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The workstation of the future in “Big Hero 6” (2014) Image: DisneyLifestylers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The workstation of the future in “Big Hero 6” (2014)
Image: DisneyLifestylers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

by William Attwood-Charles and Juliet B. Schor

The image of the U.S. worker and U.S. workplace is in the midst of a transformation. Stable, full-time employment is increasingly scarce and many firms are organizing work around projects rather than fixed tasks or competencies. Workers, particularly in knowledge intensive industries, are expected to self-manage and collaborate as teams, a dramatic shift from Fordist and Taylorist systems that emphasized direct supervision, simplification, and standardization as techniques for coordinating production. Thus, while the dominant image of the U.S. worker in the 1950s might have been the industrial laborer, arguably the new face of U.S. industry is that of the “maker.”

Urban Dictionary (always on the forefront of linguistic innovation), defines makers as “those who love to create things in their spare time (often electronic, often with their own hands). Also called Hobbyists.” These passionate, multi-skilled tinkerers are offered in exuberant think pieces (here, here and here) as the engine of the New Economy. Indeed, the Maker is arguably having a cultural moment with Disney’s release of its animated movie, Big Hero 6, which features a group of tech-enabled wunderkinds fighting a scorned research professor.

Putting aside the fashionable aspect of the maker movement, it fits squarely within a trend over the last four decades to flatten hierarchies and promote open and egalitarian workplace arrangements. To understand how the architects of leveling hope to achieve these goals, it is first useful to examine what the leveled workplace is situated against; namely, the conventional hierarchical and bureaucratic world of work. In doing so, we can have a better idea of how hierarchies are produced in ostensibly leveled environments, as well as the meaning of status hierarchies in domains where they should be absent.

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Mindatworkby Mike Rose

If that venerable debunker of inflated language, George Orwell, were alive today, he would gleefully be ripping into the lingo of the “new economy,” particularly taking aim at the gaseous hyperbole associated with digital technology.

To be sure, the last half-century has been a time of significant changes in the organization and technologies of work, and these changes have had huge consequences for workers. But the typical depictions of those changes misrepresent the complex nature of work and the workers who do it. The standard story line—found in political speech, opinion pages, and countless popular books on the new economy—is familiar to the readers of this blog.

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The New York Times recently published an in-depth article on “Apple’s Retail Army, Long on Loyalty but Short on Pay,” as part of its excellent series on “The iEconomy.” The new article notes that the majority of Apple’s US workforce (30,000 of its 43,000 domestic employees) are not engineers – part of the hailed “creative class” typically associated with the likes of Apple – but hourly retail sales employees.

Last year, the article reports, “each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.” Yet, many of these employees are paid just $25,000 per year.

The most common definition of low-wage work used in international comparative research is two thirds of the median income. In the US, the median income in 2011 was $34,460. This puts the typical Apple store employee at 73% of the median, making employment in an Apple store effectively a low-wage job.

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