Is the modern worker really getting a better deal?
12 February 2014
Whether the eight-hour day is a concept to be striven towards or an archaic past regime unsuited to today’s fast-moving world is one of the many questions raised by the exhibition Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life, and few pieces will set the field for the conflict in such a comprehensive and ideologically provocative way as Sam Meech’s Punchcard Economy.
Meech’s mural of transcribed punchcard data will doubtlessly surprise when it is unveiled, and perhaps serves as the most concrete indicator of the state of the eight-hour day in modern digital, creative, and cultural industries. What makes Punchcard Economy especially interesting however is its subtly provocative nature; those who see the unveiled piece may be struck by the results they see and, potentially, shocked one way or another. It is this reaction that must be analysed; do we seek the ordered and regulated fabric of an eight-hour mural, or are we disgusted at such stability and instead celebrate the vibrant glitches of working irregularity?
Of course, whether onlookers prefer the rebellious and uneven glitches or the ordered stripes aesthetically is entirely subjective, but it will be interesting to see whether those who prefer the patterning of the glitches also consider the eight-hour day as a thing mercifully relegated to the recent past, and indeed whether those faithful to the visual regularity prefer the predictability of the eight-hour regime. Will these opposing parties agree to disagree, or will one or the other have to dominate? Will fence-sitting be permitted, both artistically and socially? Meech looks set to play the puppet master in this ensuing cultural conflict.
A broader and more penetrative question might be whether these opinions really matter - even if a clear majority prefer one economic schedule, can the reality be so easily steered? Or has the vastness of our work-network and its time-worn intricacies rendered our social direction as unchangeable - is the ball already rolling? It certainly looks that way. But then it perhaps isn’t yet necessary to try to guide this ball, but rather to stay within its wake and predict its passage, and Meech’s mural will certainly help us in that.
If we find the constraints of the eight-hour day slipping away (which we almost certainly will), does this mean we as a society are again lapsing into the modern equivalent of the system before Robert Owen’s movement? That is, with workers having to labour for longer hours and for more days per week; admittedly the nature of said work (in the creative industries anyway) has changed for the better, but is work is still work?
The enhanced working efficiency that modern social and technological advances have brought haven’t necessarily made our working lives any less intense or any easier; in many cases, it’s quite the opposite. Yes, we get more work done, but the average worker is almost certainly labouring for longer than ever, albeit not in the traditional workplace setting. Instead work has become far more portable than it ever was - laptops, tablets, broader transport options, and bigger houses have provided people who don’t do physical or factory work, or indeed any job that explicitly and solely relies upon certain workplace features, with the means to bring their work with them almost anywhere they go.
Our economy then has, predictably, not moved towards making tasks easier and sparing the worker, but instead intensifying labour to a level that promotes economic growth. Whether this is a movement towards or away from a hypothetical social utopia remains to be seen. Yes, it swells our economy, but is this really the most important of social goals, particularly if it as the expense of widespread social contentment?
With work seemingly less physically strenuous and dangerous, but stretched across several different spheres of life, is the worker getting a better deal or not? Worth bearing in mind at this point is that Meech’s mural only charts the working hours of those working within the digital, creative, and cultural industries, but this in itself raises a point regarding the greater sundering of the already divided workers. With these industries characterised by the “spreading” of work across all aspects of life, do more vocational positions that follow more traditional working patterns become more or less appealing? Naturally the answer to this question is again subjective, but if a majority sway one way or another, will this manifest itself in a great socioeconomic shift? Only time will tell, and Sam Meech will be able to smugly say he predicted the whole thing.
The exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life launches between 5pm - 8pm on Thursday 12 December and runs until 9 March 2014.