we talk about “work-life balance” and it preoccupies many of us to the point where we think – or it feels like – we spend more time working than doing anything else.

Alain de Botton[i] has assayed these matters at length, exploring issues like the belief many hold that working is connected to happiness and identity: “… the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of renumerated employment.”

It seems that some take the wrong route though, and in so doing, commit themselves to a career at the expense of following a “true calling.” In observing the essence of what we take work to mean de Botton sees widespread change over time, inversions even. He starts with Aristotle’s dictum that all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind, before citing the Christian belief that the miseries of work are to be seen as a means of expiating the sins of Adam. Further, in the Italian Renaissance, humanist artists began to place a new emphasis on practical activity and its rewards. Then, quite quickly, in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopaedia, with its detailed coverage of diverse trades, comes the injunction that those in such occupations commit themselves to a “…pursuit of skilful and dignified ends.”

Although these past perceptions about work have not totally disappeared, they were over time skewed by the global processes of industrialisation and the concurrent emphasis placed on labour in the production of goods in the 19th century for example. Among others Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen theorised about labour; the former from a political standpoint and the latter from a sociological one. In formulating and then answering the question “What constitutes the alienation of labour?” Marx[ii] refers to the sense of separation between worker and product where each worker makes but a small part of the finished product in endless repetition in a manner totally unrelated to the finished item.

The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work, feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.

When factory “piece work” work practices were adopted and widely introduced to office work in the 1920s following Taylorist[iii] principles, worker alienation arising from  such division of labour, migrated from the factory to the office and stayed. In spite of work and workplaces evolving somewhat over the last century, the need to offset alienation in the workplace doesn’t seem to have gone away.

Consequently an ameliorative imperative has underwritten many of the developments in workplace design since World War II. On the other hand management’s desire to maximise productivity in the workplace is correspondingly unmet and undiminished. A new dimension to the nature of work emerged with the proliferation of large commercial offices in the late 19th century: in such environments work never generates a tangible object or product but may be entirely contingent on administration or record keeping duties. The American sociologist Thorstein Veblen studied[iv] this phenomenon towards the end of the 19th century and introduced the idea of immaterial goods (and labour):

Leisure … as distinct … from any ostensibly productive employment of effort on objects which are of no intrinsic use, does not commonly leave a material product. The criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take the form of “immaterial” goods. Such immaterial evidences of … leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce directly to the furtherance of human life.

Obviously not all work is interesting and fulfilling; the production of immaterial goods is an obvious case in point. Although “paper-pushers” now have digital technology the possibility of growing bored, distracted and alienated at work remain and many distracted hours are spent in a state of boredom surfing the web, taking frequent coffee breaks and waiting for the day to end. As the cultural historian Ben Kafka notes[v] most of us write memos, reports and emails, take minutes, attend multiple meetings, prepare budgets etc but, at the same time, we are likely to be a manager, part of “middle management.”  Barbara and John Ehrenreich[vi] identified these types of workers as the professional-managerial class (the PMC):

We define the professional-managerial class as consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.

Kafka calls this “1970s speak” for the people who reproduce things rather than actually produce things – the people who keep things under control and try to make sure nothing goes wrong. The French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari dubbed this the “production of production.”

In a recent theme issue of his eponymous journal the American historian Lewis Lapham called work “The Servant Problem[vii]” and identified what he calls two lines of work: “…employment bent to one’s own purpose and that bound to a purpose other than one’s own.” They are different and the sense of identity derived from each may well differ. Here again, issues of identity surface in a dialogue about work. For Lapham this stretches back to the Calvinist belief that it is by our work that we are known – not just to ourselves, but to God and our “fellow men.”

We soon realise though that identity must surely mean different things to different workers when we consider the stark statistic concerning the high-to-low ratio of how work is renumerated in the USA where the highest wage paid was 263 times the lowest in 2009 – that’s alienating. Lapham also draws attention to the phenomenon of a new rentier class in the US when he notes, that during the Regan presidency,  “… the income that individual American families received from rents, dividends and interest surpassed the income received from wages” for the first time. A new leisure class …?

The converse of work is idleness. Or is it? It actually depends on the context in which work is suspended. Can idleness be purposeful? Yes it can, in order to advance some kinds of work most of us have a need to cut loose, to drift, to daydream. In reality it may not be possible to enter this state in an office or similar work place. When Sven Birkets calls idleness “The Mother of Possibility”[viii] he extols the value of doing nothing “… provided it is the right kind of nothing” as Henry David Thoreau reportedly said. Much of Thoreau’s work, Birkets says, can be seen as a “…apologia for attuned idleness. A covert metaphysics lurks (in idleness), a linking of the unfettered state to more profound outcomes and insights.” In his essay entitled “Of Idleness” the philosopher Michel de Montaigne,[ix] equated idleness with imaginative fecundity when he declared: “It seemed to me that I could do my mind no greater favour than to allow it, in idleness, to entertain itself.”

Idleness also allows us, Walter Benjamin is reported to have said, to access an “inner” aesthetic life. Significantly Birkets finds an standard bearer for attuned idleness in the figure of the Walter Benjamin’s flaneur:

… the true picture of things – certainly of urban experience – is perhaps best gathered from diverse, often seemingly tangential, perceptions, and that the dutiful, linear-thinking rationalist is less able to fathom the immensely complex reality around him than the untethered flaneur….

Many would agree that the imaginative reverie is very important to creative, inventive work. An idle, but receptive, mental condition is often more likely to yield artistic outcomes that really matter than is a more methodical, uncompromising approach. However, the latter may be perceived as “work” and the former as “idleness.” Interestingly, in the miasma of digital media, sources and knowledge available today, the dissimilarity between work and non-work is becoming less sharply drawn. It is in untrammelled idleness, Birkets says, that we can find the means to salvaging an inner life. Does one’s inner life belong “at work?” Perceptions like these favouring certain forms of idleness imply that a place needs to be found for it and the contemporary office workplace may or may not consign the right sort of space for our solitude and idle moments. Given all this, where does such tuned, introverted behaviour fit into recent doctrines such as “Activity Based Working?”

Recently the writer Susan Cain[x] wondered if the nonexistence of places for solitude in offices might be problematic, and possibly counter-productive. Reporting that the majority of American workers now operate in teams, that 70% inhabit open-plan offices where the amount of floor space has gone down from 30 sq metres per person in the 1970s to 20 per person in 2010, she notes that:

Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish.

Noting that humans have the “contradictory impulses” of loving and needing one another at the same time as “craving privacy and autonomy” Cain raises a possible way forward  when she suggests we create offices that support “cafe-style encounters” at the same time as tolerating an individual retiring into a more private space when they wish. What would this look like …?

Perhaps an analogous setting might be the open plan reading room of a research library where the individual researcher belongs to a “community” of individuals, working on different projects in a large, shared space. While all contribute to the space with their mere presence, they refrain from interacting socially within it – in fact talking is only tolerated in whispers, if at all. However, in the adjacent cafe they all take the opportunity for social contact openly and noisily.

Along with his thoughts on idleness and untethered thinking Montaigne made another contribution to this discussion: he created a sustained reflection on co-operation.[xi] For this Renaissance thinker one obvious starting point of an agreeable, shared environment conducive to productive work was the need to co-operate with those we find regularly in our proximity. Of course knowledge of what is really going on with the people with whom we work generally escapes us as each inhabits a little world of their own. Montaigne’s insight was that co-operation was a key to connecting and that, through dialogue, we might bridge the gaps between fellow travellers. The sociologist Richard Sennett, acknowledging this contribution of Montaigne’s to the art of civility, points out that “dialogics” is a contemporary name for an old narrative custom. For Montaigne, he says, the point of dialogics was “… looking at things in the round to see the many sides of any issue or practice, the shifting focus making people cooler and more objective in their relations.”

[i] Alain de Botton (2010?)The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

[ii] Marx, Karl (1844) Economic and Philosophical

[iii] Taylor, Frederick Winslow (1911) Principles of Scientific Management

[iv]  Veblen, Thorstein Theory of the Leisure Class

[v]  Kafka, Ben (2013) The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

[vi]  Ehrenreich, Barabara and John (1979) Between Labor and Capital

[vii]  Lines of Work, Lapham’s Quarterly (2011:Spring)

[viii]  The Mother of Possibility, Lapham’s Quarterly (2011:Spring)

[ix] Montaigne, Michel de (1580), “Of Idleness” in Essays

[x] Cain, Susan “The Rise of new Groupthink”, The New York Times, 13/01/12

[xi] Sennett, Richard “All together now: Montaigne and the art of co-operation”, The Guardian 10/02/12

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