There’s a good reason why so many of us no longer like going to work. There’s not much call for thinking these days
Admit it: you’ve got a bad case of post-holiday stress disorder. I could offer up pop-psychology tips for smoothing the transition from beach to workstation – but most of them are crap. My favourite bit of heal-yerself glibness is the advice to have a meal from the country of your holidays, as if a trudge down to the local Thai will transport a wage slave in Kensal Rise back to Koh Samui faster than he can say “green chicken curry”.
The truth is that you’re probably right to hate being back in harness. It’s not just that, from here, the days get wetter and shorter, that there are no more bank holidays till Christmas or that sacrificing the surplus value of your labour to The Man is really no fun (although that last point alone surely justifies more than one sharp kick to the office LaserJet). Those are all-important, but something more specific is going on. Our jobs are getting worse.
It used to be easy to divvy up the labour market: there were the McJobs, and the rest. The task of politicians was to keep the number of tedious, routine occupations down, and to enable as many good jobs to be created as possible. Except that the reverse appears to be happening. More and more prized careers are becoming McDonaldised – more routine, less skilled, and with the workers subject to greater control from above.
Take supermarkets. Jobs there could traditionally be split between the unskilled, low-paid drudgery of stacking shelves and sitting on tills – and the trained butchers and fishmongers and store managers. But when the sociologist Irena Grugulis and a team of researchers recently studied two of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, even the managers reported that they had little room for manoeuvre.
A trained butcher revealed that most meats were now sliced and packaged before they arrived in store; bakers in smaller shops now just reheated frozen loaves. In their paper, published this summer, Grugulis and her colleagues note that “almost every aspect of work for every kind of employee, from shopfloor worker . . . to the general store manager, was set out, standardised and occasionally scripted by the experts at head office”. Or, as one senior manager put it: “Every little thing is monitored so there is no place to hide.”
And all this was enabled by technology. The modern supermarket – with its electronic scanning and inventory controls and price reductions decided by a software program run out of head office – is probably more hi-tech than any web-design firm. The result is that the man or woman in charge of your typical supermarket (or other chain shop) now has little to do with the selling or arrangement of goods: nowadays they concentrate on driving their staff to meet the targets set by head office. Their job is not so much retail-management as rowing cox.
What makes this so interesting is not just that retailers employ more than one in 10 British workers, or that supermarket bosses such as Terry Leahy or Justin King are often mimicked by executives in other businesses. It’s that management thinkers such as Tom Peters and Charles Handy have spent decades telling us that the workplace of the future is a shiny, hi-tech grotto where people are free to exercise initiative and innovate. Yet the reality is that innovation is imposed on staff and where initiative is encouraged it’s within heavily circumscribed borders. Grugulis and her colleagues note how one manager broke with orders on displaying goods; the resulting layout was far better, and yet he implored the academics not to take photos for fear head office would find out.
Not all routine is bad. The commutes, the tea breaks – these make up the essential scaffolding of our working days. But when more and more of your work is claimed by routine and control, it becomes hard to bear, especially when you have the qualifications that entitle you to expect more.
As I described last week, the last two decades have seen more British workers get higher levels of skills than ever before. And yet over that time they have come to exercise ever less control over their jobs. Official skills surveys show a plunging proportion of workers who report that they have much influence over how to do their daily tasks – from 57% in 1992 to 43% by 2006. If you’re an NHS worker or teacher you have targets or central curricula to meet; if you’re employed by an outsourcing company you’ll have two sets of bosses breathing down your neck – those in your office, and the client company too.
The labour-market academic Phil Brown has a phrase for this trend: Digital Taylorism. It’s a play on FW Taylor’s idea of scientific management. Taylor didn’t think much of the American worker (“The man who is . . . physically able to handle pig iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig iron,” he told Congressmen) and saw them as mere cogs, working to a fixed pattern set from above. Where this has already happened to manual work, Brown argues, it’s now happening to skilled and graduate jobs: law, finance, software-engineering.
From now on, believe Brown and his colleagues, “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers in the UK”. The rest will be turned into routine and farmed off to regional offices in eastern Europe or India.
Still, there’s always that green chicken curry to look forward to.