On my Mind
I wrote last week concerning the power of labels to shape our thinking. This week, the label on my mind has been “job”.
In old English, a “job” describes a small parcel of something of little value that could be moved from place to place, as in “a job of coal”.
Job. (1) A low mean lucrative busy affair. (2) Petty, piddling work; a piece of chance work.Johnson’s Dictionary
Yet we now confer status on jobs that give them an identity and power all of their own. Conservative MP’s talk freely about worrying about the security of their “jobs” under the leadership of a rogue leader more than the impact of that rogue leader on our futures.. “Jobs” have become a proxy for the economy’s health. Jobs in banking are deemed “better” than nursing jobs, even though they generally require far less training and deliver far less value to society. Certain categories of jobs, such as rail or airline staff, are treated as commodities whilst others, often in management in those sectors, are not.
We measure the output of jobs in clinical financial terms rather than societal values of care, support, learning, mental health and community cohesion. We seem in awe of jobs, as though they somehow define us. If we are employers, it is a valuable and convenient quality because it confers power, and if we’re employees, it provides a template into which to fit ourselves.
I confess that it bothers me that we have created a society that is defined more by the quantities of jobs available more than their quality and those of of people who comprise it.
When we think of jobs as lowest cost inputs into a process with tightly defined, financially measured outputs, we waste all those qualities of people not strictly required to achieve them, and leave little space in their lives for them to develop. We spend vast amounts on avoiding business process waste and far, far less on recovering the ideas, enthusiasms and collective purpose outside the narrow confines of job descriptions.
When it comes to our society as a whole, it seems shockingly wasteful as we enter into a period of extended uncertainty where we need all the creativity and commitment we can assemble.
We are putting the metaphorical cart before the horse.
Before we focused on business as an indicator of health than society, there were the physiocrats. They categorised society into the productive classes (mainly farmers, given the time), the merchants who traded the produce of the productive classes, and the sterile classes who provided support services to the other two but did not generate value.
This TED talk by Marianna Mazzucato captures it beautifully.
Somewhere along the way of the last few decades, we have convinced ourselves that money itself is less a means of exchange, but a crop in it’s own right. That something inanimate and inorganic can somehow reproduce itself, and have built a whole industry on that premise.
I suggest that “Jobs”, to be worthwhile need to contribute not just to the economic and developmental wellbeing of the person doing the work, but also to the scope and development of the work itself, and to the health of the community in which the work takes place. Jobs, Citizens, and Civilisation anre interdependent. Failing to recognise and honour that leads us rapidly into what the late David Graeber termed “bullshit jobs”. The Physiocrats maybe had a point.
By any measure, we appear to have an uncomfortably high proportion of BS jobs, supporting a system of assymetric distribution of income, and whatever one’s political views, that cannot bode well for the health of our society
We’re in a volatile environment, and planning in any form is questionable. Aspirations of “levelling up” or any other rhetoric from those in power seems little more than hubris and rhetoric, so what can we do to improve our prospects?
I think it’s all about positioning. The little things we can pay attention to in considering the job we do; asking what does it give us other than money? What is it doing to develop our skills and what is it contributing to our community? If we’re not satisfied with the answers, what are we going to do to change it?
It’s a challenge, but what is clear is that engaging in wide ranging conversations about what we’re experiencing and noticing is powerful. There are many areas that don’t have answers, but do provide clues that can point us in the right direction, and we can see them better in the company of others.
When it comes to the real value of jobs in todays market, then an attitude of “operarius cave” – worker beware. – seems appropriate. Emploters are not interested in employees futures outside their utility to the organisation, and if all we can offer is to fill a job description, we have work to do.
We are each unique, and can offer far more than what employers ask of us. I think we need to pay attention to that.
Food for Thought
And a short piece of wisdom from Sunil Malhotra