UNITED STATES—Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, most of us work for a living. Before that practically everyone grew a little more food than their own family could eat – that was very definitely work, but it wasn’t work for wages. We do things for an employer who compensates us with wages. We’re wage earners. That is what we do.
Some of us work for good employers, and some of us work for bad employers, and most of us work for employers who are a bit of both. But generally, in my lifetime, I have seen a depressing slide in employers from mostly in the good column to mostly in the bad column. The biggest culprit in this procession to the dark side is orthodox business schools.
From the end of the Depression to the end of my childhood, the general rule was that most business enterprises could expect to make about ten percent net profit. Sometimes you made more, sometimes less, but averaged over decades, if you were doing it right, this was a good expectation. Business was about creating something lasting, not about getting rich quick. Business owners worked hard, using their skills and expertise to rival their competition and provide goods and services in their community, for the nation, or to the world. But then, more and more enterprise owners and managers went to business schools that taught them that they could do better.
Unfortunately, these business schools taught about the world from the perspective of the balance sheet, where the only beneficiaries are the business owner, stockholder, and top executives in the firm. And these people do deserve to turn a reasonable profit from able dealing. However, it is the human component that has been left behind. And since the human component does most of the work, this can have some serious repercussions.
As far back in history as you want to go, you can find accounts of and complaints about something called “the slave attitude.” In the ancient world, slave masters were always complaining about their slaves being lazy, slow moving, witless, tool breaking, thieving, impolite, scheming, and ungrateful. Roman historians complained that slaves needed constant supervision and frequent punishment. They complained that even when you gave them financial inducements, still they would not put in half the decent day’s work of a freeman. China was for hundreds of generations a nation of slaves with a tiny ruling class. So was feudal Europe.
Interestingly, much of the innovation and technological advancement was apparently perpetrated by the slaves, which means that they were not anywhere near as stupid and shiftless as they were portrayed by their masters. But no matter how much they contributed, they seldom saw any kind of compensation on the same scale as their masters. Of course there were historic and legendary exceptions, but they were like the people who win an enormous lottery today – very few and seemingly selected by the gods for their good fortune – meaning that there was no intrinsic quality or property that they natively possessed that resulted in the improvement of their lot in life.
Back in earlier times in this country there were numerous Horatio Alger type stories of some poor kid striking it rich and making good. Being moral tomes, they usually cited the person’s good character, honesty or native talent as the origin of their tremendous good fortunes. And again, God smiled upon them. In other words, there was really no human agency involved.
And it really was possible, with a good attitude, lots of hard work and a little bit of luck to create for yourself a small business or success within a profession that would allow you to be comfortable and content the rest of your natural life. And because of that fact, millions of workers in North America had a dynamic and positive work ethic that made American industry the wonder and envy of the world. Another aspect of that, especially for workers in large enterprises: most of them had large and effective unions in the 20th century. And for a worker, a good union is almost as good as having a good boss. It gives you something beyond yourself to depend on. It gives you access to at least some power and some protection that you never had before.
But that was then, and today in the US, and most of the rest of the world, the pendulum has been swinging the other way. We see an increasingly wide gulf opening between the many workers and the few bosses. The lessons the business schools have been teaching has resulted in a general loss of privileges, autonomy, security and compensation for working people. There are actually many more people employed in these United States today than in 1960, but they are employed in doing different things, and the lessons and work ethics they learn in these different jobs produce, as if by design, the slave attitude.
Workers are distrusted, over-supervised, made to feel expendable, temporary and inconsequential, so they work less hard, when they can get away with it, don’t expend any effort – why should they? If something breaks, oh well. Why should you invest your emotions into a company that could outsource your job to China in a heartbeat. In a sense, most workers really think that their bosses are lazy crooks who would turn them into homeless beggars in an instant, if it were more profitable than paying them to do their job. And indeed, not providing workers with good healthcare is just like that because you, or any of your children could bankrupt you and make you homeless just by getting sick.
While cutting employees hours and benefits to finance huge executive salaries and golden parachutes, business have sought employee “engagement” – they want the benefits of a fully compensated, secure workforce that takes pride in their jobs and in their company, but they don’t want to pay for it. This just makes things worse. It is a kind of death spiral.
As a result, employees get that slave attitude with a vengeance. Many workers don’t give a damn about their employer. Many minimum wage businesses hire seniors in preference to teens because the residual effects of the old good work ethic result in a better worker. A barely able worker is better than a barely willing worker.
Customer Service is one of the biggest casualties of the slave mentality. Not many slaves will care to give good service. Why should they? If directly supervised, they might grudgingly give the minimum in order to avoid censure, but they have no reason to go above and beyond to make better outcomes for some stranger. The amazing thing is, many people do still give good service. As much as it is true that businesses offer employees no sense of security and individual worth, it is also true that employees do not give their employers any loyalty either – one crappy job is just as good as any other. When times are hard, you may try not to get canned, but there’s only so hard you’ll try. After all, they may decide to let you go at any time for no reason whatsoever and then where would you be?
In the first part of the 20th century some business leaders knew what was what. Henry Ward Packard was a case in point. He said “One of the principal reasons for the existence of an enterprise is to provide a livelihood to those who work there.” He also said that when he wanted to know how well he was doing running the company, he didn’t go to accounting to see the balance sheet, he went to personnel and looked at how many of his employees were trying to get their children and family members jobs there.
These values are lost in todays high pressure, high profit business environment. We have created a generation of reluctant workers, and none of the captains of industry or finance seems to make the connection between the way businesses treat their workforce, and how those workers work. Massive productivity is being achieved by threats and intimidation, in workplaces where everyone is so overworked that they can’t do a good job anymore. Many people are expected to do all the work that three or four workers were doing, before they were downsized. The workers in the trenches know that there are really serious problems that need addressing and they just say “Oh, well” or “I know, but what are you going to do?”
If you treat your workers like slaves, you get slaves. If you treat your workers as an integral part of growing an enterprise in which they and their community have a stake, then you breed men and women who are highly motivated free people contributing their best efforts. Loyalty down, loyalty up. But it has to be real. Those on the top of the pyramid have to really believe and act like those on the bottom are their equals. It is the arrogance and entitlement of the, so called, betters that creates the insolence and indolence of the lowly. A business world that cares only about maximizing profits results in a working world that isn’t much worth working in.