I’ve watched a few movies in my time and I always identify with the admittedly slightly cliched scene where an old dude is sitting on a park bench, staring into the distance and contemplating his life and the changes he’s seen over it. As we get older we’re increasingly confronted by societal deltas where things have changed and moved.
A good example is our attitude to sexual preferences. In my youth, homosexuality was still illegal and was mentioned either as an off-colour joke at the pub or in hushed tones in the hallways of the buttoned-down middle classes. Fast forward to today and there is general acceptance that sexuality is a nuanced thing and, so long as someone’s choices don’t impact negatively on others, they’re welcome to do whatever takes their fancy in the bedroom. These sorts of changes are hugely positive and result in a society that is more diverse, more accepting and, frankly, more interesting than the monochromatic New Zealand of my childhood.
I’ve been thinking about societal changes and examples where they’re not really in the best interests of all. A case in point: The other day a buddy sent me an email in response to one of my articles. The article in question was something of a cathartic whine on my part, in which I commented on the change in the attitudes of employees in modern times. My correspondent sympathised with my plight and added a perspective of his own.
He commented that the traditional approach towards management, that of hierarchical command and control, also correlated with some general trends for employees in which they enjoyed positive real wage growth, the protection of strong unions, high levels of job security and a more closed or protected national market. All of this also came with a more even share of profits between capital and labour. Essentially it was an egalitarian time when the delta between the “bosses” and the “lackeys,” while still significant, wasn’t stratospheric.
Of course, it also corresponded with little choice for consumers and far fewer opportunities to enjoy diversity in lifestyle but that limitation was shared by most and so we put up with one style of TV (go the Phillips K9!), limited international travel opportunities (just the one OE after highschool or varsity) and less mobility in terms of employment. It must be admitted that it was also a harsh time when Occupational Safety and Health was, at best, an afterthought and bad behaviour (be it physical, sexual or emotional) was overlooked – not everything was better way back when.
These things notwithstanding, if we fast forward to today, we have seen a massive change in how management works. We’ve moved to a hugely inclusive management style in which we spend significant amounts of time stroking the egos of employees and making them feel valued. At the same time as this has changed, and somewhat ironically, we actually value them less and less. And so we’ve seen some changes in the lived experience of workers: stagnant wage growth, global competition, weak trade unions, job insecurity and a huge move of profit away from labour and into capital. We’ve also weaponized education costs and forced people to take on debt in order to compete in the jobs market. And for those that can’t do so, we offer them the gig economy where their interests are spectacularly ignored.
Now, even if it was possible, I’d never suggest that we want to move back to the approach of historic times. William Blake’s “Dark Satanic Mills” were just that, dark and dismal and poor for all but the gentry benefitting from their outputs. But I wonder if there isn’t a middle ground – a place where labour is valued appropriately, where employees are protected, but where there isn’t an artificial inefficiency that drags down productivity for all.
Now those who support the New Zealand Labour Party would quickly suggest that the recently announced labour market reforms will deliver just that, but I worry about resolving only one part of the equation without looking at procurement, consumer demand and technological change. I’m not sure what the answer is but it seems to me that in an effort to drive the desires of a workforce desiring the highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we have done incredible damage to the base level.