Americans and employment: the dehumanizing toll of efficiency

A few years ago I invented a word: euphemasia , a hybrid between euphemism and euthanasia.

euphemasianoun: the act of putting the truth out of its misery by cynically substituting an inoffensive expression for one that is considered offensive or damaging to the personal, political or economic interests of the party using the term. Also, the inverse, cynically substituting an offensive term for a benign one in order to achieve personal, political or economic ends.

We Americans didn’t invent euphemisms, but we have become masters at putting the language to sleep, haven’t we? Or, more accurately, at using language to put ideas and good sense in their rightful place. For instance:

  • Gentlemen’s Club: the last place you’d ever think to look for an actual gentleman.
  • Clarify: to explain why a person didn’t say what they actually said.
  • Disinformation: lie.
  • Ethnic Cleansing: genocide, mass murder.
  • Megadeath: a million dead people (generally from nuclear attack).
  • Neutralize: to kill.
  • Pre-Owned: used.
  • Freedom Fighter: from the Reagan years, a terrorist who’s on your side.
  • Sanitation Engineer: janitor (usually someone who lacks an engineering degree).
  • Domestic Engineer: housewife (ditto).
  • Collateral Damage: dead civilians.
  • Body Count: number of dead people.
  • Enhanced Interrogation: torture.
  • Preemptive Attack: sneak attack.
  • Plausible Deniability: lying.
  • Intervention: invasion.

We can go on, and on, and on. While there is seemingly no end to the contexts in which language can be cynically used to mislead and deceive and dehumanize (racist epithets in war time, such as “gook” or “raghead”), I have lately been increasingly concerned about the clever means we have cultivated for stripping all humanity from the workplace issues facing too many companies.

For example, ever heard any of these terms: “outsource,” “downsize,” “lay off,” “let go,” “headcount reduction,” “terminate,” “reduction in force”? These are all cleaner, emotionally sanitized ways of talking about firing a worker or group of workers. And when I say “firing,” that’s a slightly easier way of talking about taking away a worker’s ability to provide food and shelter, education and health care for him or herself and the spouses, parents and children who perhaps rely on that job for the basic necessities of life. When we go through an ROF, that’s considerably easier to think about than potentially putting an innocent child on the street, isn’t it? Even worse, we talk about “the last ROF round,” a linguistic structure that makes turfings not only sound natural, but routine. Like the seasons, or the cycles of the moon, or the start of a new school year or quarterly reports.

The Altar of Efficiency

Another word we use – indeed, a word that we have made a god of – also merits some consideration: efficiency. When was the last time you heard someone suggesting that efficiency was a bad idea? Have any of the people you work with (if you’re fortunate enough to have a job) complained lately that “there’s just too much efficiency around here”? (If so, did they say it within earshot of people with the words “chief” and “officer” in their titles? Didn’t think so.) Take it a step further – can you think of any use of the word that has a negative connotation?

Me, either. As far as I can tell, “efficiency” is a word that is deemed to be an automatically and ubiquitously good thing. In many cases, it probably is. If my vehicle is more efficient, that means I’m polluting less and saving money that I can devote to things like food or rent or charitable donations. Or beer.

But … what does efficiency really mean when we think about it? I heard a great business pitch the other day for a service that will help small companies with local delivery operations be significantly more efficient. This technology will let businesses quickly find the best routes for their vehicles, meaning they can get their products delivered much faster. The great news is that this will mean massive savings in fuel usage, and hence will contribute to a greener environment. The bad news? Efficiency means fewer routes, which means fewer jobs for drivers.

In making this point, the speaker didn’t flinch, nor did anyone in the audience that I noticed. Putting existing drivers out of work was presented and received, uncritically, as a good thing.

I used to work for a company that traded, in part, on the efficiency of a process for conducting certain business financial activities. In this case, we were pitching into potential clients that weren’t yet doing what we offered, so hiring us didn’t result in existing employees losing their jobs, but it did mean that the business wouldn’t have to hire any new employees, either. In a sense, not hiring a new worker is similar to “laying off” one you already have – in both cases, there’s a person scrambling for a livelihood.

If you think about it, phrases like “greater efficiency” uniformly signal that less money is being spent. And that equation nearly always has, as its end result, either a lower salary for someone or no salary at all. Process A means you save $X a year on paper usage! Yes, which means a loss of jobs in the paper industries (as well as the middleman industries required to get paper to the office), right? Product B means you can cut the time required to complete your back-office functions by half! This probably means you need half as many employees in the back office. Outsourcing your marketing and employee communications activities to Agency C allows you to accomplish just as much as you do today, but you save 28% on budget! Right. Specifically, that 28% is measured in lower benefits to the employees, several of which now have some hard decisions to make about health care coverage for their families.

Three cases out of millions. If you think about it, you can probably recognize times in your own life where efficiency has exacted an all-too human cost. I’ve been the victim of efficiency, and I have likely been the efficiency that hurt someone else. Such are the realities of a system built on the ideologies and principles driving American capital, which is so much less than it could be (and has been).

The solution?

I’m not naïve, nor am I impractical. It would foolish to argue that businesses have an obligation to hire people they can’t afford or that they would be better served by reverting to pre-industrial labor-intensive processes. I’m not saying that people should never lose their jobs (in fact, I can point you to several who should be thrown out the window this afternoon).

However, I have been clear in the past about my belief that we need a more sustainable view of business, one that’s built on more humanist principles and that understands the need to serve people, communities and the planet as well as shareholders.

To that end, I can’t help thinking that we’d be better off if we actually thought about some of the language we use and some of the ideas we seem to believe, even though it’s clear that we haven’t considered those ideas in any depth at all. As a general rule, the most dangerous ideas are the ones we believe without knowing why.

When we make a decision – and the harder the decision is to make, the more important it is that we do this – we should weigh that decision against a reality that we have put some effort into understanding for what it is instead of excusing ourselves with language that has been designed to peel us away from the essential humanity that is our birthright as citizens of a country that prides itself on its belief in fairness, freedom and democracy. If special, sanitized words make something easier to do, that is, in and of itself, evidence that perhaps we should step back for a second.

Instead of euphemasia, a vocabulary that puts us down, we should employ a vocabulary that raises all boats. We should use the words that serve our interests rather than being used by words, especially when those words serve those who are actively opposed to our collective well-being.

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12 thoughts on “Americans and employment: the dehumanizing toll of efficiency”

  1. For as long as I can remember jobs have been getting replaced by robots, computers and greater productivity and efficiency. And those displaced are typically dismissed with ‘they need to be trained to do something else.’ But what that might be is never addressed. Now we have hollowed out the economy. Fewer and fewer people can afford what the robots and computers are producing.

    The gas company came by the other day to install an electronic meter that they can read remotely. I will benefit from greater privacy, they assure me, because now a meter reader won’t be traipsing through my yard every month. And what of that meter reader? Well, he’ll need to be trained to do something else. Like cook french fries.

    1. @Michael: actually, cognitive dissonance isn’t a euphemism. It’s a psychology term. I can’t swear that it doesn’t have potentially euphemistic uses, especially in the hands of a “sympathetic journalist,” but it properly used it’s a real ting.

  2. perhaps a solution to this problem is worker ownership; allowing workers – a major stakeholder – some say in a democratically managed workplace regime. communications technology is making it more possible to this sort of thing on a larger scale. why not? division of labor is sooo 19th century. especially if wages became a percentage of total revenue, downturns would be much easier to weather and the buck would not have to be passed onto the lowest common denominator. in fact, there wouldn’t really be much differential between the lowest common denominator (unskilled workers) and the rest.

    1. We certainly need to replace a good deal of our present business structure with approaches that serve workers and communities. Worker-owned businesses are one answer, and lots more localism is probably a good idea, too. Ultimately I’d love to see a certain Supreme Court decision revisited – or more than one. Get rid of the idea of corporate personhood and revise the edict that public companies exist only to serve shareholder interests.

  3. I am so happy to read a great article and see reasoned comments. Just dropped my cynicism about reasoned dialogue in the USA a couple of notches!

    Cooperatives, localization and the end of the corporate-fascist economic model are the way out of our malaise, in my humble opinion. The eradication or radical modification of capital do factor in also, I think.

    I lived in South America for a few years and saw first-hand the power of these ideas put into action. These concepts do work. I can be called a socialist up here, but I eschew labels and think that combining any and all ideas that actually work for the sustainability of the human race and the planet and all life is the only sane thing to do.

    Our social model will evolve and continue to do so. Once we were tribal, feudal, etc and now capitalist. A critical analysis of history suggests that the current global kleptocracy will only be displaced thru sword and fire. I fear for our children.

    Saludos

  4. “Efficiency is doing things right, and effectiveness is doing the right thing.” (attributed to Peter F. Drucker)

    The Nazis were very efficient but not very effective.

  5. Unfortunately Laszio, you are now the victim of efficiency. That meter they are putting in that can be read remotely? It’s called a “Smart Meter”. Look it up. All kinds of serious issues with it from customers suddenly finding that their gas or electric bill jumps to serious exposure to microwave radiation from the thing.

    Sorry man. But hey, at least it’s good for the power company!

  6. An interesting article, mainly because I’ve been wondering about the same thing for at least two years now. I don’t wish to sound like a Luddite, but the problem is the high-speed Internet.

    Forget about jobs like drivers and the routes they take. Why? I don’t want to criticize deliverymen, but unless you are driving a specific type of vehicle, there are practically no skills involved. The training necessary to learn to drive a car or van are few, and easily mastered. Your “investment” in time to qualify for the job is almost nothing.

    Look at the Internet though. Say you went to college and learned how to be an accountant. Spent four years in college for it. And all those jobs have gone to China or India. You have, from a time-investment point of view, wasted four years getting an accountancy degree. And there’s scores of other jobs the same holds true for. Architecture, graphic design, editing, fashion, etc. All these jobs used to be middle-class pathways to stability. If you had a chance to qualify for a mortgage right now, would you take it? You’d be scared to death. A 30-year mortgage with no job security? And even if you want to take the risk, what happens when 20% of your neighbors end up defaulting and your house’s value plummets?

    When ten years of, say, graphic design experience becomes pointless because someone in India can do the job for cheaper than you can starve on, you’re screwed. And the big surprise that’s coming is that this is going to create a global downward economic spiral that will NOT affect outstanding debt, at least as far as you’re concerned. Your credit cards are not going to downsize like your paychecks. Your mortgage, your student loans, all are going to stay at their current levels. And your paycheck won’t.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually the whole bankruptcy code has to be simplified to a single-page document JUST for the purpose of being able to process all the paperwork.

    The only solution I see is to outlaw the exportation of work to other countries.

  7. So it was, and so it will be…

    This is not, unfortunately, a new situation. If anyone’s interested in the long-term repercussions of pursuing economic efficiency i suggest a reading of Ceylon/Sri Lanka’s history. Short form: the Tamils were landless peasants in India (at the time controlled by a multinational with state support that would make BP feel inadequate). They were imported to Ceylon to work the new tea plantations, planted after the British stole tea seedlings from China. They were barely one step above slaves.

    Then a series of weather events ruined harvests around the world. The Tamils were no longer practicing their traditional agriculture, they were working for money with which to buy food on the global market. With ruined harvests, food prices shot up. Traders sent food to where it would win the most profit (economic efficiency), which was not a game the Tamils were any position to win. I bet you already guessed that Tamils starved in large numbers.

    And into the 21st century the Tamils have been waging war and having war waged against them. By my count that’s well more than a century of fallout from the pursuit of economic efficiency.

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