A couple days ago, he linked to a post by ZippyCatholic about how life in the corporate world demands constant increases in productivity: up or out. Or to use Zippy's metaphor: Work is a treadmill, and the speed doubles every ten years.
Zippy is in turn writing about a post on What's Wrong With The World by Lydia McGrew.
McGrew is a homeschooling mother and (I surmise from her introduction) the wife of an academic, and so while she holds to capitalistic ideals, she says she has not been recently familiar with corporate experience. She was, thus, must distressed to have a recent conversation with a friend about "development" as it is demanded in the corporate world:
He explained that in his area there is intense pressure constantly to be changing one's role in the company. This is billed as "developing," "advancing." "Move up or move out," is the basic message. Even if, as does sometimes happen, you do well at your job and would prefer to keep doing it, and even if your immediate superior likes you and would like to keep you in your present position, the superior himself comes under pressure for not "developing his people." Ambition is treated as worthwhile in itself, and its absence as a sign that there is something wrong with you as an employee. Not even a sign, really--as definitionally something wrong with you as an employee. Finding something you like and trying to keep doing it well, perhaps even learning to do it better and better? How passe! How quaint! How regressive!....Lydia considers this to be a sort of post-modern heresy in regards to capitalism, and a betrayal of its real ideals, which she describes as "means of people's doing things they want to do, doing them well, and profiting from the labor of doing them well".
I was thus confronted with an image of some previously unknown circle in Dante's Inferno, a place of ceaseless, meaningless motion for the sake of motion. For this motion does not enable the hot dog company to make better hot dogs, nor to make them more efficiently, nor to serve their customers better. It doesn't enable the computer company to make a more user-friendly product or a product that makes its customers' lives better. Such motion from role to role in a company, even if labeled "upward," does not or certainly need not mean that the employee is really growing, is really becoming better at what he does, is really helping his company to do what it does better. It need not even mean that he is doing better at some intangible work such as helping the company to advertise or market its product. On the contrary, he has to keep learning to do something new every few years, just when he was getting wise and experienced in his old role....
In fact, this "move up or move out" imperative makes the old idea of being a cog in a machine look rather pleasant by comparison. Do you want the cogs in your car to keep randomly evolving into something different? Not at all. You might end up with a car that didn't run at all, or that ran much worse than before. If the employees were cogs in a machine, their employers would be grateful that they keep on playing their coggish roles efficiently and well and that they do so indefinitely, making the company like a machine that just keeps on forever running sweetly on well-oiled wheels. If the model of employees as cogs in a machine is modern, it seems to me that the corporate world of "move up or move out" is post-modern, a world where everything must morph for the sake of morphing and where this grotesque and pointless movement is called "growth."
Zippy looks at the same problem and sees it as built into capitalism, or at least to the structure of the stock-issuing company:
You can't think of a company as a 'fixed' entity like a car, or even like a cow (a "cash cow" company will get a low market value even if it has high profits, while a growth company will get high market value even with relatively low [current] profits). It is a false analogy. Every 'human resource' in the company is an asset, and assets that do not appreciate in value over time actually lose money for the company when measured against inflation; so they have to be gotten rid of. Just because they store some value 'in place' doesn't mean they are worth keeping around: storing value 'in place' is money in a mattress, worth far less than productive, growing capital....Now, I do know about and understand the sort of at times foolish emphasis on "moving up" that is often found in corporate environments. A good friend my parents age who is a very, very good computer programmer ran into a problem some years back where she was essentially told she'd been promoted as far as she could be as a programmer and she would now need to stop programming and move into "management" if she wanted to advance any farther. She pointed out that her work had been key to a number of their very important projects, and said that she wanted to continue programming, though she was open to supervising other programmers as well. In the end, she won, and they created a "senior software engineer" track which allowed her and other programmers who wanted to remain programmers to do what they did best rather than moving into something they had not desire to do.
An engineer who does the same job for forty years is a dead asset. We have to keep putting money into him, usually increasing amounts over time, and get some marginal benefit from his increased experience but no true upgrade in his productivity which translates to the bottom line. Rather he needs to be constantly thinking about how to obsolete himself, replace himself with machines and cheaper less skilled labor so he can move up to the next thing. Upward mobility pressure on employees is not pointless. Growth-oriented ambitious people will do well in an environment of continual upward pressure. People who enjoy what they do and want to do it for the rest of their careers and live like human beings may be made miserable by that situation, but they aren't the ones who will contribute large leaps of growth to the business anyway, so they don't matter. It is more profitable to get rid of them and staff with the other kind of people.
Step back for a second and think about the logic of earning profits from capital. If you invest your money and earn 10% simple non-compounding interest, your money doubles in ten years. At the end of that ten years you can invest it again and earn twice as much for the next ten years. The same asset now has to be twice as productive. This upward pressure applies to all investment assets, and employees are investment assets: it costs money to acquire them and keep them around just like anything else. It is true that many assets depreciate -- lose value over time. Obviously a company in the business of making money (which is reflected in share prices) wants all of its assets to depreciate in real terms as little as possible, and to appreciate in value if possible.
So an employee who produces X today had better produce 2X ten years from now, just to keep up. Why, you ask? Because they can. And if they can't, someone else will replace them. Every asset in a company has this upward bias against depreciation and in favor of appreciation.
So yes, the emphasis on development can get a bit silly at times. It is absolutely not my desire to defend the constellation of all the foolish or dehumanizing corporate practices out there, because there are plenty of both, but at the same time I do want to defend the idea of continuing "career development" as not necessarily being dehumanizing -- indeed, as often being humanizing. I think Lydia and Zippy are perhaps missing the sense in which an expectation of increasing productivity is actually good for employees, both economically and as human beings.
Certainly, being made to jump through hoops which one sees no point in can be dehumanizing, but instead of looking at the bureaucratic failure of the "development plan" idea, let's at least look at the purpose behind it. Lydia seems to be assuming some sort of manufacturing/production oriented company, which produces a product, markets it, and ships it out to retailers to sell. It's an easily understood model, so let's run with it. Say a company makes rubber ducks. An earnest young man comes to work for them, and he starts in the factory, inspecting ducks as they come out of the molds and making sure that they are correctly formed. He does well, comes in on time, and is seen as a valuable employee. So after a year, his boss comes to our character and tells him, "You seem like a solid and promising employee. I'd like to see you learn more about the business and move up in the company. You should consider moving up to either running the molding and extruding machinery or overseeing the duck painting. Which interests you?"
The pain! The humanity! Is this poor young man being dehumanized? Is he being forced to do something else just as he was getting truly good at inspecting recently molded ducks? I'd say no. Indeed, if you want your employees to be involved in the company, to understand its workings, and to feel a sense of ownership in what they produce, you want your employees to understand and experience as much as possible of all the aspects of what the company does. Asking an employee to "develop", to move about the company, learn different roles, and move up is an invitation to become more involved in the company, more of an owner -- more of a person and less of a cog.
But say that our young man hates ducks. He cares little for the company other than his paycheck, and he really cares mainly about getting off work on time and going home to read his beloved 18th century Icelandic poets -- a small group, but a worthy one. He doesn't want to know more about the company. He'd prefer to just do the same thing and not exert extra mental effort in learning other roles. After all, he's good at expecting ducks, and since he can do it on auto-pilot he can mental recite Icelandic poetry while he does so. So he turns down the offer and sticks to duck inspection. A few more times over the ensuing months his manager invites him to move up, but always the young man refuses.
Now at this point the manager is getting frustrated. Our young man is sitting in what is generally considered an entry level job, a gateway into the company and a way of discovering new talent. The company believes strongly in hiring at the bottom and promoting from within, but this promising employee shows no signs of wanting to move up, and he's taking up space that could be taken up by someone who does want to learn more about the company and move up. So after another year, the manager delivers an ultimatum: up or out. Do you want to move up, or do you not want to have a future at the company? At this point, the young man becomes sullen and goes off to write long articles on the internet about how capitalism stamps out the love of poetry in man.
Certainly, one can see why the young man, who simply wants to pull in enough of a paycheck to pay for his books of Icelandic poetry without having to devote too much of his mental energy to the process, is dissatisfied. And yet, has the the company really wronged him so very much, or is his manager rightly frustrated at the young man's complete lack of interest in becoming a more integral part of the company? Is it perhaps a matter of the young man simply having selecting the wrong career? And honestly, wouldn't most of us rather have the boss who asks us to move up and learn more about the company (like the one in the example) than one who insists that we remain in one place and doesn't want us moving up?
Now on Zippy's post, I'd just like to point out an aspect of the economics which Zippy doubtless knows, but perhaps overlooked in this particular example: Companies do not have fixed numbers of employees. Yes, an employee can be seen as a resource, and a company does have an incentive to see that resource increase in value over time. (Though the net gain is not as much as he's suggesting, since when your employees increase in productivity 10% every year, you can bet that they're getting paid more every year as well, though probably not 10% more.) But generally, companies that are expanding hire more employees as well. And "increased productivity" is often a matter not so much of all the employees being required to work harder, but of coming up with processes (often via the employees themselves) which allow the same employee to do the same amount or less work, while producing more product. So yes, employees are expected to become massively more productive over time if the company is to grow radically, but that's not just a matter of forcing the employees to work harder. And it's generally good for the employees in that they end up making a good deal more.
Why object to all this? Well, I for one am very glad that I'm not still doing the same job I was when I left college seven years ago. I've enjoyed learning to be vastly more productive and gaining vastly more responsibility than I had seven years ago, and I'm also very glad that I'm able to make 3x what I made back then. That allows me to have a house and a family and to take pretty good care of both. So as for increasing productivity, I'm all for it. Indeed, I would say that increasing one's productivity generally results in less dehumanization in one's work rather than more.