September 3, 2011

COMMENTARY: US workers are victims of a speedup

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery

Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you've been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, such as dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?

Guess what? It's not you. It's the speedup. To keep profits climbing in tough times, corporations have laid off staff and piled more and more work onto the remaining employees.

Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, goose profits or punish a restive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) fought it -- and, if necessary, walked out over it.

Now the word we use is "productivity," and pundits across the political spectrum revel in the fact that year after year, American companies are wringing more value out of their employees than they did the year before. Just counting work that's on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), we now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. Worldwide, almost everyone except Americans has, at least on paper, a right to at least one day a week off, paid vacation time and paid maternity leave.

Sure, but we all have to do more with less -- employers struggling to survive the downturn are just tightening their belts, right?

That's true for some. But in the big picture, the data show a more insidious pattern. After a sharp dip in 2008 and '09, U.S. economic output quickly recovered to near pre-recession levels. The United States did better than most of its fellow G-7 economies. But U.S. workers didn't see the benefit: During the recession far more people here lost their jobs than anywhere else, and far fewer were hired back once the recovery began. And who knows what will happen now that the economy has made another downward turn?

Yes, some positions always get "rationalized" away, thanks to technological or organizational improvements -- and, of course, offshoring remains a major factor. But increasingly, U.S. workers are also falling prey to what we'll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about "superjobs," a nifty euphemism for employees doing more than one job's worth of work -- more than half of all workers surveyed said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus. All that extra work helped fuel nearly a sixfold increase in U.S. productivity from 2008 to 2010.

Workforce down, output up: No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.

To understand how we got here, first consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard -- really, really hard -- brands you as profoundly un-American. All well and good. But today, the driver is no longer American industriousness. It's something more predatory. As Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn told the Associated Press recently: "The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, 'I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,' what are you going to say -- no?"

Which brings us to another shared delusion: multitasking. It seems the obvious fix -- I'll just answer this email while I help with your homework. But research shows most of us cannot actually multitask. And not only that: If you attempt to multitask constantly, your mental circuitry erodes and your brain loses its ability to focus.

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