In Praise of Botticelli

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Back in 1985, I started working as an editor at an energy-conservation trade magazine. Sure, it was a place of work and there were deadlines, no question about that. But we often took long lunches and often went out together as a group. Sometimes, during a lull in the work, we’d play a word game called “Botticelli,” whose rules I can’t remember for the life of me, but everybody seemed to enjoy.
I left that job in 1992. What a difference! We were putting out the same magazine with half the staff, we were busy almost every minute (one new worker observed that “everybody seems maxed out”), we were spending longer hours there, and as for lunch, half the time we just ate hurried meals at our desks. No Botticelli now!
After years of reading about the changing American workplace and thinking about my own experiences, I decided to ask some other people in my own age group and older, meaning people who’ve been working 25 or more years, about their experiences, about whether they’d seen similar changes in their own fields. Not only had they had experienced similar changes, but in many cases, they came even earlier. Here’s a sample:
* Rhea L., former computer programmer: “When I started working as a programmer for a large life insurance company in 1972, people had more time. By the time I stopped in 1986, there was more multi-tasking, people doing several tasks at once. Also, there was more stress on ‘report cards.’ More people were being put on probation. Originally, almost everyone got at least a minimal raise, but now, even people who were doing adequately weren’t getting a raise at all, because they weren’t ‘excelling.'”
* Anne S., former book editor: “When I started working in 1975, at an encyclopedia, people would take long lunch hours, people would drink during lunch, people could spend half an hour talking at someone else’s desk with no fear. I’ll never forget my first work evaluation: `Anne is a pleasant person and a good worker.’ At my last job, at a group of journals put out by a nonprofit, things became worse after the recession of the early ’80s. There were a lot of layoffs, and work evaluations became more stringent, with an entire system of performance-based raises. Workers were expected to set higher and higher goals for themselves. By the time I stopped working, in 1996, people were working longer hours just to keep up.”
* Linda L, legal secretary: “Being a legal secretary has always been a high-pressure job, with a not-very-friendly atmosphere. But one thing that has changed is the hours-now, they want you to work around the clock. Also, they’re hiring fewer legal secretaries, because they’re making the associates [beginning lawyers] do all their own typing, Xeroxing and mailing.”
It’s not a coincidence that the changes these people and I experienced took place during the ’80s or shortly afterward. The 1970s, the decade just before this, marked the end of the “golden age of capitalism,” or the post-World War II economic expansionism in the U.S. The ’70s saw the oil crisis of 1973, the recession of 1973-75, the period of “stagflation” and serious economic competition from Japan and West Germany.
Partially as a result, employers and corporations began a crackdown as what they saw as wasteful employment practices and began a renewed emphasis on “productivity” – which basically meant that they wanted employees to be working all the time, with as few breaks as possible. When I worked for the New York City Housing Authority’s Section 8 program in the early ’80s, one day we were visited by “productivity experts” who stood behind us, taking notes on what we did from minute to minute. The writing was on the wall.
“Productivity” also often meant that organizations would employ fewer workers in a particular job – and that those who were left had to work much longer hours. In its July-August 2011 edition, “Mother Jones” published an article by Dave Gilson called “10 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil,” One chart, “Working 9 to 7,” shows that four classes of people – professional men, professional woman, middle-income women and middle-income men – have risen since 1979 in the category “Share of Employed People Working 50 Hours or More Per Week.” The sharpest rise, about 10 percent, was among professional women.
At the same time, real wages have become stagnant. As Richard Wolff points out in “Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,” Wages, in real terms, have never had a sustained rise since the 1970s.” All too often, workers – both blue-collar and white-collar – have blamed themselves for loss of income and/or loss of status (in the event of layoffs or downsizing). Add to that the fact that most of today’s young people are paying off huge student loans and feel lucky just to have a job, and it all adds up to demoralization.
Nowadays, unfortunately, these conditions are so ingrained in the American psyche that many people can’t even imagine that things were once different. There’s a whole coterie of young corporate-heads who prattle off proudly that they’re adept at multi-tasking, that they enjoy challenges, they thrive on working under pressure, that they want to “raise the bar,” etc. A recent ad in the New York City subway showed a young, hipster-type guy with the legend, “I missed work yesterday – now I’m going to work twice as hard today!” He was saying it with pride – although I would call it masochism.
Even among people who are not so gung-ho, there’s a tremendous change in workplace culture. Once, it was common to make jokes about, or complain about, “the boss.” Nowadays, if someone does this at work, he or she will often get horrified looks from co-workers.
We’re told that corporations (and, increasingly, nonprofits and government agencies) must adopt work-intensive practices to be competitive, to be efficient. But you can’t tell me that American corporations weren’t competitive in the ’60s, the ’70s and the early ’80s – they were, they made profits, and they didn’t feel the need to squeeze their employees to do so. Maybe the real problem is that today, a 7 percent return on investment in the stock market is considered normal, according to Warren Buffett, but mega-investors typically want more, so they’ll tighten the screws to cut expenses. OK, but don’t the rest of us deserve to be heard from as well?
I don’t really know the solution. Many point approvingly to the growth of worker-owned cooperatives. According to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, there are over 300 such workplaces in the U.S. today, employing more than 3,500 people..I support this movement, but let’s face it, not everyone wants to be involved with debates, policy-making and voting in the workplace – for many, just commuting to work every day is stressful enough. Perhaps the answer is education – employees recognizing the problem, discussing these issues among themselves, and, ultimately, not being afraid to raise them with employers.
All in all, I like to work in a relaxed atmosphere, and I’m sure there are quite a few others like me. My friend Gary used to say that he believes in “a day’s work for a day’s pay,” and I agree. Let’s bring back the civilized American workplace the way it was when I started working for that trade publication. And maybe someday we’ll even get to play Botticelli again.

Raanan Geberer is a journalist living in New York.