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They told me I was gonna have to work for a living
June 4, 2014 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Interview with David Graeber Why do the least productive people get paid the most money? What ever happened to the big increase in leisure that everyone was expecting 50 years ago? Graeber tells us.

He disposes of the popular argument that we all decided to trade leisure for iPhones:
First of all, only a very small proportion of the new jobs have anything to do with actually making consumer toys, and most of the ones that do are overseas. Yet even there, the total number of people involved in industrial production has declined. Second of all, even in the richest countries, it’s not clear if the number of service jobs has really increased as dramatically as we like to think. If you look at the numbers between 1930 and 2000, well, there used to be huge numbers of domestic servants. Those numbers have collapsed. Third, you also see that’s what’s grown is not service jobs per se, but “service, administrative, and clerical” jobs, which have gone from roughly a quarter of all jobs in the ‘30s to maybe as much as three quarters today. But how do you explain an explosion of middle managers and paper-pushers by a desire for sushi and iPhones?

Then he addresses the weird campaign against the (for instance) teaching profession:
But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
posted by Kirth Gerson (131 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite

 
We get an increased amount of leisure, most people just do it at work when their boss isn't watching.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:05 AM on June 4 [54 favorites]


Most of the time the boss isn't watching because s/he's too busy slacking off as well.

I know I am.
posted by brokkr at 8:12 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


Why do the least productive people get paid the most money?

Why do you assume you have a rock-solid measure of white collar productivity in the Information Age?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:14 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Two ways to work for nothing (link to the "very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger").
posted by filthy light thief at 8:15 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


It turns out that when there are new advances that get more work done with the same or fewer workers, the workers end up in a worse bargaining position since they're even more replaceable than they used to be, so they get paid less and worked harder even when they're bringing in way more money per capita for the business.

Man, capitalism, huh? Crazy.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:15 AM on June 4 [32 favorites]


Traded iPhones for leisure? No. Stagnant pay and worsened working conditions are not Steve Jove's fault. We could have had both.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:17 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


What Graeber gets to near the end is a really interesting idea, reframing labor in terms of acts that have intrinsic, caring-based social value.

Which definitely underlines some distinctions between social value and economic value.
posted by entropone at 8:19 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


We get an increased amount of leisure, most people just do it at work when their boss isn't watching.

Graeber addresses this, with a discussion of the "Iron rice bowl."

My first real job, in 1966, was full-time at 37.5 hours a week. Everyone expected 4-day, 32-hour weeks to become the norm. As Graeber says, this prospect caused consternation in the Establishment. which took steps to head it off.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:22 AM on June 4 [12 favorites]


This is his article on "bullshit jobs" from last year.
posted by zarq at 8:24 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


I could do 40 hour work week job in 10 hours, easily. But it benefits me to never let anyone know this.
posted by josher71 at 8:25 AM on June 4 [43 favorites]


*Hires josher71 immediately*
posted by marienbad at 8:29 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Yeah my job is a feast-or-famine type where we're either frantic messes or spinning in our chairs bored but we can't come out and say "We'll be spinning in our chairs for a month until the next crisis which is the real reason you pay us." So, Metafilter.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:35 AM on June 4 [34 favorites]


The US is a country that fetishizes work yet hates workers.
posted by tommasz at 8:38 AM on June 4 [155 favorites]


Kirth Gerson: My first real job, in 1966, was full-time at 37.5 hours a week. Everyone expected 4-day, 32-hour weeks to become the norm.

The history of work hours is fascinating, and rather sad. Here's a long write-up on the topic. Look at the part about 30 hour work-weeks becoming mandatory, as a way to "cure" unemployment in the early 1930s, where "the strongest opposition came from businessmen, economists, and industrial managers."

See also: The Elusive Leisure Society: 4th edition, Sept 2009, A review of the history of the concept of the 'leisure society' in history and in contemporary writing and its relationship to the study of leisure.


tommasz: The US is a country that fetishizes work yet hates workers.

Yes, and it has for at least a century.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:39 AM on June 4 [20 favorites]


Stagnant pay and worsened working conditions are not Steve Jove's fault.

I'm guessing you are unaware that St. Jobs was directly instrumental in forming an illegal conspiracy to manipulate the tech labor market to suppress high end tech wages then.
posted by srboisvert at 8:40 AM on June 4 [56 favorites]


These threads, full of confessions of slacking and concealment thereof, always remind me why I majored in journalism. It seemed like the only job where folks were pretty upfront about their fondness for cutting corners, knocking off early, drinking, and general laziness.

Of course, that was journalism thirty years ago. Karma's a bitch.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:44 AM on June 4 [12 favorites]


And a surprise to no one: CEO take-home pay rockets as economy rebounds. Yet, [a]ccording to a new CBS News poll, more than 60 percent of people polled rate the economy as "bad." And well they should: For the vast majority of Americans, economic gains during the recovery have almost entirely gone to the people at the very top.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:44 AM on June 4 [14 favorites]


I don't think there's any evidence that increased productivity automatically results in the average worker doing less work pretty much ever. When the cotton gin was introduced it dramatically reduced the amount of slave labor needed to process cotton, but the end result was a huge boom in the cotton industry that produced an even greater demand for slave labor. And the Industrial Revolution in general led to huge efficiency gains in nearly every industry, but those new factories were filled with children and women who wouldn't have otherwise needed to work to support their families.

And I don't think it's specific to capitalism or even work. The default system is that the people in power exploit the people not in power to the fullest extent possible, and the people who aren't in power do whatever they can to survive in that system. The only way average people get a better deal than that is if they keep the people in power from establishing that system. It has absolutely nothing to do with technology, other than that technology can be used by either side to try to win that ongoing battle.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:45 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


Poverty used to fall when the economy was growing. But not anymore.
posted by entropone at 8:46 AM on June 4 [14 favorites]


This is probably not the most inspiring piece to read at work.
posted by emjaybee at 8:47 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


Depends on what you consider inspiration, I guess.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:52 AM on June 4 [13 favorites]


Just reading back over that "bullshit jobs" article from last year:
Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.
Um, was Graeber's schoolmate John S. Hall from King Missile?
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:53 AM on June 4 [12 favorites]


Doug Stanhope has a bit where he'd vote for a President who promises 100% unemployment because robots would be doing everything.
posted by Renoroc at 8:54 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


...there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it.

As someone who runs a book repair business (which, yes, is fun and very rewarding, but also a lot of work, accounting, advertising management, promotion, etc.), I periodically endure gasps when people find out what I charge (which is half as much as say, a car mechanic would charge per hour).
posted by ikahime at 8:55 AM on June 4 [12 favorites]


Boo fucking hoo for all the people who are smart enough to (go to law school and therefore) make decent money for themselves, but won't because oh, angst.
posted by Melismata at 8:56 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


In the middle, where he's talking about why no one works a 4-hour day, it seems an oversight not to mention the fact that no one is offering jobs with a four hour day at a full-time wage. The people with the power to do so (outside the resurgence of a militant labour movement) have no interest in doing so.
posted by cthuljew at 8:57 AM on June 4 [13 favorites]


By the way, Graeber's book Debt is a fascinating read. It made it into my all-time top ten.
posted by ikahime at 8:57 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


As capitalism develops, the municipalities become ever more active in their service of mankind, and the material conditions of existence for the workers become ever more improved. The working people become ever more enlightened, ever more independent in spirit, and ever more competent to understand the conditions of existence and the best way to serve their interests. And, though the material conditions become ever more improved, the workingmen become ever more dissatisfied and feel themselves ever more fettered and crippled by the capitalistic order. Their dissatisfaction and their feeling of constraint grow, not because their material conditions of existence become ever worse, but rather in spite of and because of their improvement. The workingmen grow mentally and morally. This growth of theirs manifests itself in an increase of capacity to enjoy and a desire for ever more enjoyment. The workingmen become ever more painfully conscious of the incompatibility of capitalism with their own well-being. Ever more keenly do they realize that their life does not improve proportionately to the rapid and wonderful progress mankind makes in the arts, the sciences and the industries. They perceive that, not only are all advantages of progress and civilization monopolized by the idlers, parasites and swindlers, but also that these gentry, like swine, destroy and befoul everything which they themselves cannot use, or which they cannot dispose of at a profit, thus depriving the workingmen of the benefits of the increase in the productiveness of labor. Though the conditions of existence for the workingmen improve, yet that improvement, relatively to the real progress of mankind, is absolutely insignificant; so insignificant, indeed, that the conditions of the working class fall ever more and more behind the progress of the race. The chasm between them and the capitalist class becomes ever deeper and wider, producing in the workers the deepest despair with the capitalist system.--The Philosophy of Marx / Harry Waton
posted by No Robots at 8:59 AM on June 4 [20 favorites]


The default system is that the people in power exploit the people not in power to the fullest extent possible, and the people who aren't in power do whatever they can to survive in that system.

Depressing, isn't it?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:59 AM on June 4


> The US is a country that fetishizes work yet hates workers.

On I-95, as you enter Connecticut from the New York side, there's a road sign with an icon of a man digging a hole which reads, "Let them work \ let them live."

I've always been curious what that sign is supposed to mean...
posted by I-Write-Essays at 8:59 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


By the way, Graeber's book Debt is a fascinating read.

Just maybe skip the last chapter and read some Ha-joon Chang or something instead.
posted by cthuljew at 8:59 AM on June 4


Something something seize the means of production something something.

Also, Lisa needs braces.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:00 AM on June 4 [25 favorites]


I seem to have the opposite problem than people are indicating here. I make 70 hours of work look like 40. There is no doing this quicker. There is no short cut. You would understand this and allocate resources appropriately if you understood the math behind it, and/or were concerned about my burnout. Instead, I give up sleep, health, and weekends in order to make magic.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:00 AM on June 4 [13 favorites]


As someone who runs a book repair business (which, yes, is fun and very rewarding, but also a lot of work, accounting, advertising management, promotion, etc.), I periodically endure gasps when people find out what I charge (which is half as much as say, a car mechanic would charge per hour).

Yeah. Let's chat. As a (former) freelance writer (focusing on nonprofit sector technical writing - that is, grant proposals, research reports), I came across a jillion people who wanted "experienced grantwriters" to net their organization hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet work for $15/hr.

Because prevailing wisdom is that technical expertise, experience, and importance arguing for a good wage is no match for the argument that working in a do-good sector should deflate the value of one's labor.
posted by entropone at 9:01 AM on June 4 [15 favorites]


Lots of what he is saying seems probable, but (probably partially because of the format) there isn't much data.

"I know a bunch of guys from Yugoslavia who totally slacked off at work" isn't exactly rock solid evidence of a socialist utopia.

My (totally lacking in empirical data) hunch is that the promised slackertopia never arrived because management realized they could (1) keep paying the same amount in wages and let everyone do half the work or (2) fire half the people, make the other half do the same amount of work, pay half the wages, and take the difference as profit. Hard to imagine managers not choosing (2). Especially since the managers can use the profits to enhance what little free time their choice leaves themselves.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:01 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


No Robots: And that's why Marx is almost entirely nonsense.

Nanukthedog: Sounds like you don't have a bullshit job. Or if you do, it's a really, really bad one.
posted by cthuljew at 9:03 AM on June 4


There are pathways to increased leisure, but this is not considered a culturally laudable ideal, so high school kids don't learn about it. Instead they hear about professionals, business people, and/or maybe athletes and celebrities.

None of these has a leisured lifestyle. If a high school kid went, for instance, into nursing and then to a low cost-of-living area, they could probably work relatively few hours and make a nice living (perhaps after a few hours of full time work to get the necessary experience). Or they could retire quite early.
posted by shivohum at 9:04 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


No Robots: Bah, posted too soon. It's nonsense because we've seen that nothing about capitalism means that workers get more educated or more militarized; if anything, the reverse is true. If capitalists had their way, our schools would be job training centers and everyone would be in a constant stupor of physical, mental and economic consumption.
posted by cthuljew at 9:05 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


On I-95, as you enter Connecticut from the New York side, there's a road sign with an icon of a man digging a hole which reads, "Let them work \ let them live."

I've always been curious what that sign is supposed to mean...


It's to encourage motorists not to throw things at/harass work crews along the highway, who are often convicts or doing court-ordered community service.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:07 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


cthuljew: if you look at the big picture, the advent of capitalism brought with it massive increases in both education and class militancy. It could be that this education and this militance does not scale as capitalism scales, but the initial observation was not a prediction, it was a historical observation, and it was sound.
posted by idiopath at 9:08 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


nothing about capitalism means that workers get more educated or more militarized

Heh. Check out my website, which I made on my boss's dime.
posted by No Robots at 9:09 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: Traded iPhones for leisure? No. Stagnant pay and worsened working conditions are not Steve Jobs' fault. We could have had both.

Graeber's question is rhetorical. Perhaps read the linked interview?
posted by purpleclover at 9:09 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Just maybe skip the last chapter and read some Ha-joon Chang or something instead.

Why is that?
posted by ikahime at 9:12 AM on June 4


Hardworking families

Hard-working Family

hardwork hardworking hardworking-families

We support Hardworking Families
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:13 AM on June 4 [11 favorites]


ikahime: By many accounts it has some pretty large misunderstandings about how the internal workings of the modern economy. That by no means weakens its main point, but there are definitely better critiques of modern economics out there.
posted by cthuljew at 9:17 AM on June 4


Boo fucking hoo for all the people who are smart enough to (go to law school and therefore) make decent money

This isn't even remotely true anymore.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:20 AM on June 4 [13 favorites]


tommasz: "The US is a country that fetishizes work yet hates workers."

Love the sin, hate the sinner! (oh, wait...)
posted by symbioid at 9:21 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


If a high school kid went, for instance, into nursing and then to a low cost-of-living area, they could probably work relatively few hours

uh, my partner is a nurse and she works WAYYY more than I do, because the entire time she is 'at work' she is 'working' where 85% of the time I am 'at work' im dicking around on the internet.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:22 AM on June 4 [22 favorites]


the least productive people who are way overpaid have solved the riddle of capitalism.
posted by bruce at 9:23 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


That is Power: Leadership Secrets of Thulsa Doom
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:24 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


cthuljew: not to make this into a book club, but I thought his general overarching points were pretty solid, if not mainstream: that there are different kinds of economy, and that our modern economy (which is what is generally referred to and studied in colleges and reported on by Forbes, etc) is often in polar opposition to the human economy (which is unquantifiable gifting, emotional bonding, and favor-based relation building).
posted by ikahime at 9:25 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


Yeah my job is a feast-or-famine type where we're either frantic messes or spinning in our chairs bored but we can't come out and say "We'll be spinning in our chairs for a month until the next crisis which is the real reason you pay us."

Yes - people are often paid to be available.

The people who aren't - who really can do their 40 hr/week job in 10 hrs - why do corporations pay them for 40 hrs? I don't understand the incentive.
posted by desjardins at 9:25 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


I don't understand the incentive.

A lot of it has to do with real and perceived class solidarity among the owning/management classes. They know that they have a choice between active, engaged, happy workers and bored, tired, complacent workers, and tend to encourage the latter while vilifying the former.
posted by cthuljew at 9:28 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Just maybe skip the last chapter and read some Ha-joon Chang or something instead.

Why is that?


The last chapter is as wacky as the rest of the book is brilliant. Also, Graeber is a huge dick and (this is a more damning charge) really unprofessional and engaged in some pretty serious intellectual dishonesty in the Crooked Timber Symposium on Debt. (links here and here)

I know relatively nothing about anthropology or early economics (the subject of most of debt), but do know a thing or two about international political economy (the subject of the last chapter), and when Graeber spoke of things I new about, he came off as really wrong. Makes me question if I was hoodwinked by the brilliance of most of his arguments in Debt.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:31 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


I thought the really important part of Debt was actually the whole "money did not arise from barter, here is how early trade and distribution of resources happened" - in short, the anthropology part. The issue with the various-awful-things-we-lump-together-misleadingly-as-"capitalism" isn't bound up in how you measure GDP or if more people work as clerks or whatever, it's the narrative which says "from the very dawn of human history people have organized society much as it is now, and therefore it will go on into the future this way, so suck it up".

The other important part was about how, historically, debt has been used and regarded - for much the same reason.

The book's importance isn't its economics of the present. The book is mobilizing for many, many people because it is about using the past to open up possibilities for the future.

If you're looking for "how can we understand the intricacies of the present economy in order to craft policy recommendations", yes, you certainly can read more productively elsewhere.
posted by Frowner at 9:32 AM on June 4 [16 favorites]


Nanukthedog: There is no doing this quicker. There is no short cut. You would understand this and allocate resources appropriately if you understood the math behind it, and/or were concerned about my burnout. Instead, I give up sleep, health, and weekends in order to make magic.

Man, I always thought magicians could magic up some helpers or something. Or are you the sorcerer's apprentice, forced to to the grunt work to make magic possible? If so, fuck that guy, you can totally make your own magic. Just make sure you really know what you're doing, or you'll end up with mops run amok.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:33 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


I work in a job where a majority of my work is either fixing other people's screwups, or engaging in bullshit paperwork whose job is to make sure everyone else is doing their job and no one is stealing. Literally 65% of my day consists of making bullshit paperwork that someone else has demanded. The real point of my job - the ideal of the job if it was functioning effectively rather than in CYA mode - could be done in less than ten hours. But to prop up other people's figures and departments, I waste time on paperwork. My colleagues waste time in CYA paperwork to prove they're not defrauding the company.

This has nothing to do with caring vs non caring, it has to do with this sort of...I'm not even sure what to call it, but where jobs are viewed a little like jails and it's assumed everyone's scamming something, rather than just have decent work and hire only people you actually trust.
posted by sockmeamadeus at 9:33 AM on June 4 [19 favorites]


(Also, I thought the post the Graeber was responding to on CT was really patronizing in tone and if it had been aimed at me, I probably would have stewed over it until I did something really stupid, rude and lacking in self-control, just as he did.)
posted by Frowner at 9:34 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Americans fared better after Great Depression than today
Six years after Great Recession, majority of Americans stagnating
(June 4, 2014 by David Cay Johnston)


... also, Johnston gave an hour-long lecture in Seattle recently to the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. It was broadcast this week on Alternative Radio, and it was fascinating and depressing. Here's the video of that lecture:

David Cay Johnston The Impact of American Inequality (May 3, 2014)
posted by Auden at 9:36 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


"I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached."

-- Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness" (1932)
posted by dhens at 9:36 AM on June 4 [27 favorites]


That is Power: Leadership Secrets of Thulsa Doom


Chapter 1. Wigs: The Key To Dominating Minds
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:36 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Bertrand Russell

Oh man, everyone and their mother needs to read Proposed Roads to Freedom. An absolutely astounding and prescient book written in 1918 that described the cultural machinations of Leninism and Stalinism in almost exact detail.
posted by cthuljew at 9:39 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Boo fucking hoo for all the people who are smart enough to (go to law school and therefore) make decent money for themselves, but won't because oh, angst.

I don't think "angst" is the reason people choose not to go to law school. I think the reason someone may choose not to go to law school is more like "I don't want to be a fucking lawyer."

No offense to lawyers; I just never wanted to be one, and the implication that someone is a fool for not attempting to do something they never wanted to do is offensive itself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:44 AM on June 4 [41 favorites]


If a high school kid went, for instance, into nursing and then to a low cost-of-living area, they could probably work relatively few hours

LOL. No. A low-cost-of-living are will also tend to be a more economically disadvantaged area. Drop-in on, say, a nursing home in one of those hours and take a good look at the level of stress, the high hours, and the low pay those nurses endure.

An area that has a low cost-of-living is just an excuse for employers to pay as low as possible and work people as long and as hard as possible. They can maximize all profit vectors.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:46 AM on June 4 [28 favorites]


I thought no one went to law school because of the 8,589,849 AskMe questions about how you should not go to law school because there are too many lawyers and you'll end up doing document review for $10/hr if you're lucky.
posted by sio42 at 9:48 AM on June 4 [16 favorites]


What I ended up concluding is that working class people hate the cultural elite more than they do the economic elite—and mind you, they don’t like the economic elite very much. But they hate the cultural elite because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world.
That's an odd assertion to my ears, and definitely runs counter to my experience. Is there evidence supporting it? I checked the previous article that he referred to, but even there he just asserts it without even implying that he's ever actually asked a working class person what they think.
posted by metaBugs at 9:51 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


LOL. No. A low-cost-of-living are will also tend to be a more economically disadvantaged area. Drop-in on, say, a nursing home in one of those hours and take a good look at the level of stress, the high hours, and the low pay those nurses endure.

So is it different with nurses than it is with physicians? Because with doctors, they are often paid more in lower cost of living areas (especially proportionate to that cost), because they don't want to live there.

And my understanding was that nurses are also in similarly very high demand.
posted by shivohum at 9:52 AM on June 4


The people who aren't - who really can do their 40 hr/week job in 10 hrs - why do corporations pay them for 40 hrs? I don't understand the incentive.

Well, those are pretty extreme numbers, but the concept isn't as strange as it sounds.

When your system has a constraint, a bottleneck that's limiting your production, your goal is to maximize the throughput of that constraint. If it's a machine that can only make widgets so fast, you make sure NOTHING STOPS THAT MACHINE. (also, you get more machines, but first you make the most of what you've got.)

The minute somebody's little work problem causes the widget parts to not be at that machine when it needs them they just limited production. Little work problems are going to happen, and people are going to get behind and have to catch up. If you're already working at 100% normally, you can't work faster to catch up. You can only resume normal speed.

So the smart person builds in extra capacity in the non-constraints even knowing that that capacity can't be used normally (can only work as fast as the machine)

Same thing downstream of the machine. When you back up production so the machine has no place to put the widgets, you're limiting production.

So that's pretty simplified, but that's how you end up with (non-emergency response type) people sitting around some of the time.
posted by ctmf at 9:54 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Boo fucking hoo for all the people who are smart enough to (go to law school and therefore) make decent money for themselves, but won't because oh, angst.

It's been quite a few years since "go to law school" and "make decent money" had much of a direct line between them. Lulz debt.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:56 AM on June 4 [11 favorites]


So is it different with nurses than it is with physicians?

In every single possible way imaginable, and then some.
posted by Melismata at 9:56 AM on June 4 [18 favorites]


So is it different with nurses than it is with physicians? Because with doctors, they are often paid more in lower cost of living areas (especially proportionate to that cost), because they don't want to live there.

And my understanding was that nurses are also in similarly very high demand.


Anecdotally, I know more people in nursing who have left low cost of living areas for nursing jobs in high cost of living areas than the reverse, because the pay was terrible in the lower COL areas.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:58 AM on June 4


I found myself at the end of undergrad considering whether to do law school or math grad school. I was working as a bike messenger at the time, securing my title as biggest hipster in Eugene, Oregon, and one day had an afternoon chat with John Pries, a bankruptcy lawyer who I carried documents for every day. He told me, more or less, that he wasn't a big fan of the work he was doing, and that his son, in grad school for math at the time, was having a much better time of life. So I took his advice and ended up getting a math PhD, while stories of the collapse of the legal jobs for new graduates filtered in year after year. (And just now I looked up Pries, and found he died three years ago of liver failure. So much for sending a note of thanks....)
posted by kaibutsu at 10:00 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


> It's to encourage motorists not to throw things at/harass work crews along the highway, who are often convicts or doing court-ordered community service.

Funny how context works, because I've always read it with a semicolon: an ominous reminder from the guys who live around there that if you don't work, you don't deserve to live.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:03 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Anecdotally, I know more people in nursing who have left low cost of living areas for nursing jobs in high cost of living areas than the reverse, because the pay was terrible in the lower COL areas.

And, if a nurse has the three 12 hour shift schedule, they can live in a low COL area and commute to a high COL area, since they only have to commute 3 times a week, and often when there isn't traffic.

I think what shivohum is thinking of are something like those few places in the middle of bumblefuck, like in Canada or Alaska that pay bank to nurses to live out there and service the poor rural native american population.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:05 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


To continue switching this thread entirely to the profession of nursing...there is also a distinction between the CNA certification (faster to get, much lower pay) vs. the RN or RN+BSN (higher education, or actual bachelor's in nursing).

There's a long history of broke women with families scraping together a CNA and working night shift; enough to keep body and soul together, not enough to move out of your dead-end town.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:17 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


josher71: "I could do 40 hour work week job in 10 hours, easily. But it benefits me to never let anyone know this."
stupidsexyFlanders: "journalism. It seemed like the only job where folks were pretty upfront about their fondness for cutting corners, knocking off early, drinking, and general laziness."

Exactly what I loved about working in journalism was that it was a white-collar job with an actual finished product. You finish the newspaper, you get to go home. You finish at 11 p.m., you go home. You finish at 4 a.m., you go home. Being good at your job resulted in fewer hours of work.

One of my biggest beefs with practicing law is that if you're efficient and smart, you're worth less because your time is billed hourly. My husband (also a lawyer) went from a job where he constantly worked 10 or 12 hour days, to one where he's not ALLOWED to work more than 7.5 (same salary), and he's more productive in the 7.5 hour day because he's not constantly exhausted and pissed. And also, he's a knowledge worker, so it's not like your brain quits thinking about stuff when you're at home working in your garden.

When my school board interviews anyone that bills hourly (law firms, accountants, that sort of thing) and we take bid meetings, I always ask the partner for a lot of detail on how many hours their associates are expected to work, what the cutoff for bonuses is, etc., and make clear that I don't really care about THEIR bottom line, I want a well-rested, engaged employee working 1800 hours and not an exhausted robot at 2400 hours, who will do quality work for me and my organization. I'm always clear that I think high-hour firms are bad for clients and I'm not interested in doing business with them (and that I'm willing to pay more for lower-hour, higher-quality professionals). I hope if I keep asking long enough, at least some professional services firms will realize that sucking their workers dry loses clients.

(I also always ask whether continuing education hours count towards yearly hours, because that's some serious bullshit when it doesn't.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:30 AM on June 4 [16 favorites]


There are other reasons besides mustache-twirling, monocle-polishing hate for workers that keeps companies from offering 20 or 30 hour/week "full time" schedules: there are substantial fixed costs associated with each employee on your payroll, independent of the number of hours they actually work.

If there are two companies which each require 1,000 hours/week of labor inputs, and one of them does it with 25 employees at 40 hrs/wk and the other company does it with 50 employees at 20 hrs/wk, the company doing it with 25 employees is going to have a much favorable cost structure. They have half of all the fixed per-employee costs that the other company would: everything from payroll management to benefits administration costs, training of each employee, and even physical stuff like computers or desk space.

And of course, there's a huge elephant in the room called "Health Benefits", which are very expensive on a per-employee basis. I suppose you could make the employer contribution scale up and down with the hours worked by the employee, but that's not something I've ever encountered and it would mean that the employee working fewer hours would be getting really hosed. Of course, if health insurance wasn't linked to employment -- as it might not be in a few years, depending on who you believe, depending on how employers react to the HCA -- that wouldn't be quite as much of a problem.

But there are still going to be fixed costs related to headcount and thus an incentive for companies to wring the maximum number of hours out of each employee that they can, at least until they run into overtime laws that make the marginal cost of an additional hour more expensive than hiring an additional person.

The only way I can see the typical workweek going down to 35 or 30 hours (or less) would be if labor laws changed to require overtime pay for anything over that amount.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:32 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


Kadin2048: Yeah, your last sentence hits the issue on the nose. The particularized and cut-throat nature of modern capitalism makes it all but impossible for societies to coordinate to actually improve people's lives, except as an accident of economic development. Short of a libertarian socialist revolution, the best way to spread the benefits of a rising productivity to the people actually being productive is through wide-ranging and progressive labour laws and powerful enforcement. It's not an ideal solution because in a lot of ways you're trading the blind madness of the market for the stagnant corruption of bureaucracy, but in a democratic society that's usually a move up for the vast majority (see: the New Deal).

The dialogue in our society is so dominated by the interests of capital and the right wing that people assume it's perfectly natural and therefore desirable for "more efficient" firms to be the ones that stay in business, completely forgetting/failing to realize that it's entirely possible for people to make conscious choices about how society ought to look. They forget that efficiency is only a means, not a method of deciding which end is worthwhile.
posted by cthuljew at 10:45 AM on June 4 [11 favorites]


One of my biggest beefs with practicing law is that if you're efficient and smart, you're worth less because your time is billed hourly.

The way other professions have handled this same problem is by having a "book rate" for various common tasks, that they use in lieu of actual time-and-materials billing.

When you go to a car mechanic to have your timing belt changed, they're not charging you based on the actual amount of time they take to change your timing belt. Instead, they're billing you based on how much time some database says that an average technician should take to perform that job. A good technician is generally able to beat the book rate by a good percentage, which is all profit to their employer, and (hopefully) leads directly to their advancement; in contrast a technician who takes longer than the book rate will probably not find themselves employed for very long.

Quite a few skilled-trade professions do this. Plumbers definitely have their own version of the same thing.

Depending on the area of practice, I could easily see lawyers doing it for common tasks. Although if I were a lawyer, I'm not sure I'd want to.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:46 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


The only way I can see the typical workweek going down to 35 or 30 hours (or less) would be if labor laws changed to require overtime pay for anything over that amount.

I would volunteer to take a 30-hour work week and fully accept a pay cut (yes, I'd like to keep my health benefits, but I would be ok with the level of coverage being reduced. But being in Canada, a lot more of my health costs are paid by the government and I can see how that would not be feasible for Americans). AND I would be able to maintain same output doing so. I wonder how many people feel the same way. But I can't do this as a salaried employee. The system is just too rigid. Unpaid days off are simply not allowed in your average company, for reasons I cannot understand. It's extremely frustrating. I have enough money. What I need is time.
posted by kitcat at 10:59 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


Why Do You Hate Work?
Recognizing the value of intermittent rest, we persuaded this firm to allow one group of accountants to work in a different way — alternating highly focused and uninterrupted 90-minute periods of work with 10-to-15-minute breaks in between, and a full one-hour break in the late afternoon, when our tendency to fall into a slump is higher. Our pilot group of employees was also permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.

With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time, left work earlier in the evenings than the rest of their colleagues, and reported a much less stressful overall experience during the busy season. Their turnover rate was far lower than that of employees in the rest of the firm. Senior leaders were aware of the results, but the firm didn’t ultimately change any of its practices. “We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours,” one leader told us. Recently, we got a call from the same firm. “Could you come back?” one of the partners asked. “Our people are still getting burned out during tax season.”
The rest of the article is worth reading too. Unfortunately it's somewhat convinced me that enjoying work will be forever impossible.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:03 AM on June 4 [18 favorites]


The last chapter is as wacky as the rest of the book is brilliant. Also, Graeber is a huge dick and (this is a more damning charge) really unprofessional and engaged in some pretty serious intellectual dishonesty in the Crooked Timber Symposium on Debt. (links here and here)

No discussion of what a prick David Graeber is when challenged on his work is complete without mention of his brief and not notably glorious stint as MetaFilter's own.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:06 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


There are other reasons besides mustache-twirling, monocle-polishing hate for workers that keeps companies from offering 20 or 30 hour/week "full time" schedules: there are substantial fixed costs associated with each employee on your payroll, independent of the number of hours they actually work.

Well, yeah. But who calculates those costs? Are they real in any sense, or are they abstract figures generated by accountants? Might costs like this, in other words, be precisely the signal generated by an organisation infested with layers of administrative bullshit jobs?
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:12 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


I've never met a lawyer - not a single one - who didn't want to get the fuck out of practicing law. Usually to write courtroom thrillers and be the next John Grisham. So by the principle of "if you enjoy your work, that's of value to you and so we can pay you less actual money," I assumed they were still being very well paid...
posted by Naberius at 11:23 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours

qft...managers Morons who have way distorted ways of even measuring their own contribution/productivity suck at measuring people who actually provide skilled inputs to the enterprise. I tried in vain to get my management to evaluate based on some criteria other than 'quickest turnaround'. Low rework, a measure of maintainability, a measure of loose-coupling, peer inputs...

Nope. Virtual duct-tape is the rage.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:24 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


And the Industrial Revolution in general led to huge efficiency gains in nearly every industry, but those new factories were filled with children and women who wouldn't have otherwise needed to work to support their families.

Sorry to be pedantic, but that's a misunderstanding of pre-industrial work by women and children. Women and children always worked; in preindustrial western Europe (aka what I study), manufactures tended to be organised by household, and so the work took place in the context of a household for most people in industry/manufactures - children, notably, worked either with their parents or as apprentices/servants in someone else's home, and so the work could be more age appropriate (but not always - servants and apprentices were especially vulnerable to exploitation). In agriculture, labour was often gender divided (men ploughing, women milking), but still heavy on both men & women - and we have the records of women & children labouring for wages at harvest, etc. (Think Tess of the D'Ubervilles, who worked first as a dairy maid, then later as an agricultural labourer in the harvest).

Moving production out of the home into factories made the work of women and children work more public, and changed its nature (stricter hours, less flexibility). But it didn't suddenly create work.

And in the early nineteenth century, just as the industrial revolution was taking off, advances in agricultural technology were reducing the need for labour in agriculture and leading to a crisis of female unemployment in some areas in southern England. Labouring families relied on female as well as male wages to get by; without them, they had to turn to the poor law for support. (For more on this, see Keith Snell (1985), Annals of the Labouring Poor).
posted by jb at 11:33 AM on June 4 [22 favorites]


Our pilot group of employees was also permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.

This is known as "goal-based" work as opposed to time-based work.

I'm not sure how we get companies to move to goal-based systems, or if it's even possible. As someone who has always been a more efficient worker than most of my coworkers, it has been the bane of my career.

I usually finish my tasks much sooner than the time allotted and end up surfing the internet to soak up the excess time. I do this because my only reward for being efficient is having more work dumped on me. And they're sure as hell not going to give me more money for doing more work.
posted by Fleebnork at 11:35 AM on June 4 [14 favorites]


It seems to me that Graeber is onto some interesting and important ideas but every time I read something by or about him, it seems like there is something really off about his conclusions as well.

Let me give a try to summarizing what I see as a couple of the real problems:

#1. Whenever you industrialize, mechanize, automate, or take other similar steps to increase efficiency in production, one of the side effects is to increase the concentration of power and wealth.

So you might naively assume that greater efficiency would lead to being able to pay workers the same amount for less work and thus greater leisure time.

In real life what happens instead is the greater amount of wealth and power is concentrated at the top, low-level workers become more interchangeable and less essential, and thus both economically and politically less powerful. End result: They are paid less instead of more.

#2. People want to have meaningful lives and (insofar as work is part of their lives) meaningful work. In simplistic terms, most of us would see that as 'doing something useful.'

But our complex modern economies have become more efficient by a complex web of specialization and trade. So, for example, a relatively few people do all the farming--planting and harvesting--in any modern country. But it takes a literal army of supporters to make that extreme specialization and efficiency possible--everything from distributors to accountants to educators to bureaucrats to law enforcement to people who make and enforce laws about agriculture, markets, and so on.

So yeah, instead of plugging beans into the ground in April and coming around again in August to pick them you're the legal counsel for an import/export firm.

My point is, I'm not sure that just getting rid of the 'bullshit job' of legal counsel, bureaucrat, mid-level administrator, etc etc etc is really going to solve our problem.

Organizing ourselves and our political systems to consciously overcome the concentration of power and wealth that increasing automation/industrialization/computerization tends to bring, and working to consciously recognize that legal counsel, bureaucrats, bean farmers, and all the rest are all valuable and deserve to be well paid, have leisure time, and enjoy life both because they are making an important contribution to our human society and because they are human and all humans deserve that--those might be closer to the mark.

IMHO.
posted by flug at 11:36 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


In fact, here's a lovely medieval image of men and women at work in agriculture: men are cutting the hay, women are raking it.
posted by jb at 11:38 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


A lot of bullshit work is "political" in that you write (or request) reports to justify decisions or cover your ass. It is necessary to keep from being challenged or fired. You must continue to keep those who would evaluate you happy (as your evaluators must in turn as well). It's also part of the adversarial relationships that are part of the culture.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:39 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Wasted & Useful Lives
posted by gottabefunky at 11:50 AM on June 4


>#1. Whenever you industrialize, mechanize, automate, or take other similar steps to increase efficiency in production, one of the side effects is to increase the concentration of power and wealth.

Let me just give an example. Suppose you have an industry where some miracle occurs and all the workers become twice as efficient.

So you can have everyone work 20 hours, pay them the same amount as before, and everyone goes home with an extra 20 hours of time on their hands.

But there is always the incentive for some 'go getter' to work 40 hours instead. Now that person is twice as productive.

Then a 'super go getter' with a lot of time on their hands decides to work 60 hours and now is 3X as productive.

So you are the owner of the business and you can hire employee #1 who will do the 20 hours, or (for the same salary) employee #2 who works 2X as much and produces twice as much, or (for the same salary) employee #3 who produces 3X as much.

Obviously, you're going to hire employee #3 whenever possible.

If the workers union (or whoever) comes along and says, hey let's make an agreement to work only 20 hours in this industry, then the right wingers/tea partiers/work lovers/or whoever comes down on that like a pile of bricks--it's all about "why are you discouraging hard work" "why are you stopping people who want to work hard and get ahead" and so on.

And there is some truth to that--if some people have the time or just like to work or just want to work 60 hours a week, then who are we to say they can't? Should there be a law against it, or what?

But all this conspires to make it impossible for someone who just wants to work the 20 hours and be done. That person can't get hired (because there are so many willing to do the 40 or 60 hour version of the same thing for the same price) and even if they can, the pay for their 20 hours is devalued because of the people willing to work the 40 or 60 hour version. Instead of making the same pay, they are making maybe half of what they did before, even though they are just as productive.

This comes about because the pay for a job is set as much by the market and by how much pay other people people are willing to take to do the same job, as by the productivity.

I'm not sure the exact solution to this problem, but it is clear to me that just letting the the 'free' market work its magic is going to allow the problem to continue and worsen. At some point we are going to have to work together to change the political and economic system so that it works to support our values rather than undermines them.
posted by flug at 11:54 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


But there is always the incentive for some 'go getter' to work 40 hours instead. Now that person is twice as productive.

Wait, why would someone work 40 or 60 hours for the same salary as someone working 20 hours? What is the incentive, if not money?
posted by desjardins at 12:05 PM on June 4


Making it so that terms of employment, employee handbooks and such can't just be disclaimered to make it so the employer is free and clear to change the terms at their discretion would be nice. "...and other duties as necessary" or something like it tacked on to the job description has resulted in an awful lot of jobs I've worked becoming godawful as management just piles more and more on to everyone's plate for the same wages.
posted by jason_steakums at 12:14 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


The only way I can see the typical workweek going down to 35 or 30 hours (or less) would be if labor laws changed to require overtime pay for anything over that amount.

This has sort-of already happened, due to the ACA and its definition of "full time" as working 30 hours/week. The result is that a lot of low-pay, service-sector jobs are being held to just below 30 hours. So, yay! more free time! But, boo! no money to enjoy it with.

I know there's a small-scale PR campaign going-on in the press to debunk this, but I'm seeing it happen all around me here in low-cost-of-living-because-there's-no-work East Central Indiana.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:19 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


I know plenty of lawyers that enjoy what thwy do. There's way more to law than being a corporate transactional lawyer billing 2k hours a year.
posted by jpe at 12:33 PM on June 4


Things will never work as long as people are classified as full-time or part-time. Prorate benefits, salary, etc on 40 hours = 100%. If you have a job that works 10 hours a week, you should get the equivalent amount of benefits, not zero as is currently the case. That would also stop employers from keeping people classified as part-time and not have to give them benefits.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:41 PM on June 4 [8 favorites]


I think where a lot of the 'excess productivity' went is hiring jobs that are basically adversarial. Jobs that function purely in a competitive way without actually producing anything, where person B exists solely to cancel out the effort of person A. I can think of tons of examples from modern society - most advertising, medical insurance/medical claims billing, most IP law, many political positions, etc. Hell, on the global scale, all militaries.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:49 PM on June 4 [12 favorites]


jb: "And in the early nineteenth century, just as the industrial revolution was taking off, advances in agricultural technology were reducing the need for labour in agriculture and leading to a crisis of female unemployment in some areas in southern England. Labouring families relied on female as well as male wages to get by; without them, they had to turn to the poor law for support. (For more on this, see Keith Snell (1985), Annals of the Labouring Poor)."

This sounds very strongly related to what I've read (so far) in The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation.... Discussion of the domestic economy (which is what the word "economy" originally referred to, before being taken over by political economy)...
posted by symbioid at 12:59 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Moving production out of the home into factories made the work of women and children work more public, and changed its nature (stricter hours, less flexibility). But it didn't suddenly create work.

I agree it's more nuanced than my comment suggested. But my point was that instead of the Industrial Revolution resulting in more leisure time and less work overall, an entire family would literally have to live in a factory and work 12+ hours a day to make enough money to survive. And "stricter hours, less flexibility" is a bit of an understatement, early industrial factories before the concepts of ergonomics and worker safety were developed were extremely dangerous and debilitating, I don't know the exact numbers but I would guess that the number of children who died or became permanently disabled in work-related activities exploded in comparison to pre-industrial child labor.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:14 PM on June 4


One really frustrating thing for me is I see how creeping bureaucracy begins...

So, we used to be really old school where I work. Like, bad. I came in, and we got more efficient, using more tech. Upgraded from 1 computer (small office) to 5. In that time, more information was demanded to be put into the system. I don't mind in the sense that more information is more accurate, and that's great, but we also have to competitively bid against others in the field, which means our prices are constantly being pushed down (moreso, I think, than in just a general consumer/producer market). Add this in with rules made by the Republican fuckwads who limit the spending powers of our local municipalities, cuz the usual taxes bullshit. This means that in order to raise taxes they have to have a public vote, and sure it's great for school and such but for essential things like people working on the tax system (property taxes in this particular case), who's going to vote for a pay raise for their local assessor? FUCK ALL that's who. So you have to bid and bid lower and lower. In the meantime, new technical requirements come in.

OH hey, we're more technically inclined now, more efficient, we can do the same amount of work in less time so we can take on more accounts... YAY! Which would be nice (truly, more money, right?)

But oh no no no... Let's add a layer or three of bureaucracy. Reports. First, new reports to be filed... Just a few to start with. Now, let's make a huge revamp and make a HUGE total requirement to basically put a giant document detailing every single niggling little fucking detail on every single thing you do into a giant report to give to the boards. And, since you can't really raise you're prices, you can't hire a lot of extra help (well you have hired some, but of course, that's gonna cut into your profit margin)...

When I started this job, I had like 1 sheet of stuff that I used to keep track of the processes of things I had to do throughout the year with all the accounts. It was a lot of work, but it was one page. After the increase in productivity (and let us remember that all that means is you're busting your ass harder for the same amount of money)...

Now, I have a whole CRAPTON of sheets and charts and try my damnedest to keep track of where everything is going.

If we could charge a decent price, we could reduce the number of accounts, have a little bit of sanity and move on. There are a few other factors involved that could also reduce the stress of the ever increasing workload, but that's germane to this discussion.

Add in a collapsing housing market, it means a slump in the amount of work you have to do, which would seem nice (and believe me it is. For a couple years, in theory, it was nice. We were computerized much more than before, the pace of new construction was slowed... we could finally breathe. Sure I couldn't get lots of raises. Sometimes my income flow was tighter than I'd like, but I still do ok, and kept my sanity for a few years...) But once that happened, these new requirements started.

Bureaucracy starts to keep track of just too much shit. And it creeps, zerglike across the work flow, trying to strangle all it sees just to make something function and eek out the most "productivity" out of people as it can while at the same time demanding half of that time taking the process itself into account, because there's jsut so much goddamned SHIT to do that you have to keep track of it all with all these processes... And it's just a huge shit-cycle, Randy.
posted by symbioid at 1:30 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


| Wait, why would someone work 40 or 60 hours for the same salary as someone working 20 hours? What is the incentive, if not money?
posted by desjardins at 3:05 PM on June 4

| I seem to have the opposite problem than people are indicating here. I make 70 hours of work look like 40. There is no doing this quicker. There is no short cut. You would understand this and allocate resources appropriately if you understood the math behind it, and/or were concerned about my burnout. Instead, I give up sleep, health, and weekends in order to make magic.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:00 PM on June 4

So, my exact reaction on reading Nanuk's comment was "Thanks for making management think anyone not working 70 hours isn't actually working 40 hours." As for why people do this, I would be curious to hear Nanuk's reasons. I have wondered the same myself when one of my coworkers booked 90 hours recently and when this caused a stir he admitted he was generally underbooking his time and didn't want to see consultants constantly at the top of the list.

The only reason I could come up with is that it's because of competition. People want to be seen as more valuable than their competition: other workers. It's a classic race to the bottom. You don't want to be fired, so you want people to think you're able to accomplish more in less time. Since it's salaried work and the number of hours isn't directly related to your pay, appearing more efficient may amount to a higher bonus, and better job security when it's time for the biyearly chopping block.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 1:37 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Wait, why would someone work 40 or 60 hours for the same salary as someone working 20 hours? What is the incentive, if not money?

Maybe they're willing to work 40 hours for only 1.5x salary? 60 hours for only 2x salary?
posted by explosion at 1:37 PM on June 4


| Wait, why would someone work 40 or 60 hours for the same salary as someone working 20 hours? What is the incentive, if not money?

Getting hired in a competitive job market? It's why people take unpaid internships, and they're clearly not doing that for the paycheck.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:39 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Many people are raised in a "work hard, get ahead" value system. It is sometimes very hard to turn against that.
posted by No Robots at 1:45 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]


burnmp3s: I don't work on industrial labour, and would be happy to hear from people who are more expert. This all touches on a really complicated historical debate called the "Standard of Livings" debate which I haven't looked at in a long time.

But what I do know is that a lot of people on the left (including some historians) have an overly rosy view of pre-industrial labour (how safe, how well supporting - wages in factories were substantially higher than agriculture right through the 19th century), even as a lot of people on the right completely exaggerate the benefits of early industrialisation for labouring people.
posted by jb at 2:18 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Nice shit analogy, symbioid.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:25 PM on June 4


My first real office job was me working alone and getting it all done in the standard forty hours, no back logs, no bottle necks, no complaints, no problem.

One day my boss announced that they were hiring someone to help me. I suggested that they should drop that idea and simply increase my salary by 50% of what they proposed to pay the new hire.

He laughed. I wasn't kidding.

Of course he didn't take me up on the suggestion, and it was then that I realized that a lot of people get hired simply to make the hiring body more important.

Well, in good times, at least.
posted by BWA at 3:03 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I'd love to see this result in more genuine employee owned company.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:04 PM on June 4


When I was a kid, I was sure that by now I'd be spending all of my days lounging on a lawn chair while a robot served me drinks in coconut shells with little paper umbrellas in them.

If I had realized it would be like this, I might have actually planned for the future.
posted by ckape at 4:07 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Wait, why would someone work 40 or 60 hours for the same salary as someone working 20 hours? What is the incentive, if not money?
posted by desjardins


Maybe not if the job was really boring. But I guess this is exactly the point Graeber is making, about people sometimes doing jobs for "free" or reduced pay because of its intrinsic value. It's a plausible scenario in some kinds of work.

I have done this without actually realising it. I was doing a job as a level 1 employee, and I got an "offer" to do a level 3 employee's job in the regional HQ in addition to my own work for a year (he left, hiring restrictions meant he couldn't be replaced for a year), at the same time being tasked with completely revamping that job's processes with an oracle hypercube that I would have to configure from scratch. No money was involved. So they sold it to me on the basis of... fame? Because it was interesting? Because I would learn something useful? And that they knew I could do both jobs at once because I was just that efficient? Yes there was a fair bit of overtime involved. I would do it again in a heartbeat if offered.

I remember giving training sessions to the teams there (level 3 and level 4 employees) and their shock at realising I was level 1.

(I got a promotion to level 2 two years later, and to level 3 in another two years...)
posted by xdvesper at 4:21 PM on June 4


So, my exact reaction on reading Nanuk's comment was "Thanks for making management think anyone not working 70 hours isn't actually working 40 hours." As for why people do this, I would be curious to hear Nanuk's reasons. I have wondered the same myself when one of my coworkers booked 90 hours recently and when this caused a stir he admitted he was generally underbooking his time and didn't want to see consultants constantly at the top of the list.

The only reason I could come up with is that it's because of competition. People want to be seen as more valuable than their competition: other workers. It's a classic race to the bottom. You don't want to be fired, so you want people to think you're able to accomplish more in less time. Since it's salaried work and the number of hours isn't directly related to your pay, appearing more efficient may amount to a higher bonus, and better job security when it's time for the biyearly chopping block.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 4:37 PM on June 4


A little late on the response, but I'll answer.
First reason is: there is a right way to do things and unfortunately for what I do it is also close to the only way. The right way is systematic, requires verification and validation, requires an obscene amount of setup, and then several rounds of thought in order to bring everything together.

What everyone wants in my profession is a data grunt, someone who understands the data, can manipulate it with proficiency and basically handles that part. The problem is, data guys generally don't understand how to go from a relational database to a working dataset and get all weirded out when you ask to turn 500 megs of data into 4 terabytes data because you need it in like five or six different formats and indexed - so just popping in views is pointless. Even when you get a data grunt, they generally don't know how to validate the data - sure they can see whether A=A, file sizes are correct, yadda yadda, but its just nigh impossible to get someone able to manipulate the data and validate it.

So there's actually an earlier question about the data too... you've got to find out where it all is - who is the gatekeeper for each piece - and then you've got to convince them that they need to hand it over in a timely fashion... and given that you'll be validating their data - they'll treat your work somewhat akin to trying to eliminate their job / pointing out their faults... so yeah, there is another shit show.

So lets just say you've got your data, someone has graciously helped get it into the right format, validation found out the data was correct - and not hellishly improperly recorded like it likely is (side note: generally when you validate and find something improperly recorded, you also find out how to fix it - which is just a sub project slapped into your existing project)... Well, then you've got to actually use it, figure out if it tells you anything useful, try a few different things to verify that your results are consistent - yeah, so... lets just say I've never magically had a model work exactly as I initially specified... and that means you get creative with model building, but either way - this just gets you to the point where you can answer a basic question. Then you've got to slap the data back into the model and answer a whole host of questions... then you have to figure out what everyone's bias in the room is and plan for it, because any presentation you give where you tell someone something that slightly insults their sacred cow generally turns into a presentation in front of a firing squad.

So no, its not that I want to make anyone look bad, I just want my stuff to work and I take pride in it, and I know what it takes to do my job. If you can do your job in 40 and claw your way up into a middle management position more power to you. The other side of what I do is that my job is generally safe, but no one ever dares to promote a specialist because there are very few people that can back fill what I'd leave.

I like bonuses, but I couldn't care less about the payout, since my bonus is largely tied to factors outside everyone's control.

So why do it? Well, ever see a company outsource its intelligence to consultants? Its a big mistake, but somehow people are willing to drop a few million with consultancy firms for a few years instead of hiring 3-5 people for the same amount. The big problem I have with that isn't that I could lose my job, but generally that a corporate consultancy mindset is a measurable race to the bottom.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:41 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


That's a lot of words, and I'm not sure I'm any closer to understanding your answer. You do it...because you like to do your job the right way? Because it gives you job security? Except maybe it doesn't because you might be replaced by consultants? Very confusing.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:55 PM on June 4


Graeber does an interesting interview. Like this portion of the interview that takes an anthropological view of what I would normally perceive to be FOX news demagoguery.

What I ended up concluding is that working class people hate the cultural elite more than they do the economic elite—and mind you, they don’t like the economic elite very much. But they hate the cultural elite because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world. If you want a career pursuing any form of value other than monetary value—if you want to work in journalism, and pursue truth, or in the arts, and pursue beauty, or in some charity or international NGO or the UN, and pursue social justice—well, even assuming you can acquire the requisite degrees, for the first few years they won’t even pay you. So you’re supposed to live in New York or some other expensive city on no money for a few years after graduation. Who else can do that except children of the elite? So if you’re a fork-lift operator or even a florist, you know your kid is unlikely to ever become a CEO, but you also know there’s no way in a million years they’ll ever become drama critic for the New Yorker or an international human rights lawyer. The only way they could get paid a decent salary to do something noble, something that’s not just for the money, is to join the army.

Not a perfect thought exercise but it works for me. I'm in temporal solidarity with my FOX News watching; brothers and sisters, fair and balanced comrades.
posted by vicx at 9:19 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Hi Nanuk:

I'm sort of the data grunt in your story, except I don't touch relational; our stuff is specialized for time series. I do a lot of validation but it's like you said, of the sort that validates that the platform is technically correct. I don't actually want to be involved in what it actually means. I tend to think of my client's quants as my math grunts who produce the content to be crunched by the beautiful machine I've built.

I think the part that doesn't make sense isn't so much why you would work 70 hours, but why you would pass it off as 40. In my view, if people are being worked to their bones, a project management and expectation management error has been made. The real race to the bottom is when people only allocate half the time necessary to properly complete a project.

People don't seem to have realistic expectations of how long something takes because people are constantly hiding how long things really take. And when people are not rested because they're working ridiculous hours, validating all these things takes even longer because more mistakes get made, which just causes expectation to further divorce from reality.

So, as Steely-eyed Missile Man said, I still don't understand it.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 9:20 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I think where a lot of the 'excess productivity' went is hiring jobs that are basically adversarial. Jobs that function purely in a competitive way without actually producing anything, where person B exists solely to cancel out the effort of person A. I can think of tons of examples from modern society - most advertising, medical insurance/medical claims billing, most IP law, many political positions, etc. Hell, on the global scale, all militaries.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:49 PM on June 4


I graduated from A Technological University back during the Cold War. In my circle of 'engineer' friends we had one guy who was hired by Electric Boat in Connecticut to work on building quieter submarines; we also had a guy who was going to work for Sikorsky(?) in Connecticut to work on better submarine detection.

We all thought this was hysterically funny - Hey you guys, your work cancels out! ; except that after a moment's reflection, somebody noted that there were ALSO two young engineers over in the Soviet Union starting on the very same careers.

Then we all stopped laughing.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 11:02 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]


We all thought this was hysterically funny - Hey you guys, your work cancels out! ; except that after a moment's reflection, somebody noted that there were ALSO two young engineers over in the Soviet Union starting on the very same careers.

So a total of four people doing useless things, then?
posted by maxwelton at 11:53 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


>No discussion of what a prick David Graeber is when challenged on his work is complete without mention of his brief and not notably glorious stint as MetaFilter's own.

This isn't at all how I read that exchange. WE were the "pricks," imo, and even jessamyn found it "vaguely embarrassing" that Mefites ran Graeber off.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:41 AM on June 5 [9 favorites]


Nanukthedog,

I could have written a similar thing to yours back in March, about why I worked 70 hours and pretended it was 40. I could say something about caring about doing things the right way, and taking pride in my work, or that I was acquiring new skills.

And my employers didn't believe my fiction one bit because they would call me at home on a Saturday to go in and reboot a workstation so they could work from home, or give a 6 hour job to me at 4:30pm and expect it done magically first thing in the morning, or call the office at 8:30am or pm and expect me to answer the phone. Of course, that came to an end pretty abruptly when something pushed me over the edge. I smashed my coffee mug against the wall and told everyone to go fuck themselves. Of course, all I really did is fuck myself.

I try to keep things in perspective, though. Even counting all periods of unemployment, since leaving school I've made on average roughly double the global median household income, at purchasing power parity. Despite this, the only job during that time where I was doing anything of value was the summer just after school when I worked on a cattle ranch. From a global and historical perspective, I try to remind myself that I'm lucky to be a privileged member of an absurdly wealthy parasitic elite.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:27 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


I think it's down to being smart about how you work. I often find myself working long hours for very little pay but it's usually down to my own mistaken idea that hard work equals a good pay - they don't have anything to do with each other. In this world high risk equals high pay - you often find that the higher people are paid the bigger the risk is to them.
posted by LobsterDM at 3:37 AM on June 5


A few quick notes, then I think any additional specific questions re me should be sent to my memail.

Given my technical knowledge puts me frequently in contact with non-technical managers/directors/etc, it is the needs of the business that dictate when deadlines are set. Yes, nobody dies if they are missed, but a miss for me isn't a few hours or a few thousand dollars. Missing for what I do has large ripples for a large number of people, with repercussions with budgets, revenue and staffing. And yes, simultaneously I don't care about a bonus, and the impact of my work can make or break budgets, as well as provide insight into where there is under-performance... and I make a number, a cold number staunched in rigor and fact, so its fun for management to ignore what I have to say when they want to, but pull it up and point to it when it provides a convenient scapegoat for why they have to do what they have to do...

I don't disguise that I work 70 hours and have no life outside of work. I cite this as my chief complaint. So at the start of things, the need and deadline are set, the desires are listed, I whittle down the list, and it is agreed upon. Then life happens, business needs change and plans are thrown out the window in lieu of fire drills.

Now I can frankly have the conversation of do you want A or B, but people still want A and B and play the kick the can game until it presses up against the hard deadlines, and then suddenly, people fail to realize how antithetical the time decisions were. So yeah, they get B, then want A back on its initial deadline. Reality be damned. Meanwhile, they simultaneously tell me to work less.... that is the part that is frustrating - not that I don't want to work less... but more: can the fire drills and unrealistic expectations.

On validation, yeah, A=A is good, but I want to know if A should have been A' but was recorded as A because of a lazy business process. All those weird spikes in the time series data? Yeah, I am responsible for either explaining them all or fixing the data if it is egregious but possible. (And yeah, I don't own the system, nor did I make the initial error). So then there's this whole concept of automation - and nobody likes a naysayer to automation, but when you point out that requirements changing on a whim pretty much breaks any attempt to automate falls on deaf ears.

People don't understand how long stuff takes because they've never done the work nor have any intention of getting near it. And they definitely don't understand that a broken business process takes time for a root cause analysis, and having the guy that does the math have to detect, quantify it, and sometimes solve it is sort of insane...

And yeah, I do feel bad for the controllers, who take the information I provide them tangentially and then hack labor forces or budgets in order to keep things profitable. I don't have to make things balance financially - they do.

So as an end to the 70->40 hour derail. Everybody knows, nobody cares. I left one job after this kind of nonsense went on long enough and word from the front was that they started to get a much better idea of what I actually had to do to make things work... I got a free lunch out of it at one point, but yeah... it is what it is.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:31 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I still don't get why you do it, but I definitely do get that I don't want your job. Like...ever.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:43 AM on June 5


No discussion of what a prick David Graeber is when challenged on his work is complete without mention of his brief and not notably glorious stint as MetaFilter's own.

Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with you on this, too.

The discussion was about an interview about a book, and commentors were all "psssh he doesn't cite his sources." and then Graeber chimed in and was like "What? It was an interview. In the book, I have a hundreds of pages of sources and notes," and commentors were all "what?! I have to buy your book to understand your argument?" and he was all, "no, look, there's an online preview for free, why is this a thing?!" and then commentors were all "no discussion of what a prick he was?!"
posted by entropone at 9:42 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


When your system has a constraint, a bottleneck that's limiting your production, your goal is to maximize the throughput of that constraint. (...) The minute somebody's little work problem causes the widget parts to not be at that machine when it needs them they just limited production.

A lot of jobs now aren't producing real things nor using widgets that break.
posted by ichomp at 1:46 PM on June 5


| A lot of jobs now aren't producing real things nor using widgets that break.

His analogy doesn't depend on manufacturing; it's a general principle of workflow pipelines. If person A's productivity depends 1:1 on person B's productivity, then B is a bottleneck if A works faster than B.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 2:43 PM on June 5


Graeber in the Guardian: Savage capitalism is back – and it will not tame itself
posted by homunculus at 11:52 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with you on this, too.

Yeah given how Graeber acted in the CT symposium, and his gross unprofessional behavior, I expected that link to be much worse. Those weren't model comments but they were understandable.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:43 AM on June 6


>>But there is always the incentive for some 'go getter' to work 40 hours instead. Now that person is twice as productive.

>Wait, why would someone work 40 or 60 hours for the same salary as someone working 20 hours? What is the incentive, if not money?
posted by desjardins at 2:05


Well, two reasons would be: Again, salaries for work are going to be determined as much (or more) by how much other people are willing to work and how much they are willing to take as pay for that work as by how much profit that work produces for your employer.

If there are plenty of people willing and able to do job X at pay Y, no employer is going to hire someone to do X/2 while still getting pay Y.
posted by flug at 11:37 PM on June 6


flug: "If there are plenty of people willing and able to do job X at pay Y, no employer is going to hire someone to do X/2 while still getting pay Y."
Unless unions.
posted by brokkr at 7:06 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]


flug: "If there are plenty of people willing and able to do job X at pay Y, no employer is going to hire someone to do X/2 while still getting pay Y."

brokkr: Unless unions.


Yes, that's a major part of the point I'm (clumsily) trying to make.

The move towards greater efficiency, industrialization, mechanization, computerization does NOT automatically bring huge benefits the the average worker. Rather, it tends to more and more concentrate wealth and power.

Concentration of wealth and power is very strongly self-perpetuating--the strong become stronger and the weak become weaker, so to speak, and the more that happens the more the strong have the means to gain increasing wealth and power while the weak have fewer and fewer means to stand up for themselves against the actions of the strong, wealthy, and powerful. (And the more the strong and powerful have the means to indoctrinate the masses that standing up for themselves is a bad idea for some reason or other.)

You can't just let a process like this run to its natural end.

To counteract this, you have to look at systemic solutions, like: In the U.S., particularly, even people who support those kinds of measures seem to have a view that they are some kind of offense against nature that we have to tolerate until we come up with something better. Americans' attitude towards unions is a perfect case in point.

Instead we ought to view all these things as good and necessary measures we need to take in order to create a strong and stable society that is able to reap the full benefits of the economic efficiency and wealth that industrialization, specialization, and technology can bring.

The more we want the technology and the efficiencies, the more we need to implement the counteracting measures of the type I've outlined above.

We certainly can keep beelining in the direction of over more concentrated wealth and power, as we have over the past 30-40 years or so.

But I think we all understand that the endgame there is inevitably the pitchforks and a bunch of heads (not necessarily the right ones) on pikes--and a bunch of unnecessary misery both before and after the pitchforks.

We can do better.
posted by flug at 1:01 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


I just love the posts on David Graeber here, the previous one especially. Ditto his Guardian articles.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:54 AM on June 18


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