The miserable rise of the unthinking clerks

Last week a security guard at Southampton airport searched a weeping four-year-old girl for no apparent reason. She had beeped on going through security the first time. But when she took her boots off and went through again, there was no beep. So you’d think a search wouldn’t be necessary. Not so.

The security staff absolutely insisted that for “security reasons” they had to pat her down. She screamed hysterically. The manager was called. He announced that for “security reasons” the child must be searched. She screamed some more. The manager directed a female security employee to search her. The employee reached out and gingerly patted one leg. And that was that.

Afterwards it was hard to know what made me more angry: the search, or the lack of a proper search. If the child was not a security threat, why was a search required? If she was a security threat, why was she not searched properly? After all, her weapon may have been hidden in the other leg of her trousers.
The answer, of course, is that she was not a threat. But the manager had to – or felt he had to – follow some sort of procedure laid down for him.

Which brings me to my point. This man was a manager and kept being referred to as a manager. Yet he had no discretion – or felt he had no discretion – to decide not to search a small child who was threatening nothing but the ear drums of her audience. He was in fact not a manager at all.

His job is a perfect example of the way in which seemingly white-collar work has been, as Matthew Crawford puts it in his recent book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, “subject to routinisation and degradation.” Just as “standardised tests remove a teacher’s discretion in the curriculum” and “strict sentencing guidelines prevent a judge from judging,” the security manager’s ability to manage a situation has been completely removed from him by a rule book somewhere in his back office.

What appears to have happened here is that most of what we might think of as the “cognitive elements” of one-time professional jobs have been removed and replaced along the way “with a system or process”. The jobs have then been handed not to thinking professionals but to a new class of rule-following workers – “clerks”.

The result is that, while we think that more and more of us are doing knowledge based work, we are not. Instead, knowledge work is being “concentrated in an ever-smaller elite” and the rest of us have become the “disseminators rather than the originators of information”.

The modern economy is not one in which we all get to use our hard-won university educations to think our way through our careers. Instead, says Crawford, it represents “a rising sea of clerkdom”. It is miserable stuff. But look around all too many of today’s workplaces – Southampton airport most definitely included – and it does ring depressingly true.