U.S. Workers are the Victims of a Speedup
Posted by Admin on September 30, 2011
LA Times, August 14, 2011
Posted here: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 @ 5:00 PM
As employees work harder and longer hours, they face stagnant pay despite the 22% jump in corporate profits since 2007. But being victimized by this ‘speedup’ is not inevitable.
Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you’ve been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?
Guess what: It’s not you. It’s the speedup. To keep profits climbing in tough times, corporations have laid off staff and piled more and more work onto the remaining employees.
Webster’s defines speedup as “an employer’s demand for accelerated output without increased pay,” and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, goose profits or punish a restive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) fought it — and, if necessary, walked out over it.
Now the word we use is “productivity,” and pundits across the political spectrum revel in the fact that year after year, American companies are wringing more value out of their employees than they did the year before. Just counting work that’s on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), we now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. Worldwide, almost everyone except Americans has, at least on paper, a right to at least one day a week off, paid vacation time and paid maternity leave.
Sure, but we all have to do more with less — employers struggling to survive the downturn are just tightening their belts, right?
That’s true for some. But in the big picture, the data show a more insidious pattern. After a sharp dip in 2008 and ’09, U.S. economic output quickly recovered to near pre-recession levels. The United States did better than most of its fellow G-7 economies. But U.S. workers didn’t see the benefit: During the recession far more people here lost their jobs than anywhere else, and far fewer were hired back once the recovery began. And who knows what will happen now that the economy has made another downward turn?
Yes, some positions always get “rationalized” away, thanks to technological or organizational improvements — and, of course, offshoring remains a major factor. But increasingly, U.S. workers are also falling prey to what we’ll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about “superjobs,” a nifty 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. All that extra work helped fuel nearly a sixfold increase in U.S. productivity from 2008 to 2010.
Workforce down, output up: No wonder corporate profits are up 22% since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.
To understand how we got here, first consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard — really, really hard — brands you as profoundly un-American. All well and good. But today, the driver is no longer American industriousness. It’s something much more predatory. As Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn told the Associated Press recently: “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?”
Which brings us to another shared delusion: multitasking. It seems the obvious fix — I’ll just answer this email while I help with your homework. But research shows most of us cannot actually multitask. And not only that: If you attempt to multitask constantly, your mental circuitry erodes and your brain loses its ability to focus.
Think you’re the exception? Nope, warns Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass. “You’re really lousy at it. 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.”
Actually, it’s not hard to guess why no one talks about it: We need to believe there’s a personal workaround for what we’re conditioned to see as a personal shortcoming. When, in fact, the problem is the absurd premise that our economy can produce ever more with ever less.
How have we been so brainwashed? For a lucky few, money and perks help sugarcoat the daily frenzy. But for most Americans, it’s just fear — of being passed over at best, downsized at worst. Even among college grads, unemployment is twice what it was in 2007. McDonald’s recently announced that it had gotten more than 1 million applicants for 62,000 new positions. Enough said.
Not that there aren’t winners in the speedup economy. Although incomes for 90% of U.S. workers have stagnated or fallen for the last three decades, the wealthiest 0.1% are making 6.4 times as much as they did in 1980. And that 22% increase in profits? Most of it accrued to a single industry: finance.
In other words, all that extra work you’ve 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 salesclerks is also happening to project managers, engineers and doctors (visit our website to read their tales). Three, that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
We got to this point because of decades of political decisions. We’ve turned over the financing of elections to wealthy interests; we’ve made it harder for unions to organize; we’ve deregulated Wall Street and then completely wimped out on reregulating it after the financiers nearly destroyed the global economy.
But there is another way. European companies face the same pressures that ours do — yet in Germany’s vigorous economy, for example, six weeks of vacation are de rigueur, weekend work is a last resort, and companies’ response to a downturn is not to fire everyone, but to institute Kurzarbeit — temporarily reducing employees’ hours and restoring them when things start looking up. Sure, they lag ever so slightly behind us in productivity. But ask yourself: Whom does our No. 1 spot benefit?
Exactly. So maybe it’s time to come out of the speedup closet. Rant to a friend, neighbor, co-worker. Hear them say, “Me too.” That might sound a little cheesy. But if you’re in an abusive relationship — which 90%-plus of the U.S. currently is — the first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem.
Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery are co-editors of Mother Jones. Their extended essay about the speedup, along with charts and first-person tales, can be found at Motherjones.com.
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