Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Value of Work

I caught part of Matthew Crawford's interview on Newshour with Jim Lehrer on KQED Friday night. He had very interesting things to say about work. He defended his own choice to get out of white collar work to work repairing motorcycles. Self reliance and control of one's environment, were two of the advantages of manual competence that used to be taught in Shop Class. He questions the move to cars in which one cannot even check the oil and society's belief that everyone should work in the information field. He has Ph.D. in Philosophy and has written a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

In the Saturday/Sunday Wall Street Journal, he recommended 5 Best books on getting the job done.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose shows how mentally absorbing work can be for those who cultivate a particular skill. A restaurant is both structured and chaotic. The busier it gets the more"on" an experienced waitress tends to become at once calmed and energized by an awareness of her own skillful performance. She mollifies cranky customers, keeps the cook happy and persuades others to give her tips. "Rose helps us see the human excellence on display all around us, in jobs that often go unnoticed."

The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett says, "The short time frame of modern institutions limits the ripening of informal trust." He points out the "demeaning superficiality" of setting up a team for specific projects then disbanding it. Short-term shareholders demand a quick return, "chaos-mongers" shake a company up to impress investors and stock analysts. "Pump the stock, cash out and move on. The worker who remains must be ready to re-invent himself at any time. The result-little place in the corporate economy for the steady accumulation of skill and accomplishment, the sort that gives coherence to a working life."

The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild. In this path-breaking study of flight attendants, she describes how workers are expected to internalize the ends of their employers as their own. "Our smiles are not just painted on," turns out to be more than just an advertising hook. Hochschild says, the job requires "emotional labor" when a flight attendant facing an obnoxious passenger is trained to imagine that troublemaker has a traumatic past, so that her anger will give way to solicitude.

After Virtue by Alasdair C. MacIntyre predates "The Office" by some 25 years, but it helps us understand why the modern workplace often feels smarmy. A manager is a moral relativist, hired to accept the ends of the organization as given-as unavailable for rational scrutiny.

Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman shows readers that the central thrust of "scientific management" is to dumb down jobs so they can be performed by unskilled workers, who don't need to be paid as much. Assembly line work was the result of this thinking. Now members of professions are reduced to clerks, their personal judgment replaced by a system in which their actions are predetermined from afar. Bank loan officers and physicians among others are now feeling the changes.

posted by mb