Words by Ray (he/him), 18 VIC
A subliminal part of our current economics is the idea that there is such a thing as eternal, incessant growth. Here’s a hypothetical example – there’s a sandwich you buy every day at cafe A. You’re happy with it, and the only way cafe B would be able to convince you to switch is to “beat” cafe A in some way; make the sandwich taste better, make them faster, or even both at the same time. Cafe B achieves this, and you start buying theirs instead.
Cafe A, disgruntled at having lost customers, now ventures to beat Cafe B; repeat this process a few times and now you’re getting a sandwich at half the waiting time, and it’s much tastier!
Considering how happy customers are, far more are spending at both cafes, and the owner of both cafes are making unprecedented profits; everybody wins! Hence the theory of market competition.
This is nice in a vacuum, especially when discussing inanimate objects such as sandwiches. As a frequent consumer of the humble sandwich, an economic theory which promises me sandwiches will improve forever is like a dream come true.
What is missing from (my admittedly rudimentary explanation of) this theory is that humans, in all their imperfection, are an imperative part of this equation.
If one begins working at cafe B before this sandwich war begins, and stays employed there for several years, their job making sandwiches is going to look unrecognisable to their past self by the end.
This worker will likely be making far more sandwiches within the same time frame, necessitating that they work faster and with greater vigour than before. The recipe might be more complicated or requires considerable mastery of the craft. Your boss, who is very stressed about beating cafe A this financial year, gets quite angry if the sandwich isn’t perfect and so your attention to detail must be heightened, all while making them more quickly.
What you must keep in mind when picturing this explanation of our economy is that the work done by humans is seen as just another product here and, in that sense, just as inanimate, unfeeling as any other investment that goes towards making the product. Does the bread, tomato and lettuce start getting stressed and burnt out? Are the fridges complaining? Is the knife asking for a pay rise?
The emotions and limitations a human has are irritating at best and illegitimate at worst. Very real phenomena we all face – such as overworking, disillusionment, or burnout – challenge the economic ideal of incessant production and the response from the system is to view the human as akin to a faulty machine or unpredictable shortage of necessary supplies.
Additionally, insofar as the human can carry out a certain sort of labour it is expected that it will, even if unprecedented. If a superior at the cafe says, “We’re going to make 15 sandwiches today instead of 10,” it would be unheard of for the worker to say, “That’s not what I usually do, so no.” They just do it. More work for the same price.
Admittedly, this is a narrative quite skewed in favour of us pitying the people making the sandwiches. I’m sure if we asked the boss’ opinion on all this, they would say something about how suddenly all their workers are calling in ‘sick’ and then posting about ‘mental health days’ (what the hell is that?) on Facebook. It’s stressful having to manage these people when you just want money to pay for your dad’s funeral, and it could be done if everyone just shut up and did their job.
Perhaps nobody wins in this scenario.
It can certainly be argued that the system and attitudes underpinning it ultimately hurt the overwhelming majority of people involved. While the ability to push one’s limits in a healthy way is doubtless a crucial step in self-improvement, a world which demands that people always work harder than the day before simply breaks people. They have limits, emotions, and mental complexity that the objects, as which they are perceived, lack.
Those at the bottom bear the brunt of this mindset as the workers. Even those at the top scratch their heads and shake their fists at the decline of productivity or the high turnover rate, continuing to dream of endless growth, yet confuddled as to why their workforce is falling apart. It is hard to imagine why even those who “have it good” don’t wish for a more reliable form of economics.
And that’s the unfortunate part of these economic realities – which humans invented entirely of their own volition, remember – being put onto humans as though they were inanimate objects. The cafe sandwich scenario I’ve described today is actually a more accelerated version of what’s been happening in the past few decades, and it tends to apply to even more draining jobs than sandwich making.
Where a simple degree was once enough to get one’s foot in the door of their career of choice we now need several, preferably an internship and master’s as well, and maybe a PhD if you want to actually stand out. Where no experience was deemed satisfactory now one needs a few years or so.
It’s easiest to understand this as us, in this scenario, being the product employers buy. Why would they pay for a regular graduate student when another person just offered better expertise and experience for the same price? And why would you buy Cafe A’s sandwich when Cafe B’s tastes better?
When you think this way, as we are designed to do in this economic system, of course the concept of ‘quiet quitting’ or whatever nonsense those running the show have dreamed up today seems logical. Performing at a consistent rate is the same as stopping because sandwiches and post-grads need to be improving, all the time. Of course, discussion of burnout is at the forefront – humans aren’t allowed to function at human levels anymore.