Striking a chord, SHARPLY

Dean Bedford


The Evening Post Independent Newspapers Ltd. 11/18/2000

Do we work too hard? Should work rule our lives? Why do we pillory the unemployed? An Australian academic is asking these questions and coming up with some interesting answers.

SHE'S THE scourge of the world's environment-damaging corporates and public relations bosses. Her first book, Global Spin, was a best- seller praised everywhere, even by the PR industry she was targeting.

It comes then as something of a surprise to meet Sharon Beder, the author whose books have caused so much controversy. Slight, shy, softly spoken, dressed more like a student than an academic, she seems anything but dogmatic and tough.

Yet it soon becomes clear that the Clark Kentish exterior hides a fierce intelligence. Her latest book, Selling The Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit To Corporate PR, is a meticulously researched account pulling apart our devotion to work.

There's an irony here, because Beder is clearly devoted to her work in researching and writing her books and articles. She smiles at this: "I don't see it as work," she says.

She sometimes considers how she could limit her university work, such as teaching and administration, to concentrate on the research she loves. She even suggests researching isn't really work to her.

The work ethic book is certainly provocative. Beder thinks that for the 21st century the work ethic is outmoded. "We can't go on producing and producing and still protect the environment," she says.

More stress, suicide and other ailments can be put down to our obsession with work. "It doesn't need to be that way."

In the book, Beder charts attitudes to work throughout history and argues that we have only become obsessed with work in the past 200 to 300 years. And that works in favour of capitalists. For example, hand- in-hand with shedding staff, major corporates in the past 10 to 20 years have pushed for employees to work longer and longer hours on compulsory overtime, simply because it works out cheaper than employing more staff. Even unions have taken the wrong approach, she argues, by looking first to pay rises rather than shorter hours.

While the 90s have seen thousands more jobs created in New Zealand, just as happened in other countries, they are often temporary or part-time jobs which don't come with overtime provisions or holiday pay.

But don't lots of people love their work? Many work long hours because they get pride and satisfaction from it, don't they?

Beder doubts that. "The majority of people don't have interesting and fulfilling jobs like you and I do," she says. And those that do have good jobs spend more time there than they really should, at the expense of their family, friends, self improvement, sleep and so on. Most people let work dominate, structuring their life around it, she says.

But it wasn't meant to be this way.

According to the prophets of technology, we were all supposed to be freed up for more leisure and relaxation. Twenty years ago the boom-sayers were predicting our working week might be cut as technology took over tiresome chores.

Beder reckons there's been the opportunity to do that for a long time, but employers have responded by cutting workers instead. In some industries, technology is being used instead to keep an eye on employees: Beder says call centre staff are monitored electronically to find out how long it takes them to deal with calls; other companies can monitor how many key strokes a data entry operator is using.

Part of Beder's book takes aim at the way people without paying work are treated. She criticises what she calls the stigmatising of the unemployed, and the way the media plays up stories about people with a luxury life or surfing on the dole, or how stories about welfare fraud get prominence over those about tax fraud.

"We should be happy to pay people to be jobless. The only reason we don't is the work ethic," she says.

Most people don't choose to be unemployed, she says. "Most would like to have a job if they could, but some people don't have the right qualities."

She says a humane society should not make a fuss about paying these people. And what of the person who makes a conscious decision to be unemployed, to go surfing: should we pay them?

"I don't see why not ... Someone able to live on the meagre income (of an unemployment benefit) may be more beneficial to the environment than someone who is quite wealthy and produces goods that people have to be persuaded to want."

This is another hobby-horse Beder has: that we're being persuaded by big corporates that we need consumer goods that we don't really need and which don't make us happy. She believes we're producing too much stuff, and that's damaging the environment.

The dole-collecting surfer also gives us all an example of how it's possible to have a life that's not work-centred. And that's a life Beder would like more people to choose.

She shoots off at work-for-the-dole schemes which force people into menial jobs in exchange for a benefit. Often the jobs are meaningless and studies show the costs outweigh the outputs.

"In the United States and Australia (such) schemes are very much a punishment ... as if the jobs were just waiting there."

Ideally, Beder agrees everyone would be doing some work, though she's not sure whether a week of 35 hours or even 30 mandated by the Government is the answer.

Ironically, like those on the opposite ideological side to her, she's unsure the Government can produce the changes needed. She'd prefer to see a cultural change so people were more sceptical of what corporates were pushing on to people. That cultural change would flow through into governments, with businesses changing their practices due to public demand.

Does she expect to see such a cultural change? Well, her book has struck a chord, she says.

Although Beder now lives in Australia, where she teaches at the University of Wollongong, she grew up in Wellington and was educated at Hutt Valley High School. Her parents still live in the Hutt Valley, in Lowry Bay.

After graduating as an engineer from the University of Canterbury, she spent a year at the Ministry of Works in Wellington in an office below the ground staring at a computer.

"It didn't seem meaningful somehow."

She decided to return to academia and wrote her doctorate paper on the Sydney sewerage scheme, claiming pollution was being covered up. She became interested in how corporates and their PR people tried to cover up the truth about environmental damage.

That led to her book, Global Spin, a direct attack on corporates and their attitudes to the environment. In more recent times, however, the target of her attacks has been environmental group Greenpeace, which she criticised for OKing the site of the main stadium for the Sydney Olympics, built on contaminated land.

Greenpeace fought back, but Beder isn't backing down.

She says Greenpeace has accepted the idea that the best way to help the environment is to work with industry and find solutions that help both sides. Beder thinks this won't work.

"(Environmental) change is not going to come from business voluntarily."

She's dismissive of companies such as petrol giant BP which say they're promoting strong environmental standards, while at the same time they try to sell more and more of their environmentally damaging product, petrol.

Surprisingly, Beder says she hasn't had much negative feedback from public relations companies. Instead her book, which describes how PR firms can create pressure groups and demonise environmental groups, is now seen as a training manual for the industry.

She laughs at that, describing how she was asked to write more about the techniques for an industry magazine.

Her next book will focus on consumerism to show how we're manipulated by the hidden persuaders to believe that we need more consumer goods than are good for us.

Despite her experiences, Beder remains optimistic that change will come. An engineer by training, she writes for an engineering magazine in Australia where her views are often subject to debate from the engineering community that reads them.

Even among engineers, who aren't known for mixing sociology with specifications, her views are striking a chord. "People don't want to be judged by the work they do."

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