The slow work movement

In an earlier article I argued for a lifestyle which is less based upon material possessions and more focused on getting joy out of life.

Too Many People, Too Little Work

Suggesting that people work less is fine, but people still need to do some work in order to live. The question is what sort?

Historical Work Patterns

Modern society has altered the traditional division of labor which consisted of a large peasant class, a very small landowning class, and a modest sized merchant class. As mechanization improved, the number needed for tilling the land decreased, while a new class of factory workers emerged which absorbed much of the displaced workforce. This was not a smooth transition, a lot of excess labor was forced to emigrate, especially from Europe to the New World and Australia. Now that these areas have filled up, displaced workers in other regions have been forced into more extreme situations. The biggest, ongoing, trend is from the countryside in Africa and Asia and into the cities. They don't find the factory or entrepreneurial jobs as rewarding as the earlier migrants did. Many end up in extreme poverty with minimal social services living in fringe shanty towns.

The advanced societies are now moving away from almost all agricultural (the US employs about 2% of the working population in this area), and the mass-production factory model, which was the backbone of the growth of the middle class during the 20th Century, is also going into decline. The boosters of the brighter tomorrow dream say that "service" jobs will replace the traditional employment opportunities. Service jobs, however, fall into two broad categories. I'll call them labor substitution and middlemen. A typical modern example of labor substitution:

A woman with children enters the labor force and then spends most of her salary paying another woman to take care of her kids. Or she works so late that she has to buy prepared foods on the way home to serve her family. The food preparer substituted for the traditional home role. I'm not saying that this a good or bad development, just that it has become increasingly common as the percentage of women in the workforce continues to rise. Many women resented being forced into a role of "housewife" when they had ambitions of their own. More options can only be a positive development. Other labor substitutions have grown without much notice, at one time only the barber and the bread baker were common labor substitution professions. The first because it needed a certain degree of skill and the second because many poor families didn't have ovens. Now we have people to do our shopping for us, wrap our packages, make us a cup of coffee and give us financial and "lifestyle" advice.

The other category of service job is the creation of layer upon layer of intermediaries. I don't need to enumerate them, but a typical firm will now have training, human resources,payroll, accounting, food service and cleaning all delegated to specialized firms. The argument is that a specialized firm can be more efficient than a company doing everything for its self. In limited cases this may be true, but the middlemen need to make a profit too and it is not clear that the service actually ends up cheaper as a result.

In an earlier age a banker's skill lay in being able to assess the risk of making a loan. Now bankers hire risk analysis firms, risk insurance firms, management firms, credit rating agencies, appraisers, etc. in an almost endless progression of new services. These new services don't add new value to the ultimate transaction. A loan gets made or it doesn't, but they do keep lots of people employed. I've maintained that this is an entirely proper social organization for a society to adopt, as long as what is being done is agreed to by the citizenry explicitly.

The legislators have no trouble making such an argument when it comes to military spending. They explicitly cite the number of jobs that will be created by making death machines. Right now, in the US, a similar argument is being made for keeping the huge middleman structure of the health services sector. There are about six million in the "Healthcare Practitioner and Technical Occupations" listing kept by the US Department of Labor, but the workforce in the overall field is about 16 million. In other words, about half of all jobs are middlemen. If a society wants to deliberately provide make-work jobs, then that's fine as long as everyone understands what is the goal. The Japanese provide support for small plot rice farmers by keeping imports at a disadvantage. Everyone pays a bit more, but these marginally economic farmers are kept on their land and employed. The expense is seen as being socially worthwhile.

To summarize: Agriculture and factory work are in decline, "service" industries are on the increase, but many of the new jobs are really make-work tasks or labor substitution. The push toward labor substitution is also a result of the way the GDP is calculated. Getting back to my working mother case, when she stays home, her work does not contribute to the GDP, but if she hires someone else to do the tasks, then both transactions are counted. This anomaly is used as a way to shape public policy, even if the planners may not realize it.

Slow Work

A few years ago a "slow food" movement started. People were supposed to cook for themselves and take time to enjoy the entire process of preparation and eating. In addition raising food locally or buying from small farmers rather than big industrialized operations was seen as a desirable end. By analogy I'm coining the term "slow work", which I'll define in a moment.

Starting near the beginning of the 20th Century there was a revulsion to the increasingly dehumanized factory system and in both Britain and the US there arose movements dedicated to recreating the traditional hand crafts. Usually this is called the "Arts and Crafts" movement. Many of the creations of these small shops and skilled workman now command huge prices, but the movement was always aimed at the elite.

During the 1960's there was a second wave with many "hippies" moving to Vermont and other rural areas and setting up furniture, pottery and jewelry operations. Some even survive to this day. Even food preparation became part of the movement with bakers and other shops offering alternatives to mass-produced food.

My "slow food" movement is an attempt to extend this beyond the elite that have been its mainstay so far. The one thing that people can't really buy these days is individually made items. Almost everything we buy is mass-produced. Advertisers go to great lengths to make people identify with products and make them think that this defines their individuality, but in truth it is just the opposite. The "unique" sweater that you buy in a shop may only be carried in a dozen or so copies, but it is likely that it is in hundreds of other shops elsewhere. The "uniqueness" is an illusion.

My proposal is to shift away from mass production for much of what we buy. Certain items are now so complex or difficult to build that getting a hand-made one is impractical. How could a hand-made mobile phone even be created? On the other hand the Volvo model showed that autos could be made from start to finish by work teams rather than on an assembly line. With a bit of tweaking even such complex system as this could be individualized. The assembly team would do more that take predefined parts from the appropriate bins, but would have some say on what parts were incorporated, following a customer's desires. With modern computerized control systems, even one-off machined parts are feasible.

Other areas like clothing, furniture and home furnishings lend themselves to a non-factory model. What I'm suggesting is not the false "customization" provided by huge firms. For example Levy's Jeans offers custom fitted clothes, but all that changes is that the cutting machine is programmed with the customer's actual measurements. Everything else about the process is still the same. The objective is to get people out of the factories and into workshops where they are designers as well as builders. Of course, this will be less "efficient" than the one-size-fits-all mass production model. But the loss in efficiency is compensated by the increased need for employment. This is the social goal that I'm advocating. "Efficiency" fails to take in the total cost to a society of how things get done. Where is the cost of those not working factored in? Where is the loss of self worth from people on the fringes accounted? Just like the GDP distortion, failing to price life satisfaction skews priorities.

I've built a lot of the furniture in my home over the decades (including two harpsichords) and the feeling one gets from living with one's creations provides a lasting satisfaction that no mass produced item can match, regardless of how much we are told to the contrary. Living with items bought (or bartered) from people that you have met and discussed your needs with is also a source of pleasure. Not everything needs to be material output to fall into to my scheme. Farmer's markets show that people have the same feelings toward the breads, jellies and other items that are for sale. With a bit of thought this type of personalized labor can be extended to many other areas, including "services".

One pays more for the items one buys, but one gets more for the items that one sells. And if it takes months to make a harpsichord then someone trying to do this for a living will just make fewer and charge appropriately. The lessened income will reduce the mad rush toward excess materialism and the continual replacement of perfectly good items for newer ones in an attempt to make up for the lack of meaning in many people's lives.

That's my slow work movement. Enjoy the labor, see the results of your efforts and know that others appreciate getting things that aren't mass-produced and ill-suited to one's actual needs. Done right there will be enough honest work for all that need it.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.