Things we learn at school

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 27/12/2020 - 2:24pm in

For the last few years I have been working at a local supermarket. Because there are three of them within walking distance, and provided I don't specify which one it is, I believe I can talk about what it's like without violating any confidentiality agreements I may have made during the "yeah, whatever" signing-on-dotted-lines stage of the hiring process.

I was happy enough to do the job for a year or two, but then 2020 happened, so let's make that three or four.

As one of those people who push a trolley round the shop picking online orders, I'm basically paid to get in peoples' way. The maddening thing about it is that when I am in somebody's way, it's they who apologise. Stop saying sorry, people! You haven't done anything wrong!

There's the occasional exception to this rule, memorable for it's rarity. Recently an old fellow grunted "Can you move?", not even prefaced with "excuse me". (Witty response that came to me five minutes too late: "Can I move? You should see me on the dance floor, grandad!")

However by and large, the job is utterly uninteresting, if physically taxing, which comes as a relief to this middle-aged burnout case. If one has to choose, it's far better to punish your body than your psyche.

A while ago my GP asked how work was going, and I replied that over time, the range of things I've been asked to do has expanded. "Oh good," he said, "Intellectual stimulation. You need that."

He's a queer fish, my GP. He makes so much money from treating sneezes and sniffles, and the various diseases of suburban despair, that he's on holiday most of the time for tax reasons, drifting around the world in a little bubble of affluence. I don't think he's quite grasped how much intellectual stimulation is involved in any aspect of running a supermarket — or indeed in most jobs. Which is to say, none whatsoever.

There are points of interest to the experience, mainly derived from observing what various people bring to it. I've seen a lot of people come and go in a few years, which is not unusual down here near minimum wage.

On my trolley is a little computer which, when it's not malfuctioning, leads me about the supermarket by the nose like a pack animal, telling me what to get and where to get it. When you are new to the job, in the process of being broken in, it is emphasised that if you can't find something quickly you should "out of stock it" and move on. Of course the little computer is surveilling you and extracting performance metrics at all times, so speed is of the essence.

Eventually, you realise that the system's little database of stock is chronically incomplete and inaccurate, so you develop workarounds. You also work out that the people who stock the shelves are likewise evaluated by crude metrics, and that it's not in their interest to take care in their work if they will be punished for it, so (for example) a tin of tomatoes is a tin of tomatoes. Whether it's whole, diced, or crushed tomatoes is not a distinction they'll be rewarded for honouring; just get it all on the shelves as quickly as possible.

Once you've amassed a catalogue of all the managerially-imposed perverse incentives relevant to your task, you can start to reverse engineer from these a mental map of the ways that things will inevitably go wrong, and graduate from following a precisely wrong model of how the place works to a fuzzily right model.

The practical upshot of this is that, for example, you don't "out of stock" so often, yet you still get round the shop relatively quickly. Can't find something where your computer says it will be, though there's supposed to be plenty of in stock? Is the amount claimed to be in stock plausible, or likely an artifact of the periodic farcical charade known as "stocktake" (where every item gets counted, but as the item that is supposed to be in that position rather than the item it actually is)? Is it on special this week (in which case it is likely to be on prominent display somewhere else not know to the system, as it's not worth being too fussy about updating the location database week-by-week; that degree of accuracy is not easily measured, and is therefore not incentivised)? Have a look a couple of inches or feet away where there's another product with quite similar packaging. Peer right to the back of the shelf. Insert your arm, James-Herriot-style, up to the shoulder and have a good rummage. When your fingertips make contact with something, grab it, and give it a good yank, bloodying knuckles in the process. Aha! Beep it, bag it, move on…

Now none of that is intrinsically interesting. What is interesting is how long it takes for people to surmount the blind faith in the flawless way that things are supposed to work. Now after a few years, I believe I've identified a statistically significant age-related difference in the attitude that one brings to a new job, which generalises beyond this particular example. It can be summarised like so:

  • Teens/twenties: How does it work?
  • Thirties: How should it work?
  • Forties and older: In what ways is it f**ed up?

You'll be slower and less effective for longer the younger you are, and more likely to be leaned on (which in a deregulated workplace includes being given fewer and fewer hours) till you quit. There are exceptions of course. Personally, I was wandering about in a comically innocent daze until I was in my forties. But in general I've found that the strength of this childlike belief in a world which is pretty well ordered, by grownups who know what they're doing, is proportional to one's degree of, and temporal proximity to, formal education.

So it's not strictly age related. If you're on the sort of career track where you're enjoying "lifelong learning", then clearly reality is not for you. You've taken the blue pill. You're paid to push an arbitrary sort of accountability down the hierarchy by measuring the easily quantifiable, and your only worry is the smaller degree of whimsical discipline imposed from above by those even deeper in cloud cuckoo land.

There's an interesting body of academic work on this, which I'll write about when I get round to reading it. It basically all boils down to Goodhart's Law.

The general cause of the problem is a neoliberal shift from academic education, concerned primarily with how the world actually is, to vocational education which, whether the practitioners know it or not, is about how this or that group of people believe the world should be. In extreme cases, such as mainstream economics, there's no recognition of a possible distinction between the two, since we live in a Panglossian best of all possible worlds, and one can not only derive ought from is, but also go in the other direction. Fault therefore lies not in our systems, but in ourselves. Therefore, it makes sense to measure our virtues using the simple numerical targets of our broken systems: in a word, meritocracy.

My whole working life I've heard conversations among exasperated colleages that run something like "Why do they still not get it? What can we do with them?", often in rooms I've just entered which suddenly fall silent when I'm noticed. To be functional in a fantasy world is to be able to practice the doublethink necessary to insist that the system is fundamentally sound, while intuitively implementing baroque workarounds for the fact that it is fundamentally broken. This phenomenon is fractal, and scales up to the global level, which might give one pause as we "return to normal" in 2021.

I've no conclusion to this…