It’s said that the French work to live, while Americans live to work. I would like to work forever, though with reasonable hours, French-style. It wouldn’t just be for the money, though that’s a necessary factor, but also for the intellectual stimulation and social contact with people.
A bunch of things collided to make me think lately about the nature of work. I was talking to someone who mentioned lousy jobs–the ones with repetitive tasks, possibly dangerous or at least likely to involve occasional injuries, with inflexible or odd or constantly changing hours, few or no benefits, no hope for advancement. One employee is nearly indistinguishable from the next and so they can be fired and a new one hired without angst.
Many of these jobs are being automated. Maybe they should be–there’s nothing inherently satisfying about them other than the paychecks they bring, and why have people doing dangerous tasks instead of machines? But what about the people who do them now? Especially those who are doing fairly dangerous jobs and earning good salaries as a result? They are not going to shift to a lab to look for a cure for cancer. And it isn’t because they aren’t able to make this switch to the vaunted knowledge economy that they should be written off.
One of my early jobs, when I was in high school, was automated and I was laid off. I worked at a bank, doing data entry. Back then, when you made a charge with your credit card, the clerk would set it into a little cradle and, RRRPPPP RRRPPP, imprint the card number into the three carbon copies of the receipt (the legacy of which is the raised numbers on your cards still today). My colleagues and I had four-inch-thick stacks of the bank copy of these receipts. We would type in the card number and amount as fast as our left hands could flip to the next receipt. There were little red lights on the keyboard to alert us to errors (each pile was entered by two different people and they had to match perfectly). Our keystrokes were timed to monitor our efficiency. Occasionally, the headsets we wore would beep and we would stop to authorize a charge. Back in the day, if a charge was rather large, the retailer would call a human at the bank for authorization. We had a little box of microfiches that were updated regularly, and would slip it into a projector to look up the card number to see whether the person was paying their credit card on time or whether they were over the limit (refused) or the card was stolen. I had one stolen card, and it was very exciting. I had to tell the clerk to keep the customer in the store while calling the police and to cut the card in half.I was the youngest person working there, and it was a great job for a 17-year-old. I worked four hours a night after school Monday to Thursday and eight hours on Sundays, where I got time and a half. I made $4.75 an hour (when the minimum wage was $2.30) and more on Sunday. I had Friday night and Saturday night off. Incredible.
But I couldn’t figure out the life plan of the adults I worked with. On the one hand, it was a good job, but I didn’t see anybody promoted in the years I worked there. There was nothing about data entry that led to bigger and better skills. And I don’t think my co-workers were concerned about moving up. They had a nice, clean office job that they did well and they didn’t need to think about when they left for the day. They worked to live.Funny, but in high school my counselor thought I should stick with the bank job–steady, at ridiculously high pay. She said I could get hired on graduation as a secretary because I could type. I said I wanted to HAVE a secretary, not be one. (That got me in trouble with my mother.) I had good grades, great test scores, but we were in a tough neighborhood. People like me were supposed to become worker bees not bosses.
I went to college anyway, with a full scholarship, though it didn’t cover books and such. So I worked full-time and went to school more than full-time because I finished in three years. Of course now I regret it–I don’t have any friends from college–I ran out of my classes to catch the bus to work. I missed out on the college experience. Lesson: living to work can be empty.I see Felicity Huffman going to jail for all of two weeks for buying her kid into college and I wonder whose place her kid took. Do you remember/know of the invasion of Grenada? A supposedly communist coup led to the U.S. invasion, citing the need to protect the Americans going to medical school there. Turns out, Grenada had a booming diploma factory for Americans who didn’t qualify for med school in the U.S., but the family couldn’t bear the thought of Junior not being a doctor and shipped him off to Grenada.
I don’t know anybody who would rather see a doctor whose family bought his degree rather than the poor but brilliant kid who worked his way through. While it’s clear that kids brought up in stable households with decent incomes have better outcomes in school, at least in France the schools are pretty consistent and university is open and without tuition to anybody who has the test scores (there are costs, like housing, but they’re a couple thousand a year).
In some ways, today’s economy is like the one of many decades ago. My grandma got milk delivered by the milkman in a little truck. Today, people get deliveries from Amazon or Deliveroo or one of the others. The big difference with the past is that milkman earned a middle-class living for his family and stay-at-home wife, as they almost all were then. Delivery drivers now have to work incredibly long hours, or supplement with other gigs, and they still only scrape by. The app business model depends on not paying living wages.
Check out the documentary “American Factory.” Fantastic. You see these people doing kind of routine jobs but proud to do them and do them right. They are working to live but while they’re on the clock, they are all-in. But when the factory, which had been closed, is bought by a Chinese company, the new management doesn’t see it that way; they see the American workers as slow and lazy and unwilling to put in hours the way their Chinese employees do.
There’s a new podcast based on the tapes Studs Terkel made of the interviews he did for “Working,” his seminal look at people and their work in the 1970s. The podcast went to the interviewees to see where they are now. Fascinating. There was the telephone operator talking about how boring and machine-like her work was–work now long done by computers, just like my bank job. There were the generations of car mechanics and the great pride they had in diagnosing problems. Some people aren’t made for desk jobs.Then there’s teaching. It used to be a good, middle-class job. In France, it still is, thanks to the panoply of benefits the government provides to people at the bottom of the income scale. Income redistribution. Socialism. I don’t receive these benefits and I pay plenty in taxes to finance them. But I love it. I think it’s the right thing to do.
I hear a lot about how incredibly innovative the U.S. is, but what I see are a lot of little software programs–apps–that don’t advance much. Most of them make doing something or another a little bit easier. Is that innovation? They feel like the specialized kitchen gadgets that, yes, peel garlic faster, get the pit out of your avocado, slice and dice more surely than someone without knife skills, but I suspect 99% of such gadgets sit in drawers, untouched.Sure, Google changed search (but I use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you), Amazon changed/demolished retail, Apple put computers in our pockets (Nokia was working on that, too, but too late). Even before AirBnB, I booked holiday homes, though the app is much easier. Is “easier” enough to qualify as innovation? Not sure. Uber made it easier to hail a ride, but by exploiting drivers, who brought their own cars–no capital expenditure on fleets necessary for Uber, no contributions for pensions or health care or all those other things that human workers have traditionally required. I’ve never used Uber and never will. Same with Facebook. I’m far from a Luddite, but I’m picky about what I put on my phone and which businesses get my custom. My kitchen drawers are almost devoid of gadgets. It’s a lifestyle.
This is a very grognon post, but I really care about people who work hard and don’t make ends meet, and it seems to be the case for more and more people. What about you? Do you live to work or work to live? What do you think about gig jobs? In light of your opinion, do you use apps? What should we do about jobs eliminated by automation?
Bonus: A little retro Huey Lewis and the News with Workin’ for a Livin’. Circa 1982.