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Labor in the 21st century Labor in the 21st century
by Joseph Gatt
2020-09-18 09:33:48
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Ramblings on the theme “the economy and society in the 21st century.”

In the year 2000, labor around the world has experienced the following shifts:

worer001_400-An explosion of the demand for “white collar workers.”

-A poor understanding of what “white collar workers” should really be doing on the job. I'll get to that.

-A labor system that uses incentives for “power” and “money” on the job, leading to competition and all that.

-A labor system where turnover rates are very high, for a variety of reasons.

-For the first time in history, a labor system where workers DO NOT master their tools for means of production. I'll explain that in a minute.

-And workers often work for organizations that use complex structures, be they production structures or financial structures.

Let's break this down. Briefly. Simply.

An explosion for the demand of “white collar workers.”

Until the 19th century, farmers dominated the labor landscape. In the 20th century, it was factory workers and manual laborers.

In the 21st century, it's the white collar workers and service workers.

Service workers are “light” manual laborers, who often work in jobs where they provide a light service like waiting tables or moving objects from one place to another, or cook, clean, arrange, all those small services ranging from cleaning windows to driving cars or taxis to shopping for company products to handling a cash register and so on.

But the real demand lies in “white collar workers.” That is workers who provide a variety of “intellectual” services, ranging from accounting to inventory, from sales to handling sales complaints, from marketing to fixing machines, to managing large, in some cases multi-million dollar projects.

White collar workers can work on a single task (example: accounting) but that will involve responsibility over a large flow of data. An accountant for example will have to deal with receipts, with budgeting, with financial planning, with financial institutions like banks and insurance companies and so on. So an accountant in 2020 is really a “financial project manager” of sorts.

White collar workers can also work on a multitude of tasks. You could have an ABC and EFG project assistant manager, that is someone who is going to oversee (or help oversee) an ABC project (let's say it's a project involving the construction and maintained of resorts in the Philippines) and EFG project (let's say that involves overseeing an educational resort project in Australia).

So all things relating to ABC and EFG, from budgeting to marketing to finding participants to overseeing construction to handling delays and complaints to handling the legal stuff to payroll to dozens of other things, this “white collar worker” will have to handle.

A poor understanding of the white collar worker

The ideal profile of the white collar worker is one who has a college degree and who can mutli-task.

But the white collar worker is really handling a long series of tasks, many of which, 100 years ago, would have been handled by specialists.

PROBLEM IS: Colleges are training “philosophers” and not “white collar workers.”

That is businesses expect colleges to provide the best mutli-taskers, when colleges are really teaching “thinking” skills and philosophy.

Problem is white collar work is about “reacting” to emergency situations, and “quick thinking” and not about teleology. When college teaches teleology, and does not teach “quick thinking.”

That is, white collar workers are not supposed to be asking themselves what they are doing, or reflecting deeply on the nature of their tasks. White collar workers often perform 50 to 100 tasks a day (everything from phone calls to short reports to memos to meetings to budgeting), when college is about reading books and reflecting on the books.

A labor system that provides incentives to gain more “power” and “money.”

A hundred years ago, you'd get a job at a factory placing parts on a car and you would retire 40 years later still placing parts on a newer, more innovative version of the car.

A hundred years ago, at best, if they really liked you, you'd get promoted to floor supervisor, but you wouldn't daydream about that. The floor supervisor was usually the CEO's distant cousin or something.

Today, you get a job at ABC industries, and on your first day on the job (in some cases before you even start working) they're going to tell you that if you “ace” the project you're going to get promoted to assistant manager, then to manager, then to senior manager, then you'll perhaps have a shot at joining the board of trustees.

And the white collar worker also daydreams about gaining enough experience to get another job at another company that provides higher pay, more power, more control over employees and so on.

Problem with a lot of white collar workers: they understand the money part, they understand the power part, they don't mind bossing people around. But, very often, they don't get the “project” part which I'll get to in a minute.

High turnover rates and lack of mastery of the tools and tasks

For the first time in history, a majority of the labor force has no idea what it's doing.

In the farming days, farmers knew how to farm.

In the factory days, factory workers knew how to assemble parts.

In the white collar days, workers get showered with a variety of tools, millions (yes millions) of tools (we call those “apps”) that enable you to get the job done. And yet few, if any white collar workers master those tools.

So you have MS Word and Excel (they keep changing the versions) and PowerPoint and PDF to Word file converters and apps to convert scanned documents to text and so on and so forth.

Add to the tools the fact that hundreds of decisions need to be taken every day.

Add to the tools and the decisions the fact that a lot of the people in the office need to be informed, and that's hundreds of bits of information you'll be sharing with the office.

Add to that office politics, burnout, and employees who won't listen, and the conflicts at the workplace that can turn violent.

So you get people quitting jobs every six months to a year, looking for a better job.

You also get people changing trades every year or so. They'll try their luck with sales, and if that doesn't work they'll try to get a marketing job. If that doesn't work they'll switch to human resources. Then they'll quit that and try their hand at journalism. Then they end up teaching. They ditch that for finance. And so on.

Complex organizational and financial structures

100 years ago, you invested money, you produced, you sold.

Today, corporations have all kinds of inbuilt complexities that most workers do not understand.

First there are all kinds of complex partnerships. Stakeholders. Shareholders. Trustees.

Then you have ABC which owns 60% of EFG when EFG owns 40% of ABC. Multiply that by a hundred companies. ABC owns 60% of EFG. EFG owns 60% of LMNOP. LMNOP owns 60% of ABC.

Then you have the debt structures and financial structures. ABC owes EFG a million bucks. But EFG owes ABC two million bucks. And then ABC and EFG owe 35 different banks and financial institutions a total a 44 billion dollars. And they owe another 160 foreign banks and financial institutions another 88 billion dollars. And then 180 different institutions owe them 36 billion dollars.

How do you work for people like that? No matter so many people try their luck at becoming “YouRubers” or something.

Depressing. But realistic.

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