As I mentioned on Monday, I’ve recently been reading William Davies’ book The Happiness Industry. There’s a chapter in the book about worker dissatisfaction, pointing out that two thirds of US employees do not feel engaged in their jobs, and one in five is actively undermining their workplace. Engaged workers are those who are interested in and committed to their work, and lack of engagement presents itself as absenteeism, sickness and burnout, low motivation and general lack of productivity. It is estimated to cost the US economy $550 billion a year.
In the past, companies might have seen a threat from unions, from labour getting organised and demanding improved pay and conditions. Today, perhaps the big threat is just from sheer apathy, says Davies:
“What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism.”
That’s not an argument I’ve heard before, and it’s one I’m mulling over. There are reasons to be sceptical about worker engagement figures, as they are more complicated than it appears. It might sound bad that two thirds of US workers aren’t engaged in their work, (it’s about a third for the UK too) but from a global point of view that’s a resounding success. The global rate of engagement is just 13%. When you think about it, many people are trapped in poor working conditions or even labouring at subsistence level. They are in jobs they wouldn’t necessarily choose, with too many hours and not enough pay, or doing repetitive tasks that waste their full potential. So work in advanced economies is, by comparison, not so bad.
Still, surely we can do better than 32% engagement. That will mean paying more attention to work, and I think there is enormous room for improvement here. While consumerism offers ever greater opportunities for spending our money, how we earn it is much more limited. Work needs more political attention, and so does time, and solutions are out there. “If capitalism is being ground down by the chronic unspecifiable alienation of those it depends on,” says Davies, “then surely solving that problem may also open up possibilities for political reform?” Indeed, and workplace democracy, employee ownership, and shorter working hours all look like possible ways forward.
If the rumours of a job-destroying digital revolution are correct, then work in the 21st century is going to be radically overhauled in the coming decades anyway. We should plan for a progressive and fair shift towards different working patterns rather than leave it to technology and corporations. Perhaps we should think more broadly about what success and engagement might mean too. Our overall political goal is still economic growth, and that’s a rather abstract motivation for a nation’s workforce. Ultimately business and government’s highest ambition is to grow the economy, to make those numbers bigger, regardless of whether that benefits ordinary people or makes any qualitative difference to our lives. Do we need something better as a goal to aim for? Something more ambitious?
I think so, and I’m working on a book about these sorts of questions with Katherine Trebeck. I’ll tell you more about that soon.