Dr. Jamie Woodcock
"The introduction of the work ethic has been one longer term way to elicit motivation from workers."
As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. This is the final week.
4. Does it still make sense to talk of a work ethic, and does work still provide recognition and a sense of meaning? How should this be negotiated in the future?
Work remains the activity that the overwhelming majority of us will spend most our time doing. Work remains central to capitalism – it creates and recreates the system every single day. This can be seen most sharply in major cities like London. Without the work required to transport people, bring commodities in from around the world, stack the shelves of shops, prepare and even deliver food, clean, care for, and carry out maintenance of various kinds, the city would grind to a halt and collapse very quickly.
Yet an important distinction to make here is between labour and work. If labour is considered the way in which people interact with their environment and act upon things, work is created when that labour power (embodied within a person) is purchased and directed by another. The organisation of work therefore requires the purchase of labour by capital, something which is a far from straightforward process. The purchaser seeks to gain the maximum potential from labour, while this is not in the interest of the seller. This indeterminacy of labour power is the basic problem of management and many different solutions have been experimented with.
The introduction of the work ethic has been one longer term way to elicit motivation from workers. It involves the notion that hard work is itself a reward, containing some sort of intrinsic benefit. Under capitalism, the work ethic permeates many institutions, from schooling, education, to the mass media. The problem now with this ethic is that contemporary work has entered a deep crisis, no longer providing enough opportunities to allow people to make a living, particularly with the onset of automation.
Instead of promoting deprivation of various kinds, a different kind of work ethic could be negotiated to provide different routes to recognition and meaning.
The rise of the “gig economy” has seen a redoubling of the work ethic, a renewed emphasis on motivation being the worker’s problem. In a recent series of adverts for Fiverr (a gig work platform) titled “In Doers We Trust”, the dystopian future work ethic can be clearly seen. One of the adverts, featuring a woman blankly staring from the poster, states: “you eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” In many ways, this is quite distant from how many companies would want to make work appear.
Instead of promoting deprivation of various kinds, a different kind of work ethic could be negotiated to provide different routes to recognition and meaning. The spread of automation could finally reduce the amount of time needed to work, creating greater opportunities for people to engage in other activities. Rather than finding meaning at work, this could instead be found in local communities, cultural activities, or all manner of other things that people could choose to spend increased time on.
Dr. Jamie Woodcock is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and his current research focuses on digital labour, sociology of work, resistance, and videogames. His most recent book Working the Phones (Pluto, 2017) is an ethnographic study of working conditions in call centres in the UK. He has previously worked as a postdoc on a research project about videogames, as well as another investigating the crowdsourcing of citizen science. Jamie completed his PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and has held positions at Goldsmiths, the University of Leeds, the University of Manchester, Queen Mary, NYU London, and Cass Business School.