ByMonika BauerleinandClara Jeffery|July/August 2011 Issue
Also readharrowing first-person tales of overwork and12 charts on just how much is being
demanded of American workers.
On a bright spring day in a wisteria-bedecked courtyard full of earnest, if half-drunk, conference attendees, wewere commiserating with a fellow journalist about all the jobs we knew of that were going unfilled, beingabsorbed or handled "on the side." It was tough for all concerned, but necessary—you know, doing more withless."Ah," he said, "the speedup."His old-school phrase gave form to something we'd been noticing with increasing apprehension—and itextended far beyond journalism. We'd hear from creative professionals in what seemed to be dream jobs whowere crumbling under ever-expanding to-do lists; from bus drivers, hospital technicians, construction workers,doctors, and lawyers who shame-facedly whispered that no matter how hard they tried to keep up with the extrahours and extra tasks, they just couldn't hold it together. (And don't even ask about family time.)
defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and itused to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, to goose profits, or to punish arestive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) watched for and negotiated over it—and, if necessary, walked out over it.But now we no longer even acknowledge it—not in blue-collar work, not in white-collar or pink-collar work,not in economics texts, and certainly not in the media (except when journalists gripe about the staff-compacted- job-expanded newsroom). Now the word we use is "productivity," a term insidious in both its usage and creep.The not-so-subtle implication is always: Don't you
to be a productive member of society? Pundits acrossthe political spectrum revel in the fact that US productivity (a.k.a. economic output per hour worked)consistently leads the world. Yes, year after year, Americanswring even more value out of each minute
on the job than we did the year before. U-S-A! U-S-A!Except what's good for American business isn't necessarily good for
. We're not just working smarter,but harder. And harder. And harder, to the point where the driver is no longer American industriousness, butsomething much more predatory.
Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If themedian household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly$92,000, not $50,000.