Yea! The Internet enables American workers to work more

A working paper links the number of hours American white-collar employees put in and the Internet:

In a new working paper, the economists Edward E. Leamer, of UCLA, and J. Rodrigo Fuentes, of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, studied data about working hours from the American Community Survey. They found that hours worked since 1980 increased nearly 10 percent for Americans with bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Leamer told me that he believes this is because computing has shifted much of the economy from manufacturing to neurofacturing, Leamer’s term for intellectually intensive white-collar labor that is often connected to the internet, such as software programming, marketing, advertising, consulting, and publishing.

Neurofacturing jobs lend themselves to long hours for several reasons, Leamer said. They’re less physically arduous, as it’s easier to sit and type than to assemble engine parts. What’s more, the internet makes every hour of the day a potential working hour…

As Leamer and Fuentes write in the paper, “The innovations in personal computing and internet-based communications have allowed individual workers the freedom to choose weekly work hours well in excess of the usual 40.”

The internet has also supercharged global competition and forced international firms to outwork rivals many thousands of miles away. This has created a winner-take-all dynamic that’s trickled down to the workforce. In their 2006 study, “Why High Earners Work Longer Hours,” the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano found that the premium paid for longer workweeks has increased since 1980 for educated workers, but not for less educated workers. Their theory is that at the most competitive firms, ambitious workers putting in super-long hours are sending a clear message to the boss: Promote me! And the boss isn’t just getting the message; he’s actively soliciting it. At many firms, insanely long hours are the skeleton key to the C-suite and the partner track. Thus, overwork becomes a kind of arms race among similarly talented workers, exacerbated by the ability to never stop working, even at home. It’s mutually assured exhaustion.

“Mutually assured exhaustion” is the result of zealous workers, managers asking more of employees, or the product of a unique work ethic in the United States?

This could lead to a basic question that I ask myself from time to time: has the Internet made life better? Is humanity thriving more, feeling better, doing more good, and experiencing a better life because of the Internet? The personal comparison is harder in that I was much younger when the Internet was not available but I can still imagine the comparisons. How might my academic work be different? My family life? My leisure time? And so on.

Additionally, the study also seems ripe for a comparison to other countries around the world that also have the Internet. Is the Internet the driver here or a tool that the American economic and social system utilizes to push a particular kind of work and approach to life? The Internet is not all powerful and cultural and social decisions in other societies seem to provide room for pushing against the possibility of working all day that the Internet allows.

C. Wright Mills influences movie about white-collar cubicles

A new movie about white-collar cubicle workers is influenced by the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills:

In his 1951 book “White Collar,” the sociologist C. Wright Mills acknowledged the powerlessness of the white-collar worker while also understanding his importance within a larger context: “Yet it is to this white-collar world that one must look for much that is characteristic of twentieth-century existence … They carry, in a most revealing way, many of those psychological themes that characterize our epoch, and, in one way or another, every general theory of the main drift has had to take account of them.”…

Mills’s thinking was a major inspiration for the filmmaker Zaheed Mawani, who documents the resigned reality of the cubicle-coralled white-collar worker in his new film “Three Walls” (you can watch a clip here). Mawani’s film brings to the screen what numerous long-term studies have shown: that a lack of autonomy over one’s daily tasks leads to boredom (at best), utter despair and even increased mortality rates. Yet, time and again, proposed solutions ignore these deeper issues and focus instead (see last month’s column) on the furniture.

Mawani has used the cubicle to explore larger issues in the world of work. As he and I both discovered, passions run high around the most seemingly banal piece of furniture: it has its arch defenders, its resigned occupiers and its rigorously vocal critics. Mawani was interested in examining what the cubicle has come to represent, as he explained in an e-mail to me, “in terms of the shifting nature of white collar work: the lack of job security, increase in temporary workers, our detachment to work (the fact that we no longer stay in the same job for more than a few years and the ramifications of no longer having that employee-employer bond). It’s also about our relationship to technology, the lack of physicality in work.”

Is there really much more to say about the cubicle, a piece of office furniture that has received much criticism over the years? For many, the cubicle has come to represent a temporary space where workers are simply replaceable cogs in corporate machines that tend to benefit some wealthy owner somewhere else.

This discussion reminds me of the design firm IDEO which has been featured in a number of places for creating a different type of workplace: no walls, open desks, lots of toys, lots of collaborative space, and a lot of interaction between workers of different backgrounds in order to take advantage of everyone’s ideas. For an example of how they operate, I’ve had students watch this old ABC Nightline clip about how the company went about designing a new grocery cart. This sort of office seems to appeal to a younger generation and IDEO argues that it is much more effective. (Humorously, here is IDEO’s attempt to build “Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle.”)

The idea that office furniture can reveal deep-seated cultural themes is intriguing. I’m afraid to ask what someone might be able to see if they had time to observe my office…

Social class, meritocracy, and the latest Royal wedding

Amidst all of the furor, one commentator explores the possible consequences of the marriage of the Eton-schooled Prince William and the middle-class Kate Middleton:

The Daily Telegraph published one of the more entertaining pieces about the intended wedding. Toby Young gave the new parents-in-law, Charles and Camilla, hints on how to behave at a middle-class dinner party (“bring a bottle of wine”). But Toby Young’s father was the renowned sociologist Michael Young. I doubt if he would have been amused by young Toby’s class-ridden article.

In a classic book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, back in 1958, Young père invented a new word. As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, “meritocracy” is the only concept by a British sociologist to enter the English language since Darwin’s camp-follower, Herbert Spencer, back in the 19th century, thought of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

Young didn’t welcome the prospect of an all-powerful meritocracy. He feared it would leave behind a disaffected, leaderless working class. He hoped for a revolt against the triumphant meritocrats. He never reckoned that Eton would help to man the barricades.

Could any sociologist have invented an apter surname for the bride-to-be than “Middleton”, with its undertones of Middle England and middle class? Till now, meritocracy has, in practice, surged ahead. Kate’s parents, Michael and Carole, are entrepreneurial examples. Politically, the marker was Tony Blair’s invention of New (ie Middle Class) Labour…

The upshot, as in the United States, is that an ever increasing proportion of the population will hold some kind of degree. Partly because of this, most Americans now think of themselves as “middle class”. In Britain, a sizeable segment still think of themselves as “working class”, because their fathers, or even grandfathers, were working class. But this curious nostalgia is fast fading.

The physical evidence of meritocracy is all around the commuter-land fringes of every town and city in Britain. In Berkshire, where Kate Middleton and David Cameron grew up, estates of “executive homes” have spread like Japanese knotweed. They are sneered at by those who can afford a bit more, just as the interwar pebbledash semis were sneered at. That’s how Britain is. Class obsesses the British, and especially the English, in the same way that race obsesses Americans.

Chalk one up for British sociology: the coining of the word “meritocracy.”

This commentary comes close to asking a question that I have always wondered about: what would society have to look like before it could truly be called meritocratic? This commentator suggests meritocracy has helped many people in England move up to the middle class but ultimately, Prince William from Eton, the symbol of upper-class England, will carry the day. Does a society need to be mostly middle-class? Do most of the citizens have to feel that they have an opportunity to make their way up the class ladder (which seems to be the thought in America)? Does it mean that a majority or a large number pursue and achieve a college education? Does it mean the reduction of blue-collar jobs and a rise in white-collar and professional positions?

This seems difficult to sort out. America likes to think it is meritocratic even as many people have fewer opportunities to move up. Perhaps we could settle on suggesting that America, at least in ideology, is more meritocratic than England?