Thursday, April 22, 2010



In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes "successful" lives in the United States. In large part, he focuses on work: What draws "successful" people to their work, and why do they enjoy it? In broad outline, he asserts that "satisfaction with work" involves three distinct criteria: (1) Autonomy: You must have control over what you do; (2) Complexity : Your work must involve fresh mental challenges, not mind-numbing repetition; and (3) Connection between Effort and Reward : You must receive compensation in an amount that fairly correlates with the amount of effort you believe you have expended. Gladwell says that all three criteria must be present for a person to "enjoy their job."

I agree with Gladwell that people who have autonomy in their working lives "enjoy" their work far more than people who receive condescending orders all day in a suffocating corporate hierarchy. I also agree that people who face fresh new tasks every day enjoy their jobs more because they do not burn themselves out endlessly doing the same thing day after day. And I agree that people who get paid what they think they deserve obviously feel better about working than people who receive virtually nothing for ceaseless effort.

But who the hell fulfills any of these criteria at a typical American job, let alone all three? Gladwell's formula might be accurate, but it is essentially inapplicable: In America, our employment system is not designed to grant autonomy, complexity or fair rewards. To the contrary, it is designed to suppress autonomy, eliminate complexity and pay the least for the most effort. This is the sad truth. And it is no one individual's fault: It is the fault of private capitalism and its tendency to instrumentalize human beings for private profit. And this is also why no one is really "happy" at their job, at least under the Gladwell criteria.

Gladwell's criteria are antithetical to a private employment system committed to corporate profit. In America, most working people are corporate employees. That means that they serve an incorporeal legal entity that is, in turn, established to enrich those who own it. As such, they are mere pawns in a vast machine that is not working for them; it is working for the shareholders. Indeed, they are not just practically working for the shareholders. They are legally bound to act in their interest. Corporate employees are "fiduciaries." That means they must set aside their own personal interests to serve the corporation. If they put their interests first, they could face a lawsuit for "breach of loyalty."

In this environment, "autonomy" is anathema: Corporate employees must know their place in the hierarchy. They do not control their working lives. They receive orders from supervisors, branch office managers and other "higher-ups." They do as they're told, not as they want. While they might have "illusory" autonomy over a few meager peons in the mail room, in reality they are just pieces in a larger corporate jigsaw puzzle. They have no autonomy. They are instruments. In this light, it is impossible for the vast majority of American employees to meet the "autonomy" prong of Gladwell's analysis. As such, they cannot be "satisfied with their jobs."

Private capitalist employment systems also make "complexity" an impossible goal. In most corporate settings, employees exist for a single reason: To perform a discrete task calculated to maximize corporate earnings. Companies do not expect complicated thinking or novelty from their employees; they expect employees to learn their role and do it every day--forever. After all, companies operate under the so-called "profit principle." They expect a certain profit every month, and they hire employees to carry on the operations necessary to win that profit. If the employee deviates from his expected role, he threatens the profit margin. That is unacceptable. As such, employees cannot rightly insist on "complexity" in their jobs. That would contradict their purpose in the corporate scheme. They exist to do one thing: Process claims; answer phones; file papers; send mail; appear in court; put shoelace in shoe; hammer nails; the list goes on.

Employees are like machine parts. What good is a cog if it insists on being a wheel? Cogs must be cogs and nothing else. That is how our system works. And that is why it is impossible to achieve "complexity" in most American jobs. It would undermine the entire reason why employers hire people: To transform them into single-minded profit generators who do a simple task and no more.

Finally, our private capitalist system also heavily disfavors a "connection between effort and reward." Companies do not employ people to pay them what they think they deserve. Rather, companies exist to generate a particular profit level for their owners. To generate that profit level, managers must examine two factors: Income and expense. Employees are an expense. But they are necessary to generate income, too. Thus, employees represent a "profit balancing act" in the corporate scheme. They must be paid; but never so much that their salaries threaten the expected profit. Employee effort has nothing to do with it. It is all about numbers-crunching to satisfy the shareholders. While a happy employee would certainly like to get money commensurate with his long hours, employee satisfaction is not the goal. Employers don't care whether their employees think they are getting a fair deal. They don't care whether employees feel that they are getting comparatively nothing for their effort. None of that matters. Only the profit margin matters. In that light, almost no American employees--or any employees in a strictly capitalist system--can insist on a "just" connection between their effort and reward. After all, it is not about them. It is about the shareholders.

Considering all these things, it is no wonder that almost no one "likes their job" in the United States. Those who say they like their job are probably just being dishonest with themselves. Perhaps they meet one factor from Gladwell's test and mistake it for true happiness. Maybe they get to perform a novel new task every Thursday and now think their work is "complex." Maybe they have a few college students to supervise and now think they have "autonomy." Or maybe they got a $500 Christmas bonus for working 2500 hours last year, and now think they have a fair "connection between effort and reward." Yet these are all illusory "achievements." They do not change the system. The employee remains firmly under the corporation's control. And he remains instrumentalized: He exists solely to generate profit in exchange for the smallest paycheck possible in the circumstances.

Some will say I am exaggerating how many people cannot meet Gladwell's test for "work happiness." Some will say that only certain job "classes" cannot achieve autonomy, complexity and just reward for effort. But I know from experience that so-called "better jobs" are no more satisfying than "lesser jobs" under Gladwell's standard.

I was a lawyer. People think that lawyers are all rich and have wonderful working lives. They are "professionals," so they must have autonomy. They are highly educated, so they must encounter interesting, new and "complex" work every day. And they obviously must make a lot of money from their effort.

Yet that was not the case: I was a pawn in our law office. I had virtually no autonomy. I had to follow instructions from senior lawyers and the firm's boss. I received harsh criticism and discipline for failing to know my place. I was reprimanded for suggesting novel ways to approach old problems. In short, I was low on the totem pole. I did not control my own destiny. And it felt really bad.

Neither was my work "complex." I did the same things every single day. I filed papers, I made phone calls, I met with clients. Then I consulted with my boss and we discussed how to make the most money from cases. True, the work involved technical expertise that I learned in law school. But it was all dismally formulaic. It was horribly boring and stressful at the same time. It was always the same. There were knee-jerk responses for every type of case. We even sent the same standard questions to opposing counsel in every case. The details may have changed from case to case. But the overall structure was gruelingly banal. There was no "complexity." To the contrary--and applying Gladwell's contrasting term--it was "mind-numbing repetition."

And I certainly did not receive a reward to equal my effort. I made $50,000 a year in the law firm, without regard to the number of hours I worked. I was at my desk every morning before 8. I normally stayed in the office past 6:30 every evening. I even worked weekends. I brought work home. Yet no matter how much I worked or how much I won for the firm, I got the same lousy $50,000. To add insult to injury, I got a $50 bonus for Christmas after breaking my ass all year for more than 60 hours a week. My friend got nothing, so I guess that made me "lucky." In short, there was no connection between my effort and the reward I received.

I mention all this to show that every working person in America faces the same insuperable challenges. Lawyers and Fed Ex deliverymen grumble about the same thing. They are both dissatisfied with their work because they are instruments in the same private capitalist system. The same "profit principle" applies to them. And the "profit principle" does not exist to make workers happy; it exists to enrich owners. That is why Gladwell's test for "work happiness" is hopelessly utopian. Our system does not exist to grant workers autonomy, complexity or fair rewards. It strips away those things because they are inconsistent with the profit principle. If workers suddenly had autonomy, complexity and fair rewards, corporations would start losing money. That would be unacceptable.

In the end, it does not matter whether people are happy with their work. Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents that human beings have a "natural aversion to work." Strachey, trans., p. 30, fn 5. Additionally, they can never achieve the autonomy, complexity and just rewards they seek from it. People not only just don't like work; they can't get any satisfaction from it once they begin it.

People aren't supposed to be satisfied with their work. Our system is not designed to satisfy workers. And it functions just fine without satisfying them. In fact, it would break down if it did. In that light, Gladwell's criteria for "work satisfaction" are all well and good. It's just that our system works strongly to ensure that no working person ever fulfills them.

No, the only people who enjoy autonomy, complexity and just rewards in their work are the wealthy owners, employers and entrepreneurs. These are the true capitalists. These are the men who instrumentalize others. These are the men who take home the profit after cutting the paychecks. They control their own destinies. They don't listen to anyone but themselves. They get to do different stuff every day. And they set their own salary. They get it all.

There just aren't that many of them. They don't want newcomers in their club, either. So they keep membership low. That leaves more goodies for them.

They might be miserable, wretched, contemptible, exploitive fuckers. But at least they fulfill Gladwell's factors. They are satisfied with their work. Hey, if you had a mountain of money, called all the shots, did whatever you wanted all day and paid yourself a mammoth salary, wouldn't you be satisfied with your work, too? You know you would.

But that's not you. So shut up, get back to your desk and await further instructions from your supervisor.

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