Monday, June 27, 2022

The Divergence Between Work Songs and High-Road HR Strategies

Different HR strategies for managing people are founded, at least in part, on different ways in which we think about work. Is work simply an input into a productive process that’s tracked and traded like other commodities? Or something bad that individuals do primarily for income? Or a source of personal satisfaction? A way to serve others? A way to fulfill societal expectations?

Low-road, market-drive HR strategies are based on the depersonalized commodity view, incentive-based HR strategies are rooted in seeing work as a necessary evil to earn income, and high-engagement or commitment strategies are based on views of work that see the potential for personal and broader satisfaction. 

Ultimately, work is exceptionally complex and multi-layered, so I think it’s best to see these alternative perspectives as all being relevant—that is, we should see them as complements rather than competitors. But just for fun, I’ve noticed that it’s very difficult to find songs (or comics or other forms of pop culture) that celebrate any joys of working. One of the only songs with a positive view of work I can find is The Happy Working Song, which is from the Disney movie Enchanted (as an aside, I’ve seen Everything is Awesome from the Lego Movie suggested as a positive work song, but it might really be about conformity—and in either case, we’re still left with positive work songs only in kids movies).  

In sharp contrast, there are many, many songs about work being commodified, lousy, and something to avoid, from old folk ballads, blues, and disco to 2020s post-grunge with lots of genres in between. That is, work through the lens of songs definitely favors the economics views of work. Indeed, these views can be illustrated by a single artist: Bruce Springsteen.

In The River, we can see work as a commodity left in the hands of market forces:

      I got a job working construction
      For the Johnstown Company
      But lately there ain't been much work
      On account of the economy
      Now all them things that seemed so important
      Well mister they vanished right into the air
      Now I just act like I don't remember
      Mary acts like she don't care

In Factory, we see the daily punishment and toil of work:

      Early in the morning factory whistle blows
      Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
      Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
      It's the working, the working, just the working life
      Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
      I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
      Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life
      The working, the working, just the working life

And hot (or cold) repetitive toil is evident in Working on the Highway:

      I work for the county out on 95
      All day I hold a red flag and watch the traffic pass me by
      In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss
      Someday, mister, I'm gonna lead a better life than this
      Working on the highway, laying down the blacktop
      Working on the highway, all day long I don't stop
      Working on the highway, blasting through the bedrock
      Working on the highway, working on the highway

In modern economic thought, work doesn’t need to be directly painful (or boring or stressful or…), it can simply be an opportunity cost. That is, work might be OK, but it’s a costly use of your time if non-work activities are better. We can (sort of) see this in Night, where night-time drag racing is a lot more enjoyable than working (though work here is negative, too):

      You get up every morning at the sound of the bell
      You get to work late and the boss man's giving you hell
      'Til you're out on a midnight run
      Losing your heart to a beautiful one
      And it feels right as you lock up the house
      Turn out the lights and step out into the night

In these Springsteen songs, we can also see the reason for working—to make money to support your family and your more pleasurable pursuits, which again is a theme in many other songs by diverse artists. It’s not a source of deep rewards, as sought by high-road HR strategies.

 We can question whether popular music accurately represents views of work across the population—maybe the mournful aspects of work just make for better songs—but the extent to which these songs resonate with so many people should cause us to question the match between the assumptions of high-road HR strategies and how significant numbers of people actually experience their work. Though by itself, this can't answer the question of whether high-road HR strategies are fundamentally flawed (e.g., due to inherent conflicts of interest between workers and employers) or are simply difficult to achieve in practice.