“This looks like a ‘women’s problem,’ but it’s not. It’s a work problem.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter has an essay in the New York Times about today’s “Toxic Work World.” Following on yesterday’s post on Swedish experiments in a six-hour day, it’s a depressing but all-too-timely read:

This looks like a “women’s problem,” but it’s not. It’s a work problem — the problem of an antiquated and broken system. When law firms and corporations lose talented women who reject lock-step career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women. When an abundance of overly rigid workplaces causes 42 million American citizens to live day to day in fear that just one single setback will prevent them from being able to care for their children, it’s not their problem, but ours.

The problem is with the workplace, or more precisely, with a workplace designed for the “Mad Men” era, for “Leave It to Beaver” families in which one partner does all the work of earning an income and the other partner does all the work of turning that income into care — the care that is indispensable for our children, our sick and disabled, our elderly. Our families and our responsibilities don’t look like that anymore, but our workplaces do not fit the realities of our lives.

I like Slaughter’s argument against the structure and culture of the workplace, and the implicit argument– which I am trying to make more explicit in my own book– that we operate labor markets and working days under several assumptions that are wrong (these are mine, not hers):

  • More time = more productivity. This is true for short periods, but quickly becomes ceases to be a useful strategy, particular in two kinds of workplaces: those in which productivity is defined mainly by the intelligent exertion of physical effort, and those in which productivity is a matter of creativity and problem-solving.
  • Uncertainty makes people better workers. Working in what used to be a union shop, working zero-hour contracts, or not having a promised number of hours per week will make you work harder on the off chance that whatever sliver of security is available will get to you to work harder. If you’re in tech, you work harder because your job could disappear to Bangalore or Romania at any moment. Don’t forget to be passionate and love what you do!
  • The way to beat the competition is to imitate and exceed them. No matter what you’re interested in or what you’re working on, there are 15 guys in a dorm room in Tsinghua living on instant noodles and benzedrine who are working on it twice has hard. The only way you’re going to stay competitive is to work like 16 guys living on freeze-dried krill and two sips of rainwater (three sips would be inefficient).
  • This is inevitable. It’s not that I want to work people to death, or want to turn people from full-time salaried workers into temps and adjuncts; it’s just that this is the nature of the world. As a business leader, I am a farsighted, action-oriented visionary who defines the reality that others live in. I am a figure out of a novel written by the love child of Ayn Rand and Philip Dick. Except when it comes to this. On this, I’m impotent.

It’s also interesting to see the comments to Slaughter’s piece– I’d say they’re 80/20 “this is exactly right” and “this is the world, stop complaining.”

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