With the recent protests at the government shutdown effect on employment gaining increasing coverage, it seems like an increasingly salient time to question the nature of work in our lives. I should caveat this with whilst I am aware there’s a fairly clear connection between these protests seemingly organic nature and large dark money corporate networks however the fact that this can seemingly go unremarked on in many instances, is in itself is quite an interesting fact and I would suggest more broadly indicative of how work functions in advanced capitalist economies.
With 22 million out of work in the United States a number which looks likely to increase as the downturn continues, there has been a fierce battle over how best to support the recently unemployed. So far, the government has settled on a stimulus bill worth 2 trillion dollars to tide over it’s citizens however the way in which this bill is composed, opens itself to a number of different questions. By far the greatest portion of the bill, worth around 425 billion is directed to supporting large corporations, with just 300 billion set aside for direct cash payments for workers. There is a certain logic round this, those loans could after all be used to furlough workers, keep workers employed or ensure that they have jobs to come back to however as shown by the current rate of unemployment it seems unlikely that this will be the case. This is having almost immediate knock on effects with nearly a third of rents going unpaid in April.
In videos of the anti-quarantine protests opinions range from an unwillingness to accept welfare, the ability to consume non-essential products and services and criticism of government overreach. However little is said regarding the joy of the work itself, the enjoyment of social interactions, social status and the sense of direction that in survey’s on workplace satisfaction is typically associated with employment. A recent survey of workers carried out by The Conference Board, suggest a slight majority of US workers (54%) feel satisfied by their work however on closer examination a more interesting picture emerges. Those in managerial positions frequently report higher levels of satisfaction with workers in typically blue collar work reporting lower levels. The question then becomes what exactly is meant by being satisfied by work?
A 2017 article by Jan-Emmanuele De Neve and George Ward offers some potential clues. Here unemployment is found to correlate with a lack of daily structure, goals and social status, however, if we invert this question perhaps a more interesting point emerges, why are all of these factors supposedly only to be found in the workplace? The question becomes increasingly pressing as the article progresses with unemployment being linked to having a scarring effect on individual well-being even after it ends. There’s also a spillover to those affected with increased stress being experienced by families dealing with unemployment and the insecurity felt by those witnessing heightened unemployment within their vicinity.
There are some interesting positives mentioned by those within work, whilst to some extent high pay is correlated with job satisfaction, what also ranks highly is individual autonomy, job security and broadly speaking better levels of safety and suitable working conditions. Another interesting question emerges when looking outside of the job satisfaction figures at workplace engagement. Compared to the relatively high job satisfaction numbers the number of people who report feeling actively engaged by their job averages out at around 13% globally as found in surveys conducted by the Gallup, the American employment analytics company. According to a 2013 article by Steven Crabtree, being actively engaged at work is generally aligned with being psychologically committed to their jobs and therefore more likely to make positive contributions to their particular organization. By contrast the majority of workers report being not engaged with their work, which Gallup, correlates with lacking motivation and generally less likely to invest above and beyond what is required to make an impact in their employment.
In 2019, a study undertaken by the University of Cambridge examining the benefits of work, suggested that the previously held ideas around the advantages of full-time employment appeared to eschew a rather fundamental question, exactly how much work is required to obtain these advantages? After analyzing feedback from multiple surveys sent out to people aged between 16-60 the researchers found that, after taking into account children and long-term illnesses all the mental advantages of work could be accrued by just 8 hours of work a week.
At this point perhaps we can see a rather different vision of work, as it currently exists, emerging. Work is not the mental salve that it has often been labelled as. Rather its benefits, based on the amount of work performed by each individual, are limited in quantity and the wealth produced by labour increasingly appear to accrue the minority of the population. Neither does work appear to reflect in any real sense the majority of real desires held by those undertaking it. Rather than, autonomy, a sense of purpose and of course the resources one requires to live, the current crisis reveals the real nature of work as it currently exists, a stark choice between destitution, ruin, death and survival.