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.

Once upon a time, work and agriculture were synonymous. In the late 18th century, more than 90 percent of the US workforce was engaged directly with farming. The reason for this was that people needed food, and in the days before sophisticated agricultural machinery and efficient methods of transport, refrigeration, and storage, the growing of food was both labor-intensive and an essential part of community life. Agriculture was something we had to do.

Nowadays we still need food as much as we did in the 18th century, but less than 2 percent of the US workforce is engaged directly with farming.

Jobs once involved real work

In the century between 1860 and 1960, work meant industrial work. At the height of the postwar boom, the sourcing of raw materials and the conversion of these to manufactured goods occupied one-third of the entire US workforce. The necessity of this work was less obvious than the necessity of farming, but there is little doubt that many manufactured goods improved our standard of living.

By 2000, the proportion of US workers engaged in manufacturing had fallen to 13 percent, and the number continues to fall. Automation, and the movement of manufacturing offshore, where labor is cheaper, are the main reasons for this.

The rise of the metaworkers

We know that the service sector has grown. People work in shops, at fast-food outlets, in restaurants, and in hotels. There are probably more hairdressers than metalworkers. Insurance companies, banks, and other sellers of financial products and services are numerous. The consulting industry is alive and well. But the necessity of these occupations is less obvious than the necessity of manufacturing, which is itself less obviously necessary than agriculture. The market these occupations serve is also, in many respects, new.

We like to keep our hair neat, for example, but it seems clear that there are more hairdressers in operation than we actually need. The reason for the growth of the service industries is the growth of the class who use them: the metaworkers. These are people who eat out because they are time-poor. They stay in hotels because they travel a lot. They take out insurance policies and savings and investment portfolios because they are paid a lot of money. They engage consultants because the nature of their work invites consultancy.

Robert Reich labeled these workers "symbolic analysts" on the grounds that they perform problem-solving functions involving the manipulation of numerical or verbal symbols. I call them metaworkers because they do not work, in the sense of growing or making something or caring for anyone, at all. Their occupations exist only because of the work of others – but it is the work of others they analyze and, to a large extent, control.

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.

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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