Employment — it’s a changing world.
Two recent media stories suggest just how much it’s changing while a third indicates that a considerable portion of the potential workforce may be in for a rude awakening.
This story first appeared in the August 26, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The cover feature of the July/August print issue of The Atlantic proclaims: “The End of Work” with the subhead, “Technology will soon erase millions of jobs. Could that be a good thing?”
Derek Thompson wrote a provocative “what if” based on what is — the ongoing replacement of human labor by technology. His analysis is a big-picture look at the greater societal ramifications of a trend certain to continue, focused on the United States: “Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding.…What might happen if work goes away?” Citing academic experts, he lays out and examines three schools of thought: an enlightened-leisure utopia dependent upon “the right government provisions”; a revival of the artisan spirit and, the most bleak, a “precariat” working class going from task to task.
The New York Times feature (Aug. 15) examining what it’s like to work at Amazon.com had the entire working world abuzz. According to the piece, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, at one of the most fascinating, quantifiably successful companies on earth, work trumps all, period. Supposedly in the interest of customer service, employees’ lives are subjugated to the needs and whims of the world-spanning populace they serve, no matter how unimportant the particular customer fulfillment — near-instant delivery of mostly mundane discretionary goods — nor how traumatic the circumstances of the employee’s life up to and including cancer and the birth of a stillborn child. Regardless, employees are expected to buck up, shut up and perform at maximum efficiency 100 percent of the time (more than 100 percent of the official work time, including into the wee hours, on a regular basis and while on vacation). And oh yes, covert trashing of colleagues is encouraged. The piece read like tales from white-collar Dickens. (Except for the reminder about the 2011 incident in which ambulances were parked outside a stifling hot warehouse in Allentown, Pa., in triple-digit heat, waiting to take those workers who passed out to the ER. That just reads like Dickens.)
The Atlantic story is speculative, with a soupçon of sci-fi, and the Amazon piece, about a single company based on (in-depth) anecdotal reporting. But each resonates with certain large-scale facts. Comparing telecommunications giants, Thompson notes that in 1964, AT&T, then the most valuable U.S. company, was worth $267 billion adjusted to today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today, Google is worth $370 billion with a workforce of 55,000.
Amazon’s reported practices and expectations for its labor force may be extreme — or maybe not, depending upon whom you ask. And some are big-time employers, including tech-world types.
Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) tweeted: “Well, given the number of workplaces designed for underachievers to feel good about themselves…” and continued defending Amazon throughout the week. As for more clinical reaction, the stock market resounded with a big “who cares?” Though along with the rest of the market, Amazon’s stock is down significantly since the China sell-off late last week; on the Monday following the story, it was up.
Even as some huge companies are working to allow employees greater work-life balance, these two stories suggest an increasingly competitive employment picture going forward. If The Atlantic piece proves prescient, full-time employment will at some point no longer be the norm. Amazon is a heralded innovator led by one of the most watched chief executive officers of our time and perhaps of all time, Jeff Bezos. It’s unlikely that others won’t take pages from his success.
Future employment will likely be more competitive than ever. In the white-collar world, it won’t be enough to be merely the brightest and most well-educated with the most highly developed skills. The new workplace stars must also be the most driven, possessed with a powerful work ethic inclusive of a broadened sense of responsibility. While Amazon came across as — what’s the word? — disgusting, some of its codified Leadership Principles make sense. One, “Dive Deep,” includes the notice that “no task is beneath [Amazon leaders].”
Which brings me to an irritant issue for fashion and fashion media over the last several years: interns. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s Dualstar Entertainment Group LLC is the latest to be hit by a class-action suit, filed earlier in the month, for alleged malfeasance at The Row. The company follows Condé Nast, Hearst Corp. and Charlie Rose among those charged. Upon first read of the Page Six report on the court filing, I thought, here we go again. More stupid, spoiled kids, these perhaps emboldened by Condé’s out-of-court settlement with other stupid, spoiled kids in November.
The suit against The Row cites 50-hour weeks (the exploited came in at 8 or stayed until 7 sometimes — poor things!) and other affronts such as “organizing materials, photocopying, sewing, pattern-cutting,” along with “running personal errands for paid employees.” Maybe interns ran personal errands constantly, but interviewed by Page Six, the one that came to lead plaintiff Shahista Lalani’s mind: “The head technical designer was like, ‘Go get me an Advil. I need this and this because I’m feeling sick and I have this meeting.’”
I recently had a conversation with a senior executive at Penske Media Corp., which owns Fairchild, about possibly reinstituting an internship program. He talked about various approaches while acknowledging the challenges, noting that h.r. deemed an essential task he thought would qualify as not sufficiently educational.
That was for an unpaid/credit-only internship. Another way to go is to pay interns, in which case interns can be assigned anything. That would eliminate the cultural bias inherent in unpaid/for-credit internships — a significant issue worthy of consideration. But it’s separate from the bizarre communal mind-set of college-enrolled, professionally unaccomplished young adults — at least enough of them to comprise several class-action lawsuits — that they’re too good to perform entry-level but essential tasks in fields to which they aspire.
One can attribute the temerity to naiveté or the arrogance of youth. Perhaps misguided advice from parents or academic advisers plays a part. If so, that’s a problem. An internship should indeed be educational — it should educate as to the realities of the workplace. The Times’ Amazon article should be required reading for all involved constituencies. God willing, Amazon won’t provide a template for the standard workplace of the future. But the Bezos approach of expecting more and more from employees is definitely the wave not of the future, but of now. Come on kids, organizing materials, photocopying, sewing — not good enough for you? Like, get me an Advil.