I thought of this black mark on my résumé while reading an exhaustive and depressing new study of the American workplace done by the Gallup organization. Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.Checking Out. Timothy Egan, New York Times
At first glance, this sad survey is further proof of two truisms. One, the timeless line from Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The other, less known, came from Homer Simpson by way of fatherly advice, after being asked about a labor dispute by his daughter Lisa. “If you don’t like your job,” he said, “you don’t strike, you just go in there every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.”
The American way, indeed. Gallup’s current survey, covering two years, is a follow-up to an earlier poll that found much the same level of passive discontent from 2008 to 2010. Even in an improving economy, people are adrift at work, complaining about a lack of praise, with no sense of mission, and feeling little loyalty to their employer.
See also: Workplace morale heads down: 70% of Americans negative about their jobs, Gallup study shows 'Bosses from hell' are giving U.S. workers the Monday blues. Gallup's 2013 State of the American Workplace report had grim findings, including that 70% of those surveyed either hate work or are completely disengaged, and perks don't help. (NY Daily News)
Which is interesting, because I constantly hear about how we must all work and “create jobs” because we derive meaning from our work. That without all these jobs, people would be miserable and unfulfilled. That people would be depressed and sit around all day and eat Cool Ranch-flavored Doritos™ and watch Judge Mathis all day, and obesity levels would skyrocket (seriously- this argument has been made). And other people say that we work all these extra brutal hours and wouldn't tolerate working less, because we all just love our jobs and places of employment so damn much. Could it be not true?
In reality, most people are trudging to jobs they hate. Not to mention they have to commute long distances, which is correlated with worry and unhappiness.
What exactly do we gain by keeping this people at their jobs? Are they really necessary? And if they are, why do people hate them so much?
Here’s an idea, why don’t the thirty percent who enjoy their jobs keep showing up for work, and let the rest of us find something else to do with our lives that’s more meaningful? If those thirty percent truly do enjoy their jobs, then there is no way they can feel in any way envious or resentful of people who don’t have them.
I jest, of course. But my completely unscientific back-of the-envelope calculation speculates that only 20 percent or-so of the workforce is truly necessary to truly keep the economy running. Most of what we do is useless paper shuffling, or is actively destructive. As David Graeber points out, “A quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor”—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line.” Another large amount are forced to work for forty hours a week for fifty weeks a year regardless of the amount of work there truly is to do, a relic of our industrial-factory system that we seem to be stuck with for some reason.
The sad thing is, there are so many things that need doing, from making sure bridges don’t fall down, to fixing potholes, to installing solar panels, to planting community gardens. Instead we have plenty of people whose job it is to figure out how to get people to buy more bags of Cool Ranch Doritos™ or blowing up people in the other side of the world with remote-control drones.
And the biggest problem with work according to the survey seems to be the sociopathic bosses. This makes sense. Supervisory roles are rarely achieved by merit. Rather it is the most power-hungry, narcissistic and politically-savvy people who claw their way to the top. Such people rarely have any ability to empathize with their co-workers by the very nature of the personality that put them there in the first place. Promotion is mainly a function of social class, personality politics, and a willingness to jump through hoops and follow orders. Read the comments and see all the descriptions of organizational dysfunction.
So what do you do? Well, Homer’s quote above is dead on (which is why it’s funny). Someone in the comments quotes the movie Office Space: "...my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired". And I was pleased to see that in the Editor’s Pick comments, somebody name-checked Dmitry Orlov:
This is the American version of what Dmitry Orlov called "dofenism" - the Soviet Russian ideal of doing as little work as possible because the broken Soviet system was pointless. I, personally, am never happier than when doing work that has a beginning, middle and end, but that so rarely happens these days. And it isn't just managers, it's the sense that everyone in your organization is flailing just like you are. A good 75% of the tasks I am given, are functionally un-doable. I don't have the authority to do them (even if I take initiative); or I don't have critical pieces of information from others that I need to do them; or someone else on the project gets tied up in something else and can't provide time or data or effort, and the task gets tabled or back-burnered. After a while, you just don't even want to rush to start on anything because you sense that everything is important and nothing is. Kind of like Congress in a way.Personally, I’ve always felt that the whole nature of organizations is bizarre: throwing a bunch of strangers with little or nothing in common together and force them to “cooperate” in a hierarchical, quasi-military top-down fashion where people have little if any control over their work. Is it any wonder, then that dysfunction is rife?
I have been in the workforce in a variety of jobs for nearly 30 years and I can count the decent, competent managers I've had on two fingers. Many, many people in management positions don't belong there. We have managers who don't actually know how to manage; they just get new titles each year, business cards printed up and go to all the right lunches.
Capitalism treats workers, even intellectual one,s as beasts of burden to extract as much surplus value as it can from them. This is done in the name of maximizing shareholder value. Every kind of work, no matter how intrinsically valuable becomes a sweatshop. People today are treated like cattle in a feedlot: monitored microchipped and told what to do every minute of the day. Is there an alternative? I’m thinking of Richard Wolff’s idea of employee-owned companies.
The title of Egan’s piece – checking out –is well-chosen. And while Egan may describe it as “depressing,” for me it is the most encouraging news I have seen in a long time. Ran Prieur has talked about this often: as work becomes more oppressive and less challenging, people rebel in all sorts of little, subtle ways. They throw sand in the gears. They mentally check out, and do just enough to get by. Eventually, more and more just walk away, when they can. Maybe they retire early. Maybe they become stay-at-home-moms. Maybe they live in a cave. Not all of us have the circumstances to do this. But eventually the system becomes so ridiculous that an alternative –any alternative – is better than the status quo.
And this is a point I try and make often. Checking out is just as mental as physical. The Bible says to be “in the world but not of it.” I think this is wise. Strip away the religious notion, and you’ll get the idea that even though circumstances compel you to go to work every day, you are just going through the motions. You are physically there for survival, but mentally you are exploring alternatives. You are co-housing with friends. You are volunteering. You are planting a garden. You are raising chickens. So you see, once people are no longer invested in the current system can changes be made. And based on this poll, we’re pretty far along that path already.
You don’t need to divorce your current life to build an alternative. You just need to cheat.