“Karoshi” is a Japanese word that means, literally, “death by overwork.” For nearly half a century it’s been quite common for Japanese workers, usually the legendary “salarymen,” simply to drop dead, almost always from heart problems, after working long hours for many years. Other Asian cultures, especially, South Korea and China, experience a similar phenomenon. (Interestingly, death by overwork is unknown in southern Europe and Latin America…).
Karoshi is on my mind because a few weeks ago I was self-celebrating my 200th blog post, and immediately thereafter I wrote a couple of posts on the subject of “the illusion of control.” It occurred to me that these two phenomena were related. In one of the celebration posts I was describing my own extremely checkered work career, the first half of which revolved around a series of blue collar jobs. I penned this sentence: “I detested most of those jobs and only did them because the alternative seemed to be starvation.”
More than few readers seized on that sentence, some to wonder if I was intentionally demeaning honest manual labor (I wasn’t) and others wondering why I disliked the jobs so much. Probably people had on their minds the fact that most Americans, and especially most Trump voters, still work at those kinds of jobs. Too many of us—the American elite and the entire Democratic Party—had forgotten those Americans even existed.
But, first, notice that I said I disliked “most” of the jobs. A few of them I actually enjoyed and would probably have kept at them for the rest of my days except the pay really, really sucked. Truck driving, for instance. I loved driving truck. I sat way up above the traffic and was in charge of a powerful machine. I (excessively romantically) thought of us truck drivers as the last of the American cowboys, out on the range where nobody messed with us.
In those days, before the completion of the interstate highway system, driving was a lot more fun than it is today. You drove on two-lane roads that winded this way and that and that climbed over hill and dale. You didn’t bypass towns and cities, you just drove right through the middle of them. Breakdowns were common and flat tires were almost everyday events.
Best of all, your boss was nowhere around. He knew whether or not you picked up your load on time, and he knew whether or not you dropped it off on time, but other than that he was clueless. You picked your own speed and your own route. You decided whether to stop to eat or keep going. You decided whether to drive through the night or pull over and sleep (almost always in your truck).
Unfortunately, most of the blue collar jobs I worked weren’t as much fun and weren’t as interesting. I once worked in a factory that manufactured paper products, laboring away on the “strainer line,” which produced conical, hard-sided paper cones used as strainers for who-knows-what industrial applications. The completed strainers came rushing down the line and every hundredth strainer had a tiny red dot on it. When I saw that dot I picked up 100 strainers and put them in a corrugated box. When the box held 1,000 strainers, I picked it up—paper is heavy and the boxes were large and unwieldy—and carried it to another line, where other workers, mostly women, weighed the box (God help me if I’d shorted the customer by a strainer or two), sealed it, applied a bill of lading and sent it on down the line. At the end of the line workers offloaded the boxes onto pallets and, periodically, a forklift would show up and take the pallets away. I was one of the slowest workers on the line, but even so I loaded 200,000 strainers a day, one million a week.
That job, like so many other factory jobs, was stultifyingly boring. By the end of the first week I wanted to murder everyone in the factory with my bare hands. By the end of the first month, however, my brain had shut down. If you don’t use your brain for a while it goes into hibernation. Fail to use it even longer and it retires in place. Soon my brain was fit for nothing but watching sports events and TV sitcoms.
But there was an even worse problem with that job and so many others like it: I didn’t have even the illusion of control. Every aspect of the job, no matter how minor, was prescribed down to the Nth detail. And my boss—the shop foreman—was right there to make damn sure I did the job the way the big boss wanted me to do it. If the assembly line screeched to a stop because you screwed up—maybe you were working too slowly, or maybe you dropped an armful of strainers, or maybe your shirt got caught in the rollers—not only was your pay docked but the other workers were furious with you. You were treated like what you were: a low status, easily replaceable kind of robot. You were only quasi-human.
The combination of terminal boredom and no control over how the job is done is what made me detest most of the blue collar jobs I had. Which brings us back to karoshi. Stay tuned.
Next up: On Karoshi, Part II