To freely choose barter as the basis for work is to commercialize our relationships and ourselves. I treat myself as a transaction in the making. I value myself according to what I can get for myself. My market value becomes my only value. I am now worth what the market will bear. So why shouldn't I get the highest price possible?
Part of the price of becoming a transaction is that we allow our value to be defined by others: an organization, a boss, a recruiter, a partner, a lover. I become a commodity whose worth rises and falls according to the marketplace. I place my self-esteem in the hands of forces that I cannot control (my emphasis) I am happy when the price rises and feel depressed in periods of depression--and I am literally depressed in times of deflation.
--Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters
Over the holidays, I read Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything by F.S. Michaels, who argues that we have an underlying cultural narrative that treats all human enterprise--work, education, spirituality, even our relationships-- in economic terms. In this economic model:
- Everything is a market, governed by the laws of supply and demand.
- People become commodities with little intrinsic value.
- Relationships become transactional, based on "what have you done for me lately?"
- We are constantly looking to "maximize value" and measure the worth of any project or activity in strictly econonmic terms. If it can't show "return on investment" then it must not be worth doing.
“[E]conomic beliefs, values, and assumptions are shaping how we think, feel, and act.” It’s not simply consumerist greed, that sort of predatory capitalism wildly on display on Wall Street. In Michaels’s definition, the economic story is one in which communities are not as important as individuals, in which one’s placement and performance in society is the result of an honest assessment of abilities, in which progress is driven by people’s desires and the fulfillment of those desires. In other words, each individual person is an entity striving to satiate their wants through rational economic decisions and their success or failure to achieve those goals is a direct result of the quality of their performance. As the “winner takes all” hierarchy spreads and the middle class bottoms out in nation after nation, a competitive “If you have what I want, I have to take it from you” system takes over. Or, as Intel president Andrew Grove put it, “If the world operates as one big market, every employee will compete with every person anywhere in the world who is capable of doing the same job. There are a lot of them and many of them are very hungry.”
This story affects every aspect of our culture, from a medical system that punishes the ill with massive debts and withholds care from the poor, to the corporate ownership of our artistic treasures (Bank of America’s art collection stands at more than 60,000 pieces, and they are happy to rent them out to museums strategically in order to increase their estimated value), to the increased instability in almost every job market. Most of our politicians, if not all, would agree this is the most efficient way to run our world. And they will fight to the death to maintain this status quo, if not drive us deeper into the story.
The result is that everything in our lives is evaluated by its economic value. If you’re making an argument for putting a stop to mountaintop mining, best couch it in terms of lost revenue from pollution, the economic burden of those in the area made ill, and the potential for lawsuits. Fights for worker rights such as paternal leave are framed with stats showing that rehiring and retraining a new worker is more expensive than allowing a new father to stay home for a few weeks. Even human rights groups, charities, and environmental advocates have taken up the language of economics because, when we talk about what things cost us these days, we generally mean “financially” and not “morally.”
This grand story, unexamined and invisible, is behind the rise of "personal branding," where we are marketing ourselves on a regular basis, to "prove" our value to current and potential employers. We treat ourselves as a product to be bought and sold on the open market, rather than as human beings with intrinsic value. (Olivier Blanchard has a great take on this in R.I.P. Personal Branding).
It is also the story behind our willingness to treat workers as interchangeable cogs in the machine, as "costs" to a business to be kept to a minimum in order to retain shareholder value.
In the economic worldview, nothing is worth doing unless there is a reward for it. Everything and everyone must provide "value" in the marketplace. All things must be quantified and ultimately measured financially. It is a de-humanizing view of the world that distracts us from talking about "value" in anything other than economic terms.
Here's the thing. Whether we realize it or not, most of us are buying into this narrative. We make our career decisions based on what the market will bear rather than on any considered thinking around what really matters to us. We put endless effort into maximizing our value and competing with others, into proving our ROI.
But this is how we find ourselves trapped in work that saps our souls and in organizations that leave us feeling abused and invisible. This economic understory reduces us and distracts us from talking about what really matters to us as human beings, rather than as rational economic actors.
Peter Block has some interesting questions to help us step back from this economic view of ourselves:
- What does it mean when we lose contact or faith in our ideals, or our dreams and desires?
- Why would we give up the pursuit of our desires, of what matters to us, if the right offer doesn't come along?
- Why have we placed our desires up for auction?
- When did we decide that we could live without what was important to us or postpone our desires until we have implemented an exit strategy?
To this list I would add:
- What would my career look like if I wasn't worried about selling to the highest bidder?
- What really matters to me, regardles of how much someone else is willing to pay for it?
Seeing the economic monoculture at work has helped me understand so much of our frustration and confusion right now. We know on some deep level that seeing everything in financial terms is reductionist and de-humanizing. Until we really understand how this story plays out, though, it's hard for us to put a finger on what's wrong.
Seeing this, we can start to tell a different story. We can start framing discussions not in economic terms, but in more holistic, human terms. We can start asking different questions about what matters and about how we can define success and value beyond the financial. We can start to build for ourselves lives and careers based on what is intrinsically important to us, rather than on what someone else says is valuable based on what they're willing to pay.
How do you think the monoculture impacts you? How could you think differently, not just about your career, but about other facets of your life?