Does boredom at work drive our Christmas spending sprees?

When Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913 his workers were horrified. They hated it. And mostly they didn’t stay. So much so that as one of Ford’s biographers put it (notes Matthew Crawford at https://www.matthewbcrawford.com), Ford had to hire 960-odd workers every time he wanted to add 100 to the production line. The rest just wouldn’t stay.

Why? Because they were skilled craftsmen and they found working to a process and repeating the same action over and over again repelled them. They got used to it in the end. But only because Ford paid them so well that they ended up feeling they had no choice but to stick it out.

In order to keep his line open, Ford doubled wages. That changed the dynamics of the whole thing, says Crawford. It made the workers anxious to keep their jobs. And that in turn made it possible to intensify the levels of work they did: Ford was able to “double and then triple” the rate at which cars were assembled, simply by speeding up the conveyors.

Instead of complaining the workers just worked harder and kept up. However the price they paid was a big one. They traded job satisfaction for monotony; thought for repetition; the notion of creating excellence, for that of getting a job done fast; and possibly worst of all, work autonomy for slavery to the process.

You will say that at the same time the fact that they subjected themselves to Ford’s system meant that the world got cheap cars and that the age of automation – which has changed our world very much for the better in lots of ways – got off the ground. That’s certainly true. But it might also have changed the way we live for the worse. If we can’t get job satisfaction from our work, we need to get it from somewhere else. It would be perfectly possible to make a case suggesting that boredom on the production line or in the office (which often has many of the features of a production line) has contributed massively to the consumption bubble of the last half century.

Not only has it been in the interests of governments and big industry for workers to over consume (the need to make debt repayments keeps us working) but for workers the act of buying things gives some kind of replacement satisfaction. It isn’t the same of course – the fleeting satisfaction from buying a new TV isn’t the same as the long-term satisfaction one might get from hand crafting a pre-Ford car. But for most corporate cogs it might be good enough for now. Something to think about when you nip out in your lunch hour to do your Christmas shopping.