Volume > Issue > On Human Robots, Yuppies & the Meaning of Work in America

On Human Robots, Yuppies & the Meaning of Work in America


By Paul F. Scotchmer | July-August 1987
The Rev. Paul F. Scotchmer is a Presbyterian minister, part-time carpenter, writer on religion and everyday life-, and adjunct scholar for Touchstone, a Boston-based ministry focused on work and the Christian faith.

A recent book has shown that women’s attitudes toward abortion are highly correlated with their commitment to career or motherhood. Those who view themselves primarily as career women rather than mothers tend to regard abortion as a right to be sanctioned by law. In other words, to abort or not to abort is less a question of human life than of work. Perhaps nothing speaks more loudly of the importance of work to a large segment of the American population today.

But only for one segment of the population. At the extremes, there are clearly two very different groups of Americans, so far as attitudes toward work are concerned. On one end are those who are basically offended by their work. They have not chosen their work so much as they have become resigned to it. Their chief aim is to maximize their “free time” and income, so as to make the most of their “real lives,” which have little, if anything, to do with the work place. Work, for them, is a necessary evil. On the other end are those who take immense pride in what they do. So immense, in fact, that “who they are” is determined by what they do.

Two words exemplify these two extremes in American society: Taylorism and narcissism.

Taylorism. Once upon a time, a job well done was defined more in terms of the quality of workmanship than the speed of one’s work. That was before the days of wristwatches, Ford Motors, and Frederick Winslow Taylor. The latter almost singlehandedly managed to canonize the new relationship between the worker and his job in the flush of industrialization. “In the past,” wrote Taylor, “the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” By this, he meant that the worker must no longer decide what tools to use, how to use them, or the pace of his own work; instead, these would be decided by the technical employee, whose expertise is to break down each type of work into its smallest components and rearrange them in the most efficient way.

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