Employment in theory and in real life: Services and Government in a world in difficulties

Despite the fact that people do not come into the world for the specific purpose of becoming a “human resource” conventional economic theory regards employed labour as a market not unlike any other.

The supply of labour

Perhaps the most important element to the supply of labour will be the number of people in the population who are of “working age” as well as their education and skills, hence their ability to perform in particular job roles. This is largely a feature of demographics as well as education and other policy. Obviously what matters is not only the size of the population but its age profile – the proportion of “working age”. Further to that, the so called “participation rate” is that percentage of the population of working age in employment or seeking it – bearing in mind that people will take time out of paid working for a variety of reasons, even if they are of employment age. This includes women parenting young children, people whose illness and disability prevents them working (sometimes through stigma and exclusion more than real inability), people who have given up looking for work because they have become demoralised and adjusted to long term unemployment, as well as people caring for older or ill family dependents.

This is part of a macro picture of the economy. Many textbooks also give a micro analysis of the labour market and portray the supply of labour describing the choices for individual workers responding to the price of labour, in other words adjusting the time worked to changes in the wage rate. The supply of labour is described in the textbooks as involving a choice for the worker of how many hours they want to work depending on the wage rate on offer – even though in practice many people have to work a fixed time on a ‘take it or get out basis’.

When labour supply is described in this micro-economic way the words sometimes used are of individuals choosing between “leisure” and “consumption”. This is misleading – a good deal of the time that is not spent in paid work has to be committed to domestic labour and to the re-creation of the physiological ability to work again by sleeping, eating, cleaning and other activities belonging in the household – not to mention the time needed to attend to the care of children and other dependent people. Thus “leisure” is usually only a small fraction of the non paid-work time. This is to say that much of the time not spent in production is spent in reproducing labour power, either that of the worker and/or of their children who are future generations of workers.

A further obvious point is that people do not just choose do paid work only in order to have the money to purchase consumer goods. If they are lucky employment also brings job satisfaction, interests, a life narrative, purposeful activity, a structure to the day, meaningful relationships with colleagues, and a role in the wider society. In the simplistic account these things are not mentioned – although they clearly will influence how much time people allocate to paid work as opposed to free time. Thus in a job where there is plenty of job satisfaction one might expect someone to put in a lot of overtime – perhaps even unpaid overtime, just because they are enjoying what they are doing. On the other hand, people may also put in a lot of overtime, not because they are enjoying their work at all, but because of loyalty to colleagues, ambition to get along on a career path and other kinds of non monetary motivation.

Of course, neo-classical and Austrian economists are not interested in all of this. “Methodological individualism” assumes that workers make ‘rational choices’ based on their preferences and prices. Thus how they come to their preferences about employment is of no interest to the economist. The mainstream economist thus limits her or his interpretation of the world to cut out of consideration some of the most profound issues influencing human well being. All that economists are interested in, as one would expect from a conventional economic analysis, is the wage rate – the price of labour per unit of time – and how much time people want to work for that rate. If the wage rate goes up then there is supposedly an additional incentive to work longer hours because one can get even more consumer goods in the shops. This is counterbalanced by the incentive to “buy more time as ‘leisure’” because at the higher wage rate one can, in theory, work less hours and still have the same amount of purchasing power in the shops. (With a 5% wage rate increase one could have the same take home pay working 5% less hours).

This anyway describes the micro economic theory of the labour supply. A few moments thought is all that it necessary to become aware that it has little basis in reality anyway because most people most of the time are not able to pick and choose how many hours that they work according to the wage rate. In most formal employment conditions hours are fixed contractually in order to stabilise routine and continual working procedures at fixed times in factories, offices and shops – although sometimes workers are able to make a choice to switch between part time and full time working. In addition work times are often largely task determined so that they cannot be adjusted easily whether to respond to changing wage rates or anything else. Furthermore there is an increasing global trend to informal employment – which gives employers the flexibility to impose whatever times they wish. A large number of poor people are trying to sell their labour power in a buyer’s market for labour and are forced to accept conditions where they have no ability to choose their hours because they must take what work they can, whenever they can get it.

The demand for labour

The theory of the demand for labour is equally fanciful and again often far from the reality. In many textbooks the demand for labour is described as a derived demand. There is a demand for apples and therefore a demand for apple pickers. The “marginal productivity” theory was described earlier in this book. As explained, the theory is that employers demand for labour will depend on what each additional worker will add to production (the marginal physical product) times the price of the product.

The problem with this way of thinking however is that there is no “physical product” for about half of all paid employees in the world! Almost half of global employment is in the services or government sector – or, if not, in the offices and support activities of the production sector and not directly connected to production. Indeed services and government is the part of global employment that is growing most rapidly. Although many routine standardised services can be quantified so that it is possible to measure the work that people do – haircuts, the processing of standard applications for services etc – there are also many types of work where routines and standardisation cannot be done so easily – e.g. neighbourhood community work, psychotherapy, artistic creation, any form of investigative work, research and development activities.

In their social metabolic analysis Giampietro, Mayumi and Sorman calculate the magnitudes. Giampietro is at the University of Barcelona and he gives figures for Catalonia in 2005 which can be taken as a ball park figure for all “developed” societies. Of all human activity in Catalonia 9% is in paid work and 91% is in the household. Household activity includes sleeping, eating, recreation, the time of children, of the retired, unemployed people and sick people etc. Of the 9% of human activity in paid work 65% is in services and government while 35% is in the production sector which is making ‘stuff’.

It will be immediately recognised that, when it comes to employment, services and government are far more predominant than production in terms of hours worked.

Even in countries like China where employment in material production makes up a much larger proportion of paid work activities the trend is towards a rapid development of services. Thus, while agricultural employment has shrunk as a proportion of total paid labour time, service employment has grown more rapidly than industrial employment. Between 1980 and 1999 the fraction of human activity in paid work that was employed in agriculture fell from 68% to 47%. The fraction of human activity working in industry, energy and mining, slightly decreased from 18% in 1980 to 17% in 1999. However, the fraction working in services and government increased dramatically from 14% in 1980 to 36% in 1999.

This has considerable implications for how one thinks about some kinds of “employed work” and in many cases makes approaches to theorising “human resources” in the standard economics form irrelevant or misleading. Approaches that assume that one can always quantify work can prove to be highly problematic. By this I mean there are large areas of work where the act of quantification, which occurs in order to try to improve management control, efficiency and to reduce costs, does not produce “improvement” but actually leads to a damage to effectiveness.

Often enough quantification assumes features that are not there. This is particularly where a lot of what is happening is “emotional labour” which cannot be measured without rendering relationships insincere and inauthentic; where many activities are non routine and one-off so measurements and “continuous improvement” is a meaningless goal; where people are involved partially voluntarily and it is unreasonable to measure up their involvement; where measurement demonstrates a lack of trust and thus erodes and sours working relationships; where achieving one goal undermines another connected one and where measurement draws resources from things that are not measured, which then deteriorate, in favour of things that are measured.

Fear in the office

The typical workplace in the so called “developed world” and in many so called “developing countries” are not factories or workshops but offices. Offices as places of employment may not survive the limits to growth but as economists we ought to theorise about where people are actually employed. In fact there are an increasing number of people who are not even employed in an office – they are actually not located anywhere in particular but are continually on the move. The work done involves the institutionalised maintenance of health, education and social welfare (functions that used to be fulfilled in households, families and local communities but which are now increasingly institutionalised), a variety of state regulatory functions and, in the private sector, the planning, co-ordination and organisation of distant production processes, together with arrangements for PR and marketing.

To these places of employment should be added the development of financial management and services is a huge area of expansion deserving of recognition. The communications and information processing media are part of the infrastructure for all these services. A large proportion of these activities require a highly educated labour force.

In a book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues that civilisations inevitably get more complex over time as they try to solve problems by the use of increasing complexity. If there is a problem societies set up rules and regulations, specialist jobs, companies and government departments to deal with them. This complexification is successful at first, according to Tainter, but the returns diminish over time. At some point increasing complexity means that responses to stress surges, like wars, diseases, crop failures, monetary crises become so difficult to organise that the complex society collapses. It is not then the stress surge on its own that brings about the collapse but the failure of the over complex society to be able to manage them.

The collapse is then the enforced return to a lower level of complexity, through much chaos and confusion.
It is possible to argue that the growing size of the state in all advanced societies, as well as the growing size of the service sector is a reflection of these processes. Adam Smith and Ricardo thought that an increasing division of labour would bring about increasing wealth and prosperity and perhaps they have for now, though at a tremendous delayed cost that has often not been noticed or counted (like the still to be felt impacts of climate change).


However, the huge increase in specialisation over two centuries has also brought about the need to have a vast services and government sector to co-ordinate and regulate production and reproduction (households). The resources to sustain this vast expansion in services and government come from the energy and materials that are produced by the production sector of the economy which services and government are, in turn, supposed to manage and facilitate.

This is not always how people think about public services and government in particular. In the media a lot of the discussion about the growing complexity takes the form of discussions about taxation and the size of the state. Business people think that they “are taxed too much” and argue for less regulation, less welfare and less nanny state. The truth is though, that in the private sector too, i.e. inside large corporations, there is also a vast inflation of co-ordination activity and it could not be otherwise if international production arrangements with just in time production systems are to be kept running. All of these activities then require a very large allocation of human labour time, a very large number of electronic devices to assist the labour force and a not inconsiderable throughput of energy to keep the services and government sector working.

The scope for mechanisation and using energy in powered devices in the services and government sector is less than in industrial production. Therefore it comes as no surprise that of the 1,120 Petajoules that flowed through the Catalonian economy in 2005 just 14% was used in the household sector while 86% was used in the paid work sector. Of the energy flowing through the paid work sector 28% is devoted to services and government sector while the rest, 72%, is devoted to the production sector.

All of this helps contextualise what happens when a society hits a crisis because it discovers that its energy system is toxic (the effects of CO2 emissions on climate) and, in any case, depletion of energy sources means that less resources are available to sustain the services and government needed to co-ordinate and regulate a hyper complex, hyper interdependent division of labour.

As energy costs rise we have seen how, because energy is needed for all functions in society, there are less resources for discretionary activities. People cannot service their debts and pay their energy bills and that is a problem for government too.

The resulting crisis in services and government then takes the form of a terror that a large number of people will lose their jobs and, as is obvious, losing a job is likely to send life into crisis for millions who are already in debt and struggling with their bills.

For those that keep their jobs life inside the offices are likely to become more crazy given the specific features of office work.

When work is largely conceptual and intangible.

That is because for many people work has become increasingly conceptual and intangible. This, in turn, makes supervision very different from the factory system in most cases. It makes it impossible to give detailed directive supervision of many work tasks – much work must be delegated to workers to get on with on their own initiative.

This means that techniques of management are not so much telling people what to do but negotiating and discussing context setting arrangements. Management is indirect – via context setting mission statements, performance standards, quality controls, good practice guidelines, SMART targets, the setting of procedures – then workers are left, day to day, hour by hour, to get on with it and try to work it out as best they can, staying within what are often infuriatingly irrelevant or off the mark targets, trying very hard to be seen to be doing their job.

The fact that many work activities have intangible outputs and outcomes has psychological consequences. With factory production work one can see a material product taking shape as a result of the labour, and therefore measure productivity increases in a very tangible way. However in many service sector and office work settings measurable outputs and outcomes are very difficult to show. This can make workers anxious that their contribution is not being noticed in conditions of increasing job insecurity. That, in turn, is a powerful force magnifying extrinsic motivations – doing things to be seen, to get noticed, rather than for their own sake. If one is not noticed then one might lose ones job in the next round of cuts and life management of habitat, debt servicing, relationships would all unravel.

Productivity increases to intangible work – what does it mean?

A further difference from work in the factory system is that, whereas in the factory system the investment in (fuel powered) machinery led to visible and tangible increases in the productivity of labour, as well as labour displacement, many service sector jobs cannot be mechanised in the same way. As we have seen perhaps a third of the energy that goes into the paid work sector goes through services and government in “developed countries”. There has been scope to mechanise things like mailings lists with computer generated address labels from data bases, and the pressure is on to try to standardise as much as possible. However you cannot mechanise so easily the work of a teacher, or social worker or surgeon nor the work of advertising agency staff. As a result many “tertiary” jobs, particularly those which involve person to person interaction, cannot demonstrate continuing increases in productivity to justify why people should keep their job in hard times, let alone justify continued salary increases which people need in order to service their debts.

Despite this the economic ideology of promoting “continuous improvement” remains all pervasive. As a result whatever a worker is doing is never good enough – in a situation where startling increases in productivity arising from investment, whatever that means, are ruled out. In person to person services there is no investment or automation that will obviously increase output in a continuous way, nor automated means to increase quality. In many cases the only way to get improvement, it seems, is to put in longer and longer hours. And yet longer hours does not increase outcomes at all – after a point it reduces output as workers become tired, make mistakes, and morale slumps. In the tertiary sector there really are diminishing returns when tired workers increase their input of time. Even if working longer hours did improve outcomes as people work harder – would anyone notice anyway?


One result of this is “presenteeism”. It is the opposite of absenteeism. A few years ago one in 6 British workers are still at their desks after 10.00pm at least once a month. Some employers are becoming aware that presenteeism rarely results in real output increases and are trying to discourage it. However workers get involved in presenteeism because they were anxious about job security and want to be seen to be keen. A recession where people have even more reason to fear for their jobs will probably make this kind of situation worse – it certainly has in Japan over the last decade of recession.

Not that all problems of overworking are a simple result of social cost pressures and government cuts. In some material that I have seen from the Austrian based organisation Verein zur Verzoegerung der Zeit, which was analysing the same phenomenon, other motivations are suggested.

Some people prefer the office to their homes. For example, they are so busy with being the manager at the office they cannot switch out of this role at home. Their spouses and children find it hard to cope with them when they do come home. As work is given priority over family, the relation with family deteriorates. When the dedicated worker finally does go home, they experience such hostility that they get caught in a vicious circle of preferring to stay away longer.

Work as motivation and massaging appearances

Many modern jobs are about massaging appearances, about motivating people and controlling them or trying to alter their behaviour. This is true, for example, of the PR industry and advertising, as well as, in a very different kind of way, true of the burgeoning counselling and therapy industries. It is obviously true too, for the media industries. Some jobs are about mystification and some about clarification. Some of us are employed to find ways to motivate people to eat a more healthy diet, others are employed to motivate people to eat out of burger bars and fast food restaurants. Graduates are coming straight out of the same university departments of psychology and other human and medical sciences and, in effect, working against each other. The so called Information Economy is not about neutral information at all – it a contested space where rival interpretations, exhortations, motivations jostle with each other for our attention and choice. The biggest players often have the loudest voices through their access to mainstream institutions and the mass media.

What is important in this world is to get noticed – to have your narrative about your work taken into account. This is not necessarily the same as doing a good job. It is more about good PR.

The importance of being noticed

One strategy for the problem that your work is not being noticed by the people that might matter is to make sure that you are seen – this means turning up to, or even better, calling a large number of meetings. There is safety in numbers and, the more managers or officials that tag along to your meetings the higher your outcome targets are, as well as the more you are likely to be perceived as a busy and important person. You will be “well connected”, advance your career, or, at least, be safe from the next round of cuts. It’s an excellent personal PR strategy.

Fluctuating Workloads – taking on more work in quiet periods overhypes the peaks

Much work is unstable – there are troughs as well as peaks. In the troughs if one spends time doing background reading, or reflecting, it would seem that one has been doing nothing and there are those who dare not give this appearance. So, rather than take advantage of the troughs to relax they anxiously seek out new work . The problem then is that, as their work picks up again they hit workload peaks with the old work and the new agenda they have now added – and they simply cannot control their workloads getting into a frightful state.

‘Emotional labour’

Far from being about producing “physical products” as suggested in economic theory, a large amount of employment is of a person to person character. It is also frequently about motivation and an increasingly large element is best described as working with emotions.
Emotional labour is when your employer requires you to have a particular set of feelings that will please the customer or public. At home and in our personal relationships, therapists tell us we should get in touch with our feelings and not bottle them up. When you are feeling angry, frustrated and irritated, or when you are feeling frightened, you need to be able to get out what it is that is bothering you and negotiate your relationships with those around you. You need to be able to recognise their feelings too, respect them, and work with them. But can you do that if, for example, you work at a call centre? What exactly do you do with the impatient and rude caller who is steaming with rage because his computer isn’t working and he’s having to pay a telephone charge to get your advice to fix it? He might be the tenth of such aggressive callers in the last day. Are you expected to express what you are really feeling to him? Hardly…..among other things the caller might actually be an agent of your employer checking up on your telephone manner.

Workers in health and social welfare also do emotional labour. They are employed to empathise, or keep their cool, under difficult conditions. On the corporate mission statements, for example, it says that staff will deal with users of services with politeness and respect – and yet these may be the very same users who, because of the time they have had to wait, as well as the intensity of their needs, are very often aggressive and angry.

Insincerity becomes the norm. Avoiding the truth is ordinary.

Working without a clear workplace

A further feature of contemporary work is that, because it is person-to-person work, conceptual, organising, logistics and persuading work, the labour process often doesn’t have to be fixed in place to a particular machine and location. Computers, phones, I pads have all been developed as mobile options so that you can move around with them. But this loss of a fixed location for your work can carry anxieties with it. It can mean that you are no longer seen doing the intangible things that you do. At least in the office people saw you making phone calls and typing letters – now how are your superiors to know that you are there and still doing things? You are out of sight and possibly out of mind – until possibly you are remembered at the time of the next reorganisation and round of cuts and, perhaps, therefore the victim of the next staff down sizing. How many calls on the mobile are really about reminding the office that you still exist and are an important part of the operation?

A further complication – Co-ordinating and synchronising with the underclass

Working in dispersed locations has stresses of its own – particularly for health and other workers co-ordinating to be available when people are actually in. Many workers have a problem of finding a time when people are in their homes so that they can arrange a time to help them. It’s a problem not only of agreeing a time, but of actually sticking to it. Vulnerable client groups often have no daily routine and they probably often have no diary to help them to remember. In the ‘underclass’ are people whose chaotic lives mean a succession of crises – so, even that if they remember the appointment at their house, there’s still no guarantee they will be in – because they may be at a doctors surgeries, summoned to solve a housing benefit crisis, or they may have run away, too embarrassed to let anyone in to see their shambolic and sordid circumstances.

Working without clear work times

When a clear notion of work place begins to dissolve so too, often enough, does the notion of a defined time of work. If your work involves a lot of thinking and you are always contactable on your mobile – when exactly does work stop and when does it begin? If you go to sleep thinking about unresolved dilemmas at work and wake early thinking about them – are you even at work in bed? It’s all a long way from “clocking off” from a shift in the factory, or at a large care institution with fixed shifts, where you left behind fixed routines, “switching off” psychologically as well.

There are powerful pressures to overwork in this kind of world – if you are insecure about it then, to compensate for the invisibility and intangibility of your work, you do that bit extra…attending a meeting that isn’t otherwise really necessary, just to make sure your bosses are still aware that you are there.

Specialised work that no one else understands

Yet another feature of work nowadays is the use of narrower specialities. As the home and local community are emptied of more production and service functions, everyone want to be a graduate expert in the resultant externally organised institutions. For most of history Jacks and Jills of all trades provided for the bulk of their own needs, DIY style, with the help of their neighbours in small local communities. Now millions of highly educated specialists are trying to live together and co-ordinate immense bureaucratic empires each of which are themselves focused only on a narrow range of activities – education specialities, social work specialities, market niche specialities, computer software specialities, art niches, media niches…As like as not, only a tiny number could understands what you are doing in your job anyway – because only a few have had your ten year training. So on what criteria can your managers judge your work and appreciate it anyway?

The growth of bureaucratic empires

The more specialities, the more complicated and complex the resultant co-ordination between them, the more referrals, the more departments and the more liaison and referral arrangements, the more committees needed to manage them all. This is Tainter’s dynamic of decreasing returns to complexity in spades.

The bureaucracies and managerial structures also blossom because they cover larger geographical areas. The larger the organisation, the further away senior managers are, the more to co-ordinate and the more bureaucratic layers. As senior managers get to be further away in geographical and organisational space from the operational level, so too a breed of manager takes over that has no experience of ‘coming up through the ranks’ and no idea what is involved “at the coal face”. This breed also has no personal interest, loyalty or commitment to local staff or local services who they never meet regularly, nor get to know. As like as not their background will be in accountancy, business studies and “economics” and they will know a lot about costs and record keeping – but little about practical operations.

What senior managers do in order to appear to be useful – measurement and reorganisation

Tainter’s dynamic of increasing complexity is linked to another feature of modern work – the phenomena of permanent reorganisation with all its unstable and unsettling effects. Our betters need to be seen to be doing something too, to be seen to be improving things, lest we forget how much we need them. A lot of the things we have to do are really about reassuring them that they are really needed. This goes for managerial reorganisations, for example, and for the ever increasing volume of quantitative performance returns.

The consequences of senior managers feeling the need to be seen to be doing something can be negative when the most important thing to be done is thinking about things – or resting. Thinking and resting are not unproductive activities. Thinking, reflecting upon things, is the very stuff of intelligent management – even if you can’t see it when it is happening. Nor is resting an unproductive activity. Rest and recreation is re-creation. It is the re-creation of the capacity of the human body and mind to function – it is like the recharging of a battery. It is biological time in which, to be sure, you cannot see anything taking place, but something very important is happening nonetheless. Without the recharge process there will be no long run effectiveness.

Alas, to an insecure manager (or politician) things may not appear like this. If they must be seen to be doing something (when, in reality, it would be better to do nothing) then senior managers or politicians always have one option they can turn to — to reorganise the managerial structure itself, its funding and monitoring regimes and/or its fundamental policies. Too often reorganisations are a substitute for thinking up any new ideas. Thus it will often be necessary to bring in consultants from outside to give the ideas.

Consultants and reorganisations

The consultants, significantly these are typically from accountancy organisations, will usually understand the situation even less but have the necessary rapacious arrogance to assume that their MBA qualifies them to recommend for any situation. There are then rarely any improvements to the quality of the work done, at ground level, “at the coal face”. However, such reorganisations still have two advantages. Firstly they convey the appearance that senior management (or politicians ) are active and in control, while, secondly they take up the time of subordinates and stops them finding the time to take their own initiatives. (Which might often be more focused and relevant because subordinate initiatives would be derived closer to coal face realities).

If reorganisation involves lots of partnerships it ties up a wider circle with consultations about the bigger agenda, rather than allowing the junior partners to find the time to develop agendas of their own. And it all adds to the time pressure down the line, as everyone goes to the meetings about the latest good idea about a yet bigger and more complicated management system – rather than setting up meetings of their own about what concerns them. Furthermore, as every dictator in history has realised, regular reshuffles and reorganisations of the bureaucratic hierarchy prevents trust relations, allegiances and alliances being formed out of which opposition, or even new bids for power, might be made.

Measurement and paper trails – drugs for insecure managers?

Another option for insecure managers who need to be seen to be busy is to measure things. Since managers are paid to manage it follows that they are paid to improve the performance of their subordinates.

Politicians are keen to claim that the public sector, and particularly its bureaucracy, can be made more efficient. The use of public money must be closely scrutinised particularly as the public services keep growing. Money paid in taxes must not be wasted. To prevent skiving and waste by officials they are put under scrutiny by auditors, management consultants and put under pressure to justify whatever they do. Needless to say, this does not reduce the amount of work and resources used, it increases it. In proportion to the implied lack of trust the anxiety about the need to prove what one does increases, and the need for managers to keep records that will cover their backs likewise rises. This leads to a snowball effect in the amount of paper work, form filling and record keeping. Everywhere there are instructions, procedures, best practice guidelines, measurable targets to be met.

Measurement and the decline of trust relations

This increased paperwork does nothing to improve services – indeed it takes the time resources away from their improvement. Their improvement can usually only come about through practitioners having time for reflection about the coal face practice, some space for leisurely strategic thinking about day to day to operational problems – but away from these problems, not in the middle of them, while the phone is ringing. To this must be added the need for senior managers to then trust in the judgement and suggestions of their subordinates – letting them implement their strategic ideas. However, in this regime of neurotic management and paper trails, trust is just what is lacking. To develop trust requires time and stability in work groups. However, not only is there no time for reflection in the work, there is no time for “time wasting” on developing trust relations, mutual understanding and communication inside work groups themselves, or between them and higher decision making bodies.

Neglected time needs

Those who have to struggle with these social neuroses of our betters as services and government become places of screaming stress have to draw up descriptions of work in the new fashionable forms: with project milestones, with specific, measurable achievable repeatable targets and so on. Typically the things that go missing are target times for pausing, for reflection on the work, times for the development of good relations in the office – the creation of a work group common spirit.

If you want targets for these things, then you have to remember to put something in the budget for training and consultancy, and you pray that you will actually find the time so actually do them. We call such times “time out” which says a lot how we see them, as a sort of additional luxury. In fact, if a group or an organisation is really to function, and develop as a team, it must devote time to the structure itself and the human relations between people. From this point of view “times out” are crucial to functioning – building trust, relationships and understanding between members.

(Anyone who has been on a good away weekend will find out how much you learn about other people and how much it serves to bring out issues and team spirit. This is really quite crucial but is often neglected. Time is needed for such things – yet too often time is only available for people to work together as if they are mere automatons, who are the operators of a collection of kinds of technical expertise).

Different management styles

Managers are individuals. One cannot generalise. Some of them are interested in, and care about, their work. They understand their job as being about working with people – with colleagues, clients and citizens who they seek to understand as individuals as well as seeing them as “human resources” i.e. as means to organisational ends. Other managers are more interested in, and care about, their career paths. Being a good manager and being on a successful career path are not the same. When you are interested in, and care about the people, as well as about the work, you accumulate a deeper understanding. You remain open in attitude to the ideas of colleagues, to whom you may feel a certain loyalty and responsibility. When you are interested in your career path and promotion what you are interested in are measured results. Your relationships to the ‘human resources’ are less important as you don’t intend to hang around long anyway. You are aiming for promotion to head office.

How the ambitious manager benefits from situations to demonstrate fire fighting skills

Increasingly chaotic times like the ones we are in are heaven made for a certain kind of ambitious manager. If they are lucky they get promoted when there are plenty of problems to be sorted out – and they can rush around fire fighting. If middle managers get their faces seen resolving problems, their self esteem, morale and reputation are on a rising curve. Thank goodness society is in crisis! Just think of what might happen if ambitious managers were to get caught in the nightmare of everything going well! If everything is functioning reasonably smoothly, subordinates looking after themselves fine, well able to sort out problems among themselves, then who is going to notice that the ambitious middle manager is even there? The same paradox goes for senior managers. To get yourself noticed you need to be fire fighting, so you need a good crisis. If you haven’t got a crisis you can provoke one – set up a new project or discover the need to reorganise things.

The overall picture – absurd jobs, mentally unhealthy workplaces

In summary, as we approach Tainter’s point of collapse a not untypical worker in the “Tertiary Sector” is involved in a large bewildering bureaucracy whose senior managers know and care little about the front line operational staff, clients or the main activities of the business. Such staff may be struggling to recover from the practical and emotional turmoil of the last reorganisation and/or are confronted by a new one which adds to their sense of job insecurity and expendability. Their work may involve conceptual and intangible activities that no one else fully understands and they may have difficulty showing what tangible outcomes they create. They may therefore find it difficult to prove that the outcomes of their work are improving over time – even though this is what is expected of them. What will make their lot more difficult is that they will be operating in a world where the competition for appearances are everything to one’s security and advancement – so that profiling oneself by being seen and heard, particularly by attending a lot of meetings, is more important than actually getting on and doing the job. As like as not their employer has a PR strategy and a mission statement about the supposed representation of the interests of all stakeholders which is far from the realities and at least part of the strain is knowing this, or even being one of those inauthentic people responsible for the maintenance of the facade. The problems may appear unresolvable and follow the unhappy worker home, with tasks to do on the lap top and while they are on call. Only by making a big enough space between themselves and their work, by flying abroad on holiday, do they really feel they “escape”. (However, your work may follow you on holiday too, if you take your mobile). In short, what is called ‘work stress’ is based on a pervading sense that much of their work is actually absurd or futile, a profound sense of insecurity and a sense that they are living a lie.

Very few people seem to be asking whether this system development might not itself be creating new kinds of pathologies and problems – particularly in the field of work related illness and mental illness. In these new structures work problems are no longer experienced so much collectively – in a way picked up by trade unions as collective bargaining issues, they are more and more experienced individually. The psycho-dynamics of work in the new bureaucracies is experienced as conflicts and tensions between individuals and particular colleagues, supervisors and customers (and volunteers). The problems lie in coping with the tensions arising from: aggressive clients; envious or hostile colleagues who are floundering in their jobs, with knock-on effects, of both an emotional and performance character; harassment by supervisors and/or floundering supervisors and failing support mechanisms; failure to meet targets because these targets are meaningless, unrealistic or contradictory. Finally there is a pervading sense that no one at senior levels really cares, that whatever the PR and the mission statement say, that the real mood is one of cynicism, powerlessness and hopelessness which makes it difficult to live with the gulf between the institutional PR narrative and the down to earth reality.

Institutional Contexts – When Resource Problems become time problems

Often enough, particularly in the public and not for profit sectors, managers put themselves and other people under time pressure, because they are trying their best to solve or ameliorate a mountain of health, social and environmental problems and the misery and pain associated with these.

Far too often, the sheer volume of these problems in relation to the available time resources, is so great, that “care” takes the form of a form of processing that uses fixed procedures with little room for tuning into individuals. The time does not exist and the supplicant for institutional help must subordinate themselves to the time availabilities and rhythms of the institution. Resource problems reveal themselves too in waiting lists. A certain kind of over conscientious manager and pressured staff may succeed in achieving shorter waiting lists – though they probably die younger and make more mistakes too. This is the consequence where public services are squeezed through lack of public funding . An example would be in education where teachers are required to put in more time on the cheap, doing more paper work, working with bigger classes, less classroom help and more disturbed and demanding children. The public sector and voluntary sector is then literally worked to death – because stressed and conscientious workers have more heart attacks and strokes.

Obviously the time management problems that exist at the interface between public and voluntary sector organisations and citizens in need are not simply waiting list problems. Particularly at the bottom of the social structure, where health, care and environmental problems are concentrated, there is a much greater difficulty of synchronising with public and voluntary services. This difficulty is getting worse now that services are more located in the community.

In conclusion

The identification of an appropriate pace and amount of work is, it should be said, only useful if we then decide that we will not work beyond that pace. This requires a personal decision – and/or a group one. Sometimes this confronts workers with the necessity to contemplate the possibility of leaving their job altogether when it is necessary to set a marker, beyond which they are not prepared to work under any circumstances. Without this decision, that one has a ‘bail out point’, one has no natural or obvious limit beyond which one will not keep on trying to do more, even though it is futile.

An important contribution to a sustainable society is made when overworked people decide to drop out, or radically reduce, the amount they work – if necessary reducing their income and consumption at the same time. Much consumption is, in any case, akin to comfort eating, a sort of psychological compensation or substitute for living. Since high consumption is also a burden to the ecology of the planet and greater well being is probably to be found in a lower energy, lower income and lower work life style for those who are currently overworked, overweight and over tired. Giving up ambitious ideas about what we can achieve personally, giving up our ambitions might be just what is needed.

None of this, however, should be interpreted as meaning that dealing with stress is a matter for workers themselves. Stress cannot be dealt with by setting up a stress industry of counselling and other services, telling workers to work less but maintaining the pressures on them by ceaseless reorganisations and performance management pressures. Something has to give – people have to recognise the truth – their only realistic option is to drop out or reduce their workloads and we need support arrangements for people to do so – whatever our betters say about ‘work’ being a duty.

Note: This is an excerpt from Brian’s book Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis, published by Feasta. You can read other excerpts here.

Featured image: Windows and blinds texture. Author: Michael & Christa Richert. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1166055

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

10 Replies to “Employment in theory and in real life: Services and Government in a world in difficulties”

  1. And how many pounds of food did you grow while you were writing this book Brian? While writing my first book in 2012, I grew 9761 pounds with 1500 hours of labor and 16.5 gallons of gas for an EROI of 3.59:1. While writing my second book in 2013, I grew 8332 pounds of food with 1000 hours of labor and 11.5 gallons of gas for an EROI of 3.63:1. Real results, real numbers.

  2. Walter – You are obviously in every way my moral and intellectual superior. However, a few years ago I did develop a community garden for people with mental health issues. And now I am at retirement age, when the building work is finished on my tiny urban terrace I hope to be able to grow a few vegetables in my back yard as I have done in previous years. I doubt however that I will ever be as hard working and worthy as you.

  3. It would be interesting to know whether the food grown was 8332 pounds of food was cow or carrots, and the resluting caloric value of that food

  4. Yes, that would be very interesting. What I would also find interesting would be comments on the theory of employment and on what it is like to work in the service sector as society and economy becomes more complex. However, in the absence of comments on that let’s have a discussion about cows, carrots and disturbed narcissism…..

  5. I would certainly buy your book when it comes out. But you need to take the old Tainter graph which has benefits incorrectly spelled on the Y axis and make your own graph so you can have benefits spelled correctly.

  6. I can’t equal your poison with my sarcasm Walter. Your comments actually do upset me. Is this what a green society is going to be like? People hating each other as they fiercely compete for who is to be the superior and who is to be the inferior growers of food and/or intellectuals? Why would anyone want to live in such a society? I apologise for replying to your sneers with sarcasm. I can’t match you.

  7. Just to add that I have no interest in reading your other material. Human psychology doesn’t work like that. Or mine doesn’t. I cannot be interested in people who clearly loath me.

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