Labor Pains: Why We Work
by Barry Schwartz
Simon & Schuster/TED Books, 2015 ($16.99)

“Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 classic, Walden, and so confirms the Gallup organization based on recent surveys of 25 million people in 189 countries. Work frustrates rather than fulfills almost 90 percent of the world's workforce.

Most people work because they need money, but scholars have long known that money is not what people most want from work. In fact, J. D. Houser's 1938 book, What People Want from Business, put money 21st on the list, and Robert Hoppock's extensive study entitled Job Satisfaction, published in 1935, found that the best predictors of workplace satisfaction were autonomy, variety, security, appreciation, positive relationships and opportunities for advancement.

In Why We Work, Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, promises to explain why the modern work experience falls so far short of this ideal. Unfortunately, he does so mainly by criticizing the views of three straw men: Adam Smith, the 18th-century author of The Wealth of Nations, and 20th-century thinkers Frederick Taylor, the inventor of management science, and B. F. Skinner, a pioneer of behavioral psychology. All three wrote about the power of incentives—promised rewards—and Schwartz's book is largely a diatribe against what he calls the “incentive theory of everything.”

In education, medicine and law, in particular, Schwartz says, the focus on efficiency and profitability has robbed practitioners of the intrinsic motivators that drew them to these professions in the first place. All three professions have turned into assembly lines in which behavior is scripted to maximize gain.

But virtually any job, Schwartz notes, can be made satisfying if it is modified to boost autonomy and to include “variety, complexity, skill development, and growth.” (Sound familiar?) The problem with this proposed fix is that he largely glosses over why many business owners and executives avoid such practices. Efficiency and profitability are important, after all. The small family farm provided meaningful experiences for workers, sure, but it did not produce much food.

Ironically, Schwartz mentions Google as an exception to what he sees as the modern obsession with incentive-based management, overlooking the fact that Google employees are chauffeured to work each morning in leather-appointed buses and fed free of charge by gourmet chefs.

Why We Work seems superficial, perhaps in part because the author was incentivized to present his views in a fast-moving, assembly-line format. TED talks are limited to 18 minutes, and the new TED Books, of which this is one, are limited to about 100 pages. Now that would be an intriguing topic for a TED book: how to get people to pay attention to in-depth discussions about complex issues that cannot be explored adequately in the blink of an eye.