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Modern Workers Lack Adult Freedom

Ah, Elon — I want to stop writing about you so badly, but then you keep saying things like this, and I just can’t quit you.

NPR Article

So, ok — IN FAIRNESS, I do understand that Tesla makes like physical objects (unlike programmers, such as myself, who only make virtual objects) and that making and designing physical objects often does require… being in the office. I’ve worked with mechanical engineers before, and I’ve seen them doing God knows what on huge pieces of equipment, so yeah, I get that there is work that just can’t be done at home.

Thing is, most top end mechanical engineers tend to know for themselves when they can and can’t work at home. For instance, many of them will do like CAD designs on their computer (can be done at home) but will then need to go to the office/a workshop/Narnia to actually generate a physical prototype of the product.

So, why not just give the engineer agency to choose when they’re in the office and when they’re work from home, to maximize their productivity?

And, the answer to that question usually is, companies are not good at measuring the productive output of an employee. Most companies can’t actually tell when an employee is performing well or not. If they could, then working from home wouldn’t be threatening; just let people manage themselves, and just fire anyone who isn’t producing enough. In fact, that’s the myth we like to believe about capitalism, that companies in pursuit of profit won’t tolerate dead weight, and will only keep high productivity members of the team around.

Thing is, that presumes that companies are able to tell who the high productivity people are, and usually, they’re not.

David Graeber wrote about this phenomenon in depth, first with an essay, and then with a follow up book both entitled Bullshit Jobs. He found that substantial number of people do not believe their jobs are useful, and think they are contributing nothing to their company or society through their “work”. According to some Graeber’s polls, only around 50% of people (in the UK) believed their work was useful, with the rest thinking their work definitely wasn’t useful, or they were unsure if it was useful. It’s likely that the number of people thinking their work is useless or unsure is higher than 50% in office jobs, because people like nurses and mechanics tend to believe their jobs are useful, which brings up the national average.

Graeber then goes into detail specifically about what “useless work” looks like; effectively, people go into the office and pretend to work all day (often spending most of it on social media or whatever) then go home after producing nothing. They usually don’t get fired or reprimanded for this, although, obviously they are just a money leach to the company at large.

A nearly universal element of “useless” jobs is they are required to come in to the office. There are a few factors for this; one is, the employees themselves have no negotiating power, because they are producing nothing, so they can’t say “look, my output when I wfh 2 days a week is identical to my output in the office.” Another is that, the people who want to hire employees even when they do nothin often do so for weird psychological reasons.

One of those reasons can be that people feel like they have higher social status if they have more people reporting to them. If all your underlings are at home, and you don’t get to watch them in the office doing your bidding, it’s not going to be as emotionally satisfying. In that case, people’s bosses will want them in the office, but won’t deeply care if they’re wasting time because the boss gets the emotional payout of feeling high status just having them around.

Now, obviously, all this is absolutely horrible for the bottom line of a company, because you just have expensive people faffing around wasting money. And, it’s also terrible for employee morale, because people want to feel useful. People who don’t feel useful can end up not just wasting their own time, but wasting other people’s as wells.

As a programmer, I have a particular privilege which is, the output of my work is highly visible. It can still be useless, but tends to be useless in the sense I built something no one wanted, not I didn’t build anything. Because of this, when I am generating observable output at a company, people who are being mismanaged and feel useless can get jealous and sometimes will try to get involved in my work. Often, they will want to be involved in things like technical designs, and not only does this slow me down trying to explain tech to a non-engineer, it means there is important work not getting done.

Especially when it comes to user acquisition, I actually consider the people working in that role to have a more important job than me. Frankly, in a pinch, you could hire some 15 year old coder on UpWork and get… something. I’d like to imagine my code is better than a random 15 year olds, but if you have users and a terrible code base, you have more of a product than if you have a beautifully engineered app with no users.

I am more replaceable than people who get us our users, and I know that. Ironically, the people getting us our users often don’t know that. Instead of spending time doing user acquisition, they’ll spend time trying to get in on the technical decisions thinking that’s “where the real work is” and that’s how they’ll move up the career ladder.

Whereas to me, it’s like… imagine there was a fire, and we’re trying to put it out with an old fashioned water pump and hose. Let’s say, I’m the one pumping water, and the person getting users is the one pointing the hose. As I’m pumping away, instead of pointing the hose, the hose-pointer comes back and says, “you know, I think you could get 10% more water if you pumped this way, instead of doing what you’re doing now,” and I’m just like “Omg, point the hose! Point the hose! 10% more water doesn’t matter if no one is pointing the hose!”

This is actually a not infrequent argument type that I get in with people, and it demonstrates deeper structural issues at companies. Most notably these arguments imply the user aquisitioner/hose pointer isn’t getting credit for doing their job. Imagine when the fire is put out, everyone comes up and goes, “man, Emma, you did some really excellent water pumping there,” but everyone ignores the person who pointed the hose. Could you really blame them for wanting to be involved in pumping the water next fire?

Development can be high status work, but only for the simplistic reason that it’s easy to see when a developer has done a good job. You either have some code working as intended, or you don’t. Easy peasy. However, people working in more ambiguous spots (like PM, user researcher, marketing, etc.) can be harder to judge. Although, frankly, not much harder; people are generally just too lazy to set up solid metrics for them.

Anyway, I don’t want to get too specific into the details of tech (if you’re into that, I’ve started writing about the workings of startups and tech on my consulting blog, December Devs so you could read more there) but the more general point is, many jobs do not set up good metrics to evaluate the people who are working in them. Because of this, a) people don’t know what to do, and often don’t work at all, b) companies can’t differentiate high performers from under performers. So, they resort to unimportant metrics, like “time spent in the office.”

When I see Mr Musk talking about how people have to be in the office, what that implies to me is that Tesla does not have an effective way of evaluating the output of their employees. Because of this, I would guess, many people there are likely doing useless work (clearly not all, because they got some banging cars — but definitely some) and they are developing a culture of face time over output.

However, this is even worse than just being an inefficient for companies, it leads to trapping grownups in a kind of “perpetual adolescence” by denying them the ability to make their own decisions and acquire wealth through labor. One of Graeber’s most fascinating points in his book Bullshit Jobs was that (compared to times past, like the middle ages) we keep adult workers in a kind of wage-based adolescence, never allowing them to develop true agency.

In the middle ages, “wage labor” was seen as — basically — something that you did early in your career, or in you “adolescence.” Often, if you were learning a trade, you would become an apprentice in that trade and would report to your “master” but in time, you would become your own master and set up a shop of your own. However, with the invent of the capitalism and industrial revolution, people ultimately stopped being able to start their own small enterprises, and instead became employed perpetually by large organizations:

[There was a] gradual transformation of relations of service into permanent relations of wage labor: that is, a relation between some people who owned capital, and others who did not and thus were obliged to work for them. What this meant in human terms was, first of all, that millions of young people found themselves trapped in permanent social adolescence. As the guild structures broke down, apprentices could become journeymen, but journeymen could no longer become masters, which meant that, in traditional terms, they would not be a position to marry and start families of their own. They were expected to live their entire lives effectively as unfinished human beings.

Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (p. 226). (Amazon Affiliate Link)

The most important part to note here is, the wage laborer does not own the capital (or wealth asset) associated with their work. A master artisan in the middle ages, effectively had (what we could think of now) as a “small business” which had a kind of value the same way a house might have value. He would be incentivized to work for his “business” because it was his. He owned it, and the more he put into it, the more “wealth” he could acquire.

Laborers today do not own the fruits of their labor, they simply receive cash for their time. With the exception of things like stock options, laborers generally are not able to directly generate wealth from their labor; they instead have to invest that cash in other assets that will generate wealth. Over the past 100 years, the asset that has generated the most wealth for wage laborers tends to be their own houses, which they invest their wages into.

However, with skyrocketing student loans and a terrible housing market, many contemporary laborers are denied access to any form of wealth generation. Suddenly, we are finding ourselves in a transition system that is mirroring some elements of the transition from guilds to factories. The “working masses” are denied the ability to build wealth, and so trapped in perpetual adolescence, unable to afford and start families, or transition into other forms of independent adulthood that having ownership of capital would allow them.

Beyond that, however, in their workplaces wage laborers are treated like adolescents in interpersonal situations. They are not trusted to manage their own time, frequently not trusted to use their own problem solving techniques, and are required to jump to the arbitrary standards of their bosses regardless of their productive output. Many times, in a work situation, a boss will say “do this because I told you to do it,” and the worker will (resentfully) comply. The workers have no agency because they have no independent assets to stabilize them during times of scarcity, so they are required to be constantly working for a wage even if they are being abused in that relationship.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

When I was working for Head of Software at Quartz (construction tech company, not internet company) I got a lot of use out of independent contractors. In fact, after talking to my CEO after we went under, I said “what would you do differently if you founded a company again?” and he said, “I would use more contractors and fewer employees,” implying that he had also found the contractors to be highly efficient.

The thing about contractors is, they either deliver what they said they would, or they don’t and you fire them. If they’re cost effective you keep them, if they’re not, you wind down with them — and, we had many contractors we wound up and down with on an as-needed basis. The contractors also tended to be highly motivated, because their own (often 1 person) consulting agencies were their own wealth assets. The more work they did for us the more they increased the value of their own wealth (with, improved reputation, new consulting connections, improved skills, etc.) Now, I don’t want to say this is the right model for all companies, but rather to give an example of how we could be dividing up labor to allow people to build wealth through their own labor. Consultants were particularly attractive for Quartz because we had a complicated tech stack and needed a lot of people with very specific specialties, but only on a part time basis. Full time hires often required constant retraining around new technologies we ended up using.

One of the reasons that large corporations often end up breathing down their employees throats, is that on some level they know they’re giving their employees a raw deal. They know that the upper levels of management are accruing astronomical amounts of wealth at the cost of the people at the bottom accruing nothing. So, they’re constantly afraid their employees are mucking about, because they can sense the resentment from the people they’re denying a full and productive “adult” life.

If you allow people to build up their own independent assets, they’ll dick around less because they’re investing in their own futures. And, simply stated, stock options are helpful, but they’re not enough. The reason they’re not enough is, they don’t necessarily allow the employee the type of mental agency they’d have if they were working for themselves. Part of being a “working adult” is, yes, building wealth from your labor, but part of it is being able to set up an environment and work style that is good for you personally. Work from home, incidentally, has been fantastic for the second part, of allowing people agency at work.

Personally, I think we’re reaching the end of an era, because the old way has become exploitative. We need to open access to wealth, and open access to personal agency around working styles; we have many of the elements working in our currently system (contracting, stock options, working from home or allowing personal customizations in person) and could likely find more ways to expand on this if we put our mind to it. Unions, for example, seem like a historically effective way of allowing a kind of group negotiating for more agency in situations where in person work is necessary (though, I will admit, I have minimal experience with unions so can’t speak with much certainty here.)

But, we have to recognize this as a problem. The working classes perpetual adolescence has to end, and companies have to allow their employees to begin functioning as full adults. People aren’t starting families or other large projects because they don’t have enough wealth. People are angry and miserable all the time because they don’t have enough personal agency. The ability for our society to be kind, humane and enjoyable for the people in is massively influenced by what we do at work because it’s where we spend much of our time. Done effectively, especially in offices, we could transition to a system that was both more efficient for companies AND more enjoyable for workers; there just has to be the will to find a better way.

I’m just starting to get my own consulting company off the ground; if you want to read what I write wrt startups and tech, you can check it out here, or if you want to do me a solid by following me on my (new) company twitter so I don’t look like a dork with 2 followers, you could do that here.

Note: Amazon Affiliate links will give me a small commission if you buy from them

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