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Scarcely four years have passed since workers at the Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio, went out on strike, not for more money or shorter hours, but to protest the pressure and monotony of their work on General Motors’ fastest-moving assembly line. Soon after the strike, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare released a study, Work in America, which reported that people at all levels of society were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of their working lives, to the detriment of the economic and social well-being of the nation. This study, which was widely distributed and acclaimed, provided a manifesto for the revolution that Lordstown seemed to portend. With amazing speed the concept of job enrichment spread through the worlds of journalism, academe, government, and the major corporations.

Concern for the alienated worker, in addition to spawning a host of industrial experiments, articles, studies, grants, and conferences, also inspired Studs Terkel’s bestseller, Working, and Barbara Garson’s less-popular but nevertheless attention-getting All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work. Both books were based upon numerous interviews with workers, and the message seemed to be unambiguous: Americans are dissatisfied with their work. It leaves them frustrated and demoralized. They seek in their daily occupations a sense of identity, self-esteem, autonomy, and accomplishment. What they find, according to Terkel, are “daily humiliations.” Their fragmented, monotonous jobs are, in Garson’s view, “soul-destroying.” The average worker’s discontent manifests itself in fighting, swearing, absenteeism, high turnover rates, sabotage, alcoholism, drug addiction, and poor mental health. Reform of the workplace, it seemed, was one of the most critical social issues of our time.

What do people want out of life? That is one of those questions whose answer can be shaped by the way in which the question is posed. Straightforward statistical studies find that job discontent is not high on the list of American social problems. When the Gallup poll’s researchers ask, “Is your work interesting?” they get 80 to 90 percent positive responses. But when researchers begin to ask more sophisticated questions, such as “What type of work would you try to get into if you could start all over again?” complaints begin to pour forth. The probing question cannot help but elicit a plaintive answer. Which of us, confronted with a sympathetic organizational psychologist, or talking into Studs Terkel’s tape recorder, could resist tingeing our life’s story with lamentation, particularly if that was what the questioner was looking for? Compared to the “calling” that Terkel says we are all seeking, what job could measure up?

Indeed, people are not “satisfied” with their work, nor with any other aspect of their lives. This is hardly news. But can we agree on what should be done to improve the situation? Most proponents of job enrichment seem agreed that what the average worker misses most is a sense of responsibility and participation in decision-making processes. But is this assumption valid? Are there not many workers who do not want responsibility, who prefer the comfortable monotony of routine tasks to the pressure-building process of making decisions and being accountable for the consequences? Even Barbara Garson’s workers keep contradicting her basic premise, from a woman who has turned down the job of supervisor to people with mechanical, repetitive trades who say, “Flip, flip, flip . . . feels good” and “You can get a good rhythm going.” Garson despairs for a moment: “Maybe the reactionaries are right. Maybe some people are made for this work.”

The job-enrichment enthusiasts may well have made a mistake in assuming that all people desire what social scientists want them to desire. A more glaring mistake is the social scientists’ assumption that by restructuring the workplace they can solve the problem of alienation in our time. This calls to mind those urban planners who saw salvation for the poor in a clean, spacious apartment, and who, after their ideas have been carried out, have spent much energy explaining why attractive apartments have not, in fact, eradicated the ill effects of poverty. Alienation cannot be cured by a fascinating job any more than poverty can be cured by a clean apartment.

There are diseases of the soul abroad in the land, but only a few of the symptoms, not the viruses themselves, are to be found in the workplace. Healthy people do not become heartless bosses or cruel foremen. Healthy people do not feel debased or dehumanized by menial work, or intimidated by blustering superiors. Sick people — alienated people — are not made whole by an interesting job.


From “The Job-Enrichment Mistake,” which appeared in the May 1976 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available here.


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March 2015