The Plight of Moderately-Skilled White Collar Workers

At first, this NY Times article about the long hours and miserable conditions at Amazon for white collar workers simply seemed to reinforce the notion that CEOs and upper-level managers are often assholes. But there’s something else going on as well.

An apocryphal story about a maitre d’ at a swanky restaurant hints at the problem. The maitre d’ tells a customer, “I’m taking my first vacation in 21 years.” The customer asks, “Why didn’t you take one before?” The maitre d’ leans over and whispers, “Because I didn’t want them to realize they could do without me.”

When I look at the jobs most of the people who left had, these don’t appear to be extremely high skill jobs. No, you can’t just bring in five guys off the street to do the work: some business-related and professional skills are required. But these don’t seem to be the people who invent a new algorithm or possess a body of knowledge that is very hard to come by (‘domain expertise’). Their skills seem to be rather general (managing and service). In other words, many (or perhaps enough) college-educated people could do these jobs.

When there’s a lot of competition and you don’t have a concrete advantage (i.e., skills or specialized knowledge), the only way to stay ahead of your competitors–or at least not fall behind them–is to work really long hours while sniping at your competitors.

In a sense, while people think of the white collar jobs in the tech industry as requiring specialized skills such as coding, at Amazon, it appears they’re just the same middle management that U.S. industry has always had, just squeezed harder.

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2 Responses to The Plight of Moderately-Skilled White Collar Workers

  1. First they came for unskilled labor, then they came for skilled blue collar workers, then they came for lower-level white collar workers….and finally they came for moderately skilled white collar workers. The truly highly skilled in our society will be blind to what awaits them…until they come for them. Oh WAIT! They already have in some fields….look at what’s happened to biomedical science and many areas of engineering and computer science.

    The end-game of cut-throat capitalism is to turn literally EVERYTHING except the CEO into a commodity.

  2. Brea Plum says:

    Don’t discount the fact that, to at least some degree, many people know that their jobs really aren’t at all necessary and so work long hours on tasks that are extraneous to make themselves look necessary. Then there are those who work long hours for the same reason not because they know they aren’t necessary but because they have so much of their identity wrapped up in their jobs, working fewer hours would be a blow to that identity.

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