The Speedup
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All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup

You: doing more with less. Corporate profits: going strong. The dirty secret of the jobless recovery.

Which brings us to another shared delusion: multitasking. Our best efforts at collective denial notwithstanding, simple arithmetic reveals that even after housewives entered the workforce, the work of housewives still had to be done. Sure, some of it—especially child care—was outsourced, often at rock-bottom wages. But for many women, and a rising (though not yet sufficient) number of men, the second shift awaits each night. And it's increasingly being joined by a third shift, as we remain digitally tethered to the office in the diminishing hours we're actually home.

Multitasking seems the obvious fix—let me just answer this email while I help with your homework! But here's the scary research news: Minus a few freakish exceptions, most of us cannot actually multitask. Try to keep up a conversation with your spouse while scanning the BlackBerry, and empirical data shows (PDF) that you do both things poorly. And not only that: If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus. (Same with sleep: Aside from a tiny minority of mutants, humans perform distinctly and progressively worse when they get fewer than eight hours a night. Go ahead and cry.)

tkClick here for more maps and charts on how Americans are working more and earning less.

Think you're the exception? Nope. "Virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking," warns Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass. "And one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You're really lousy at it. [It's] been demonstrated over and over and over. No one talks about it—I don't know why—but in fact there's no contradictory evidence to this for about the last 15, 20 years."

Actually, it's not hard to guess why no one talks about it: We need to believe there's a personal workaround for what we're conditioned to see as a personal shortcoming. When, in fact, the problem is the absurd premise that our economy can produce ever more with ever less.

But take heart! Up in the corner offices, there's a growing recognition that unrealistic demands on time are destroying the souls of...executives. "Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy," notes a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, the research publication of the giant global consulting firm that has been corporate America's chief efficiency cheerleader. "These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard." McKinsey's advice to beleaguered execs? Do one thing at a time; delegate; take more breaks.

Just try telling that to the millions of people whose work has been downsized, offshored, and sped up thanks to McKinsey.
 

How have we been so brainwashed? For a lucky few, money and perks help sugarcoat the daily frenzy—anything from the workaday onsite gym to the rock-climbing wall, free dry-cleaning, massage parlor, and unlimited sushi you'll find at the Googleplex. Some heed the siren song of Tony Robbins/Franklin Planner/4-Hour Workweek/Lifehacker—pick your productivity guru. But for most Americans, it's just fear—of being passed over at best, downsized at worst. Even among college grads, unemployment is twice what it was in 2007, and those statistics don't take note of all the B.A.'s stocking shelves and answering phones. McDonald's recently announced that it had gotten more than a million applicants for 62,000 new positions. Enough said.

Meanwhile, what's passed off as the growing pains of a modern economy is—not to go all Marxist on you—simply about redistribution. For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they've ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top: By 2008, the wealthiest 0.1 percent were making 6.4 times as much as they did in 1980 (adjusted for inflation). And just to further fuel your outrage, that 22 percent increase in profits? Most of it accrued to a single industry: finance.

In other words, all that extra work you've taken on—the late nights, the skipped lunch hours, the missed soccer games—paid off. For them.

This will keep up as long as we buy into three fallacies: One, that to feel crushed by debilitating workloads is a personal failing. Two, that it's just your company or industry struggling—when in fact what's happening to hotel maids and sales clerks is also happening to project managers, engineers, and doctors. Three, that there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Mule Design Studio, a web-design shop with a number of blue-chip clients, has a saner policy: "Our office hours are Monday through Friday 9-6. We do not hand out our cell phone numbers. On the weekend, we cease to exist."

No, no, and no. We got to this point because of decades of political decisions. To name but three: turning over the financing of elections to wealthy interests; making it harder for unions to organize; deregulating Wall Street (and completely wimping out on reregulating it after the financiers nearly destroyed the global economy). And even after having watched these policies bring the global economy to its knees, Mitch McConnell & Co. say that any questioning of corporate power is tantamount to rolling out the tumbrels. Please.

It would take a boatload of arrogance, and an essay four times this length, to prescribe a solution. But suffice it to say there are companies in the US that have figured out a way to thrive and maintain a sane, even engaging, work environment. (Take the policies of Mule Design Studio, a web-design shop with a number of blue-chip clients: "Our office hours are Monday through Friday 9-6. We do not hand out our cell phone numbers. On the weekend, we cease to exist.")

European companies face the same pressures that ours do—yet in Germany's vigorous economy, for example, six weeks of vacation are de rigueur, weekend work is a last resort, and companies' response to a downturn is not to fire everyone, but to institute Kurzarbeit—temporarily reducing hours and snapping back when things start looking up (PDF). Sure, they lag ever so slightly behind us in productivity. But ask yourself: Who does our No. 1 spot benefit?

Exactly. So maybe it's time to come out of the speedup closet. Rant to a friend, neighbor, coworker. Hear them say, "Me too." That might sound a little cheesy, and it's not going to lance Mitch McConnell from the body politic of America. But if you're in an abusive relationship—which 90-plus percent of America currently is—the first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem.

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