The Work Ethic, Redefined


Monday is Labor Day, a holiday that harks back to the industrial revolution and honors the struggles of American workers. But the American workplace's downtrodden Everyman is no longer a cog in a machine, fighting to keep up with the inhuman pace of the assembly line. (Think of Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" or Lucy Ricardo stuffing candies in her mouth.) He's a cartoon cubicle dweller who loves technology and struggles against "time-wasting morons." Dilbert knows more than the boss does, and he craves the chance to use that knowledge. He dreams less of security than of meritocracy.

In other words, Labor Day isn't what it used to be. The value, and values, of American workers have changed dramatically over the past few decades. The shorthand phrase to describe the change is the "knowledge economy." While technically accurate, the description is misleading. Hearing it, people tend to assume that the economy rewards only the highly educated elite, and that there's no longer a place for Everyman. (Even Dilbert is an engineer.) But many economically valuable forms of knowledge aren't taught in school. They're valuable, in fact, because they're difficult to articulate and therefore to teach. Formal education may indicate the ability to acquire such tacit knowledge, but it doesn't convey the knowledge itself.

Consider the three groups of jobs identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as likely to be the fastest growing over the next decade. The first is "professional specialty occupations," projected to increase by nearly five million workers between 1996 and 2006. These jobs include such obvious areas as computers, engineering and health care, but also special-education teachers, social workers, physical-training instructors, musicians and designers. Next come technicians and related support positions, a smaller group that complements the first. Finally, there are service occupations, which include such fast-growing jobs as home health care aides, child care workers, and manicurists. (Bureau figures undoubtedly undercount some of these jobs. The 1996 estimate of 43,000 manicurists equals the total number of free-standing nail salons, most of which employ at least four manicurists.) These three categories are projected to make up about 36% of the total work force by 2006, or about 54 million jobs, a jump from about 30% in 1996.

What all these jobs have in common, regardless of their educational requirements, are specific skills and a great deal of employee discretion. Many also reward the ability to interpret and respond to the unpredictable moods and actions of other people. In short, they all employ knowledge workers.

That knowledge may be gained in school or passed down through apprenticeship and custom. Whether caring for a sick elderly person, writing music for a TV commercial or repairing a photocopier, none of these employees can be constantly supervised or told in advance exactly how to do their jobs. All belong to "communities of practice," in which they share knowledge by recounting war stories and soliciting advice from people in similar jobs, though not necessarily with the same employer. In contrast to the traditional routines of factory work, such employees add value by their ability to handle the exceptional case.

Meanwhile, on the factory floor itself workers are increasingly expected to be innovative and alert. Gone are the days of Frederick W. Taylor's decree: "You are not supposed to think. There are other people paid for thinking around here." Nowadays, pretty much everyone gets paid for thinking.

Understood this way, the growth of the knowledge economy has important implications not only for management but also for personal character and public policy. If the quintessential American employee isn't an obedient (and probably resentful) factory worker, but a decision maker who must use good judgment, intelligence and charm, then we must reconsider what we mean by the "work ethic." The knowledge economy gives us not only the opportunity but the obligation to reunite work with independent thinking, self-expression and even joy. It challenges many deeply held assumptions about what work should be like and how it should be evaluated.

Most obviously, the knowledge economy upsets the old career order. It disrupts the "loyalty ethic" of Organization Man days, encouraging employees to be on the lookout for opportunities elsewhere and employers to shed workers when their skills are no longer needed. Successful employees think of themselves as challenge-seeking professionals, moving from mission to mission, even when they stay for years in the same company.

By rewarding a different sort of person–resourceful rather than predictable, sensitive rather than muscular, creative rather than obedient–the knowledge economy essentially redistributes human capital. New virtues reap the benefits, but old virtues suffer. In a workplace where no one is a cog, each employee is special and therefore unequal. This insecurity troubles those who value stability above all, from Pat Buchanan on the right to Jeremy Rifkin on the left. They see only the dutiful worker bees hurt by the new economy, not the talented free spirits put down by the old.

The knowledge economy also discomfits those who equate the "work ethic" with a narrow range of industrial-era virtues: diligence, stoicism, patience, conformity. Particularly for conservatives, the idea that a job should be satisfying in itself is an uncomfortable one. They fear the consequences of allowing play to infect work.

Discipline is, of course, important. If work were completely rewarding in and of itself, no one would need to be paid. But striving to learn, to conquer new problems, and to find satisfaction is more likely to generate progress than is dutiful drudge work.

Ultimately, the knowledge economy will prove more upsetting to its fans on the left than to its critics on the right. With all its emphasis on messy discretion, unarticulated wisdom, and personal judgment, knowledge work fits uneasily into a legal order that requires every employee to be treated identically and every decision to be justified in words. Sit on a medical malpractice jury, as I did this summer, and you will hear countless questions that assume that the criteria for every decision–from equipment repair to medical procedures–must be specified in advance by some outside authority. Litigation punishes discretion.

So does employment law. Economic value may lie in the tacit knowledge and special qualities each individual brings to a job, but public policy treats "qualification" as an either-or proposition. The law forces employers to reduce complex individuals to a few easily documented traits and to govern them according to written, inflexible rules. It's safer to be consistent than sensible or humane.

Treating knowledge workers as interchangeable, unintelligent cogs isn't the fault of public policy alone. The halls are full of bad bosses, and old habits die hard. But as long as the law rewards Catbert, the Evil H.R. Director, for cooking up conformist policies, Dilbert's struggle against time-wasting morons will go on.