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Work • Sorrows of Work

The Sorrows of Competition

At the heart of how modern individuals work, there is a dream of security: security from humiliation, penury, dependence, arbitrary dismissal and uncertainty.

At the heart of how a modern capitalist economy works, there is a dream of competitive advantage: one based on the intelligent maximisation of invested capital, on the effective deployment of technology, raw material and labour to reduce costs and improve quality and the triumph over competitors so as to maximise shareholder return.

At certain points, the two longings, those of individuals and those of capitalism, seem inherently aligned. At other points, it can seem as if our own well-being has grown entirely irrelevant to the economic machine we have built. We generally don’t kick the machine. We’re far more inclined to blame ourselves. There is, after all, always enough evidence of people who thrive and succeed to suggest to us that the fault must lie with something we have done. But in our more politically engaged moments, we may dare to complain that the system really is not working ‘as it should’.



Ironically, at precisely such moments, it’s probably working very well indeed. It’s just that it was never intended to work in the way we would like, for our own well-being. Capitalism does not place the longings and aspirations of the labour force at the heart of its operations (the clue as to its essential concerns lie in its name). It wasn’t made to ensure that we had secure, good lives, plenty of time off and pleasant relationships with our families; it was made to maximise shareholder return. Labour has exactly the same status within capitalism as other production inputs, neither more nor less. Alongside rent, the price of fuel, plant, technology and taxes, labour (people) is just another cost. That it happens to be a ‘cost’ that cries, needs the odd weekend off, sometimes catches the flu and in extremis commits suicide is – at most – a puzzling inconvenience. We shouldn’t believe that there is anything faulty about the capitalist machine simply because we have minimal security of employment, very little time to see our families, a lot of stress and an uncertain future. These may belong to the very conditions that help the machine to work very well. Our mistake, which has imposed a heavy internal burden on us, has been to confuse our own ambitions for happiness with the goals of capitalism.

We have innocently viewed a range of anxieties and fears as incidental and solvable, when they are in fact basic necessities for the correct functioning of enterprise. The first, and largest of these is the Fear of Dismissal. A capitalist economy could not work well without it. It is a precondition of efficient business both that existing labour can be removed swiftly and cheaply and that there should always be a ready supply of cooperative replacements. Unemployment isn’t a tragedy for business; it contributes to a willing talent pool with low bargaining power.

Even the collapse and shuttering of whole firms isn’t – overall – to be lamented. Inefficient players who have failed to read market signals have to close and their capital has to deployed elsewhere. There is nothing more unhealthy for capitalism than an economy in which whole firms, some perhaps very long established and with thousands of loyal workers within them, can’t regularly and suddenly go bust.

The relationship we form to a company may last as long as a marriage and we may give it as much time and devotion as we would give to a partner. But this is a relationship that should, for capitalism to flourish, be close to abusive, because our ‘spouse’ must at any point be allowed, on the grounds that they could save themselves three percent a year, to fire us bluntly and take up with a more cooperative and flexible rival in Daegu, South Korea. 

We have taken care to construct a world where, in many areas, there is an extreme sensitivity to upset and distress. We have rigorous health and safety requirements to ensure people don’t fall off ladders or strain their backs moving heavy boxes. We make sure that words aren’t used to demean or prejudice minorities. Kindergartens present a moving picture of our care for the next generation.

And yet in the core area of our work, we operate in a system which is – from an emotional point of view – nothing short of barbaric. But through more sober economic lenses, it isn’t anything as alarming: it is merely admirably competitive.

A second fear that prevails is that of not having done enough. We lie awake at night worrying about certain tasks we failed to perform. We cannot stop thinking about what certain competitors may be up to. We panic about the upcoming financial results. We don’t sleep very well any more.

This too makes sense. It used to be far tougher on businesses. Regular breaks used to be mandated. Religion was responsible for many of them; it told people that they should down tools and honour something far more important than their work, like the majesty of the creator of the whole world. This glance upwards to the heavens relativised and calmed the workforce, it put things in perspective and lent a relieving sense that those packages in the warehouse could probably be sent next week after all. On a bad day, there might even be a sermon reminding people to treat workers like God’s children and to respect the holiness of every individual, however lowly.

In certain countries, labour got itself organised and demanded that everyone in the company had to be given decent conditions and the odd holiday, or else everyone would walk out on strike. There were angry marches and some insane demands to restrict who could be fired and when.

There were some very frustrating limits to technology as well. There was the post, but it took an age. One might have to wait two weeks for a letter and there might be little to do in that time other than check up on the garden, go for long walks, read three Russian novels and talk to the children. Travel for work took an equal eternity. One might be sent to Hamburg by the firm, which could mean four whole days, three of them at sea, some of them spent slowly eating kartoffelsalat and a schnitzel, chatting to fellow passengers and staring out from the ship’s window at the wheat fields near Neuharlingersiel.



It has been a miracle and an unbounded relief for Capitalism that this painful age has at last passed. Religion now seldom gets in the way. Its irritating calming pieties have been replaced by far more alarming and motivating narratives drawn from social darwinism. The labour movement has been effectively pulverised by flattering ambitious workers that they would gain far more by ditching their fellow indians and aiming to become chiefs themselves – and relabelling labour organisers enemies of progress. Technology has at last made it possible for the machine to be on at all hours and therefore for the line between leisure and work to be thankfully erased. We’ve been able to give people devices to make sure they are findable all the time and cleverly incentivised them to see these devices as toys for their benefit rather than glorified tracking bracelets for the firm. Travel has been hugely speeded up too, so that it is now possible to squeeze in meetings on a few continents in just a single day.

The third and related fear is that we now have almost no time to invest in our personal lives. We constantly search for that elusive holy-grail quaintly termed by magazines ‘work-life balance’. Anyone who sincerely believes that such an equilibrium might be possible has not begun to understand the logic of capitalism.

Work and Love are our two greatest idols. But they are also locked in mortal combat. Work tends to win. The complaints against work from within love are notorious: that we are never around, that we are always tired, that we never give our partner our wholehearted attention, that we are obsessive about the office. Modern ideas of love were invented in the late eighteenth century by people who didn’t have a job and therefore made great play of the importance of spending constant time with a lover explaining and sharing feelings and recounting the movements of one’s heart. Unfortunately, combining Romanticism and Modern Capitalism together, as we are expected to do, is an impossible task. The impressive philosophy of Romantic love – with its emphasis on intimacy and openness – sits very badly alongside the requirements of working routines that fill our heads with complex demands, keep us away from home for long stretches and render us insecure about our positions in a competitive environment.

According to the Romantic ideal, a lover can be kind and good only when they readily communicate their feelings. But the level of openness this assumes is wholly at odds with the realities of modern work. After a tricky day (or week), one’s mind is likely to be numb with worries and duties. We may not feel like doing much besides sitting in silence, staring at the kitchen appliances, running through a series of dramas and crises. Such preoccupation is not pleasant to witness: it risks expressing itself in a range of not very endearing symptoms: grunting, sighing, brooding silence and a short-fused temper. The most innocuous sounding question about how the day might have gone can elicit a growl – then, if it is repeated, an explosion.

In the pre-Modern age, the basic character of most jobs was well understood by everyone. If you were a shepherd, a blacksmith, a miner or a housemaid, you were doing work that would have been familiar to everyone in the community over many generations. The advent of the factory system in the early 19th century brought new kinds of work – but often whole communities would be employed in roughly the same industries, so everyone would understand what it was like to glaze pottery (if you lived in Staffordshire) or operate a steam loom (if you lived around Manchester). Today’s jobs are weirder and more specialised. Explaining properly the reasons why one day was more enervating than another, why a particular project has become so stress-inducing or why relations with the Madrid office have broken down can require levels of forbearance we cannot muster – when one of us has spent the day advising on restructuring the billing system for the annuity collection fund of an insurance broker while the other has been attending to the data collection mechanism for the multi-platform design mainframe of a logistics company. When we do not properly explain, we risk coming across as closed, difficult and an enemy of true love, though we are usually no such thing: we are just tired and worried.



Another way in which modern work is at odds with the requirements of relationships has to do with domestic duties, the always fraught question of who should clean the bathroom or renew the household insurance (issues to which Romantics devoted scant attention). The modern ideology of work assigns the domestic sphere a low status. Work around the house isn’t paid, which means it can’t be important, and it is in any case associated, historically, with socially subordinate positions, like those of the scullery maid, the footman and the gardener. As a result we tend not to take household management seriously. We admire people who can drive fast, but not those who can make a bed perfectly at high-speed. In Modernity, unpaid work lacks all prestige. However, we cannot escape the domestic either. We live at a moment when pretty much everyone is involved (even if only a little) in housework. Having servants is an extreme luxury – even though for most periods of history, it was the norm for large sections of society to rely on help from others. In 1850 in Great Britain, for example, families with an income of GBP 300 a year (the basic income of any managerial job) would typically have two live-in servants. A clerk on half that (GBP 150 a year) would usually employ a full-time maid. Even just renting a room almost always involved access to a shared servant. But it has now become, in the most dynamic economies, prohibitively expensive to employ a fellow citizen to live in your house and make you cups of tea, dust the mantlepiece and clean the bath taps. We are left to squabble among ourselves about who will empty the bins. The technological developments of the 1950s and 1960s – vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, tumble driers etc. – certainly made domestic work a great deal less cumbersome, but they didn’t bring the chores to an end. We are still in the position of waiting for the long-promised robotic servants that finally will take domestic chores out of our hands entirely. They will become standard – eventually. They are sure to be cheap and common by 2050. Future social historians will note that there will have been a gap, running from around 1950 to 2050, in which domestic work was neither the province of servants nor of robots – but lay in the hands of almost everyone in the developed economies. A century is nothing in the big sweep of history. It’s just challenging that our lives have unfolded within it exactly.

After the taps and the dishes, and with equal challenges attached, come the children. Historically, it is very odd for business people – or indeed anyone with an executive role – to spend much of their day attending to the needs of their own children. People in the past weren’t heartless, they just didn’t think that it was particularly good for children to spend a lot of time with their parents. There was a prevailing fear of ‘spoiling’ one’s offspring by overt displays of affection and a shyness about spending too long in the nursery. It wasn’t until the early 1950s, first in the United States, then gradually across the rest of the developed world, that a new philosophy came to pass.

A number of researchers in the area of child development – especially the psychoanalyst, John Bowlby – stressed the importance for children of maintaining continuous and close relationships with their parents throughout their early years. Bowlby demonstrated the critical value of a warm, reassuring parental figure for the good development of every child. Playing on the carpet, bouncing balls, laughing over teddy’s antics, were, for Bowlby, no idle fun, these could be matters of psychological life or death for the child: “All the cuddling and playing, the intimacies of suckling by which a child learns the comfort of his mother’s body, the rituals of washing and dressing by which through her pride and tenderness towards his little limbs he learns the value of his own…all these are his spiritual nourishment.”  A child’s sound development hung on the possibility of reliable, constant parental connection. “It is as if maternal care were as necessary for the proper development of personality as vitamin D for the proper development of bones.”

Bowlby didn’t mean for this to happen, but his insights into the principles of child development opened up a new landscape of pain for modern parents. Not making it back in time for bed became not, as it had once been, a minor inconvenience, but a potential new catastrophe. A tender, anxious part of every parent was awakened – and would now ache whenever he or she sat in gridlocked traffic or waited for a take-off slot on the tarmac at Heathrow. At the prospect of a business trip, a parent in the post-Bowlby era would have inwardly to fret at all the bath-times they would miss and the number of stories they would not have the chance to read. These were not worries that would have occurred to a knight returning from the Crusades. In 1095 – when his son Baldwin was two – Count Robert of Flanders, headed overseas on the First Crusade to the Holy Land. He came back home in August 1099. By which time he had missed 1,460 successive bedtime stories.

But this didn’t make Robert feel guilty or sad, because in 11th-century Europe, being a very good father was not assessed in terms of quantity of contact. Yet in the light of our improved understanding of the needs of the child, Robert was barbarous. Our best – and also most time-consuming – ideas about how to raise a child have arrived on the scene exactly when we’ve also discovered some crucial things about productivity, efficiency, the division of labour, transcontinental transport, 24 hour shift work and digital technology. Our best ideas about how to run an economy and our best ideas about how to raise families are squarely at odds.

Finding a comfortable, harmonious balance between the demands of work and the needs of children sounds like an obviously good idea – and we can always find a few people in the world who seem to achieve it with ease – just as there are people who are good at high-wire cycling. But it’s very unlikely that you will be among them. We end up getting frustrated and angry with ourselves (and our partners) for failing to attain what is, in reality, a highly elusive condition. One might – with similar levels of justice – berate oneself for not combining a job in the accounts department of a supermarket chain with giving piano recitals at the Gesellschaft der Musik Freunde in Vienna.

If there is consolation to be found, it lies in knowing enough history to realise that failure isn’t personal. It isn’t one’s own incompetence or lack of drive that has set one’s work and home life at loggerheads. We just happen to be living at a point in time when two big, opposed themes are powerfully at war, when we have demanding ideas about the needs of families and relationships and equally demanding ideas about work, efficiency, profit and competition. Both are founded on crucial insights; both aim to monopolise our lives. The essential drive of Capitalism is to provide more appealing goods at lower prices. While this is attractive for the customer, it is rather hellish for the producer: which of course means pretty much everyone in some major portion of their lives. The more productive an economy, the more conditions of employment will be less secure, less serene and more agitated than one might ideally like. We deserve a high dose of sympathy for the situation we happen to find ourselves in.

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