Sitting on the podium at BALANCE – the conference about how work will be organized in the 21st century – I took part in discussing the following thesis:
Flexibility is a way out of the crisis. The crisis is stability.
Flexibility also includes the process of work getting more dynamic, for instance through “borrowed labour”.
The thesis has two sentences. I did (and still do) not agree with the first sentence of the thesis. After all, it assumes that we have a common crisis that also manifests itself in a work-life crisis. That is not how I see it.
To be sure, we perhaps have a social or a moral crisis, but there is certainly no work or luxury crisis. It may (and probably will) come in the future. Currently, however, we have a luxury problem. And many among us have a strange concept of work (and life). It is roughly:
After the housework in the design flat has been done (provided you have no cleaning service to do it for you), you take your extravagant Mini out of the underground parking and drive it from your home to the parking place at work. On arrival, you get into the lift of the even more extravagant “office tower” and ride to the upper floors.
All through the long day, you practice self-fulfilment in front of your PC and in all kinds of meetings – and in the process you even climb the career ladder (and as a by-product, you get rich). Since, however, the environment is so inimical, you suffer from monstrous ailments like stress and work pressure, so you have to recuperate from those in the evening by selecting various environments full of life style.
Except, that is not life and neither is it real work.
For me, however, the entire consideration is annoying for another reason. Basically, some things are totally neglected:
Work is a very special commodity
The “tenure working contract” is not at all something God-given in order to pay you for the work you did.
Work is a special commodity. The “generator” of work as we here understand it is the human being. Machines “do not work”. Well, you might call what some animals, such as horses, do work. In return, they get food. In order to achieve an optimum cost-usefulness relation with animals, you also have to give them a minimum of care.
All parties concerned agree that we do not wish such a systematization of humans as work products. Because with humans, it would be called “slavery”.
Let us still use another comparison of work with a “hard” product and look at the dairy cow. There is no doubt that it produces milk. Regardless, we often mean the farmer when we speak of milk, even if today he is often an agro-industrial enterprise.
During the endless years as a father of small children, I always went to the farmer by bike in order to get all the milk we needed. Due to the structural change in agriculture, this is no longer possible for me at reasonable cost. When I was a young boy, I took the milk can and fetched the milk at a branch of the dairy – it was called “milk shop”. That, too, is something you can hardly ever do today.
It comes down to me having to get my milk from one of the monopolistic merchants. More often than not, they only sell it extremely pasteurized in the tetra package. Getting fresh milk in the bottle – which is my favoured model – is quite hard.
The situation with the product work is not all that different. It rarely happens that the end user can get a service “legally” directly from the producer. If at all, it usually happens in the form of moonlighting or in a legally conspicuous and questionable way.
As a general rule, I, too, get work through a long chain of suppliers. Within this chain, the work comes more and more often as free-lance “employment”. These contracts are often “clandestine employments”, filling a grey zone that might easily be considered a violation of the AÜG. Incidentally, work is something that comes with some sort of “directive” and a dependency upon only one supplier is quite common.
But that, too, is not my main issue. Work is a special commodity, because the producer “human being” sells himself. He sells his conscience and his personal goals (system agent), his competence (expert), his experience and his knowledge (“innovation worker”), his health (physical labour) and in some cases even his body.
So the “labourer” gives away something of his own. And the really absurd thing about it is that the process of giving something away – except if an individual or a team do piecework (which in many cases is not possible and we do not want, either) – is measured in time units?!
Because we pay according to the TIME someone has spent doing something. During employment interviews, the income is always based on this aspect. The variable time components with target agreements – I personally consider them very deficient – do not change this. Basically, it is the working time account that determines your “achievement”. Incidentally, achievement is also a difficult term – try translating it.
To be sure, employment based on a working time account with respect to the income is certainly “better” than serfdom or slavery. But I am absolutely sure we still have a long way to go when it comes to “paying human labour”.
Let us think innovatively. Time is the relevant component.
In the highly civilized societies, time might even get the function of money. It might work like this: you can have my time, during which I do something for you. In exchange, you give me your time and you do something for me.
Here is what I feel about the second sentence of the thesis:
The crisis is stability.
I would like to improve a little on this sentence. There is no such thing as a life without crises. Not for humans as persons and not for humans in a society. The type, seriousness and frequency of crises, however, changes. But this does not mean that the crisis becomes stability (or even causes stability, as the sentence seems to suggest a little). No, there will be more and more serious crises – and they will get harder to overcome. And in the future, overcoming those crises will cost ever more real or so-called sacrifices. That is something we cannot ignore.
And do not let us forget: there is a chance in every crisis. My teacher – Dr. Baldur Kirchner – showed me that the great “CIC” can change even deep characteristics of a person’s personality. “CIC” is for catastrophe, illnesses and crisis. The same is probably true for societies.
But there is a second reason for us to be optimistic. We complain on a very high level. Because we have hoarded luxury that can be dissolved before we will have to pay the price with our own bodies.
I like to give the following examples for our hoarded luxury: individualized traffic, irrational consumption and eating habits (both with respect to quantity and quality), a life style that only allegedly makes us happy, in many cases very lavish living conditions…
In our society, we have wastefulness left, right and centre. A little Kaizen would certainly do no harm in our lives. Consequently, there is no reason to despair, because there are many things that do not really make us “happy” and that we can do without.
(Translated by EG)