Management is also becoming aware that young workers, on whom they must rely for their future labor supply, are more restless, independent and rebellious than the older employees whose spirit has been gradually subdued by the endless repetition of doing dull, mind-numbing automatic tasks year in and year out.
“The Lordstown Syndrome,” Clayton Fritchey, for the Associated Press (appearing here in the Lewiston Evening Journal, Lewiston, Maine), April 6, 1972
Fritchey finishes his article with this:
Some companies are going in for what they call “job enrichment.” The theory, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that workers become motivated when their jobs are seasoned with “satisfiers,” such as recognition, a sense of achievement, and personal growth. “There’s no question that people are motivated by needs other than just money,” says one plant manager.
In Germany, Lufthansa, the international airline, lets many of its employees work as much or as little as they please; they check in and out at their own convenience. In Sweden, Saab-Scania is touting a new assembly line that uses an industrial robot to assume many monotonous operations. The innovation is expected to allow a [sic] workers to produce an entire engine, instead of just a single part of it.
There is one postscript to all this. Not all workers, the UAW newsletter points out, resent boring, repetitive jobs. Some, it says, “are happy doing what drives others up the wall.” It concludes there is no pat answer to the problem, except “there does seem a need for more exploration in job enrichment so that work is not one big grind in a thwarted lifetime.”
The overt class conflict of the late ’70s ended a while ago. Workers have learned to internalize and mask powerlessness, but the internal frustration and struggle remain. Any questions about quality of work life, the animating issue of 1970s unrest, have long since disappeared — despite the flat-lining of wages in the decades since. Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.
Labor historian Jefferson Cowie, writing in the New York Times, on Labor Day 2010.
I found it really difficult trying to write about the historical trends that have reshaped the workplace since the 1970s, but Cowie’s book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class does this really well. I can’t recommend it enough. Reading Stayin’ Alive was a formative experience in understanding how the American economy, and the fate of the workforce, has shifted since the early post-war era.