Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work"
Our goal, as Kent Klitgaard explains, is fulfilling, meaningful work or activity for all. To reach this goal, there are seven factors to consider, encapsulated in the acronym TAPIOCA.
All of us who use our talents know how much fulfillment we get from doing so. Conversely, I may own and operate a small car repair business that provides an important community service, but if I have no mechanical aptitude, my work is unlikely to be fulfilling and may, in fact, do great harm. Historically, in most non-native cultures, it may be fair to suggest that most people never got to discover what their talents were. We need great parents, great schooling, and great teachers as well as a society committed to fostering individual fulfillment to help us discover and develop our talents.
When we are in control of our actions and able to make the decisions that matter, whether alone or as part of a team, it feels right and proper. A person may be a brilliant potter, but if she is stuck on an assembly line and told what to do for every pot, her lack of agency will make her feel degraded. Historically, so many of our ancestors were denied agency, being required to work as slaves, servants, factory drones, or abused wives and children.
Giving agency means giving trust, and that is more likely when managers and owners have the wisdom or the training to do so, knowing that they will get better results and have happier, more fulfilled workers. It is hard to legislate for this: a small business may be run by a controlling owner who denies his workers agency, while a huge corporation may be run by a liberated CEO who does her utmost to extend agency to her workers.
At one end of a scale, there is work that is full of purpose. At the other end, there’s a call center where the workers are required to sell credit cards to low-income people, enabling them to go deeper into debt. Purpose is essential to meaning—and, thus, to meaningful work. Take it away, and what is life about? Just wasting the hours from paycheck to paycheck, then spending it on consumer things you may not need to make up for the waste of your time.
I would reckon it rare to find a workers’ cooperative without purpose, but quite common to find a corporate or administrative job that lacks purpose. So the greater the penetration of cooperative ownership and control, the more purpose people will experience.
Unless you are a monk, nun, or yogi in a cave, income is important—and even they need income in the form of food. In addition to guaranteeing a livable wage for all and equal wages for women, we need to set an upper limit on earnings.
When 50,000 people around the world (including 1581 Americans) were asked how much they thought a top CEO earned compared to an unskilled factory worker, the answer was $900,000 compared to $25,000, for a wage ratio of 36:1. In reality, the ratio is 830:1, and 4,000:1 for the highest paid CEOs. When asked what they thought it should be, they responded $200,000: $30,000, for a ratio of 7:1. That’s how completely out of whack income inequality has become.1
We need massive tax reform to begin to restore equality. Moreover, just as cooperative ownership is conducive to more purposeful work, so too can it help reduce income disparities.
The democratization of ownership is an essential part of the new economy that many people are hard at work building. When it comes to work, however, I know plenty of people who work in someone else’s company who find their work meaningful and fulfilling. It may be that the quality of management is more important than ownership, plus the extent to which talent, agency, purpose and community come into play.
To the extent that this is more likely to happen in a cooperatively owned workplace, however, more cooperative ownership will bring more meaningful work.
Some people like work that is solitary, such as a poet, or a Boreal forest summer fire-watcher. For the rest of us, community is essential, whether it’s the community of the team you work with, your union, or the wider community you serve. Even the most fulfilling, talented work can be miserable if your fellow workers bully you, demean you, or sexually harass you. Our culture is ending ten thousand years of domination and hierarchy, and all over the world, people are discovering how much happier life and work are when we treat each other with respect and cooperation.
Even the most intimate, caring work can be done in a manner that is bullying and cruel; and the most boring, mindless work can be done with fellow workers who are caring and kind.
You would be hard-pressed to find a parent who would give up the automatic washing machine and go back to washing by hand in cold water, so automation itself is not the problem. Having the best tools for the job is invaluable—in my line of work, I can do research much faster using Google that I used to by going to the library. So the word automation here means having the best tools for the job, while allowing me to address what is rapidly becoming a critical issue.
And if you told a worker on a mindless assembly line that she was being replaced by a robot, but she would continue to be paid as if she was still working, you would be hard-pressed to hear her complain.
So the issue is not automation, but income. Try this for a thought experiment. In China, Foxconn is planning to convert its machine tool factories to all-robotic affairs in ‘dark factories’ that operate 24/7 with the lights out.2 To whom should the income from the robots’ work go? Under capitalism, it goes to the owners of the capital that built the plant. In such a future, the non-owners would receive no income and be unable to buy the products the robots made, so the economy would collapse.
In reality, it is the accumulated knowledge of scientists and engineers over hundreds of years that enables the robots to do their work, and who owns that? Surely, it is part of the public commons, and should therefore be owned by everyone. So one way or another, either through high taxation or mandatory government ownership of the shares of automated factories, the income needs to be redistributed.
Should it be distributed as a citizens income to everyone? As higher welfare payments to those who are unemployed? As support for community economic development strategies to rebuild community wealth?
The most logical response, if everyone is to enjoy meaningful, fulfilling work or activity, is to distribute the income in the form of support for work/life balance measures that reduce the average working week to thirty-two hours, and lower, as automation proceeds. We should decide that full employment for those who want it is our goal, and work to reduce the working week until no one suffers involuntary unemployment.
In other words, everyone gets TAPIOCA, which is a great dessert when it’s cooked properly. They express their Talents, experience Agency, have Purpose, earn sufficient Income, participate in Ownership, enjoy Community, and benefit from the fruits of Automation.
1. International Social Survey Programme, “Social Inequalities IV,” 2009. http://www.gesis.org/issp/modules/issp-modules-by-topic/social-inequality/2009/, quoted in Les Leopold, Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice (New York: Labor Institute Press, 2015).
2. Will Knight, “China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers,” MIT Technology Review, April 26, 2016, http://www.technologyreview.com/s/601215/china-is-building-a-robot-army-of-model-workers/.