Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Kevin Carson has been harping of the motivational techniques used by management to get workers to do more work for less pay (i.e. "increase efficiency"), with a particular focus on books that are apparently assigned reading in some corporations. Part of this is a reflection on management's attitude that people should love their jobs, regardless of what their jobs are. He describes management's conundrum as follows:
"It takes a lot of effort to get people's minds right and stamp out those last vestiges of ownlife. And surprise, surprise, surprise: there's an entire Motivational Mafia out there focused on getting people to love Big Brother and think of their jobs as the center of their life. "
I was especially drawn to a new word that he used: "ownlife". As a kid, I read most of Fred Sabrahagen's Berserker series of stories, in which the genocidal (or "biocidal") machines refer to their human servants as "goodlife", while all other life is implicitly "badlife" due to its innate desire to survive. Using this style of terminology, "ownlife" would be lifeforms that insist on purusing their own ends; but what would be the opposite? Ownedlife? Worklife?


Robot Economist said...

Motivational books are relics of the Fordist economy, where employees were expected to perform repetitive, mind-numbing tasks and needed continual motivation. Most of the time, employers tried to motivate their employees by establishing an espirit de corps.
They also inducted them into a parent-child relationship by promising to take care of them with extensive pensions, health-care and regular promotion.

The "new economy" is different though. Employees work to build experience and seek advancement both vertically and horizontally. Their jobs aren't as repetitive or dull and they don't need to see the business as central to their lifestyle. Businesses that don't embrace this concept are doomed to fail - just look at the slow collapse of Japan's life employment system as proof.

Adam B. Ricketson said...

What portion of workers actually work in the "new economy"? I get the impression that it applies to very few workers who didn't go to college, and still only a fraction of Americans with 4-year college degrees (~1/3 of Americans, last time I checked).

Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, Adam.

In most service jobs, I've seen just the opposite, Robot Economist. Bosses are increasingly trying to push the ethos of "professionalism"--being dedicated to one's job, and to the glorious mission of serving the customer, 24/7--even in low-paid unskilled workers. And all the new management theory fads about flexibility and empowerment are mainly lip service; despite all the empowerment rhetoric, management turns them into Taylorism/Fordism in practice. You may well be right that structural pressures will make this a losing strategy. But if so, corporate management will kick and scream to the end.

BTW, "ownlife" was a Newspeak word for the unfortunate tendency to want to follow solitary pursuits instead of spending the weekend on a community hike or putting in another evening at the community center.

Adam B. Ricketson said...

Re Ownlife:

Ah, 1984. Maybe that's why the word made an impact on me.

Re Taylorism:

Sounds like it is alive and well at Whole Foods: