Slate executive editor Allison Benedikt recently wrote an essay about meeting her husband at work, when he was her boss and she was a 23-year-old entry-level fact-checker: “My boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk… My career, at the time, was in his hands.” In the essay, Benedikt worries that the current reckoning around workplace harassment would make relationships like hers impossible. She sympathizes with women who “have written recently that they fear a coming backlash — that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation.”
At a recent conference in Detroit, billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the online marketplace Alibaba, told CNBC that, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, people will soon work less.
“I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week,” Ma said. “My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy.”
People have been making this prediction for generations. Economist John Maynard Keynes posited, in an essay published a year after the 1929 Wall Street crash, that his grandchildren would work 15-hour weeks, with five-day weekends. In 2015, NPR caught up with some of his descendants and discovered Keynes — who, according to his grand-nephew died “from working too hard” — was wrong. His grand-nephew reported working over 100 hours a week as a professor, and his grand-niece, a self-employed psychotherapist, said she has to write in her agenda “not working” to remind herself to take breaks.
For many women, the idea of ambition is complicated. Too often when we’re are described as ambitious, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a compliment or a criticism. Often, it’s an all-out accusation. For the essay collection Double Bind, editor Robin Romm tasked 24 women writers with considering their own relationships to ambition. Hawa Allan‘s essay “Becoming Meta” is a meditation on the mantra of I’ll show you that drove her to achieve—first as the only black student in her elementary school’s gifted and talented program, then as a law student, and finally as a law firm associate, hungry for the validation of the “rainmaker” partners whose ranks held no one that looked like her.
A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced. —Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be?
I have been to a few Madonna concerts in my day, so I may or may not have been straining to get a view around the pillar planted in front of my discount seat when I beheld the superstar kick up into a forearm stand in the middle of the stage. For non-initiates, a “forearm stand” is a yoga pose wherein you balance your entire body on your forearms—lain parallel to one another on the ground, and perpendicular to your upper arms, torso, and legs, all of which are inverted skyward. Imagine turning your body into an “L.” And then imagine Madonna doing the same, except spotlighted before thousands of gaping fans in a large arena.
I hadn’t done any yoga at that point, so the irony of Madonna flaunting her ability in a discipline meant to induce inner awareness was totally lost on me. I just thought it was cool. Precisely, I interpreted Madonna’s forearm stand as a demonstration of power—power that was quiet yet fierce. An expression of power that I immediately decided I wanted to embody. So, not too long thereafter, I went ahead and enrolled in a series of free, introductory lessons at yoga studios across Manhattan and Brooklyn. My modus operandi: take advantage of the introductory classes and skip to another studio (once I no longer had a discounted pass). I was doing this, I told myself at the time, to test out different teachers—to find “the right fit.” In hindsight, I can see that this was just an excuse for being itinerant and cheap.
Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.
Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.
Last Sunday, Super Bowl 50 descended upon Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. At Slate, freelance journalist Gabriel Thompson describes game day from the perspective of a worker in one of the stadium’s upscale food courts, where he earned less than $13 an hour to serve $13 beers.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the Chrome Grill, which functioned perfectly well for sparsely attended 49ers games, is not quite ready for the Super Bowl and its crowd of 71,000. Our cooks, three temps who earn $10 an hour for typical Levi’s Stadium events, but $15 an hour for the Super Bowl, are cranking out food. Still the lines keep growing. It doesn’t help that the fancy new registers tend to freeze up, or that we sell out of the jumbo dogs an hour before kickoff, which means that we have to waste precious time absorbing complaints. “At the Super Bowl?” one lady asks. “No hot dogs? You have got to be kidding.” I apologize—as sincerely as possible, given the circumstances—but she just stands there, unconvinced. When I pull off the lid of the hot dog container to reveal greasy water, she stomps off.
“The system is not working,” says Khalid Subainati. A jack-of-all-trades at the Chrome Grill, Kal usually works as an expeditor, but today he’s spending much of his time serving as a buffer between angry customers and us, as well as trying to get the registers to work. I’m totally absorbed in slapping pizza slices onto plates while trying to keep five orders straight in my head. Relief finally comes in the form of the national anthem, performed by Lady Gaga. Ticket-holders rush to their seats, which gives us a moment to collect ourselves. “Shit,” says Joshua. I nod. For weeks, our Centerplate supervisors have reminded us about the importance of today, when we’ll put “Fans First!” to “create excitement and lifetime memories at America’s greatest event.” That’s not where this day seems to be headed.
After 300 years of breathtaking innovation, people aren’t massively unemployed or indentured by machines. But to suggest how this could change, some economists have pointed to the defunct career of the second-most-important species in U.S. economic history: the horse.
For many centuries, people created technologies that made the horse more productive and more valuable—like plows for agriculture and swords for battle. One might have assumed that the continuing advance of complementary technologies would make the animal ever more essential to farming and fighting, historically perhaps the two most consequential human activities. Instead came inventions that made the horse obsolete—the tractor, the car, and the tank. After tractors rolled onto American farms in the early 20th century, the population of horses and mules began to decline steeply, falling nearly 50 percent by the 1930s and 90 percent by the 1950s.
Humans can do much more than trot, carry, and pull. But the skills required in most offices hardly elicit our full range of intelligence. Most jobs are still boring, repetitive, and easily learned. The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force, or more workers than there are in Texas and Massachusetts combined. Each is highly susceptible to automation, according to the Oxford study.
Technology creates some jobs too, but the creative half of creative destruction is easily overstated. Nine out of 10 workers today are in occupations that existed 100 years ago, and just 5 percent of the jobs generated between 1993 and 2013 came from “high tech” sectors like computing, software, and telecommunications. Our newest industries tend to be the most labor-efficient: they just don’t require many people. It is for precisely this reason that the economic historian Robert Skidelsky, comparing the exponential growth in computing power with the less-than-exponential growth in job complexity, has said, “Sooner or later, we will run out of jobs.”
—In “A World Without Work,” Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson argues it’s time to plan for a future in which machines, from driverless cars to operating room robots, do most of our current jobs.
In a 2009 paper for Administrative Science Quarterly, J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson studied zookeepers and found that the profession was about the closest anyone in the modern, secular world comes to having a calling—the sort of intensely meaningful career that Martin Luther said could turn work into a divine offering. Zookeeping is dirty, repetitive, and poorly paid. And yet people volunteer for years, move across the country, and accept major sacrifices in their personal lives to be able to do it.
In interviews with zookeepers, Bunderson and Thompson found that their feelings about their work ran much deeper than a standard survey metric like job satisfaction could capture. Again and again, they used phrases like “I knew this is what I was meant to do” and described a pull toward work with animals starting in early childhood. The sense of calling also came with a feeling of moral obligation. Zookeepers described an intense dedication to the animals they worked with, and to the zoos’ mission of promoting conservation and breeding endangered species.
Nemes takes pride in the breeding programs that Capron Park, and most US zoos, are part of. She tells me about the black-footed ferret, which was saved from extinction thorough captive breeding and has been reintroduced in the wild. “That’s amazing,” she says. “Extinct is forever.”
Salon workers describe a culture of subservience that extends far beyond the pampering of customers. Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish. At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week. Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’ smartphones and tablets.
Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.
“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.
–Sarah Maslin Nir, in The New York Times, on the low wages and abuse suffered by manicurists.
Along with wages and conditions, hours used to be a basic concern in worker organizing. During the heyday of the struggle over hours, in the century before World War II, the demand was always for fewer of them. The “Lowell Mill Girls” agitated for a 10-hour day, and the Haymarket strikers wanted to get down to eight. But since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 enshrined the 40-hour week, hours have tended to be taken for granted. Time was regularized, and thus depoliticized. This is changing only because, in recent years, employers have entered a devastating new race to the bottom: Involuntary part-time is becoming the new norm for low-wage workers, together with schedules so unpredictable and varying that one can’t easily get another job, or go to school, or be a reliable parent.
Now, as a new national movement about work hours gets going, it has focused on more rather than fewer, and at more regular intervals. University of Chicago professor Susan J. Lambert, a collaborator of Gleason’s, is the leading authority on the numbers behind the crisis. Her research has found that 41 percent of early-career hourly workers—people in their mid-20s and early 30s—learn about their schedules a week or less in advance; for African-Americans, it’s 49 percent. Only one in five of these workers has a significant say in when their shifts will be. The hours worked by part-timers in a given week fluctuate, on average, as much as 87 percent. The ingredients of economic crisis, corporate competition, and technology have created “a perfect storm,” Lambert says.
—Nathan Schneider writing in The Nation about how unpredictable schedules and “involuntary part-time” positions for low-wage workers have put fair hours at the forefront of the fight for employee rights.
Nikil Saval | Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace | Doubleday | April 2014 | 31 minutes (8,529 words)
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I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils…
—Theodore Roethke, “Dolor”
The torn coat sleeve to the table. The steel pen to the ink. Write! Write! Be it truth or fable. Words! Words! Clerks never think.
—Benjamin Browne Foster, Down East Diary (1849)
They labored in poorly lit, smoky single rooms, attached to merchants and lawyers, to insurance concerns and banks. They had sharp penmanship and bad eyes, extravagant clothes but shrunken, unused bodies, backs cramped from poor posture, fingers callused by constant writing. When they were not thin, angular, and sallow, they were ruddy and soft; their paunches sagged onto their thighs. Read more…