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Pacific Northwest | July 25, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 25, home
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From American ethic to global imperative, the world of work turns

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Money & meaning
A series of stories taking stock of how and why we work
THE ANCIENT GREEKS knew all about work. Their word for it was ponos, which meant not just toil but suffering. And pain. Work was for slaves. The role of free men, according to the thinkers, was to avoid work as much as possible so they'd have time for war, philosophy and art.

Them were the days.

Nowadays, everybody works, even Bill Gates, richest man in the world. We're supposed to (Protestant Work Ethic), most of us have to (Money) and in theory we want to (Personal Fulfillment, or Meaning).

But wait. Financial author Phil Laut has defined work as "doing what you don't want to do."

Certainly I know the difference between hard work (industrial painting and scrubbing pots and pans, which I did during high school and college) and head work (writing stories like this one). My manic-depressive editor will proclaim she has the best job in the world one moment and kvetch about it the next, but we all know there's a big difference between daily dreariness and occasional discontent, and between working poor and working rich.

Rich is better.

And anyone who has been unemployed knows the only thing worse than working is not working at all.

So does the word "work" adequately cover the gamut from ditch digging and hash slinging to theoretical physics and kayak instruction? Hasn't it just become another word for life? In America, isn't what you do who you are?
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Moreover, does pay for ponos have any sensible correlation anymore when people with "play" in their job descriptions, like actors and athletes, sometimes earn way more than the everyday "pluggers" who plug along actually making things?

And if we're so democratic and ready to export our values to the Middle East, how come the disparity between rich and poor in America is widening as fast as our waist lines? How come the "working class" has fallen from 40 percent of the workforce in 1950 to 23 percent in Seattle today, and the "service class" has reached 44 percent, giving us a lopsided economy increasingly reminiscent of Upstairs-Downstairs Victorian Britain? And what do the 33 percent in Seattle's "creative class" — those who earn their livings with their brains — really do?

Why do Americans, on average, work more than any nation in the world: 137 hours more than the Japanese — the equivalent of 3½ vacation weeks, or a staggering 12½ vacation weeks more than the Germans? Yet many don't have savings for a decent retirement, and millions have no health insurance.

Why do the people with the "best" jobs often complain the most about stress? Why do the ones with the most job security, like civil servants and tenured college professors — folks you couldn't dislodge with a stick of dynamite — verbally worry the most about being fired?

I'm not entirely sure. But in the months ahead, Pacific Northwest intends to explore the world of work. Meanwhile, impatient young people who don't want to wait for these stories can instead take comfort in the words of humorist Dave Barry: "If you set your goals high, and you never, ever give up, I guarantee that one day, you will find yourself working for a huge, impersonal corporation run by morons. Everybody does!"

WHEN GOD KICKED Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he told them, "By the sweat of your brow will you earn your food."
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Things haven't changed.

Well, work itself has. For several thousand years, work was really work, and everybody who was anybody sneered at it. A huge population of slaves, serfs and peasants used their muscles in grimy toil to support a tiny aristocracy of warriors, lords and priests who devoted their lives to art, religion, small mercies to the poor, and killing each other.

This system was not particularly efficient. The game for a slave, who has no opportunity for pay or advancement, might be to do as little as possible. The same could be said of the minimum-wage "working poor" of today.

It was technology that began providing opportunities for a new middle class of entrepreneurs, and the Protestant Reformation that changed Western attitudes toward work. The leading philosopher was a French clergyman named John Calvin, one of those dead white guys you've scarcely heard of whose thinking nonetheless rules your life.

Calvin made work not just cool but obligatory. He believed certain people were predestined to go to heaven and others to be damned, and the only way to tell the Elect was to see who was working hard and had money, wealth itself being a sign of divine grace. He not only turned Catholic teaching about the perils of riches on its head, he contended that losers should blame themselves, not the system.

Calvinism helped turn us into a nation of workaholics and, as a byproduct, a superpower. Ben Franklin encoded the Protestant work ethic in his homilies, 19th-century textbooks drummed home the evils of idleness, Horatio Alger penned best sellers about boys working from the bottom to the top, and industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford started a drumbeat of self-improvement sermons that go on today.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution emptied farmlands for the factory. Then robots began emptying the factory for today's post-Industrial-whatever. The new wild card in this stacked deck is the rise of well-educated but cheap foreign labor that has sucked 2 million manufacturing jobs and 400,000 service jobs overseas the past two decades, even while America has in turn recruited best-and-brightest immigrants.

You don't just compete with your desk mate anymore, you compete with 6.3 billion global neighbors who would love to take your job. Already, 245,000 people in India are employed to answer, in heavily accented English, our dingbat questions about computer glitches and telephone calling plans.
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That's why business, which has been enjoying a labor surplus for 30 years, isn't sweating baby-boomer retirements. It'll just hire overseas.

Each generation has tried to make sense of tumultuous change. The "Greatest Generation" of the Depression and World War II achieved, from 1947 to 1973, the longest-lasting boom in the nation's history, the greatest and most equitable growth of income, and a simple attitude about jobs: They were precious. If you got one, you held onto it. Work's "meaning" was being able to buy a house and car. And work was hard. My father and his partner died prematurely, in part due to chemical exposure from their painting business. An uncle lost much of his hearing at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. C'est la vie, in those days.

For my generation of baby boomers, a job seemed a given, and the question was which job to reform the world. Work was not just about money but meaning.

But an economy flattened by Vietnam and the Cold War soon produced cynicism and reversal. There was a surplus of labor not just from the boomer bulge but from the entry of women into the workforce. The year I graduated from college, 1973, was the last in which personal income significantly rose for ordinary workers. Ever since, earnings for the rank and file (adjusted for inflation) have been essentially flat.

My children's generation, the X's and Y's, came into the most confused economy of all. There is more opportunity as the Information Age has forged a growing "creative class." But there is none of the security and predictability their grandparents knew: not of job (their company is likely to be bought out or become obsolete), not of workplace (it may move), not of retirement. Pay is often low or erratic, yet friends might become dot-com millionaires. Work isn't logical anymore, and so this generation's interest is in labor as a means to a lifestyle. Their loyalty is not to an employer but to the city where they want to live.

We Americans also defer life. Older generations deferred lengthy leisure and travel until retirement. Younger generations defer marriage, kids and home-buying to the late 30s or beyond, simply to compete.

It's Calvin again. His other philosophic trick is that while you can have wealth, you're not supposed to enjoy it. You can earn, but only if you save. You can go to a convention, but only if you promise to sit in a boring seminar and have a bad time.

ANOTHER POINT is that while many of you enjoy the highest standard of living in human history and will live in bigger houses, take better vacations and drive flashier cars than your parents, you nonetheless are well and truly screwed.

From 1947 to 1973, real income, adjusted for inflation, rose about 75 percent, and went up almost equally for the poor, middle class and rich. Since then, the growth of wealth has continued, but real hourly wages have declined and middle-class income is virtually static (rising at best half a percent a year, adjusted for inflation). Only pay for the upper classes has soared.

The stall in pay for most people is odd, since worker productivity — or the amount of goods and services we each produce, on average — has risen 61 percent since 1980. Benefit should have followed, right? If we make more, don't we get more?

Nope. Instead, average CEO pay in the same period rose 480 percent, corporate profits rose 145 percent, and income for the top 1 percent of Americans climbed 157 percent, all adjusted for inflation. America now has 2.2 million millionaires, and CEO pay that was 44 times that of an average worker in 1980 has rocketed to 301 times in 2004.

We live in a winner-take-all society where the average author earns below the poverty line but Harry Potter's J.K. Rowling becomes a billionaire, or where the median Mariner salary is $2.66 million and Class A minor leaguers earn as little as $600 a month.

Adding to the confusion is a yo-yoing tax system. The top rate for the progressive income tax went from 7 percent in 1900 to 90 percent under Eisenhower, fell to 70 percent under Kennedy, 28 percent under Reagan, back up to 31 percent under Bush Senior, 39.6 percent under Clinton, and a projected decline back to 33 percent under Bush II. Meanwhile, the maximum Social Security tax for employer-and-employee combined has risen from $60 in 1949 to $9,424 today — for a system some pundits claim remains insolvent.

Incidentally, studies have shown that not only do whites, Asians and men earn more, but so do taller people. Ugly people earn less.

News flash: Life is unfair.

Seattle, home to two of the nation's three richest men and a staggering array of high-tech millionaires, is Ground Zero for inequity. One economist, trying to put Bill Gates' wealth into everyday terms, calculated that in 1986, when Microsoft went public, Gates was earning enough that it was not worth his time to spend the four seconds necessary to retrieve a dropped $5 bill. By 1998, it wasn't worth it for Gates to pick up $10,000.

Let me put all this another way. For a quarter-century you've worked like a donkey to boost productivity — and almost all the benefits have gone to your boss and his investors.

Why have we let this happen? Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels asked just this question and concluded that, basically, we're dumb: 20 percent of those he polled were unaware of this trend entirely, 40 percent hadn't thought much about it, and the rest either benefited or didn't believe anything could be done.

We keep voting for politicians, funded by the upper crust, who have protected this growing inequality. And we do so at our peril. "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics," the philosopher Plutarch said.

"A state divided into a small number of rich and a large number of poor will always develop a government manipulated by the rich to protect their property," English commentator Harold Laski added in 1930.

Another reason we tolerate this inequity is because it was masked by the entry of women into the workforce. While individual pay has stagnated, many households went from one to two incomes. Well and good, but this also meant that female employment went from liberating choice to daunting obligation overnight, as two-income families bid up the price of housing. This is the biggest American social revolution since the Civil War, and work has found little solution in the conflict between career and motherhood.

WHICH BRINGS US to another reason for discontent: the $5,000 barbecue grill. In his book "Luxury Fever," author Robert Frank argues that the significance of such absurdities is not that you will buy one but "that its presence makes buying a $1,000 unit seem almost frugal."

Advertisers and the media relentlessly raise the bar of our material satisfaction. No matter what you've got, there's something better. Automobile showrooms feature gleaming luxury cars not just out of hope of selling it to the odd rich customer, but because their staggering sticker prices make the other cars on the lot seem like bargains — even though their cost has shot up 75 percent in 20 years.

Our expectations have changed. The average new home today is 50 percent larger than that sold in the '70s, and because household size is smaller, average square footage per American has doubled. Households have gone from one to two or more cars. Spending on luxury goods is climbing at four times the rate of overall spending.

Study after study has shown that people don't judge their well-being by what they have, or need, but by what their neighbors have. We live in a culture driven by envy, and a hundred ads a day make dissatisfaction inescapable. We want you to be miserable. The economy depends on it.

SO HERE'S the game plan of the modern workplace. One tactic is to take work and life as it is, go through the stages of denial-bargaining-acceptance, and deal with it. This is the theme of the daily comic strip "Pluggers," defined as "the 80 percent of humanity who unceremoniously keep plugging along, balancing work, play and family life. Even if they're struggling, they are optimistic."

Another is to respond to inequity by doing as little as possible, like the coffee-cup-carrying Wally in the comic strip "Dilbert." To paraphrase the old joke about communism, his bosses pretend to pay him, and he pretends to work.

A third way is to go into management, and when you think about it, the burgeoning bureaucracy that has developed since the 1980s makes perfect sense. If real income is static, then the only way to get ahead is by promotion. If machines are eliminating manufacturing jobs, one way to absorb surplus labor is to add bosses.

Any middle manager worth her salt will contrive to hire yet another middle manager, thus accomplishing two things: shifting her work onto her clone, and, by supervising the new sub-manager, justifying yet another pay raise. Management is the most efficient self-replicating program since DNA.

Top management doesn't mind this, because middle managers are like the boys who painted Tom Sawyer's fence: They work overtime for free. One hallmark of modern "brain work" is that, while allowing casual clothes and more flexible schedules, it is also never, ever, really over.

These trends are even more insidious because of what Pittsburgh academic Richard Florida calls in his book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," or the people who think for a living: lawyers, teachers, engineers. In 1900 there were 250 artists, writers, musicians and actors per 100,000 Americans; now there are 900. In 1900 there were 55 scientists per 100,000, now there are 1,800. On average, creatives work 49-hour weeks, often scattering tasks into weekends, evenings and vacations.

People who can do creative tasks well are rare, however, and bosses are loathe to lose them. Moreover, creatives often lack the patience, political smarts and attention to detail that make a good manager and are disasters when promoted.

What's a poor creative to do? Do what they do best, accept they're not going to get rich doing it and console themselves that their supervisor, with different talents, is — by their lights — supposed to be a moron.

STATISTICALLY, AMERICANS are the most productive, richest and collectively unhappiest of the top six industrial nations, researchers contend. In an Internet essay called "Technology and the Work Ethic," author James Leth argued that the central dilemma for a corporate employee is this: "To have a good life, you must earn a good salary. To earn a good salary, you can't have a life."

There are alternatives. Besides having more than its share of billionaires, Seattle is also the place where authors such as Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin and Cecille Andrews have penned books pointing out that acceptance of a lower standard of living can mean more freedom and less stress with no real decline in the quality of life.

"The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes," Gore Vidal remarked.

And studies of primitive bush people in the harsh Kalahari Desert show they need only spend a few hours a day at "work" to survive.

Ah, but it never seems simple. What about health benefits? Retirement? College tuition for the kids? Weddings that allegedly average $23,000 a pop? The health-club membership, the Hawaiian sun break, the Starbucks latte?

And for many of us, work isn't just about money. It gives us purpose. It's our social network. It provides structure. It instills pride.

So, do you ever get to rest? Maybe not. Remember 1999, at the height of the boom, when everyone dreamed about retiring early? Didn't make sense, did it? Now the Social Security retirement age is scheduled to recede, 401Ks are moldering, pension plans are being gutted, workers are being fired before they can claim them, and we may be headed back to a time like 1950, when nearly half those over 65 still worked.

Oh, well. "The man who dies rich dies disgraced," said Andrew Carnegie.

And just be glad you don't have the angst of the newly rich who hire the services of California's Money, Meaning and Choices Institute, set up to help them make sense of their guiltily affluent lives.

"Money used to be called the root of all evil," says institute director Stephen Golbart. "Now it's the root of stress and confusion."


William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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