Rethinking industrial jobs

Some jobs are are an extension of one’s personality and purpose. Most jobs today are not.

The industrial revolution has fundamentally transformed our education and employment systems. It isn’t mere coincidence that every job comes with specifications in the form of a job description. Resumes are but homogenized slips of paper to filter candidates who do not meet spec, with interviews serving as a second pass for quality control. Once we are hired, we are given a role, a boss and precise orders to execute.

On the other hand, we humans describe ourselves best by telling stories – of where we come from, what we stand for and the change we wish to make. These narratives do not have room for tightening 4 screws in an assembly line, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. And yet, our jobs account for more than 80,000 hours in the prime of our lives.

Industrial jobs dehumanize us. In our life’s stories, the characters – our family, friends and even the people we despise, are not replaceable. Every person is an integral part of our narrative. But in industries, every employee, just like every part of machinery, must be replaceable. This way, companies can scale easily, while not holding themselves hostage. They require employees to fit their molds, with definite tolerances. Every employee who exceeds this tolerance, by being better or worse, represents a risk.

With time, our jobs turn into an irreplaceable part of our story and that is when the real problem starts. The extent to which employees depend on their jobs becomes a lot greater than the other way around. That is why losing an industrial job can be devastating – it is the single greatest event that defines world politics today.

It is important for employees of industrial systems to shelter themselves from this risk.

One way of doing this is to realize that jobs are merely roles, similar to the ones that actors in a movie or a play. We understand our character, memorize our lines and act them out from 8 AM to 5 PM every weekday. In this system, everybody is an actor playing their own part – from the HR person who negotiates salaries to the boss who issues orders and does appraisals. When the curtains are down, the show is over and everyone receives their compensation.

This re-framing of jobs does translate to indifference or incompetence. Great actors have an excellent work ethic. But at the same time, they realize that the characters they play do not define their real life personalities.

The bottom line? Just as companies ensure that their employees are replaceable components of an industrial system, their employees could regard their jobs as fictional appendages to their real lives.

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