Saturday, May 22, 2010

An agrarian mind in an industrial world

You're probably seen the recent articles about the spate of suicides (nine this year so far) and working conditions at Foxconn's factories in China. One two-part article, written by a reporter who got a job in a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, shows the sadness of the lives of the company's manufacturing workers, almost all of whom are no more than 30 years old. Yet, the Foxconn situation is only an extreme case of what hundreds of millions of people go through worldwide. So few of us are satisfied with our working lives. We see our workday as a burden to be endured, rather than a life to be enjoyed. Why are we so unhappy so often?

At least a part of it comes from the fact that factories, offices, hierarchical management and mass production aren't natural to humans. Our natural organizations are families, with hierarchies based on age. When we worked in the fields to raise food for our families, the goals and objectives were very clear, and not arbitrarily imposed by some power figure. Over time, the rise of feudal societies began to decouple us from control over our working lives--we did things because we were told to do them, not because it necessarily made sense.

The industrial revolution and mass production widened the gap between doing work that we had to do in order to earn a paycheck and work that we were fully engaged and interested in. The professional management movement brought hierarchical structure and mass production into the office, and education brought the same practices into the classroom. Is there any wonder why we now have several generations of disengaged students and workers? Decades of being ordered to do things that made no sense, that we knew were counterproductive, but that we did anyway because they determined our rewards and compensation, have taken their toll. We have schools that don't educate and companies that don't work. Students and employees put up with class or work during the week in order to get two days to themselves.

We are missing an enormous opportunity to engage in what we do more fully and with more satisfaction, and I believe the key is to take control of our school or work lives. Whether that means more small businesses, more startups, more cooperatives, more home schooling, or more whatever, I don't know. I do know that the Foxconn situation is only a more extreme case of what the vast majority of people in industrialized nations deal with every day. We've lost control over our lives. It grates at our nature. We want to be free to do what we believe are the right things.

Please note that this has nothing whatsoever to do with capitalism. Capitalism doesn't presuppose or require factories, mass production, hierarchical management or bureaucracies.  You can be capitalistic and believe strongly in free enterprise, but still recognize that we are wasting years of our children's educations and decades of our own work lives doing things that are counterproductive to the personal goals that we have for growth, happiness and satisfaction.

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