The Human Cost of Apple’s Success

There's never been a better time to ask whether chasing the dream of growth has already turned into a nightmare

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It’s all Apple all the time these days: “astounding” earnings reports in the news on Jan. 25, lingering shots of Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene sitting near Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address the day before and, of course, ever since his death in October, near ubiquitous references to Jobs himself in pretty much any conversation or piece of writing or speech aimed at promoting creativity or ingenuity or an all-American, against-all-odds model of success.

And yet, a series of New York Times articles this week spoke of a darker reality behind the glowing Apple story: the “millions of human cogs,” as the Times’ Charles Duhigg and David Barboza put it, in China who are now laboring 12 hours a day, six days a week in order to maintain the company’s — and their country’s — amazing rate of growth.

These are workers who live in dormitories where they can be called to their jobs on a moment’s notice and who often work double shifts in highly unsafe conditions. They’re workers who have their jobs because, unlike their American counterparts, they’re willing to do all it takes. “It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad,” Duhigg and reporter Keith Bradsher wrote in an earlier story. “Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”

(MORE: Should Americans Care About Apple’s iPhone Factory Conditions?)

Duhigg and Bradsher’s story contrasted the work ethic of the (employed) Chinese with quotes from Eric Saragoza, a 48-year-old unemployed American engineer and father of five. Saragoza spoke of his desire to spend weekends at his children’s soccer games and deplored the appetite in Silicon Valley for workers who are willing and able to sacrifice having a home life to give their all to the demands of their jobs. “What they really want are 30-year-olds without children,” he complained.

The Times stories, operatic in scope, raised very serious questions not just about Apple or the many other companies that similarly rely on overseas labor to support their growth and flood the world with cheap products and services; the articles also threw into stark relief the human cost of the growth model itself that has allowed Apple and China to thrive in the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression. It’s a model of growth, all too unquestioned in the U.S., that demands endless quality-of-life sacrifices in the service of productivity and profit.

By quality of life, I don’t mean house size or number of cars or the ability to outfit one’s whole family with the best iProducts, but, rather, having the things that decades and decades of research have shown actually make people happy: good relationships with friends and family. This means, of course, having the time and the space and the physical and emotional availability to invest in friends and family.

Yet it’s been decades now that American workers have been headed in the opposite direction. Working hours (for those who have jobs) have expanded to the point where successful professionals now consider the traditional 40-hour workweek as a “part-time” job. Vacation time has been shrinking. In the current downturn, Americans lucky enough to have jobs are too scared of losing them to take time off; collectively, in 2010, they sacrificed 448 million earned vacation days. In the  contracting economy of recent years, the pressure to be a good worker — superproductive, ever willing, always available — has never been greater. But with an election year under way and incessant talk about China and growth and our competitiveness, or lack thereof, there’s also never been a better moment to call into question the direction we’re headed and to ask whether chasing the dream of growth has already turned into a nightmare.

(MORE: Adam Cohen: Do Laborers Have a Right to Job-Hunt?)

If all this sounds unbearably loosey-goosey, then I’ll refer you to Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of public policy and economics at Harvard, who in a recent column argued that our current economic doldrums offer “exactly the occasion” for just this sort of rethinking of our national and global aspirations.

Rogoff, the co-author with Carmen Reinhart of This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly and a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is a man not at all given to sentimental soft thinking on world economic matters. Yet in his column, “Rethinking the Growth Imperative,” he raised a stark challenge: “Does it really make sense to take growth as the main social objective in perpetuity?” In the race for global economic dominance, he noted, ever-rising national growth figures don’t mean all that much if people aren’t actually living better lives.

“In a period of great economic uncertainty, it may seem inappropriate to question the growth imperative,” he wrote, anticipating his critics. But, he concluded, there’s really no better time.

Steve Jobs pursued the “growth imperative” to its fullest flowering. It’s up to the rest of us now to decide what to make of his legacy.