“Management researchers . . . dig deeper and deeper into the human psyche in their search for the ‘ghost in the machine’ – that elusive spirit that inspired enthusiastic human action and commitment without concern for external rewards and without asking for more.”

Working-coverIn first part of The Working Life, The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work (2000, Three Rivers Press), Joanne B. Ciulla, ethics professor at University of Richmond, Virginia, explores aspects of work throughout Western history. She moves through Aristotle and the Greeks to craft guilds in the Middle Ages. She discusses the influence of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, scientific management and more.

But this is not a history book. Ciulla’s real topic is working for others as a paid employee. Why do we work? What does work mean and how does it fit into our lives? How does it affect our identities? Ciulla doesn’t answer these questions directly as much as she explores them from different angles so we can answer for ourselves.

Controlling the work

From earliest times, employers and workers have struggled to control the work process from beginning to end – how, when and where it’s done, and how much is done.
The Greeks hated physical work (this was news to me), and used slaves for the heavy lifting so they could sit around and think. Nice work if you can get it. Slaves had (and still have) no control over any aspect of their work or their lives. The Greeks’ attitude ignored the humanity of the slaves and, I think, set the tone for employers ever after.

Ciulla’s perspective shows that workers throughout history have more or less (usually more) been at the mercy of employers. Today, employers often remind workers that they are employed “at will,” meaning the employers can fire them whenever they want without notice.

In late 19th and early 20th century America, skilled workers used their job skills to leverage control over the work process. Ciulla notes they were neither “obedient automatons” nor “upwardly mobile individualists” (they weren’t proto-yuppies).

Scientific management to the rescue

Workers just wanted to maintain their dignity by doing their jobs the way they thought best. Employers wanted increased production on their terms. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management was the answer to employers’ prayers.

Taylor took the skill out of work by quantifying every step. If anyone could do the job, then skilled workers lost their bargaining chip. His system made workers part of the machine, working as fast as possible “with maximum efficiency.”

Taylor’s prime example was Schmitt, a steel worker. Using Taylor’s method, Schmitt could move 47 tons of pig iron a day instead of 12.5 tons. For that, Schmitt got a raise, from $1.15 per day to $1.85 per day. The stunning statistic is that Schmitt got only 60 percent more money for 400 percent more work. Schmitt got took. He should have been paid $4.60.

Scientific management even found its way to housework. Mary Pattison, of New Jersey, read Taylor in 1911, and then wrote a book on how to scientifically manage the home. The cooking instructions are precise: “Add salt and baking powder – 10 seconds. Stir and mix dry ingredients – 62 seconds.”

Scientific management forever altered the equation of management vs. workers. Today, scientific management lives on in companies that, for example, monitor workers’ computer keystrokes. They can measure how many keystrokes per minute a person makes and the length of time between each stroke. This may pose problems for workers in any type of creative work that may require stopping to think from time to time.

Employers have more control today than they did yesterday, and will have more tomorrow. Globalization or competiveness are the buzzwords for making employees do “more with less” (surely an oxymoron). What they really mean is “doing more with fewer for less”: more work with fewer workers, often during longer hours. This effectively means less money for each worker, and increasingly more money for shareholders, managers and other skimmers.

Work identity

Professional identity and organizational identity are two dimensions of work identity (we’re leaving out social identity here). People identify with what they do to earn money. As craft guilds arose during the Middle Ages, people took surnames related to their work, such as Farmer, Baker and Carpenter (Ciulla’s examples are English). Today, wage earners may identify with his or her profession, e.g., an engineer, bricklayer or accountant, and also with their employing organization.

Organizational identity has more to do with control, I think. As workers and unions resisted Taylor’s scientific management, companies hit on the idea of making employees feel good about their work. Employers figured that if workers liked their jobs and the company, they might work harder. Companies didn’t really care about their workers but they needed to reduce labor unrest to get any work done. The result was “welfare capitalism.”

Amenities such as pension plans, health insurance and company cafeterias appeared in the early 1900s. Employee stock ownership plans, or ESOPs, allowed employees to share not only the wealth but also the risks, as the stock market crash of 1929 made clear.

Companies studied how workers worked and listened to their comments and concerns. By the end of World War II, companies began “to mold their employees into their [the organization’s] image of a good corporate citizen.” William H. Whyte’s landmark 1956 book, The Organization Man, depicted workers so caught up in their work that everything – home, family, health – receded into the background.

What Whyte described is that for the first time organizations learned how to instill an overarching corporate identity from top to bottom. Organizational identification is still an important part of corporate America (and now global corporations). Employees of the Kansas City-based advertising agency, VML, are called, and call themselves, “VMLers.”

At the time Ciulla wrote the book, employees had become relatively more satisfied with their working conditions and more sanguine about what they perceived as small losses of perks and benefits (which can add up to big losses). Labor unrest had virtually disappeared and union membership plummeted.

Since then, a lot has happened. Enron collapsed in 2001. The Great Recession began in 2008 with its attendant banking scandals. Anti-union laws passed in several states. New York fast-food workers demanding $15/hour went on strike in November 2013. That same month, Seattle passed a $15/hr minimum-wage law. It seems people were finally catching on to the fact that they were paid bupkis for helping the fat cats make all that loot that put them in the one percent.

And yet, things feel the same or worse. Effects of the Great Recession drag on. Many people out of work have given up the hunt. Older workers, whose improved longevity allows them to work years longer, compete with younger workers, burdened with crushing student loan debt, for what seems to be a shrinking domestic labor pie. And despite a struggle to revive, union membership declines. In Chattanooga, Tennessee (the same Chattanooga that developed city-owned fiber-optic Internet access), the United Auto Workers failed to organize a Volkswagen plant, thanks to what some say was fearmongering on the part of elected officials.


The subtitle of The Working Life is “The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work.” Workers thought that corporations and other employers had made a tacit agreement with them. Ciulla writes, “The social compact – You do your job well and you stay employed – is dead.” Where welfare capitalists sought to kill workers with kindness, today’s shareholder capitalists would sooner just kill the workers. They only get in the way of profits.

Ciulla cites the prototypical example of Borg-Warner workers who saved the company’s subsidiary, Warner Gear, from going out of business, only to see their jobs move to Kenfig, Wales, less than five years later.

What does it all mean?

Those who remember comic artist Robert Crumb’s character, Mr. Natural, may well recall this answer to the seeker’s question, “What’s it all mean, Mr. Natural?” “Don’t mean sheeit.”

To ask employers to give meaning to our work, our jobs, is to give away the last shred of personal power. It’s not theirs to give. We’re not the ghost in their machine. “Meaningful work is something that we have to find on our own. . . . we know it when we see it,” writes Ciulla.

Keep on truckin’

Loyalty is gone and job insecurity is the new norm. Even the prospect of retirement is up for grabs, with employee retirement accounts going up in smoke when companies implode. Remember Enron and AIG.

In 2011, I emailed Ciulla to ask about work trends since The Working Life came out in 2000. She responded, “I do think that people have entered an era where for many, reinventing one’s work makes more sense than retiring.”

Finding the Ghost in the Machine