From an early age, we are taught to think of ourselves as individuals valuable to the society we live in. But have you ever wondered how our modern society values your worth? The following anecdote may shed some light on this question.
A company I once worked for manufactured software-testing tools. It was a startup, and its first application was for testing some mission-critical medical equipment. A malfunction could have meant patient’s life, and as we were very proud of our record of reliability, we decided to expand our business to other fields.
It was pre-credit crisis days, and the field that attracted us the most was the financial sector. I was introduced to a top banking executive who asked to see references. But when he found out that all our references were from medical institutions, he looked at us in superior disgust and bluntly stated: “If somebody dies because of malfunction of your software, it will be a loss of $250,000 in insurance pay. But here if a mistake happens, we lose real money. (By the way, in the aftermath of the credit crisis, it became obvious that in general, financial software was far less reliable than anything we produced.)
So now that you know how you are valued by financial institutions, you may wonder if there is anyone outside your family and close circle of friends that value you more.
You may already be aware that unless you can financially support political campaigns, to politicians you are nothing but a vote. But what about your place of work, doesn’t your company value your contribution as an individual? Isn’t your value to your employer greater than the simple difference between the income you help to generate and your cost?
If you work for publicly listed company, even for a company whose mantra is ‘our employees are our most valuable asset,’ in most downturn situations you, the valuable asset, will become a disposable commodity, and will be disposed of way ahead of any other assets or equipment the company owns. This is despite evidence that indicates that “downsizing is guaranteed to accomplish only one thing – it makes organizations smaller" (Pfeffer, 1998), and that the consequences of downsizing is stock prices that lag 5 to 45% behind the competition. How valuable to your employer does this make you feel?
This has not always been the case. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that many industries have chosen to revert to pre-industrial-revolution practices and dehumanize their work force, thus reversing a hundred years-old trend of treating employees as individuals.
While this trend may raise many moral and ethical questions (for instance, it ignores articles 23 and 24 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states the right of employee to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment) it also raises questions about the sustainability of the American lifestyle.
After all, if cheap labor becomes imperative to the success of the American economy, not far is the day when American competitiveness in the world will not survive without cheap labor. So while developing countries around the world are moving up the scale of manufacturing, away from cheap production economies, America is moving down.
It’s easy to project that if this trend continues, soon America will become the cheap manufacturing facility for countries like China or India. While this may be a viable economic model, this, no doubt will lead to sharp deterioration of the American quality of life, as in the long run, cheap labor will not sustain the lifestyle that Americans are used to today.