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The jobless employed


One of the conundrums of “late” (LOL) capitalism is that it features having both way too few and too many workers at the same time.

The too few worker phenomenon is evident to everybody who has to deal with the consequences of hyper-aggressive just in time staffing, such as chronically delayed airline flights because there aren’t nearly enough flight crews available to cover the schedule if anything goes wrong, which of course it often does, or sitting for five hours in an urgent care waiting room before a doctor is available to make the two-minute diagnosis that your child has an ear infection and needs antibiotics (which you I mean me knew already when we went there).

On the other hand:

In theory, Nate works 40 hours a week in the operations department at a major fintech company. In reality, Nate works one hour a day at most. He moseys over to his computer whenever he gets an alert on his phone that he’s got a task to complete. Otherwise, he spends most of the day doing, basically, whatever he feels — he sleeps in, he watches TV, he does household chores. His only real restriction is that he can’t stray too far from home in the event he is needed for something.

“I don’t have a problem with being asked to do work; it’s just I’m not really being asked,” he says. Maybe he could take more initiative and try to take on more, but he gets good performance reviews and raises as it is, so he figures, why bother? Plus, it’s not like he can waltz up to his boss to announce there’s no real business reason for his existence. “How do I initiate that conversation that’s, ‘Hey, I haven’t been doing much of anything this whole time, I need more to do’? You don’t really want to draw attention to it,” says Nate . . .

Nate doesn’t think his boss or anyone is really aware of the problem — his company laid off hundreds of workers earlier this year, and he made it through. He shows up at office social events once a month to put in face-time and is generally well-liked. He’s read stories about companies tracking remote workers to make sure they’re actually working but feels pretty confident his company isn’t. “If we did,” he says, “I don’t think I’d be employed.”

One reason work from home policies cause so much angst for big corporations is that a lot of upper management types are vaguely aware that they employ a lot of people who don’t actually do much of anything, and they understandably fear that flexible work from home policies will exacerbate this situation. Of course this category of essentially do nothing jobs includes significant numbers of upper management positions, as our new Associate Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Synergism admitted to me recently.

The real problem here is that a more rational work culture would include the recognition that it’s OK to get paid full time wages for doing ten or fifteen hours of work a week, since that’s what everybody should be doing at this point, given how rich we’ve become as a society. But we can’t have that because any such recognition would dampen economic growth and profit maximization, which is obviously a terrible thing because [step in argument missing].

All the cognitive dissonance around this subject helps generate the current situation, in which some people are massively overworked while others are massively underemployed, at least per the official terms of their employment, and these people can work — or not work — in very close proximity to each other.

Of course the optimal solution here is that everyone should be paid a six-figure salary to review obscure foreign films and new indie rock bands on an occasional basis, and I understand that in the future this will be the case.

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