Those mill owners knew a thing or two

Observations on work

The Marxist view of pay strategy "down t'mill" was that bosses extracted maximum effort from workers by keeping them desperate. Employees, in other words, were paid just enough to keep them from starvation. It didn't make sense to pay them so badly they couldn't get out of bed in the morning, but equally it wasn't smart to pay more than the minimum needed to keep them turning up at the mill gate each day ready to give their all.

A distant Victorian memory, you may think, except that an American economist has come up with a model of modern salaried professions which suggests that the Marxist analysis applies with renewed force in competitive market places such as, to take one example, the City of London. According to Alan Day Haight of Bowling Green State University, Ohio, people in accounting, law, medicine and similar work toil on the verge of depression or burn-out in much the same way as wage workers once lived on the edge of starvation.

Haight points out that promotion-track workers in these professions are motivated largely by hope of advancement to partner or vice-president, or some other senior post. And given that they basically accept hope as a means of payment, they are convenient targets for "surplus extraction".

In a typical office, this argument runs, senior professionals benefit from the long hours put in by junior professionals, and because a little rivalry makes the juniors more diligent, the partners have an incentive to hire more than one candidate for each anticipated promotion. But how much more than one? How much rivalry is enough, from a partner's point of view, to extract maximum surplus effort?

The Haight answer may seem dismally familiar: there is enough rivalry only when the junior professionals are suffering from so much promotion anxiety that they are always on the verge of giving up or burning out.

Haight has modelled the optimum curve for the number of extra hours that can be extracted from young professionals on the basis of their hopes of promotion. Maximising hope, he notes, is the key art of the senior partner; more people must believe they may be promoted than can be promoted.

He therefore concludes that "if staff burn-out did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it". If junior staff have high morale, in other words, you must hire more of them until promotion anxiety is sufficiently severe to extract maximum free labour from juniors. The firm can even afford a few psychological casualties among the staff because of the returns in aggregate effort.

The model reminds us that although the modern owner of the means of production might not exploit workers physically in the manner of the Victorian mill owner, he or she may be exploiting them emotionally. And because emotions are less visible than malnutrition or physical exhaustion, the damage is harder to measure. In other words, the professional workers of the world may be in chains, even if they can't see the chains to throw them off.

Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London