Monday, June 27, 2011

All work and no play - the speed-up

Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word. Workers recognized it, unions watched for and negotiated over it—and, if necessary, walked out over it. But now it is no longer even acknowledged it not in economics texts, and certainly not in the media. Now the word we use is "productivity," a term insidious in both its usage and creep. Americans don't just work smarter, but harder. And harder. And harder!

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than the British, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. Worldwide, almost everyone except Americans have, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. (The only other countries that don't mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland. USA?)

After a sharp dip in 2008 and 2009, US economic output recovered nicely to near pre-recession levels. But not so American workers: Far more people lost their jobs, and fewer were hired back once the recovery began, than anywhere else. Even among college graduates, unemployment is twice what it was in 2007, and those statistics don't take note of all the B.A.'s stocking shelves and answering phones. McDonald's recently announced that it had gotten more than a million applicants for 62,000 new positions. A "jobless recovery". US workers are falling prey to what we'll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. A euphemism for employees doing more than one job's worth of work—more than half of all workers surveyed said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus. US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up. Corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute.
University of California-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong notes "These days firms take advantage of downturns in demand to rationalize operations and increase labor productivity, pleading business necessity to their workers."

Erica Groshen, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: It's easier here than in, say, the UK or Germany "for employers to avoid adding permanent jobs," she told the AP recently. "They're less constrained by traditional human-resources practices or union contracts."

Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn: "Everything is tilted in favor of the employers...The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, 'I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,' what are you going to say—no?"

This is not just a product of the recession. Throughout the past decade, salaries stagnated and workloads grew. Then came the crash, and the speedup...speeded up.

Multitasking seems the obvious fix. If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus. If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus. "Virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking," warns Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass. "And one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You're really lousy at it. It's been demonstrated over and over and over. No one talks about it—I don't know why—but in fact there's no contradictory evidence to this for about the last 15, 20 years." There's a growing recognition that unrealistic demands on time are destroying the souls of...the executives. "Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy," notes a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, the research publication of the giant global consulting firm that has been corporate America's chief efficiency cheerleader. "These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard." McKinsey's advice to beleaguered executives? Do one thing at a time; delegate; take more breaks. But not for the millions of people whose work has been downsized, offshored, and sped up thanks to McKinsey.

For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they've ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top: By 2008, the wealthiest 0.1 percent were making 6.4 times as much as they did in 1980 (adjusted for inflation). All that extra duties workers taken on—the late nights, the skipped lunch hours, the missed soccer games—paid off. For them. This will keep up as long as we buy into three fallacies: One, that to feel crushed by debilitating workloads is a personal failing. Two, that it's just your company or industry struggling—when in fact what's happening to hotel maids and sales clerks is also happening to project managers, engineers, and doctors. Three, that there's nothing anyone can do about it.

But if you're in an abusive relationship—which 90-plus percent of America currently is—the first step toward change is to admit the problem.

Adapted from Mother Jones magazine here

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