Monday, June 27, 2011

Worker Identity

“In most of contemporary thinking, the concept of work has been largely reduced to that of gainful employment aimed at acquiring the means for the consumption of available goods. The system is circular: acquisition and consumption resulting in the maintenance and expansion of the production of goods and, in consequence, in supporting paid employment. Taken individually, all of these activities are essential to the well-being of society. The inadequacy of the overall conception, however, can be read in both the apathy that social commentators discern among large numbers of the employed in every land and the demoralization of the growing armies of the unemployed.”

Report after report sites the chronic underemployment of the American population and decreasing home prices afflicting communities throughout the country. Many approaches within the field of economics take a view of systemic failure on the side of market-influencing policy - both fiscal and monetary. Yet not many economists have attempted to examine the question from the perspective of the identity of the American worker. How has mainstream economic thinking changed the concept of work for the average American worker? The quote above suggests that for much of society, work is losing its meaning. Rather than being a realm through which individuals apply and develop their talents for the wellbeing of society, work has become a means to secure the income needed to fuel a consumer lifestyle.

To what extent does this loss of values in an approach towards work contribute towards declining motivation and work ethic? What impact might such a trend have on the economic recession? This is an area of study that has perhaps received inadequate attention. However, recent studies have indicated that even higher salaries are not a great enough incentive to overcome declining motivation to perform well in one’s job. These studies do not on the whole conclude that low morale is characteristic of human nature, but rather that motivation comes from a different part of the human being, a part that cannot flourish so easily within the cogs and spokes of the labor market. Economists such as E.F. Schumacher have supported this idea, claiming that this growing apathy is an attitude that is reinforced and even promoted by a system that places the American worker in the same category as other goods that can be traded on a market. In his book Small is Beautiful , Schumacher shares the following related thought:

"In the market place, for practical reasons, innumerable qualitative distinctions which are of vital importance for man and society are suppressed; they are not allowed to surface. Thus the reign of quantity celebrates its greatest triumphs in "The Market." Everything is equated with everything else. To equate things means to give them a price and thus to make them exchangeable. To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price. Not surprisingly therfore, if economic thinking pervades the whole of society, even simple non-economic values like beauty, health, or cleanliness can survive only if they prove to be "economic."
Schumacher was not the first to read the effects of the market on humanity in this way. A related thought is shared by great thinker and historian, Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation:

"The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them. In other words, according to the emperical definition of a commodity they are not commodities. Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized..."
When it comes to causes we believe in – whether this is our family, acts of volunteering or even our jobs - humans value qualities such as diligence, purpose, mastery, autonomy and dedication among others. As Polayni points out, human motivation to work - for our lives to be productive and to contribute something to others - goes well beyond the narrow goal of selling our labor. It is part of who we are, and a daily activity that can add purpose and richness to our lives, if undertaken in the right spirit and for a noble purpose.

There is enough evidence to suggest that markets and institutions need to value these qualities, not simply because they will function more effectively as a result, but because these systems are not at the centre of society – humans are. They should thus be designed to reflect our nature and spiritual needs, and not the other way around. What, then, are the characteristics of societies, institutions and markets that also value these qualities? How can the American economic system incorporate these values into its functioning?