We like to produce students who will work hard for employers once they leave school or university. But how much is school preparing them to be exploited?
The old Marxist analysis of the capitalist salary strategy was that successful mill owners drove workers to effort that maximised efficiency.
Employees were always on the verge of starvation, as it didn't make financial sense to pay them so badly that they couldn't get out of bed, but it wasn't economically sensible to remunerate them more than was necessary to keep them turning up.
We may think this scenario has no relevance to today's workplace, but an academic economist at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, has recently published a mathematical model of modern salaried professions, which suggests that the Marxist analysis still applies in hyper-competitive markets. This new model suggests that those working in accounting, law, medicine and similar professions inevitably toil on the verge of depression or burn-out, much as wage workers once toiled on the edge of starvation.
Economist Alan Day Haight says many of these professionals are motivated largely by their hopes for advancement, and since they accept hope as a means of payment, they are targets for "surplus extraction"; the firm gets more work out of them than they're paid for. Haight reminds us that, in a typical office, senior staff benefit financially (andor in terms of on-the-job leisure) from the long hours put in by juniors. And as rivalry enhances diligence, more than one junior is hired for each anticipated promotion.
This new model shows that there is only enough rivalry when the junior professionals are suffering from so much promotion anxiety that they are on the verge of "giving up" or "burning out". The amount of surplus effort depends on the number of rivals. If the first-year cohort is so small that promotion is assured for all, the juniors would "coast". But promotion anxiety can be overdone, and beyond a certain point juniors become pessimistic about their chances and start to work less.
Haight concludes (with apologies to Voltaire) that, "If staff burn-out did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it." We need to produce hard-working students - but should we teach them the benefits of rebellion as well?
Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.
His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: email@example.com