Mindfulness mantras are the latest tool of corporate control. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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In praise of meaningless work

We are all alienated labour now.

The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself
Tim Leberecht
HarperBusiness, 320pp

Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out
David Gelles 
Profile, 305pp

The world of management has discovered the human soul. Each new dawn brings with it another survey, article, or TED Talk emphasising the need to restore meaning to work. Whether labouring at a bike shop, mounting hostile takeovers, or psychoanalysing house pets, older workers want it, and millennials demand it. No one can seem to clearly define what it is – feeling challenged? helping people? sweat equity? skill-building? – but we know the elusive quality when we see it, and we have registered its near-total absence from our work lives.1

Generations of employees have felt this emptiness, of course, but only recently has it become a matter of pressing concern for management types. This is not necessarily because the purposelessness and futility that defines life in an American office is killing their employees’ souls. It’s more that the malaise may also be keeping those same workers from attaining the utmost productivity. The research backing this abounds, but the most resonant contribution came in the form of Gallup’s much-cited, 2013 State of the American Workplace report, which found that companies whose employees are comparatively more engaged generate 147 percent higher earnings per share2.

Workers who are emotionally invested in their work also tend to be less motivated by earthlier enticements, such as pay, vacations, flextime, and good hours.

More output at next to no cost. And thus did the word ring out: ours will no longer be a future of rote compliance with company objectives, pursued ceaselessly in a deadening, musty cubicle farm. Ours will be jobs bursting with meaning. Meaning and productivity. But especially productivity.

Our forebears didn’t have to look quite so far to find the point of their labour. For primitive man it was easy: you hunted; you ate what you killed; you spent the rest of your time trying not to get eaten by something else. The Puritans saw how hard God worked to create the world, and they toiled with comparable avidity in order to keep him happy. The blacksmith smithed, the farmer farmed, the tanner tanned, the pirate pirated.

It wasn’t until Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford effectively replaced the artisan economy with assembly lines and so-called scientific management in the early twentieth century that the tug of war between companies who treat workers like numbers and workers who insist on being treated like people began in earnest. Toiling under the stopwatch, workers began to complain of stress. Profits soared and antagonism bloomed. Marx’s theory of alienated labour, in which workers inevitably become commodities themselves, began to bear out.

Since then, it’s been a lopsided tug-of-war between the emotional needs of humanity and the imperatives of corporate profits. Profits generally win, providing fresh reminders of their supremacy every time a thriving company lays off employees to appease colicky shareholders, or installs a monitor on your computer to measure how much time you’ve spent at your desk, or hands its CEO a duffel bag of cash for running a company into the ground. For workers, this has taken a toll. We are all alienated labour now. The soul cries out for relief.

And the soul shall have it, at least according to two new books. Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, by New York Times business reporter David Gelles, looks at corporate America’s increasing interest in meditation to enhance productivity and ameliorate stress. And The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself, by marketing executive Tim Leberecht, urges ... well, just reread that subtitle.

Leberecht sees a tired, cynical labour force, and lays the blame for it on a working world so obsessed with metrics that it’s become closed off “to the delights, the mysteries, the moments of transcendence, and even the hard-won sorrows of an everyday life in business.” His “Rules of Enchantment” “prioritise joy over optimisation,” and he contends that workplaces that follow these dictums will be abloom with sensitivity, self-discovery, generosity, ambiguity, vulnerability, and “an appreciation for the sublime … and secretive.” In order to “engender an ‘institutionalised’ romance,” he has called on companies to marshal the neglected humanities – poetry, art, music – and establish themselves as “arbiters of meaning” (and also “maintain profit margins”).

But isn’t that asking a bit much from our jobs? Not at all, Leberecht explains. We don’t have an alternative: “Our lives are already so encroached upon by the normative values of capitalism, that our only choice is to reveal our fullest selves within this mainstream market culture.” Moreover, the consequences of disillusionment are dire: “When we disengage [from our jobs], we lock away our most private desires,” he writes. “Every time we disengage, a small part of our love dies.”3

Mindful Work, too, is a bit moony, but somewhat more practical. Gelles cites studies showing that meditation can reduce stress, increase compassion, and foster a healthier state of mind. He speculates that by institutionalising mindfulness, companies will become better, less polluting, less exploitative corporate citizens (a claim undermined somewhat by the fact that “hedge fund managers are using meditation to gain an edge in their training”).

Gelles reports on efforts by older firms, like General Mills, Ford, and Goldman Sachs, to harness the power of mindfulness, but pays special attention to the darlings of Silicon Valley, especially Google, where employees can enroll in a “course in mindfulness” called “Search Inside Yourself.” The man behind Search Inside Yourself is a senior Google executive named Chade-Meng Tan, who gave himself the title “Jolly Good Fellow.” During a seminar on the importance of self sacrifice, humility, and compassion in the workplace, Meng gets right to the heart of the matter: “There’s a false dichotomy between getting shit done and being loved,” he says. “But being loved is good for your career. When you are loved, people will work harder for you.”

And here we were thinking love had no practical applications. Turns out it’s useful after all. All you have to do is lash it to the wheel and make it sing its little heart out.

I don’t know how to make money. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this essay on a Sunday. I’d be fattening on my capital and disparaging Piketty like the rest of the global elite. But I have held many jobs – from gas station attendant, to hotel clerk, to magazine editor. I’ve managed staffs, and worked under many different bosses. I’ve liked most of the bosses, and loved a few – even the one who cracked my rib in a fight. I’ve liked most of the jobs, and loved some, too. I work hard. I believe that without the strictures of gainful employment, idleness – which I both require and adore – slides into sloth. I also come from a family of proud small business owners who do good by their employees and their customers. And I’ve now quit two fairly plum jobs to try my luck in the wilds of self-employment because I had come to feel off-kilter or uninspired.

All of which is to say: I am a meaningful work guy right down to the ground, and I fully support anyone’s quest to obtain work that matters to them. But when I see management types become giddy over the prospect of “scaling” meaning and purpose and “intervening” in the lives of their employees to foster compassion and improve outcomes, I see whole sweeping vistas of fresh bullshit opening up. I see employees who go to meditation class just because they don’t want the boss to think they’re not trying hard enough. I see job applicants being forced into the humiliating charade of having to pretend they’d do a job gratis, because it means so much, because to not do so would be to not get the job4.

I see the old team-building horrors of mandatory corporate fun morph into exercises of mandatory fulfillment, like when a former boss of mine made us write essays about how our jobs make us happy, or when an acquaintance’s manager had her use Legos to convey her perception of her job. (She made the boat from Apocalypse Now.) I see Leberecht’s advice for people who do not love their jobs, writ large across the land: “Pretend to be a Business Romantic,” he proposes, “fake it until you make it!”5

Is this advice anything more than corporate incentives dressed up in office emo? Will meaning-mongering be the new greenwashing?

Even if these efforts do make us more legitimately engaged, it’ll just serve to treat the symptoms and not the disease that’s inspired so many people to seek significance in their work in the first place. “Our lives are choked with work,” wrote Richard Donkin in his 2001 history of employment, Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work, and it’s only gotten worse since then. Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor argued that, by 2000, we were working five more weeks per year than we did in 1967. Americans work an average of 299 more hours per year than the French, and 400 more than Germans. (Germans? Who knew?) Productivity has grown 65 percent since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but wages have been stagnant. We’re among the most productive nations on earth, and the strain is showing. Gelles cites a report by Carnegie Mellon which found that stress levels have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men over the past 30 years. According to the Gallup workplace study, some 70 percent of Americans claim to be disengaged in their jobs. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the U.S. twenty-third out of 23 countries for work-life balance. We are spent – and yet we continue to produce.

Uncoincidentally, corporate profits are at record levels.

So maybe it’s this: Maybe the problem isn’t meaningless work. Most modern work, like it or not, is inherently meaningless beyond the paycheck. (Have you seen what people do for a living?) No, the problem is that work has so monopolised our lives that there are ever fewer opportunities to find meaning outside of the office.

In 2011, the philosopher Mark Kingwell wrote, “The workaholic colonises his own despair at the perceived emptiness of life – its non-productivity – by filling it in with work.” It’s not just individuals. The broader culture is hopelessly workaholic – not raging against the emptiness of life, but actively emptying it, and filling the hole with more work dressed up as life. The manic drive to make labour meaningful, at least on the part of management, is an acceleration of that process, ultimately less about unlocking human potential, one suspects, than hydrofracking it.

Perhaps it’s not meaning we want but relief, and we just lack the words to give voice to the dreaded heresy: This is too much work. I don’t want to do this anymore. (Where is our twenty-first-century Bartleby?) We may mock the French – and now, the Germans, apparently – and hold obnoxious dinner-table competitions boasting about how many hours we put in, how little we sleep – but I would kill ten men for a four-day workweek, and I’ll bet most of you would, too.

Yes, we should all hope – demand, even – that the workplace of the future will be governed more by respect and sensitivity than cupidity and the Peter Principle. But until that day comes, we should embrace not the meaningfulness of work, but its meaninglessness. The cold, unromantic transaction. The part that keeps food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. The part that, theoretically, gives us our nights and weekends. Let’s demand that recompense, first and foremost, and deal with the rest later. With unemployment falling to pre-recession levels, employees are hopefully gaining the leverage to say enough. The prayer is that the line will be drawn, and managers will then see that the way forward is actually very simple: Hire good people. Treat them well. Help them succeed. Compensate them fairly. Let them go home. 

 

***

 

1It should be noted that for present purposes, the “we” under discussion are white-collar workers, generally. For the working poor and some members of the workng class, the problem isn’t too many hours, but not enough. The working poor are no more permitted meaning than they are a living wage. But that’s a matter for a different polemic. 

2Gallup’s report says engaged employees – and this dovetails with others’ definition of meaning or purpose – have “well-defined roles in the organisation, make strong contributions, are actively connected to their larger team and organisation, and are continuously progressing.”

3Here I would like to indulge in a bit of light puppy-kicking and point out that Leberecht used to be the CMO of a multinational outsourcing firm. 

4I recently came upon an ad for a part-time customer service job at Verizon that promised to “fuel your passion” and “change the world.” 

5I also recall that Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class As Soulcraft (2010), defined authority in the American workplace as “smarmy and passive aggressive, trying to pass itself off as something cooperative and friendly; as volunteerism.” 

Joe Keohane has written for New York magazine, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.