I don’t want to romanticize the hard life that people had prior to the Industrial Revolution. Life was hard. For a lot of people it was too hard. But their means of livelihood was highly varied, and that allowed them to develop and deploy skills to get better and better at being a farmer, or what have you.
And then when the factories started to come, your work was separated from the rest of your life, not integrated. You actually went to a different place to do your work, and beyond that, the manager of the factory takes this integrated task of making horseshoes and divides it up into 28 different components. So the question is, who’s making a horseshoe? The answer to that question is nobody’s making a horseshoe.
Pinsker: Nobody and everybody.
Schwartz: Nobody and everybody. So unless you create a kind of communal sense of joint responsibility for the finished product, you no longer can extract any satisfaction from making the best rivets that you can possibly make. The problems with disengagement and anomie and soullessness, which characterize many people in modern workplaces, were just not a part of the picture prior to the Industrial Revolution.
Pinsker: Has the business world, and especially the well-read people that the business world looks to, like management theorists, ever embraced the idea that we should reorganize work in a way that pays attention to the non-monetary wages of work?
Schwartz: Yeah, absolutely. For people who work in management, I would say, they will read this and say, “Duh, we've been saying this for half a century,” and they have. My sense as an outsider to the field is that this goes in and out of fashion. My notion that we're creating people who are motivated in a certain way rather than taking advantage of something that's endogenous to human beings, that may be a contribution that I can take credit for. Everything else that I say about what gives people satisfaction in work, people have been saying forever.
It is a mystery, isn’t it? That though these ideas keep getting raised, they have their moment and then they kind of peter out, and there's very little change in the structure of the actual workplace. And it's not because the ideas are false, and it's not because they make workplaces less productive. It’s something else. It may be that managers are extremely unwilling to relinquish any control over the operation, and if you're actually going to take my suggestion seriously, you're putting much more control in the hands of the worker and taking it from the manager.
Pinsker: A lot of the research that you draw on in your book has just been around for decades. Are you more or less hopeful about things changing now than you were when you first encountered these ideas?
Schwartz: I don’t know. I guess maybe I'm a little bit more hopeful because the sense I get—although I'm not totally sure that this is true—is that young adults really want more out of their lives than their parents did, and maybe won't tolerate soul-deadening work. But also, it may be true while they are young, and then when they start having significant financial responsibilities to other people they will fall into line just like their parents did and end up doing things that they swore they would never do.