When neither reproduction of current living standards nor employment is guaranteed, the work and life of R&D engineers are uncertain and full of opportunities and risks. They must mobilize their individual autonomy to present, enhance, and fulfill their personal labor value and protect their personal lives and work opportunities. The unemployment risk in the high-tech labor market intensifies the urgency of maximizing labor value during the employment period, which persuades them to not only strive for high performance but also to take the realization of labor value as the priority in life. This section will describe the characteristics of R&D engineers' self-management in three aspects: overcommodification of labor power, self-control of the labor process, and self-rationalization of life.
Overcommodification of labor power
The overcommodification of labor power implies that the commodity attribute of labor is overemphasized, and economic labor return becomes the most important or even the only index with which to measure the value and meaning of one's labor. R&D engineers overcommodify their labor in two senses: (1) that “making money” becomes the most significant work motivation, and (2) that the meaning of work to the collective and the motivation to contribute to society are gradually eroded. Personal benefits become the only concern. R&D engineers define themselves as “technology merchants” and emphasize the economic and commercial nature of their work. Job satisfaction and sense of achievement also come from economic rewards.
We are not scientists. We are technical merchants. Most products are designed to meet the needs of others... Happiness may depend on your accomplishment and recognition that you can get something from it, such as a bonus for high performance. This may be the source of happiness. The person who gets satisfaction from work itself may be one in a million (2017RD52).
Economic rewards are the most important factor affecting R&D engineers' career choices. Xiaolei, who graduated in 2010, received offers from three companies and finally chose Telecom because it offers the highest base salary. “There were still two other (job opportunities) at that time. One was an airline with 5000 (per month as basic salary); the other was Samsung, in Dongguan, with 4700. Telecom gave me 6000, so I came here” (2017RD8).
In addition to salaries, engineers are also concerned about whether work is conducive to developing skills and competitiveness in the labor market. If the job position is in one of the core business units of the company, if the product to be developed is in demand in the market, if the technologies being used are cutting-edge technologies that are in high demand in the industry, and if the transferability of skills is higher, then the job is believed to be a good job that will help increase R&D engineers' labor value. In the 630 resignation blog posts collected by the author on the company's official forum, more than 70% of the job leavers listed “lack of the chance to increase competitiveness” as one of the most significant reasons for turnover. One of them shared,
Over the years, almost all of the chips that I involved in the development of have the same structure and technical solution. There is no obvious improvement in terms of skill. As a programmer, I feel that I can't survive with the company and the department. I have to make a change. I'm afraid I won't be competitive when I am getting older and still know so little (BBS-2019110).
This indicates that when R&D engineers measure their own labor value with respect to the value of their position within the company, they take their current income and increase in personal labor value as the standard. In their job decision-making, they consider the interests of individuals, not the interests of departments and companies. Under a corporate culture that emphasizes the contractual relationship with employees and weakens emotional ties, R&D engineers also define their relationship with the company as an exchange relationship built upon market rationality. Most respondents cited the word “company is not home”Footnote 11 to emphasize their non-affective relationship with the company.
Don't think of the company as your family. The company pays you to work and to create value for it. Don't have unrealistic expectations on the company. The company has no obligation to give you anything other than money and position. I only care about the present and future income that the company can give me. I haven't left (job-hopping) because I haven't found a better opportunity... We are in a business relationship and cooperative relationship. The boss made it very clear on this point (2016RD56).
This kind of “business cooperation” is rational, benefit-oriented, fragile, and unstable. Even if employees have no intention to leave, for the time being, they will check recruitment advertisements and send out their resumes to update their information about market demand, evaluate their market value, and plan their self-learning accordingly. When personal economic benefits become the highest value of work, economic benefits not only affect R&D engineers' job decisions but also their self-management in the practical work process.
Self-control in the labor process
Performance management plays a leading role in how R&D engineers control their labor processes. R&D engineers will manage their work processes in a way that ensures higher performance. Given the fierce competition, being proactive is believed to be a necessary characteristic to achieve better performance. “Completing the assigned tasks cannot guarantee good performance… only if you are proactive will you have the chance to undertake tasks of higher technology and surpass others in performance evaluation” (2015RD28).
In addition to actively investing enough time and effort in work, R&D engineers also need to strive to obtain more resources and support from project managers to improve the efficiency and quality of their tasks. “You should strive for everything by yourself. You have to fight for all the resources for the team. You have to bring it up by yourself, or they won’t give it to you. You need to be very proactive” (2015RD17).
Some tasks are difficult to evaluate quantitatively. In such circumstances, R&D engineers need to “publicize themselves” and the value of their work output.
Sometimes your achievements cannot be seen if your tasks are not related to the specific project to be delivered. So you need to show your achievements, and you need to report to the managers, which is similar to self-promotion. If not, others won't know what you have done. You need to let them know what you have researched and analyzed, whether your work has a contribution to profit-making, whether you have provided new solutions to the problems (2018RD22).
In terms of working time, R&D engineers will adjust their time spent on work according to the company policies and the highest remuneration criterion as long as the task completion is not affected. Taking overtime as an example, there is no overtime pay for overtime worked on weekdays, while weekend overtime hours are paid at twice the regular wage. Therefore, R&D engineers prefer to put aside non-emergency tasks and conduct them on weekends. “I could finish that thing if I work overtime in the evening [on weekdays]. However, it is not worth working overtime at night, as there is no overtime payment. So I leave the office on time and leave it to the weekend” (2017RD1).
Extremely fierce competition will also have a negative impact on the R&D working environment. At present, the most remarkable phenomenon that can be observed relates to internal cooperation. Performance pressure makes short-term profits the essential condition for cooperation. Regarding interpersonal cooperation, R&D engineers have a competitive relationship with colleagues of the same positional rank, and taking time to help others may be detrimental to their own performance. Therefore, it is difficult to achieve informal cooperation among individuals: “In fact, our decisions (to cooperate or not) are affected by internal performance competition. It's your business, it's none of my business. It's not helpful to my performance at all if I did it for you. Then, why should I help you?” (2015RD05). In terms of team cooperation, performance competition weakens interdepartmental cooperation. Without instructions from a super and clear return, it is difficult to promote interdepartmental cooperation, resulting in a phenomenon called the “department wall.” “Department walls form because no one wants to take responsibility. If something goes wrong, what can I do? I would rather not do it at all. It has nothing to do with my work performance. Benefits are still a big motivation. Everything I do is for performance” (2015RD28). The lack of willingness to cooperate internally will hinder the internal flow of knowledge and innovation.
In terms of the decision-making and behavior of R&D engineers in the labor process, outcome-oriented performance management improves engineers’ enthusiasm and initiative toward the work process. The self-discipline of R&D engineers based on performance evaluation standards helps overcome the difficulty of directing and monitoring R&D work. The company is able to control the labor process by tightly controlling the work outcome.
However, performance management will also have a negative impact on R&D cost and efficiency. What R&D engineers are most concerned with is personal interests rather than the interests of the team and the company. When there is a conflict between individual and collective interests, R&D engineers are more likely to maximize individual interests at the expense of the company's interests. In the long run, performance-based self-discipline is not conducive to internal cooperation and further impedes the efficiency and quality of R&D work.
Rational planning of life
In addition to economic needs, people have other needs as social beings. When there are conflicts between needs, R&D engineers must choose between economic rewards and other social needs. Most of them will choose to “produce first and live later.” They have to convert the market value of their labor into real income to the degree possible while they are still competitive in the labor market to establish an economic foundation for their future security. R&D engineers are anxious even if their current salary is as high as tens of thousands yuan per month. “Even if you have a car and a house, any accidents, such as a serious illness, your child's education, your parents' serious illness, may soon make your life back to “the pre-liberation era” (implying the years of material deprivation). You still cannot sit back and relax even though you own a house and a car. Your anxiety remains strong” (2016RD27).
Confronted with the burden of economic pressure and insecure employment, R&D engineers divide their life cycle into roughly two stages. When they are young, career development and wealth accumulation are taken as priorities. Other needs are all postponed. It is not until they are age 35 or older—when they start to be devalued in the labor market—that engineers cease to always put work first and start to enjoy their lives. Li Peng, a 26-year-old new engineer, broke up with his girlfriend because of the lack of companionship caused by frequent overtime work. He did not intend to win his girlfriend back since he believed frequent overtime was inevitable and out of his control, and he believed that money was of the most importance at his age: “It's very difficult to say no (to overtime work) and I certainly can't accompany her… I’m pessimistic now, and I think my marriage will not be happy… It's more important to work hard before the age of 35. We have no choice but to put money first” (2017CM18).
Market rationality has penetrated engineers' personal lives and become the key principle of their self-management. The idea of “production first, life later” reflects the difficulty of achieving work–life balance. Through self-management, the conflicts of interest between labor and capital are transformed into R&D engineers' personal dilemmas. Taking time allocation as an example, although the extension of working time is conducive to productivity, it will reduce the available time for family life, social interaction, rest, and entertainment. R&D engineers have to accept the consequences of the erosion of private non-working time. Some have missed many important personal moments since they need to work overtime and cannot ask for leave: “My wife had a miscarriage, but I was not around; I was also not around when my sister got married… my uncle died in 2019, and I could not go back because of the project. Colleagues did not know, the project manager did not know, there was only crazy overtime” (BBS-2019002). Some people have physical problems due to overtime work and the lack of rest. They joke that this way of life is “to exchange life for money before 40 and money for life after 40.”
Self-management of R&D engineers
The mechanism of the “self-enterprising form of control” is based on the subjectification of the market mechanism (Rose 1992), which refers to individuals internalizing market value as the core value of their behavior. As a type of governance, the “self-enterprising form of control” includes market rationality as the governing principle used to construct the operational field in which the market mechanism functions. Existing studies focus on its values and address the decisive role of value internalization in shaping the subjectivity of workers (Kunda 2009). The self-management of R&D engineers in this study shows that self-management can still work even when the subject does not agree with corporate values. R&D engineers are suffering the negative impacts of the “self-enterprising form of control” on their work, life, and health, which leads them to question the legitimacy of market value. Despite their disagreement with the principle of market-oriented value, they still accept their identity as a “knowledge capitalist” and manage themselves according to market rationality and the rule of internal competition. Therefore, it is argued that the “self-enterprising form of control” does not necessarily lie in the internalization of values. Social institutions and managerial strategies play a significant role in the formation of R&D engineers' self-management.
The medium of the “self-enterprising form of control” is the autonomy of workers. When workers did not agree with the governance principle oriented to market value, the control was mainly implemented through the delicate design of the rules, rewards, and punishment of choices and behaviors. All of these institutions and strategies make following market rationality the optimal choice for engineers to secure their job and earn a better life.
After market-oriented reform, the market mechanism, as an important governance principle, prevails in the redistribution of social reproduction institutions, the labor production and managerial practices. Reproduction of current living standards and overmarketization of the high-tech labor market make self-management the best way for R&D engineers to keep their jobs and maintain their existing living standards. The overmarketization of the reproduction of current living standards causes the cost of living to exceed their disposable income gradually, and R&D engineers become debtors who must rely on a stable high income to maintain their lifestyles. Although the overmarketized employment relationship provides opportunities to earn a higher income by improving individual performance and work capacity, it transfers many market risks to R&D engineers. Seemingly, non-mandatory management means that R&D engineers have more autonomy. They can choose whether to exchange unclaimed paid leave for bonuses and dividends, whether to work overtime for a higher performance rank, and whether to give up family time for career development. However, in the absence of employment and lifestyle security, self-management according to market rationality becomes their only choice. The “forced consent” of R&D engineers indicates that autonomy under self-management is “limited autonomy.”
When R&D engineers do not support the market mechanism, their self-management must have two conditions: (1) the possibility for individuals to maintain the reproduction of current living standards based on their income obtained through personal efforts, which is the driving force of self-management and (2) the condition that R&D engineers do not have alternative ways to obtain the resources of reproduction of current living standards except salary.
With the growth of urban consumption, especially home prices, it is increasingly difficult for R&D engineers to maintain a decent life in developed cities. If the company cannot raise the salary correspondingly, the R&D labor force might gradually shrink. R&D engineers either move to inland cities with relatively low living standards or switch to occupations with lower work intensity. Recently, an increasing number of respondents expressed their plan to quit and move to inland cities and engage in jobs with a stable contract and lower work intensity even though the salary was lower. If a large number of R&D laborers withdrew from the high-tech labor market in developed cities, it would inevitably lead to the imbalance of high-tech labor allocation. The “self-enterprising form of labor control” will ultimately lose its efficacy when a competitive internal environment cannot form due to a labor shortage.
If R&D engineers have alternative ways to obtain reproductive resources, the “self-enterprising form of control” will not work. Currently, R&D engineers mainly have two other ways to obtain means of reproduction in addition to their salary. One is the income from the appreciation of savings and personal assets such as stocks and real estate. When the value of their assets is enough to maintain life in the city, R&D engineers will not hesitate to leave Telecom and no longer pursue jobs that have poor work–life balance. However, only a very limited number of R&D engineers have reached this economic level. Parents’ financial support is more common as an important source for young R&D engineers to reduce their dependence on merit-based salaries, which further reduces their acceptance of work that sacrifices both health and family life. An increasing number of “post-90s” respondents do not intend to work for Telecom in the long term. They claim that some of their peers with better family financial status never consider work in companies that advocate sacrificing life for work.
Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the dependence of reproduction of current living standards on high salaries is the necessary premise for the “self-enterprising form of labor control.” The self-management of R&D engineers does not derive from their belief in market rationality but rather from “forced consent” arising from their social and economic situation.