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Can Our Economy Run Without Fear?


A survey question that is becoming increasingly popular asks people if they like their jobs. Depending on which survey you read, somewhere between 40% and 50% of American workers say they don’t like their work (1,2).

What is it exactly people don’t like at work? We get a clue from the survey that asked what people liked best about their jobs (3). The one aspect respondents liked was not being there. Funny perhaps, but apparently it is something to be found at the job site that makes work so bad. We find out from other sources (4,5) that it’s the people.

Fear comes in varieties. Humans can experience a whole botany of these feelings, varying from flicks of worry to cross-eyed terror, but stresses on the job are now so serious, according to a New York Times report by John Schwartz titled “Sick Of Work,” that 53% of people keep going back to the job, that “echo chamber of angst,” despite feeling overwhelmed (6). We do it so regularly that eight hours of loathing is an everyday routine. CNN now offers how-to-cope tips for workers who hate their jobs in the same dandy, colorful format as the weather and entertainment (7).

Fear on the job? Of course there are other difficulties, the eyestrain, the hurried meals when meeting deadlines. But frequent descriptions of supervisors and coworkers at some job sites are frightful, in fact they sometimes sound like a tribe of mutants. In her book Red Ink Behaviors, Jean Hollands gives illustrations. The Intimidator (loud, domineering, abusive, throws tantrums), the Stressor (spills her chronic frustration over coworkers in sarcasm and unending interruptions), the Micromanager (requires written reports at every turn) the Withholder (has data necessary for operations which she will not share), the Inconsistent (high drama, unpredictable hysteric, lapses into stream-of-consciousness communications) and the brilliant but hostile Techno-specialist (8).

These personalities can be extremely judgmental and may turn rabid when confronted, sending waves of anxiety across the office. Ranting supervisors and other rageaholics are so frequently listed that “the office bully” is now a cliché (9,10). This is what many workers fear, and they begin to sprout everyday symptoms: chronic fatigue, suspiciousness, depression (11). These bullies are devastating to company morale. (We may try the nice middle-class term, anxiety. But anxiety is fear about the future.) Cubicle workers patch their emotions together to get through the day.

In their book Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, Ryan and Oestreich further explain this is difficult to change because the perpetrators are often hard-to-replace specialists. They are often extremely competitive personalities, interpreting every successful intimidation as a personal win (12).

So why do workers go back?

The simple answer is, we owe.

It turns out that the average American is also about $8,500 in debt (aside from mortgage–mostly on credit cards), and if payments are late, interest charges up to 30% are common, but many states have no usury laws, so credit card companies can charge what the market will bear. A debt can grow by leaps. Bankruptcy laws have recently been changed, so now there is little or no escape; lenders can pursue debtors for life. Many credit card holders get on a financial treadmill that requires them to make ever larger monthly payments to keep themselves solvent. Eventually we are up to our nostrils in obligation.

If you fall behind on your debt payments, you’ll meet another bully, the debt collector. From distant phones which nobody can trace, these unblinking intimidators wait until you get home and then call you persistently to make sure you never forget about the money you owe. Legally or illegally, they threaten criminal charges, garnishment, property confiscation, or revealing your purchases to your boss and relatives (13). About half of Americans say they worry about debt, and 2 in 10 say they worry about debt most or all of the time (14).

Debt payments are a scourge.

Back at work, the manager understands. In 1960 Douglas McGregor wrote a book The Human Side of Enterprise detailing two different management styles. The more common (especially in bigger companies) he dubbed “Theory X,” a theory managers carry around in their heads: that humans inherently dislike work, and they have to be threatened and coerced. These managers openly use a hard, punishing style to get people to produce; they also believe people like being controlled. (Theory Y bosses are convinced people are naturally happy and creative, and that job satisfaction is a motivator)(15). Theory X supervisors are very common. They can induce saturnine hopelessness in the easiest of jobs.

From intimidation at work, to debt fears at home, and back again. People bear these fears in an ancient silence born of shame, believing they are failures in a system which otherwise seems free and open because everybody else on TV looks like they’re having a good time.

Some Americans are making good money on the job, but at the other end, according to a Pew Survey, roughly 20% of people say they have insufficient funds to buy needed clothing and food (16). Many people are worried about losing their jobs (60% see a job scarcity, with so many jobs going overseas (17)).

So we can add to the catalog of fears another type, the fear of consequences. “What would happen if?” I’m guessing most people in debt have let their minds stray over the changes of scenery that would ensue if they lost their jobs, lost their credit, lost the car, wound up in court, lost the house, etc. ­ all the more possible if they have divorce stresses, support payments, large medical costs, or are in a legal suit.

The manager understands. Which is why he can act with impunity.

If the stress is temporary, we may feel temporarily ill, but people who bear this for years develop other signs: a few drinks each lunch, the inaudible voice of the seriously depressed, the trembling hands. The effects of stressful events add up. Later, the praying on the way to work, the paranoia, road rage, alcoholism, the sobbing in the toilets, and domestic violence. An astonishing 30 million Americans are now swallowing prescription antidepressants. The same New York Times report says “Workplace stress costs the nation $300 billion each year in health care, missed work, and the stress reduction industry that has grown up to soothe workers and keep production high”(18).

Most of us work because we have no other choice (19). It is economic coercion. The less money you have the less liberty you have. Millions of people lead torn up lives in which pursuit of a personal ideal, or dream, or self-actualization, is a grim joke. Instead, as Studs Terkel reported after interviewing hundreds of people for his book Working, “To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us”(20).

But few writers have stopped to make the broader point, that this large proportion of the population living in degrees of coercion and fear is incompatible with enlightened democracy. Barbara Ehrenreich did, in her book Nickle and Dimed: “We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship”(21).

Despite the staggering losses in production revenues and the emotional and medical costs, it doesn’t look as if all this is going to change soon. Rather than taking the steps to change these toxic personalities, we rationalize. We lurch forward another year under the banner, business is business.

It is fear. If workers had no fear of the consequences, they would not work.

Could our economy run without fear? It is a practical question. What if all people living in this quiet desperation stopped working? True, our economy is not entirely composed of fear, indeed it is not entirely composed of workers. But if you removed fear of consequences, we don’t need calculators to figure that the system would come to a collapsing halt.

There is a powerful resistance to change. From the point of view of employers, of course, fear is useful. It is a goad. It keeps workers pulling at the oars.

The science of economics will not truck with this, of course. Fear is not a rational factor. They call it an “externality,” because it will not fit into their dry formulas.

Perhaps we can try this image. We have been talking about 40% to 50% of the population, so perhaps the economy floats on fear like a boat half in, half out of the water. Technically the water is ‘external’ to it. Then, like a boat, the economy doesn’t need fear to exist; but it works much better with it.

JULIAN EDNEY is the author of Greed: a Treatise in Two Essays. Born in Uganda, he now teaches college in southern California and can be contacted through his website.


1. Many employees dislike their job and employers. (2005, May 17). Wall Street This is a report and summary of a Harris Poll.

2. Only half of Americans like their jobs. (2002, August 21) FoxNews: Reuters
report of survey conducted by the Conference Board.

3. Ibid

4. Ryan, K and Oestreich, D. Driving fear out of the workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

5. Hollands, J.A. Red ink behaviors: Measuring the surprisingly high cost of problem behaviors in valuable employees. Mountain View, CA: Blake/Madsen Publishers, 1997.

6. Schwartz, J. Sick of work.(2004, September 5). New York Times, Health section. A series of three articles about the enormous costs of stress at work.

7. Lorenz, K. Hate your job? 10 ways to cope. (2005, July 15).

8. Hollands, Ibid.

9. Workplace stress self assessment.(2006, April 11).

10. Getting along with your co-workers. (2004 September 17).

11. Neils, H. 13 signs of burnout and how to help you avoid it. (Undated).

12. Ryan, K and Oestreich, D. Ibid.

13. Lazaroni, l. Debt collector horror stories. (20054, September 20)

14. Lester, W. Half of Americans worry about debts. (Undated). AP report on AP-Ipsos poll.

15. McGregor, D. The human side of enterprise. (1960/2005) New York: McGraw-Hill.

16. Economic concerns fueled by many woes.(2005, June 1). Pew Research Center survey reports on economy-related sources of worry for Americans.

17. Ibid

18 Schwartz, J. Ibid.

19. Curry, A. Why we work. ( 2004, February 3) US News and World

20. Terkel, S. Working. New York: The New Press, 1972.

21. Ehrenreich, B. Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America.
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.


Author: JULIAN EDNEY teaches college. His recent book Greed: A Treatise in Two Essays picks up these arguments in ‘Greed II’. He can be contacted through his website.



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