You Have Been Tricked! Productivity Does Not Equal Worth

computer screen saying 'Do More'
The ultimate productivity message.

Productivity has become synonymous with worth

“Without building durable and shared sites of worth outside of market relations, we are stuck with the valuation of worth as productivity.”

– Amelia Horgan, 2021, p. 83

I write a lot about work. For my work, ironically.

I read and talk and write about how women understand their relationships to work, and how this changes, if at all, when they move into a tiny house.

Alternatives are always interesting aren’t they, even if they are poor or unrealistic or just silly.

That’s why we love fiction so much. Alternatives to what we know, to the taken for granted or to the assumed-to-be-natural remind us that things can be different.

I would like it very much if things were different. I do not want productivity to be synonymous with worth. How did this happen?

notebook saying 'never settle' on the cover
What if I want to settle?

How did we get here?

Contemporary working life is predicated on the notion of meritocracy. 

Meritocracy is the belief that we live in a world which grants enough opportunity to everyone that hard work and talent will allow the best people to ‘rise to the top’.

The ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ mentality suggests that we are all free agents able to do and be whatever we want.

This makes our failure to achieve status or satisfaction a personal deficit or pathology, rather than a normal part of human experience, or being due to structural inequalities which disbar certain people from achieving. 

The shifting down of risk

It is possible that the erosion of shared life outside of work can be in part attributed to the steady ‘shifting down’ of exposure to risk through the strata of society.

The transference of risk from the powerful and wealthy down the hierarchy towards the poor and vulnerable can be witnessed at a national level when private for-profit companies who deliver public services such as banking, transport, or food are bailed out by taxpayer money in order to protect the money, power and status of the owners of these means of production. 

Hand signing a contract

At the level of the corporation it can be seen in the increase in zero hours and casual contracts which forces workers rather than employers to absorb the risk of market contractions or shrinkages in demand.

Zero hours contracts make it easier for firms to fire employees, as well as making workers afraid to turn down any work offered in fear of not being offered any again in the future. 

Between 2004 and 2020, the number of people on insecure zero hours contracts increased by 917%.

The increased burden of risk on the proletariat (us lot) encourages the pervasive sense that we should all be constantly improving, lest work runs out or we have to find and compete for another opportunity.

Whilst some self improvement activities can feel good and give us a sense of enjoyment or accomplishment, we must also ask what we are self improving for.

What is our relentless self optimisation in service of?

Text reads: Adapt or fail
Classic productivity messaging which levies full responsibility on the individual to cope with and thrive under any conditions

Amelia Horgan (2021) argues that the entire ethos of productivity is in service of increasingly competitive and insecure job markets with dwindling pay for the working and middle classes. 

She writes:

“Work produces the world, but it is also the process through which the possibility of a shared lifeworld is eroded.” (Horgan, 2021, p. 100). 

The ladder of meritocracy 

The ladder image so often invoked to illustrate the workings of meritocracy is apt indeed in several key ways.

First of all, as Raymond Williams pointed out way back in 1958, whilst the ladder does allow progression to the top, it is a journey that must be undertaken alone.

Only individuals, not communities climb ladders.

wooden ladder

Therefore the ladder illustration really brilliantly highlights how meritocracy functions to erode political power, not in the sense of party political power, but in the true sense of shared collective activity. 

Treating meritocracy as if it is real and obsessing over how we can get our own personal foot up on to the next rung very effectively distracts our attention from the collective power we could seize by joining together and building a structure of our own; not a ladder, maybe a bouncy castle or a nice big sofa.

Something with different areas but not something that is based on a rigid apical hierarchy. 

A small round sofa with cushions

More ladder analogy

The second way that the ladder symbolises meritocracy so well is that the top of the ladder can only exist because the bottom of the ladder exists. 

On a sofa we can sit next to one another, on a ladder one must stand above or below others.

That is, success under meritocracy depends on the existence of the ‘unsuccessful’ underneath. 

In this way, meritocracy mirrors business. Success in the form of profitability in business demands and depends on a bedrock of exploitation and inequality to sustain it; in order to be profitable, a company definitionally has to be gaining more value from a workers labour than they pay to that labourer for their work. 

It is for this reason that academics and social critics argue that employment is fundamentally alienating and divisive.

And I think this is why I am so interested in employment and how it has become the dominating regime of organising human relations.

How living in a tiny house complicates or interrupts the processes outlined above is fascinating to me because they suggest potential alternatives.

How to write a PhD

If you like the writing in this blog but your eyes sometimes get tired or your ears sometimes get lonely, you might like to listen to this serialised audio diary that I have started keeping during the final year of my PhD.

I record a half an hour summary of what I have been working on and thinking about almost every day. It is called ‘How to Write a PhD’, which, retrospectively is a bit lofty.

You can find it on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or even Google. Who knew.