Friday, March 31, 2006

Not Enough Stupid People

I’m currently re-reading Harry Braverman’s 1974 book Labor and Monopoly Capitol (New York: Monthly Review Press). Braverman made a number of astute observations about the changing relationship between owners and workers over the course of the Twentieth Century. What’s of particular interest to me, however, is that this book sowed the seeds of a notion later referred to by sociologists and industrial psychologists as ‘de-skilling.’

When eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrialists wanted to manufacture a product, they had to rely on skilled tradesmen to make it for them. The tradesman made all the decisions about how the product was produced, for he alone knew (a) the raw materials needed for a task, and where to get the best; (b) the amount of time needed to create a product; and (c) how to make a quality product.

In the above scenario, the boss really can’t tell the tradesman how to do his job, and thus loses control over the product. If the tradesman doesn’t like how the boss does business, the boss cannot stop the employee from finding another, more amenable superior. The employee, therefore, always had his expertise as a bargaining chip.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, employers, wanting to control the production process, began to assess their manufacturing as a whole, and then break it down into its constituent parts. So instead of one skilled tradesman with a vast knowledge of how your widget is put together, you hire a bunch of people who know one aspect of the process, but nothing else. The tendency to divide labor into steps ultimately culminated in the assembly-line manufacturing that we’re familiar with today. But, as Braverman pointed out, something else came along during the latter decades of the 1800s that was even more important to the reorganization of labor than the assembly line.

Think about all the different jobs it takes to bring a widget to market: (1) designing the damn thing; (2) procuring materials; (3) organizing the work pool so that you have your best workers doing the harder tasks, (4) putting the product together; (5) distributing the product; and (6) marketing the product. In the 1880s, Fredrick Winslow Taylor developed a theory of management whereby all of the tasks of production were broken down into two categories. The first category, putting the product together, became the province of workers, who constituted the bulk of your employees. The other tasks, which required more abstract reasoning than dexterity, required fewer employees, who were answerable to senior management, and thus lumped together into a second category called management.

Because of technology and training, most aspects of assemblage became simpler, and thus required fewer skilled workers. By the 1930s, virtually all factory tasks were mechanized, routinized, and automated to the point where the education and intellectual acumen needed to manufacture a product wasn’t all that much.

Hence, the term ‘de-skilling.’

By the 1960s, office workers began to face de-skilling as well. Traditionally, office workers were, at the very least, high school graduates, and many had attended college. In the 1950s, a person working as a clerk was expected to possess some kind of intelligence. But with the 1960s came an explosion of college-educated Americans, who by 1969 were looking at job markets that required only a fraction of their intellectual capacity and erudition. Even worse, they often earned less than their blue-collar counterparts.

By 1970, a crisis had developed. Workers had become more and more dissatisfied with their jobs, and this led to records in absenteeism, poor job performance evaluations, and employee turnover. As one (deliberately) anonymous job design consultant from Case Western Reserve University put it, “We may have created too many dumb jobs for the number of dumb people to fill them.”

Americans, nowadays, often talk about the “dumbing down” of their fellow citizens. I’m not sure that this is the case, or that this is restricted to the US alone. I think it is safe to say, however, that my countrypersons and I live in a society where there is a greater expectancy of compliance to authority, especially on the job, and an increased unwillingness to exercise personal judgment when the rules and the training manual don’t readily apply. (How often have you heard a clerk say, “Well, speak to the manager,” or customers/clients ask to speak to “someone in charge” of the department?) In effect, we’ve become more like children, dependant upon the parental figure to tell us what is right and what is wrong. Whatever way you look at it, there are people who have an interest in developing a more stupid citizenry.


Blogger Johnny said...

should make that "sheeple"...

2:37 PM  
Blogger X. Dell said...

Yeah, I guess you're right.

5:07 PM  

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