If the game is rigged, should players bother competing or should they look for a new game altogether?
When Kevin Roberts, the now-suspended executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, suggested in a recent interview that “the fucking debate [about gender] is all over”, he unleashed a wave of anger in an industry in which barely more than 10% of creative directors are female. The reaction to Roberts’s comments suggests that far from being historically concluded, the debate about gender in the workplace has barely begun.
Roberts’s justification for his claim – that some men and women have concluded that ambition for leadership is “antiquated” and “dinosaur-like” and prefer to be happy rather than successful – is worth pondering for a moment. Opposing “vertical ambition” to an “intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy”, Roberts suggests that young people especially are increasingly opposed to the “Darwinian urges of wealth, power and fame”.
Roberts is hardly the ideal poster-man for a reinvigorated life-work balance campaign or the abandonment of megalomania and money (in the interview he bemoans the “fact” that “unfortunately, about 90% of the world give up real early, and plod and seek to be average”, and accuses advertising consultant Cindy Gallop of “making up” claims about sexual harassment in the industry). Nevertheless, he raises a more general issue: what is the point of ceaseless, miserable striving, often in work that generates yet more harm and damage?
In an 1884 lecture entitled Useful Work versus Useless Toil, the great socialist designer William Morris questioned the cycle of “mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil”. As an academic philosopher, the irony of criticising the advertising industry for its uselessness is not lost on me. However, it is worth questioning the existence of so much labour that does nothing but perpetuate itself by generating nothing of use, and perhaps many things of great damage.
Roberts, of course, does not seek to call for the abolition of his industry, even as he may have inadvertently abolished his own job within it. But by querying the values that underpin capitalism’s relentless and narrow celebration of “success” as dominance and power over others, we are reminded instead of what Morris called “the ornamental part of life”. Morris describes this as “pleasure, bodily and mental, scientific and artistic, social and individual – on the basis of work undertaken willingly and cheerfully, with the consciousness of benefiting ourselves and our neighbours by it”.
Morris’s formulation is both aesthetic and moral. The values of contemporary capitalism are, by contrast, intensely immoral by any standards: selfishness, aggression and indifference to the pain and need of others. Opposing values such as care, compassion and collectivity are typically derided and afforded low status (compare, for instance, the wages of nurses to city traders).
Historically, these alternative values have often been associated with and imposed on women: you should be nice because you’re a woman. Desiring to rebel against this imposition might start to look attractive – just lean in and work hard and you too can be the boss! But what if the game itself is the problem? What if, rather than fighting to compete, or even competing at all, we instead fought to re-evaluate what is most central to the ongoing wellbeing and existence of humanity as such?
A recent government report, Future of an Ageing Population, points out that the proportion of the working-age population aged between 50 and the state pension age will increase from 26% in 2012 to 35% in 2050 – a rise of some 8 million people. There is a looming crisis of care in a situation where already many families, looking after younger and older generations simultaneously, are struggling to cope.
While it would be a radical gesture for “Darwinian” corporate culture and male leaders such as Roberts to collectively self-abolish, there is a deeper point here. A total revaluation of our values, inside and outside of waged labour, would lead us to understand that the most important things in the world are those that are currently valued the least. While it might historically be important to move some pieces from one side of the board to the other, a deeper perspective might lead us to chuck the board off the table and stop playing the game altogether in favour of recognising what was always right there in front of us all along.