I recently read “White-collar sweat-shop: The Deterioriation of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America” (Norton & Co., 2001). Author Jill Andresky Fraser, finance editor for Inc. magazine, spent the past four years compiling statistical and anecdotal evidence for a horror tale worthy of Stephen King.
Contrary to politically correct opinion, we are not better off than our forebears. Since the early 1970s, white-collar working hours are up, job security and benefits are down, and real wages havent changed much at all. All that despite record-breaking corporate profits and a decade-long economic “boom.”
White-collar males earned an average hourly wage of $19.24 in 1997. Adjusted for inflation, thats just 6 cents per hour more than they earned in 1973. The average real income of single workers ages 18-29 actually declined 11 percent during the same period. Real wages of new college grads declined nearly 8 percent. More than 20 percent of white-collar Americans now work more than 49 hours per week. About 15 million work 49-59 hours per week, and another 11 million say they spend 60 hours per week or more at work.
The insatiable greed of shareholders and CEOs is directly to blame for the decline of working conditions in white-collar America. Using tactics deliberately designed to inure entry-level workers to inhuman workloads and inculcate fear in experienced employees, corporate executives have managed to squeeze more and more work out of fewer people for lower wages.
Technology and its peddlers—including me and most of my readers—are accessories to the pervasive crimes of white-collar exploitation. We do not tout technological advances because they help people earn more and work less. We extol technology for helping corporations do more with less; usually, that means fewer people get more to do.
Ironically, most of us accomplices are also victims.
“Expert systems” were designed to ensure that valuable experience was not lost to the corporation when veteran workers left their employment. But if you have a savvy workers knowledge in your computer, its much easier to lay him off. I dont know what possesses some programmers to work on developing software thats designed to “enable programming without the need for programmers.”
The Internet, which Ive promoted since 1988, enables me to work without commuting. But that also means work is staring me in the face when I lay down at night and rise in the morning.
Fraser, in the closing chapters of her book, offers the improbable hope that major investors will someday stop rewarding corporate managers for grinding out profits from the bones of white-collar workers. You might as well rub a lamp and try to wish things better, Jill.
But theres another possibility. When you heap more work upon a person, that persons power to “just say no” increases. If you make one programmer do the work of three, you lose three programmers when that one goes out on strike. Railroad and steel barons could afford to outwait strikers for months, even years. Todays fast-paced New Economy corporation wont get that much slack from Wall Street.
I wonder where all my Woodie Guthrie albums have gone?