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Opinion

Our real employment problem? Too many people e-mailing spreadsheets

Our labor force is increasingly dominated by so-called metaworkers who analyze the work of others and get paid more – often enormously more – than the people who actually work.

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Analytical and management functions have their place and have always been necessary. My suggestion is that symbolic analysis, or metawork, is growing disproportionately and threatening to become an end in itself.

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Government bureaucracy, as we have long known, is characterized by an excess of metaworkers and a dearth of workers who can actually improve people's lives. But, in an era of layoffs, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, and offshore operations, this bureaucratic phenomenon has invaded the private sector, filling offices and balance sheets with staff members who use computers to generate spreadsheets and Word documents, send e-mail, and arrange meetings.

In US agriculture, you are more likely to be a quality systems coordinator than a tractor driver. In manufacturing, you are more likely to be a quality and process supervisor than a welder. In health care, it feels as though it won't be long before general managers outnumber nurses. And if present trends in education continue, operational coordinator numbers will soon rival those of teachers.

A large, highly paid class of metaworkers directs, manages, coordinates, and analyzes activity in every industry sector. Strategy analyst positions have mushroomed across a wide variety of fields: banking, beverages, communications, fashion, financial services, management consulting, recruitment, and transport. A typical metaworker job posting includes descriptions like this: "Coordinate with technology, architecture, and strategy teams to align and build consensus and drive alignment into project work streams...." Uh-huh.

Enormous sums – but are they happy?

Too much human effort is directed toward the analysis of work, and the metaworkers tend to be paid more – often enormously more – than the people who actually work.

The phenomenon suggests that the magic words, "growth" and "productivity," need to be scrapped, or, at least, reconceptualized. People who feed, clothe, house, and care for other people, typically, are among the lowest-paid. If economic orthodoxy values metawork above work, then perhaps it's time to scrap economic orthodoxy.

I would suggest, too, that few of the metaworkers are actually happy. Their leisure is scarce. Perhaps, when they retire, they will sit on boards, play golf, spend time at the beach, and engage in philanthropy. The more thoughtful among them may wonder about a system that allows genuinely creative and useful activity only at the tail end of a life absorbed by metawork.

Rod Beecham is an independent education adviser.

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