Trompe Le Toil: A Brief History of Getting By
The modern conundrum of overwork
Abraham Maslow once suggested that if all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look rather like a nail. From my desk, where I use my laptop to tweet, make dinner reservations, and do the labour that somehow amounts to making a living, everything looks like work. You may remember Maslow from your high school psychology text book. The “hierarchy of needs” model has been at the root of contemporary understandings of personal development and motivation since it was first published in the scholarly Psychological Review in 1947. It outlines a seemingly direct progression toward the vaunted state of self-actualization based on a series of increasingly complex needs. At the bottom are physiological ones (air, food, water) and closer to the top are sociological functions (a sense of belonging, or having the feeling of making a valid and appreciated contribution to the community). Maslow’s model continues to provide the basis for how we understand the complexities of human desire and action.
The psychology 101 pyramid we all memorized in junior year has staying power because it carries a whiff of the self-evident. Scientific psychologists typically ignore Maslow’s theory of motivation for being much too broad—it is a matter of course that famine is bad, homelessness is stressful, and having friends is nice—but this hasn’t prevented a slew of so-called happiness gurus from picking up where Maslow left off. Self-help manuals and productivity guides constantly borrow from Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, because it smacks of science and rings as true.
In 2011, the theory was afforded a brief bit of academic reinvigoration, when Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois and senior scientist at the global polling company Gallup ran a five-year study in 123 countries on how people rated their level of happiness as well as which of their needs on Maslow’s hierarchy were being met. Shortly after the results were published, Diener gave an interview in the Atlantic. It turns out that Maslow was wrong to put these needs so neatly in a hierarchal order—you can be happy to know you’re well-liked by your friends even on an empty stomach, for instance. “They’re like vitamins,” Diener told the Atlantic. “We need them all.” Moreover, the prevalence of Maslow’s demonstrably flawed theory may have contributed a bit of socio-cultural damage: by positioning self-actualization at the top of the pyramid, the hierarchy provides few tools for understanding that motivation, satisfaction, and fulfillment require a social rather than individual structure.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that Maslow, an American New Age pioneer and utopian dreamer looking to make the world (and everyone in it) a bit better, would spend some time applying the tools he had developed to the business sector. Maslow spent the summer of 1962 at an electronics factory in Del Mar, California, where he founded a movement called enlightened management. The firm, Non-Linear Systems Inc., made voltmeters and such, and later created one of the first commercially available personal computers.
In Willing Slaves, her expansively reported 2004 dive into the culture of overwork in Britain, Madeleine Bunting, a columnist for the Guardian, writes about this chapter in Maslow’s career. She quotes him at length, describing his “grand and glorious goal: ‘Proper management of the work lives of human beings, of the way in which they earn their living, can improve them and improve the world and in this sense be a utopian or revolutionary technique.’ ” Maslow’s principles of management presume that work is the primary, even sole, route to the ultimate, pyramid-topping state of self-actualization; we understand who we are by what we do, and what we do is, as you know, work.
Maslow was ahead of his time—Bunting describes how his philosophy of the nature of the psychological contract between employee and employer gained a foothold in the 1980s and 1990s. Moving beyond the basic presumption of work for wages, Maslow envisioned dedicated employees entering into an agreement on the order of something much more utopian. In 1954’s Motivation and Personality, Maslow suggested that each human being is psychologically driven to fulfill their individual potential: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”
His journal from his excursion to the factory floor, originally titled Eupsychian Management and rebranded in contemporary printings as Maslow on Management, is the foundational text of an astounding amount of taken-for-granted management theory. This despite the fact that the whole book is comprised of mostly unedited random thoughts Maslow would speak into a tape recorder after each day in the factory. The psychologist himself also repeatedly reminds his reader that theories about this form of management would only really apply in a workplace that was already highly functioning and that had already built a system of psychological and material security for the people who laboured there.
Though he generally wrote with a sense of possibility and yearning for a better way to live, Maslow’s work has been easily co-opted by people who think more about maximizing return on investments than humanist well-being. In giving corporate-friendly language to his ideas regarding human nature and development, Maslow created a system for framing goals of individual development as a function of capitalist enterprise; it is in part because of Maslow’s understanding of personal development that we as a culture assume that employees are somehow manifesting their destiny through labour.
And management, he posits, can help with that by creating a working environment that emphasizes simultaneous self- and corporate actualization. In his journal from Del Mar, Maslow posits that enlightened management might even take the place of more traditional forms of therapy (“Especially in view of the fact that so many people are not suitable for individual psychotherapy,” he writes). Given the right conditions, Maslow suggests that the point of work is to become the job: “These highly evolved individuals assimilate their work into the identity, into the self, i.e., work actually becomes part of the self, part of the individual’s definition of himself.”
It turns out, reviewing the contemporary landscape of work, that becoming the job does not always end so well. In 2015, for one dramatic example, an intern with Bank of America Merrill Lynch was found dead on the shower floor of his London apartment. He had been working, without sleep, for 72 hours straight. After his death, Merrill Lynch competitor Goldman Sachs limited the hours it expected its 2,500 global interns to work to a mere 17 hours a day. Last year Goldman Sachs admitted some culpability for its part in the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession; it also reported a US$7.4 billion profit.
In 2008, the year of the crash, I was working six days a week in a restaurant. The regular shift was typically between six and ten hours, and I would do two or three double shifts a week, which would require putting in between 12 and, on wildly busy nights, 16 hours. I checked my email once or maybe twice a week. Today, from the moment I woke up until this minute—10:31 p.m.—I have checked my email approximately 147 times. Email is the primary tool I use for work, and, it would seem, for making my entire life seem like work. Hammer, meet nail.
In her recently released book, The Weekend Effect—the latest in a long line of reports and ruminations on the deleterious results of allowing work to take over our lives—journalist Katrina Onstad describes how, for salaried employees in knowledge and service sectors, technological connectivity has helped to normalize the erosion of a boundary between time on and off the job:
This is the new normal: smartphone-carrying professionals report interacting with work 13.5 hours every workday. We can barely get through three waking hours without working. The average smartphone user checks his or her device about 150 times per day, with younger people checking most often. Even if many of those swipes are just to check the social feed, we are in constant, perpetual proximity to work. We carry our jobs in our purses and packs, on our bodies. There’s no physical separation; we can always be reached, and work can always reach us.
Work, the kind that requires email, anyhow, is a limitless fluid; it will flow into and fill every container, every life, if given the chance. (This, Onstad and others will tell you, follows economist C. Northcote Parkinson’s dismal dictum that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”) Onstad points out how technology has levelled the playing field across classes: white-collar employees are only just now getting a taste of what shift workers, who have frequently had their hours determined with less than a week’s notice, have known for decades. The culture of overwork both bubbles up and trickles down. “New technologies mean that blue-collar workers on the frontlines of the patchwork economy are easier than ever to reach,” Onstad writes, “pulled in for extra hours with a text ‘request’ that feels compulsory.”
This dynamic is, depending on your perspective, the intrusion of work into time spent away from the office (or the shop floor, or the utility truck), or else an intervention from management, whose role, following Maslow, is to make a worker feel integrated and stimulated, en route to achieving their higher purpose. The underlying assumption is that every employee wants to self-actualize in the face of responsibility, has a tolerance for anxiety, wants to improve, to rise to the challenge, to get better. And, of course, that these desires for fulfillment must be met primarily through work, no matter how menial or Sisyphean. Whether you’re cleaning hospital toilets, washing dishes that diners will dirty again tomorrow, or stringing together carefully considered sentences about the oft-mythologized state of achieving the perfect work-life balance, Maslow suggests that you will find meaning if you are actively trying to optimize yourself for your labour. Be the best toilet scrubber you can be, and you are well on the journey to fulfillment.
It’s all too easy to feel as though the rise of communicative technology has exacerbated all this. Smartphones, equipped with the latest project- and life-management apps, are nearly always at hand. The tiny machine you use to photograph your children and log your workouts is the same one you use to get in touch with your boss real quick with a pressing question or to just check in on that one project that you suspect your colleague may have temporarily back-burnered. It is clear that the technology of our time seems to have caused further erosion of a work-life border that was already a bit soft.
In some European countries, this erosion is a matter fit for official intervention: Since January, French companies with 50 employees or more have been legally required to negotiate with workers to identify hours of total unreachability—the times of the day and night where cubicle drones and pixel-pushers will be expected to allow email to pile up, Skype requests to go ignored, Slack channels to lie dormant. For the past few years, a handful of German automobile companies, including Volkswagen and Daimler, have been encouraging employees to enable a software program that automatically deletes all email sent to their work addresses while they are on vacation. (Here in Canada, the Liberal government is in the process of addressing bills to amend the Labour Code, to reflect the workforce’s growing desire for an official policy of more flexible working hours.)
And yet the line of non-fiction books about the never-ending grind long predates the arrival of the smartphone. In what constitutes a seminal book in the genre, 1991’s The Overworked American, the economist Juliet B. Schor describes how capitalism, from the early days of industrialization through the space-age convenience of the consumer era, has persistently created conditions of vast inequality not only of income but also of time.
Time itself has been shaped by the rise of capitalism. Schor points out how the main unit used to measure time in Medieval Europe was the day, and the concept of what constituted a day was tied to the movement of the sun through the sky. For most people, time came in half-day-sized segments. If you were to ask some hapless serf to meet you somewhere at 2:30 p.m., they would look at you as if you’d just asked to borrow their shadow. Only during industrialization, and with the emergence of unending work arranged by shifts rather than by discreet tasks, did we come to experience time as something measured in minutes, hours, and seconds. “Modern time consciousness,” writes Schor, “which includes habituation to clocks, economy of time, and the ownership of time, became an important weapon which employers used against their employees.” During industrialization, time became money, and factory owners were determined to get every nickel, dime, and penny’s worth of time out of their employees.
Initially, industrial workers were paid by the day, week, or month, in keeping with centuries of labour laws fit for a feudal or agricultural society. Because employers were paying each worker by the day instead of by the hour, they would schedule the shifts for brutally long periods, assuming there was more to squeeze out of workers if they were on the job for 12 hours rather than six. Because the hour as a unit of measurement was still uncommon among the masses, and the science of measuring time was still seemingly newfangled, employers were able to exploit workers by gimmicking with the clocks that signalled when labour was scheduled to break or cease for the day. Schor quotes Karl Marx’s writing on the factories of the late 19th century, and fleshes out his observations of the exploitative working conditions with other historical accounts, including this one from a factory worker who would advise his colleagues on the floor to leave their watches at home:
In reality there were no regular hours: masters and managers did with us as they liked. The clocks at the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night, and instead of being instruments for the measurement of time, they were used as cloaks for cheatery and oppression. Though this was known amongst the hands, all were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a watch, as it was no uncommon event to dismiss any one who presumed to know too much about the science of horology.
The clock was the first technology merging the spheres between life and labour, and in a sense it still is; while our smartphones keep us connected to work at all times, if there were no clock we’d never experience the anxiety of trying to balance ourselves on and off of it.
Schor’s gift to the ongoing argument for sustained periods of rest and leisure lies in her meticulous statistical analysis of historical labour norms. She is also the first American economist to situate overtime, long hours, and the general labour time crunch as a general concern; her peers had often framed the growing expectation of long hours as a concern primarily or solely affecting the female aspect of the labour force—presuming, it would seem, that only bodies hypothetically able to bear children require time away from the rat race. “Despite the fact that worktime has been increasing for twenty years,” Schor writes in somewhat pointed italics in her introduction, “this is the first major study to explore or even acknowledge this trend.”
In tracing the changes in the American labour force over several decades, Schor is able to paint a clear picture of the shift from the golden era of a seemingly stable middle class bolstered by jobs for life to the more nebulous networks of precarious gigs and contracts that make up today’s job market. (Onstad describes it as “patchwork,” others as “the gig economy.”) Schor is careful to describe how the general prosperity of capitalist, Western democracies comes with a steep price: few workers are able to freely choose the number of hours they sell to their employer, and employers are financially incentivized to squeeze the most labour out of the fewest possible number of staff. Likewise, libertarian rhetoric about the rights of individuals to freely choose to pursue profitability in selling their time is, it turns out, a damaging lie. Especially since the destabilization of strong unions throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the average Canadian, British, or American worker has watched their bargaining power drop steadily year after year.
In Willing Slaves, Bunting depicts, through hundreds of interviews with ordinary British workers, how a culture of long hours and high employer expectation is damaging to both the nation’s GDP and its spirit. Her systematic look at work in call centres, factories, financial institutions, and hospitals reveals a culture-wide sense of time-starved desperation in Britain. A primary catalyst has been increased pressure to intensify work. She visits an industrial packaging estate in a once-booming coal mining town where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average. The firm has been family-owned and -operated for three generations. Through training employees for several, varied tasks and organizing shifts to minimize or eliminate down time (i.e., bathroom breaks, a lunch hour), the firm is able to achieve a high productivity level with a smaller workforce. Why hire two relaxed people when you can squeeze the same amount of work out of one anxious labourer? This increased intensity is possible in part, a manager named Ed tells Bunting, because the firm has “avoided job descriptions; perhaps if we’d had unions involved, we wouldn’t have had that kind of flexibility.” Perhaps not, Ed.
Well beyond family firms in Britain, the neoliberal turn against labour unions has had a disastrous effect on the conditions of work—for workers who are not part of organized labour, too. Eric Liu, formerly the Clinton White House director of legislative affairs for the National Security Council, explains it simply in a 2013 column for Time magazine: “First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better.” Unions, he argues, shape economic activity by raising wages for their members and therefore provide more purchasing power, which in turn enables more hiring. Unchecked by unions, corporations have a tendency to hoard profits, slow hiring, and deepen a chasm of inequality. Strong unions in the private sector, in other words, put a check on what we’ve now learned to call the 1 percent. “Second,” Liu argues, “unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage.”
Bunting describes how the “emasculation,” as she puts it, of Britain’s unions paved the way for a decade of steady work intensification: “Workers are required to put in more effort and to work faster. This has been true throughout the economy, affecting most sectors of the labour market.”
In 1981, 38 percent of Canada’s workers belonged to a union; in 2012, that had dropped to 30 percent (and only 16 percent in the private sector). The same year, a third of working Canadians reported that they felt they had more to do at work than time could possibly permit. (That neoliberal campaigns against unions, which are now primarily the province of the public sector, were so successful because they made each member of the public feel personally inconvenienced rather than collectively empowered, is a matter I love to discuss idly over the rare leisurely beer.)
Despite the longevity of this dour trend, work intensification really does take on a whole new meaning in the 2017 context, and not just because of the increased technological reachability of the average worker. Onstad points out, for example, that today half of all the jobs in Toronto, where both Onstad and I live, “are deemed ‘insecure’ or ‘precarious,’ meaning no benefits and no job security.” The growing gig economy means that not only are people squeezing in more work at the office or on the shipping floor, but everywhere else, too. Onstad speaks with a young university professor who is an adjunct at three universities in the Toronto area. “She has no office or library carrel,” Onstad writes, “and moves from campus to campus throughout the week like a travelling band.” Companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Foodora promote the opportunities they offer as a means of working just a little more than you already do—in most instances, after the company’s cut and the costs of providing these “sharing economy” services, it’s not always clear that an independent contractor working a 40-hour week would be able to clear minimum wage.
Not that people aren’t trying. In fact, for some, a well-developed side hustle is as much a point of pride as a fancy job title. As Bunting points out, any fear of the 1990s turning all future generations into permanent slackers have been laid to rest by a relentless form of identity capitalism: “A work ethic has evolved that promotes a particular sense of self and identity which meshes neatly with the needs of market capitalism, through consumption and through work. Put at its simplest, narcissism and capitalism are mutually reinforcing.” If the road to self-fulfillment lies in hard work, I can demonstrate how meaningful my life is by telling you I’m just so busy, so in demand, I’ve been working so hard and my personal brand has never been stronger. And of course, by becoming the job, with all the social capital that entails, the worker’s whole life also becomes the clock—it’s impossible to distinguish time at work from personal time if the person identifies themselves as the ultimate product of their labour.
In many ways, these observations are essentially warmed-over Abe Maslow. The corporate incentive to use Maslow’s work to motivate people without addressing their needs for belonging and even baser survival has created a seemingly irreconcilable problem. In Willing Slaves, Bunting describes how various companies exploit “this craving for control, self-assertion and self-affirmation, and design corporate cultures which meet the emotional needs of their employees.” Modernity is a peculiarly lonely condition, for various reasons, including the rise of secular society, the collapse of close community ties, and the increased likelihood that workers will be forced to commute or move in order to find paying work. Onstad and Bunting both point out that Europeans call a culture of overwork “the American disease,” but the pulling of long hours is but one symptom. We presently live in a social system where, as Bunting has it, the “five categories of experience” required for a person to have a sense of well-being—“time structure; social contact; collective effort or purpose, social identity or status and regular activity”—are significantly more likely to be found on the job than anywhere else. The human animal is distinct from all the other creatures because of our need to create meaning in our lives, and the corporate animal makes sure we’re mostly looking for it at work.
But we’re also looking for it at the mall, on Amazon, and wherever goods are sold. The time to shop is built right into our working lives. Onstad details how Henry Ford set a precedent for a five-day workweek in his factories in part because he realized that people needed a weekend so they could be away from work, shopping for cars. And not just cars, but endless commodities. Onstad quotes Ford: “People who have more leisure must have more clothes,” Ford argues. “They eat a great variety of food. They require more transportation in vehicles.” The worker’s down time, in other words, is the point at which she becomes the consumer, thus bolstering a heady capitalist economy with both her labour and its fruit. “In 1990,” Schor writes, “the average American own[ed] and consum[ed] more than twice what he or she did in 1948, but also [had] less free time.”
The philosopher Bertrand Russell—a noted fan of leisure despite finding the time to author more than 60 books—described the troubling conception of labour as a virtue in itself as a slave mentality divorced of its context. Though Russell, having never been a Greco-Roman slave, is not speaking with the authority of first-hand knowledge, his book In Praise of Idleness persuasively positions the virtue of work-for-the-sake-of-it as both damaging and curiously persistent. In our own time it is damaging not just, per Onstad’s observation, to the health of the average time-crunched worker (she mentions that the risk of stroke is 33 percent higher in employees working 55 or more hours a week than in employees putting in 35 to 40). Overwork is bad for the individual; as a social condition, it does more than raise rates of anxiety or lead to the shuttering of model train shops and a rise in projects like TaskRabbit and Lyft.
Russell’s book was first published in 1935 between the two defining acts of irreparable violence that shaped the 20th century. In the aftermath of the first industrialized war and with an eye toward the international debtors’ game of German reparations, he praises idleness and advocates a four-hour workday. Russell’s concern is that the industrial-capitalist organization of work is bad for liberalism, for society. By making a virtue of engaging in paid enterprise, of contributing one’s labour to the effort to line the pockets of wealthy capitalists, a whole culture is built to perpetuate vast wealth inequality. By deflating the myth of work as virtue, Russell is able to point out the central hypocrisy in the pursuit of profit. “If business men really wished to grow rich more ardently than they wished to keep others poor,” he writes, “the world would quickly become a paradise.”
Russell’s point, ultimately, is that the rigorous, technologically enabled management of labourers is a threat to the ability of the individual to think, to breathe, to benefit truly from the notional advancement and achievements of the arts and sciences of human history: “It seems not improbable that the movement towards individual liberty which characterized the whole period from the Renaissance to nineteenth-century liberalism may be brought to a stop by the increased organization due to industrialism.” The pressure exerted on many individuals in the workforce, he suggests, is barbaric. What is more barbaric is that we live in a period of extreme production and yet have been socially unable to assure a basic guaranteed income, housing, and food for all. Thinking back on Maslow’s pyramid, it’s time perhaps to forget about self-actualization and think again how other needs must be met before making the demand that one ascend to the magical state of fully integrating one’s self with one’s work in life.