The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

Work, What a Silly Idea

Work is changing. Our ideas about work aren't.

A study making headlines today in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology suggests that having a mentally demanding job before you retire is associated (in about 4,000 Americans) with “higher levels of cognitive functioning before retirement, and a slower rate of cognitive decline after retirement”. Use it or lose it, in short.

And who wants to lose it? A retirement spent blowing the kids’ inheritance on having fun is one thing; a retirement blighted by stroke or dementia is quite another.

A letter to my local paper last week, meanwhile, remarked on the way we insist on people ‘finding jobs,’ even as companies increasingly use technology to replace them. Or to shift the work elsewhere: the forms which would once have been filled by a secretary are often now completed by customers, online.

Which got me thinking—as I and many before me have thought—about work and the way we organize it.

Frankly, it’s rather silly. The timing’s inept, the concept old-fashioned, and the execution often cruel. For much of history this hasn’t mattered, as there’s been plenty of work to go around; also many people didn’t live long enough to worry about retirement. But things are changing, as the available labour shrinks. And not only shrinks, but shifts toward two extremes: the much-puffed ‘knowledge economy,’ and the rest.

  • ‘high-end’ jobs pay relatively well and demand a lot of skills and brainpower (e.g. university teachers and researchers). They also have high workloads and long hours;
  • more manual jobs, which we can’t yet replace with technology, are typically much lower-paid, despite the fact that it’s hard to see how caring for the sick and elderly is less important than teaching kids why Hamlet, or quantum mechanics, matters. Of course, you don’t need extensive training to be a carer.

(We might infer that high pay is perhaps a reward for time invested in previous study? — except that investment bankers can earn far, far more than university lecturers. Is it then a reward for effort, or physical labour? Tell that to a farmer. For danger? Ask a fireman. For being brilliant and/or irreplaceable? That’s what the most highly-paid often seem to be saying, but there’s very little evidence that they’re right.)

There’s less work to go round, especially for those without the best qualifications. And what work there is doesn’t always pay enough to live on.

As work becomes scarcer, the rhetoric of its desirability intensifies. You’d think humans lived entirely and only to work. The unemployed are stigmatised, their benefits decried (yet the far more expensive pensions of the elderly are OK, because they earned their rewards). Kids are so indoctrinated with the need to find a job that they spend much of their childhood cramming, agonising over exams, struggling with homework, knowing they have to achieve — at a time when they’re dealing with the massive social pressures of growing up. Small wonder some drop out. People who can’t work feel dreadful guilt. Some who lose their jobs are driven to suicide.

Why do we do it this way? It’s bad for our brains, our health and our happiness. At the time of life when we are most able to enjoy ourselves, some of us are working ridiculous hours while others face empty days. Women lose out if they have kids, especially if they choose not to deposit the sprogs in childcare. Some people aren’t paid enough to live on; others earn far more than any human being could reasonably need. Then we reach retirement age, and suddenly that’s it: we’re pensioned off, our productive days over. Yet creativity doesn’t cut out at 65, nor intelligence shrivel at 70. A man who turns 65 in the UK can expect to live a further 17.8 years, a woman 20.4 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. That’s a lot of years to write off, especially with an ageing population.

There are many ways in which we could change this mess (for some ideas, see my longer version of this post). Yet that kind of change is hard, not least because work is bound up with many half-acknowledged, powerful ideas: about fairness and reciprocity, status and identity. While there was plenty of it, there wasn’t much need to examine its rationales, and how deep-seated feelings and ways of thinking affect them. But work is changing, and we need to change our ideas about work.

Copyright 2014 neurotaylor.com

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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