The First Circle

I recently read Thomas L. Friedman's book, The World is Flat, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2006. I found it an excellent description in broad strokes of the current economic and technological scene, showing good insight into the ways in which modern technology has "flattened" the worldwide playing field. By engaging with just-in-time supply chains such as that serving Wal-Mart, new powers such as India and China have entered the marketplace with the short-term advantages of cheap labor and (in China) of authoritarian decision making. These powers look to establish economic and perhaps political hegemony over the Asian-Pacific region, and more. The book includes glowing descriptions of the benefits these efforts bring to the companies and countries involved, careful analyses of the economic costs of being left out, and recommendations for getting in. Countries, companies, and individuals should be "open to change," "work smarter," and be "willing to do what it takes" anywhere in the world. Examplars include Chinese researchers in the new Microsoft Beijing center, who are doing exciting R&D work while "voluntarily" working ten or twelve hours a day.

As if any of them would dare do otherwise!

This exemplar highlights a crucial deficiency of the book. Mr. Friedman almost completely ignores the human costs of playing the flat-world game, such as work stress , workaholism , and latchkey kids, the children of absent parents. After I noticed this deficiency, I looked in the index to see if I had missed something. Words like "work stress" and "workaholism" were missing outright. The section under "parenting" mostly dealt with getting American kids to study harder, surely a worthy goal -- but there was no mention of latchkey kids.

Mr. Friedman spent most of his time talking with corporate CEOs and government economists. One can no more expect a CEO or a government economist to admit that work stress is a problem than to expect the American Tobacco Institute to admit that cigarettes cause cancer. Mr. Friedman, however, is a journalist with a worldwide reputation. I am surprised that he never asked the relevant questions in a way that would allow honest answers. It would have been illuminating for Mr. Friedman to meet informally and off the record with some bottom-level employees and their families, away from their supervisors and coworkers. In that protected environment, he could have delved into matters they might otherwise be reluctant to discuss, such as, "How do you feel about the hours you work?", and "How does your family feel about the hours you work?", and "How much time do you actually spend with your family?", and "How are things going with your family?"

Japan, arguably the most technologically advanced country in the world, leads the West in overwork, as in many other areas. With its post-feudal culture and emphasis upon "a place for each person and each person in his place," Japan has since World War II focused the energy of a proud and competitive people into beating the West at its own game, the marketplace. Japanese parents routinely enroll their children in after-hours "cram schools," which prepare them to pass the entrance exams to the top universities. These in turn prepare them for jobs as salarymen, who routinely work long hours, 80 hours per week and more, under high performance stress. Performance stress leads to increased effort, increased effort leads to fatigue, fatigue leads to decreased performance, decreased performance leads to shame, shame leads to increased performance stress, and the cycle repeats. Japanese has a word for what can happen to employees trapped in this cycle: karoshi , or death from overwork. The Japanese government has historically been reluctant to admit the existence of karoshi. No surprises there.

During the years 1998-2003, more than 30,000 people a year committed suicide in Japan. Most victims are men over 40 who feel that they have somehow dishonored the family name, or who were laid off and could not find work afterwards. It has been pointed out to me that this suicide rate may be cultural: that the Japanese tend to derive their identity from affiliation with a group, rather than from their individual experience. Confronted with a lost job, an American, with his tradition of "cowboy" individualism, is predisposed to say "Yeah? Take this job and shove it ." A Japanese, with his tradition of "samurai" loyalty, is predisposed to go off in the woods and hang himself.

The birth rate in Japan in 2005 was 1.26, well below replacement level. While some blame working women for this problem, others point to the workload of Japanese men . Men work long hours and then go out drinking afterwards with coworkers. Ostensibly recreational, after-hours drinking is effectively a work activity, because important technical discussions and political maneuvering take place at the bar over warm bottles of sake. The salarymen come home near midnight drunk, exhausted, and stressed-out, go to sleep if they can, get up early, and do it all over again.

How can men living under these conditions find the time or energy to interact with their partners, much less raise their children? Japanese children of absent fathers are more prone to delinquency, substance abuse, and bullying behavior than children both of whose parents pay attention to them. It is probably no coincidence that bullying, and suicide in response to bullying , are increasingly problems among school children in Japan, nor that the wives of retired Japanese salarymen often leave them. After a lifetime of overwork, the men have little left to offer.

Although Japan leads the world in overwork, such work schedules are commonplace among professionals in the United States. Recently Electronic Arts (EA) settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that employees who worked very long hours were denied overtime. One blog, written by the spouse of an EA employee , stated that shortly after the project started, people were asked to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. By the end of the project, management was asking 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

I'm reminded of the old joke about how to load gold on a mule. (1) Pile on the gold until the mule collapses. (2) Take ten pounds off. (3) Whip it until it gets up.

In my view, the flat world that Mr. Friedman describes is too often built upon inhumane corporate cultures that use up employees and discard their husks. While they last, the employees of these corporations may be compensated well by the standards of their neighborhoods, but humans are not made to live for months and years under continual heavy stress. The first circle of hell is hell all the same.

In the long term, I believe that the inhumane corporation cannot survive. Any organization must have institutional memory, and in the final analysis, institutional memory is carried by people. Decency counts, especially in a free society. If enough key people find an organization intolerable and vote with their feet, it will become a zombie, desperately seeking new brains to devour.

Unfortunately, it may take generations for zombie corporations to run out of first-, second-, and third-world brains to devour. What can one do in the meantime?

Changing a corporate culture from the inside isn't likely to succeed. As a class, corporations only respond to short-term incentives, and short-term incentives encourage inhumane behavior. In any case, managers don't like being told how to do their jobs.

Suing the corporation for better working conditions is very hard, and if you try you will have to live through some very ugly politics. Even if you win, you are unlikely to actually change the corporation's work practices. You may get overtime pay for working 84 hours a week, but you are still working 84 hours a week.

At one time, unions were able to rein in inhumane work practices by withholding their labor. Unfortunately, technical professionals believe that they are upwardly mobile and so side with management when confronted with union organizing. Also, too often unions forfeit their credibility by defending obsolete jobs rather than training people for newly created ones.

Given strong support by political leadership, government regulators have the clout to help, but as in Japan, political leadership in the United States too often takes the attitude that what is good for the corporation this week is good for the country forever.

Seeking out a humane corporation is a possibility, but you will have to distinguish cosmetic employee policies from real ones. Lunch-hour seminars on "work and family balance" are only useful if your work schedule allows you to get to them. You should be especially wary of a company that provides free snacks in the lunchroom; you may find yourself eating them at night instead of having dinner with your family.

Finally, the flat world itself may provide a solution of sorts for an individual with a solid, transportable core competency. Using the Internet, you may be able to seek out a freelance niche in the worldwide market and so regulate your workload that you can trade off time for income.

Of course, there is no job security as a freelancer, but there are no secure jobs anymore, if there ever were. Many of your customers will probably be inhumane, and you will have to meet their expectations of speed and more speed. But working for yourself, you can at least choose your degree of engagement with the corporate world, and the rewards will be yours.

28-Aug-2007