Monday, September 26, 2011

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

by Alexandra Pölzlbauer

Work It Harder Make It Better
Do It Faster, Makes Us Stronger
More Than Ever Hour After
Our Work Is Never Over

In 2001, the French duo Daft Punk released an excellent single titled “Harder Better Faster Stronger” that summarizes the essence of today’s Zeitgeist very well. However, the assumption that harder, faster, and stronger necessarily imply better might be an American invention. Unfortunately, Europe likes to follow these patterns only too willingly.

When Steven Hill praises the European way in his new book Europe’s Promise as hope in an insecure age, one is reminded of the adage “the grass is always greener on the other side”. Although there is definitely a lot of truth in this saying, I agree with most of Hill’s arguments. Among the eight aspects he evaluates as European manifestations of the continent’s influence and power, “real family values” and “better health care” caught my attention. Not that “economic strength”, “competitive business”, “readying for global warming”, “robust democracy”, “multiheaded hydra”, or “innovative foreign policy” matter less, but I am convinced that nearly everything boils down to developing and guaranteeing working conditions for reasonably satisfied and most of all healthy workers. Referring back to my musical example, harder, better, faster, stronger are adjectives that have to be carefully reflected upon in this context; especially their relationships with one another.

While economists offer different ways of measuring workforce productivity and different ways of interpreting respective statistics, we are living it: harder, faster and stronger is what society expects of its workers. In my own experience and observation, Americans seem to work harder, maybe faster and definitely longer hours than their European colleagues. During my first few weeks in the US it became clear that people are forced to work and function differently within these systems and very often quantity comes before quality. Let’s take the university system as an example. In Europe, I had to read maybe between 50 and 100 pages per week for one seminar at the university level. In the US, I have to read between 150 and 300 pages per week for one course. After desperately struggling with all of these readings and constantly wondering why, regardless of how hard I tried, I could not keep up with the working pace, I finally found out. No one actually does all of the readings. Or at least not in the way Europeans seem to. Extensive instead of intensive reading is the formula, or sometimes not even reading at all. “Elaborate cheating” was what I thought at first because absolutely no one really admitted that they skipped pages and pages every week. Later on, I recognized that it is simply another way of designing tasks and fulfilling tasks. Still, I wonder how much sense it all makes. Besides, it raises another question: how many hours should people work and how many hours are people actually able to work productively?

After Steven Hill delivered his lecture at the European Union Center of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Dutch-German professor of economy Gregor van der Beek reminded him that among other competitive advantages, the US still offers most of the internationally prestigious graduate and research programs. That being said, one wonders which system offers quantitatively and qualitatively more on what level.

I am indeed very concerned with the developments in the US as well as in Europe. While Americans seem to mix up reasonable working hours and conditions with European laziness and even weakness, Europe itself doubts its own working morals and tends to head towards American preferences: quantity instead of quality. Social capitalism needs social ideas and social frameworks for their workers to be productive. Only reasonably satisfied and healthy workers will be efficient and productive in a sustainable way, provided that we are not encouraging the idea of “internationally disposable workers” (Steven Hill, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, xiii).

Currently, most discussions and especially most implementations lack reflection on these points that I consider as yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s crux. With regard to the European and American workforce, I am convinced that in every case, both communities have to make sure not to confuse quantity with quality. In short, harder, faster, and stronger should not be simply equated with better.

Alexandra Pölzlbauer is currently a Ph.D. student/teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, IL. Before earning an MA from the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2011, she completed a “Magisterstudium” (German studies, German as a foreign language, English studies, and History) in Vienna. Among other institutions, Alexandra Pölzlbauer has studied and taught at the Lomonossov University in Moscow, at the University of Burjatia in Ulan-Ude, in the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program, at the University of Business and Economics in Vienna, and in the International Summer Program of the University of Vienna in Salzburg. Her academic interests include migration, multiculturalism and cultural identities in globalized worlds, Austrian and German literature after 1945, as well as creative writing. She has written articles and presented scholarly papers focusing on multilingualism, hybridity and migration literature.


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