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By Tom Cushing

Work, Work, Work: A Primer of Sorts

Uploaded: Feb 10, 2014

The current kerfuffle over the Congressional Budget Office's projections is the latest wolf-cry from the shepherd boys of the Right. The CBO report predicted that some US workers' full-time hours are likely to be voluntarily foregone in the economy, 10 years hence, due to ObamaCare's availability of health care that's unrelated to such full-time employment. The Report made clear what those hours were – and what they weren't. No matter – the TeaPers are on a mission to test Honest Abe's theory that you can't fool all the people all the time. Thus, they consciously miss-read the report, did a little arithmetic (2000 hours is called an 'FTE' – a full-time equivalent, or a working year on the job), and presto: Jobs Killar! OMG!

That continuing end-of-the-world mythology has been more than adequately debunked elsewhere. What may still be interesting to consider, and happens to reside in reality, is how our approach to 'work' has evolved over the eons. The way we organize and compensate effort depends on the nature of the economy in which we live. It needs to change again.

Hearken back with me, please, to the days of the hunter-gatherers. There were no jobs, per se, for those itinerants of Eden. Rather, labor for the group was assigned according to the two primary functions that define them. There did appear to be some gender-based division of work, as hunters were mainly men and the gatherers women and children. Lifetimes may have been relatively 'brief' in our terms, but studies suggest that subsistence needs were typically met by doing no more than six-hours/day of organized labor. Timing was based on need, and the hunters were required to supply only 1/3 of the tribe's calories. Forgive me, but that doesn't seem overly 'brutish,' especially for the clan of the Y chromosomes.

Then, in what was either the greatest single advance in human history – or its cruelest joke – came the advent of agriculture. The changes it required were many and fundamental – permanent settlements, defense of same, forward planning, storage of energy both in-kind and in livestock, and "property" rights. Farmers worked much harder, but also produced surpluses that freed others to provide other goods and services – tools, protection, healing, trading, song-and-dance, and shamans to intercede with various deities that could ensure an ample crop. But still, there wasn't much separation between life and work – they tended to merge with each other on a very small scale.

Society and cultures became ever more complex over time, and occasionally organized work into massive undertakings like pyramids, coliseums (but not Oakland's, quite yet), crusades, great walls, ship-building and aqueducts. Most routine labor remained on an intimate scale, however, and tended to be carried-on by masters and servants, or apprentices in those arts. Life and work remained essentially merged – there may have been at least some balance of bargaining power regarding terms and conditions of compensation (at least for those who were not indentured for some period of time, or life).

Enter the industrial revolution, with its massive productivity gains. Machines did the work of hundreds, and production lines supplanted individual craftspeople. The corporate form and the rise of finance fundamentally changed the typical scale of enterprise, as huge aggregations became possible – and immensely profitable. Labor became a relatively abundant resource, and the skills needs changed, too. Workers who earlier provided brute strength directly in mines or mills were instead engaged to tend expensive machinery that had replaced their brawn. Fitting men to machines, and trying to run them 24 hours-a-day, over-and-over, created the modern "job."

Massive progress, and bigger fortunes were made in America's first Gilded Age*. Basic industries like mining, lumber, steel and oil flourished, steam-powered rails expanded markets, the regulators who existed were either captive or otherwise pliant, unions were discouraged by both legal and murderous means, and wages stayed low among so-called 'wage slaves,' who remained in long supply. It was an essentially unfettered, laissez-faire environment, which begat huge winners and losers.

Waves of secondary industries arose early in the last century, such as autos and petrochemicals. The job remained the common currency of work, however, as the terms of competition did not change that much. Standardize, build the ever-larger, biggest plant you could, and then run the very hell out of it to max-out associated economies of scale. Any color Model T could be purchased, so long as it was black.

Jobs did begin to change as unions gained a foothold, using collective action to counter-balance the scale achieved by management. Several enactments began to recalibrate the legal scales as well, and the Industrial War Boards worked to keep factories humming/promote a modicum of labor peace during World War I.

The terms of Work really weren't transformed, however, until the 1930s. With business influence at a low ebb, FDR was able to ram through his New Deal: notably, for our purposes the Wagner Act (collective bargaining, with NLRB oversight), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA -- wages, hours, child labor) and Social Security. He also frightened the so-called 'scorpions' of the Supreme Court into a broader conception of the reach of federal power by threatening to increase their number with friendly liberals ("Friendly liberals" may be redundant, but I digress).

Thus was born the modern 40-hour-based job, built in the 1930s to serve a relatively static industrial economy of regular hours and careers of stable duration: company men, gold watches, 30-years-and-out on the line. 'Fringe' benefits like employer-sponsored health care were added after World War II to attract and retain the best-and-brightest. The American economy flourished; it didn't hurt that the rest of the first world's factories lay in post-war ruins.

But then the terms of competition began to change. The late 20th century and early 21st have spawned what commentator Robert Reich has called The Age of the Terrific Deal: anything you want, from anywhere in the world, faster, cheaper, tomorrow. New technologies undermined the primacy of pure size in favor of speed and adaptability in the competitive sweepstakes, trade and markets opened-up, and people started to become superfluous again – across all collar-types, this time.

There was-and-is a war on overhead expenses – the more costs you could shift into the 'variable' column from 'fixed,' the better you could run the race. Human capital is among the largest costs of most businesses: people were shifted from an asset to a necessary evil, overhead to variable cost, to be jettisoned, or 'right-sized' whenever possible. Look to our own Silicon Valley for the model: in the Knowledge economy, companies are more narrowly built around their peculiar competitive advantage – they tend to get swing- (and staff) capacity from vendors and temps. Work is inherently unstable, with double-digit numbers of employers across any one career. The stagnation of the middle class is not unrelated to this phenomenon.

Our systems, including our legal system as it pertains to work, remain mired in the Industrial Age, and serve current circumstances more poorly all the time. The FLSA has been spruced-up a bit, but its basis remains planted in industrial soil. To serve the Knowledge economy, more fundamental change will be needed – including a comprehensive legal overhaul that reinvigorates the middle class as a market for the stuff we make.

I'm not certain what changes will take precedence, but some of them will impart greater flexibility to work in the more flexible new economy. Frankly, that kind of flexibility is what's reflected in the CBO report. Folks who are freed-up from a static Full-Time Job because they get their health benefits elsewhere will work flexibly, which is a good thing that's consonant with what the economy will need.

The CBO prediction is but a tiny ripple in the wider sea-change to come, but this much is clear: change is gonna come; the status quo will leave the current US 'job' increasingly out-of-step with the realities of 21st century 'work.'

* we're in a second, more pernicious Gilded Age now. At least those Carnegies, DuPonts and Rockefellers made stuff – today's bunch just moves money around after taking a handsome cut of it.