I guess I’m a little mystified by the recent New York Times exposés on white collar working conditions. I remember when I was driving cab in San Francisco in the late 1990s that we would often line up outside financial district buildings late at night—I remember the one at 333 Bush—and pick up workers whose companies would pay their cab fare if they worked past a certain hour.
These same workers told me that they were expected back in at—I’m not remembering precisely—four or five in the morning. On such a schedule, I figured, they might get five hours of sleep. But I remember one such ride that took me to the Orinda BART station; that worker might get three hours of sleep. I couldn’t understand how people could live this way. Surely they would burn out. I came to think this was the intention, that companies would use these people up and spit them out.
Former Amazon employee Amy Michaels is quoted saying, “When you have so much turnover, the risk is that people are seen as fungible. You know that tomorrow you’re going to look around and some people are going to have left the company or been managed out.” I’ve heard in the past that firing people is the hardest thing a manager does, but from what I’ve seen, employers relish infinitely replaceable workers.
At Amazon, this process is systemized with something called “stack ranking, or ‘rank and yank’,” a scheme that pitted employees in competition against each other with managers expected to weed out a certain proportion every year. Evidently, this contest proceeded at each level in the hierarchy clear up through at least middle levels of management. The system relies heavily on metrics but also encourages employees to fink on each other.
I’m also disturbed that there seems to be more uproar about white collar workers than about those who toil in Amazon’s warehouses. But ultimately, the point is the same: No matter how creatively or physically demanding the job, people are reduced to numbers—and those numbers need to be ever higher.
Another former Amazon employee, Jason Merkoski, is quoted saying “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.” I’m not laughing. People in such a setting do not work to live but live to work. They are important only for their productivity and the hours they work to produce turn their employment into what’s called a ‘total situation,’ that is, a situation that demands all of their energy and consciousness. Among other things, such situations may prevent people from finding other—less harsh—employment because there is no time to hunt for work or go on interviews.
As I said, this isn’t really news. And it isn’t just my taxi driving experience in San Francisco that informs me of this. But it signals a development in our society in which people serve the economy and are otherwise entirely expendable and disposable.
Charles Reich pointed out that people in these situations would have too little energy left after work to consider their situations or to question the social order. But what it also means is that we need no longer fear the rise of robots. For humans are being reduced to robots.