Societies are not economies, says Jens Beckert

man in an office

Employees are increasingly paying attention to their work-life balance.

(Photo: Stone/Getty Images)

“Why do the workers work?” was the title of an article by the Mannheim sociologist Johannes Berger almost 30 years ago. It addressed what economists call the “labor extraction problem,” a theme that has always accompanied the capitalist economic order.

How do you ensure that the employees who are paid for their working hours are actually working instead of idling? The recent controversy surrounding citizen income is fueled by this fear that some workers may no longer be interested in work in the future.

>> Read here: This is what the “Big Quit” looks like in German labor market

In early capitalism, workers often showed little interest in maximizing production. They clung to their traditional way of life, much to the annoyance of the entrepreneurs. The work-free Monday, disinterest in increasing income through overtime work and alcohol at work were effects of this.

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Employers responded with factory orders, threats and inducements. In management theory, this has left its mark on concepts such as Taylorism, the Human Relations School, the humanization of work, lean management and everyday work in open spaces. All concepts that aim to get employees to work in line with the company’s goals.

There is no disciplining effect

The problem cannot be resolved. In economic life, the logic of action of efficiency and increasing profits competes with the needs of people in their everyday lives. These cannot simply be reduced to production factors. Berger pointed out the importance of moral attitudes, without which the problem cannot be solved.

Jens Beckert

Jens Beckert is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.

(Photo: David Ausserhofer)

Employees should feel obliged to use their labor efficiently. Controls can always be circumvented and incentives have limited effects. The problem is amplified in times of full employment when the disciplining effect of unemployment is missing.

We are currently encountering this tension again. “The great resignation” is what Americans call the phenomenon that millions of people quit their jobs after the pandemic and are taking time off or looking for a better job. “Quiet quitting” is the attitude of taking things a little slower at work to take care of yourself and “work-life balance”.

The fact that employees demand mobile work shows the need to escape everyday office life and avoid long commutes. Here, employers are at odds as to what impact to expect on productivity. Does it require control or trust? Does Homework Satisfaction Increase Productivity?

>> Read here: Good salary and home office are not enough – How companies score with young applicants

With the debate about citizens’ income, we are experiencing a new round in an ongoing conflict that shows one thing above all: societies are not economies, not even in the economy itself. The economy has to deal with that.

More: Up to 1742 euros for a family with two children: the state will pay this much in the future.

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