Monday, November 11, 2013

In the "It Gets Worse Dept.": Meritocracy is Workocracy

Wybrand Hendricks, Notary Köhne and his Clerk. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I ask you: is or is not work out of control?

I feel like when people talk about the Great Work Problem, they sometimes structure their inquiry in terms of "What Happened? What Went Wrong?" Like, things were humming along -- oh, say in the mid-20th-century or something -- and then OOPS, something happened to make that era go away. The idea being that when we find out what those things are, we'll be back in zee business.

It's not so much that this is mistaken, I think, as that it gets the normality conditions reversed. I mean, it treats as normal and unsurprising -- as the default -- what was actually atypical and highly contingent. That is to say, any relaxed mood of the past (should such a thing ever really have existed) was a strange exception to an otherwise general rule: that meritocracy is workocracy.

By that I mean, of course, that a meritocracy leads to overwork. Everyone loves the idea of the meritocracy which brings to mind "the march of progress" and "fairness and justice" and other concepts named by 50 cent words. It's appealing because the idea of a meritocracy is that the good things go to the people that deserve them: if you do the job better, produce more and better stuff, make better deals, and so on, you'll get jobs and be promoted and whatever.

But as we're all taught by our elementary school teachers, by popular culture, and by the new Positive Thinking, accomplishment requires hard work. In a competitive meritocracy, the worker always gets the goods, and the one who works harder gets more of them. In fact, in some weird ways, the more successful and meritocratic the society, the worse this particular problem is. In a successful society, more jobs are meritocratic. And the more the rewards are fairly distributed on the basis of accomplishments rather than "promise" or "likability," the more working harder is the only way to prosper relative to your fellow citizens.

I hope you can see how it gets out of control. It's one thing if the person who works over lunch gets promoted over the person who doesn't. But where does it stop? If everyone were working late into the evening but knocked off at midnight, won't the guy working 'til 2:00 have an advantage?

I'm no expert on the exact forces that produced 5:00 martini hours in the fifties. What I am saying is that those forces had to be powerful -- enough so to temporarily dislodge the tight connection between meritocracy and workocracy.

Probably there are many things in play. But I think one of them might have to do with degrees of equality and inequality. If the differences in what you stand to gain by being promoted and more successful versus what you stand to lose for being a little behind are small, the person who enjoys spending time at home and with family will be rational to work less. But if what you stand to gain or lose is huge, even powerful desires for more home/recreation/family time might be trumped by the need to work harder.

This is especially so in a society like ours in which losing is ... really losing. If you're even relatively poor in our society (well, especially the US) the texture of your life is likely to be pretty sucky.

Furthermore, what is needed to remove yourself from the conditions of suckiness is not an absolute but rather a highly contextual matter: what things you need, and what things cost, is influenced by the choices -- and thus by the means -- of everyone around you.

For example, to live a middle class life these days you need a car and a computer and a smart phone. No one decided this; it happens because everyone else chose it. For many things, prices are profoundly impacted by what others are willing to spend. This is obvious for real estate: what determines house prices but what people are willing to pay for houses? But even for goods like TVs its true.

About ten years ago I noticed TVs were super-cheap -- a wide range, but you could get a new down-market one for about 50 dollars. Then a couple of years ago my mom's TV broke and we went shopping. Lo! Cathode-rays had gone the way of the Dodo. All TVs were flat screen. The cheapest? About 200 bucks. The moral of that story is that what-life-costs has to do with what-others-have, and if what-others-have is way more than you, you're screwed.

In an unequal meritocratic society, keeping up with the Joneses isn't a pasttime or a pathology, it's a requirement. And you know what that means. It means putting the kid to bed and spending the next few hours working.

Incidentally, events depicted by the brilliant Victorian novelist Trollope suggest that people in the 19th century saw workocracy coming. The clerks in Trollope's books work four hour days and complain constantly about how it's so difficult and they're working so hard. They see too, though, that the new attempt at meritocracy -- including standardized tests, credentials, and codified rules for who gets the job -- will lead to them generally having to work harder. What will happen to their gentlemanly hours-long club visits and spur of the moment trips to Italy? That's right: game over.

If I'm right that meritocracy is workocracy, the conditions for change are going to have to go beyond adopting new informal norms for how we operate. They'll have to involve some deeply different social structures and political commitments of the kind people don't want to hear about in a genteel blog post.

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