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    Richard Sennett
    on the personal consequences of work in the new economy

    from The Jobs Letter No.102 / 30 June 1999

    The emphasis is on flexibility. Rigid forms of bureaucracy are under attack, as are the evils of blind routine. Workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually, to become ever less dependent on regulations and formal procedures.

    This emphasis on flexibility is changing the very meaning of work, and so the words we use for it.

    "Career", for instance, in its English origins meant a road for carriages, and as eventually applied to labour meant a lifelong channel for one's economic pursuits. Flexible capitalism has blocked the straight roadway of career, diverting employees suddenly from one kind of work into another.

    The word "job" in English of the fourteenth century meant a lump or piece of something that could be carted around. Flexibility today brings back this arcane sense of the job, as people do lumps of labour, pieces of work, over the course of a lifetime.

  • It is quite natural that flexibility should arouse anxiety; people do not know what risks will pay off, what paths to pursue. To take the curse off the phrase "capitalist system" there has developed in the past many circumlocutions, such as the "free enterprise" or "private enterprise" system.

    Flexibility is used today as another way to lift the curse of oppression from capitalism. In attacking rigid bureaucracy and emphasising risk, it is claimed, gives people more freedom to shape their lives. In fact, the new order substitutes new controls rather than simply abolishing the rules of the past but these new controls are also hard to understand. The new capitalism is an often illegible regime of power.

    "Today, a young American with at least two years of college can expect to change jobs at least eleven times in the course of working, and change his or her skill base at least three times during those forty years of labour."

    Perhaps the most confusing aspect of flexibility is its impact on personal character. Character is the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others. The character of a man depends on his connections to the world.

    Character particularly focuses upon the long-term aspect of our emotional experience. Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. Character concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others.

  • These are the questions about our character posed by the new, flexible capitalism:

    How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment?

    How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short-term?

    How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned?

    Business leaders and journalists emphasise the global marketplace and the use of new technologies as the hallmarks of the capitalism of our time. This is true enough, but misses another dimension of change: new ways of organising time, particularly working time.

    The most tangible sign of that change might be the motto "no long term". In work, the traditional career progressing step by step through the corridors of one or two institutions is withering; so is the deployment of a single set of skills through the course of a working life.

    Today, a young American with at least two years of college can expect to change jobs at least eleven times in the course of working, and change his or her skill base at least three times during those forty years of labour.

    "No long term" is a principle that corrodes trust, loyalty and mutual commitment. The short time frame of modern institutions limits the ripening of informal trust. Strong ties depend, in contrast, on long association. And, more personally, they depend on a willingness to make commitments to others.

  • Short-term capitalism threatens to corrode our characters, particularly those qualities of character which bind human beings to one another and furnishes each with a sense of sustainable self.

    Transposed to the family realm, "no long term" means keep moving, don't commit yourself, and don't sacrifice. How can we protect family relations from succumbing to short-term behaviour, and above all the weakness of loyalty and commitment which mark the modern workplace? In the place of the chameleon values of the new economy, family values emphasise formal obligation, trustworthiness, commitment, and purpose. These are all long-term virtues.

    This conflict between family and work poses some questions about adult experience itself. How can long-term purposes be pursued in a short-term society? How can durable social relations be sustained? How can a human being develop a narrative of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments? The conditions of the new economy feed instead on experience which drifts in time, from place to place, from job to job.

  • Through most of human history, people have accepted the fact that their lives will shift suddenly due to wars, famines or other disasters, and that they will have to improvise in order to survive.

    What is peculiar about uncertainty today is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism. Instability is meant to be normal, the entrepreneur is served up as an ideal Everyman. "No long term" disorients action over the long term, loosens bonds of trust and commitment, and divorces will from behaviour.

    The most salient fact about "re-engineering" is the downsizing of jobs. Estimates of the numbers of American workers who have been downsized from jobs in the major corporates, from 1980 to 1995, vary from a low count of 13m people, to as high as 39m. Downsizing has had a direct connection to growing inequality, since only a minority of the middle-aged workers squeezed out have found replacement labour at the same or higher wages.

    The declaration of "re-engineering" evokes efficiency doing more with less conjuring up a tighter operation achieved by making a decisive break from the past. But the overtones of efficiency can be misleading. Irreversable change occurs because "re-engineering" can be a highly chaotic process.

    It became clear to many business leaders by the mid-1990s that only in the highly paid fantasy life of consultants can a large organisation define a new business plan, trim staff and re-engineer itself to suit, then steam forward to realise the new design.

    Many, even most, re-engineering efforts fail largely because institutions become dysfunctional during the people-squeezing process: the morale and motivation of workers drop sharply in the various plays of downsizing. Surviving workers wait for the next blow of the axe rather than exulting in competitive victory over those who are fired...

    Institutional changes, instead of following the path of the guided arrow, head in different and often conflicting directions: business plans are discarded and revised; expected benefits turn out to be ephemeral; the organisation loses direction, a profitable operating unit is suddenly sold, for example, yet a few years later the parent company tries to get back the business in which it knew how to make money before it sought to reinvent itself..."

    In the early 1990s, the American Management Association conducted studies of firms which had engaged seriously in downsizing. The AMA found that repeated downsizings produce "lower profits and declining worker productivity..." Another study by the Wyatt Companies found that "less than half the companies achieved their expense reduction goals; fewer than one-third increased their profitability and less than one third increased their productivity..."

    Inefficiency or disorganisation does not mean, however, that there is no rhyme or reason to the practice of sharp, disruptive change. Because institutional re-structurings signal to the finance markets that change is "for real", the stock prices of institutions in the course of re-organisation often rises, as though "any changes are better than continuing on as before." In the operation of modern markets, the disruption of organisations becomes profitable.

    While the disruption may not be justifiable in terms of productivity, the short-term returns to stockholders provide a strong incentive to the powers of chaos disguised by that seemingly reassuring word "re-engineering". Perfectly viable businesses are gutted or abandoned, capable employees are set adrift rather than rewarded, simply because the organisation must prove to the market that it is capable of change.

    As pyramidal hierarchies are replaced by looser networks, people who change jobs experience more often what sociologists have called "ambiguously lateral moves". These are moves in which a person in fact moves sideways even while believing he or she is in fact moving up in the loose network. This crablike motion accurs even though incomes are becoming more polarised and unequal, and job categories are becoming more amorphous.

  • People often experience "retrospective losses" in a flexible network. Since people who risk making moves in a flexible organisation often have little hard information about what a new position will entail, they realise only in retrospect they've made bad decisions. They wouldn't have taken the risk if only they'd known. But organisations are so often in a state of internal flux that its useless to attempt rational decision-making about one's future based on the current structure of one's company.

    The new economy places an emphasis on youth, and a consequence of this is the compression of working life.

    The number of men aged 55-64 at work in the United States has dropped from nearly 80% in 1970 to 65% in 1990. The figures for the United Kingdom, France and Germany are similar. There is also a slight abridgement at the beginning of a working life, the age young people enter the labour force has been delayed a few years because of the increased emphasis on education.

    The sociologist Manuel Castells predicts that "the actual working lifetime could be shortened to about 30 years (from 24 to 54), out of a real lifetime span of about 75-80 years". That is, the productive life span is being compressed to less than half the biological life span, with older workers leaving the scene long before they are physically or mentally unfit.

  • For older workers, the prejudices against age send a powerful message: as a person's experience accumulates, it loses value. What an older worker has learned over the course of the years about a particular company or profession may get in the way of new changes dictated by superiors. From the institution's vantage point, the flexibility of the young makes them more malleable in terms of both risk-taking and immediate submission.

    "What is peculiar about uncertainty today is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism. Instability is meant to be normal, the entrepreneur is served up as an ideal Everyman."

    Overqualification is a sign of the polarisation which marks the new regime. There are, to be sure, solid material reasons to get a degree. American data shows that increases in income in the last decade were about 34% more for workers with a college degree than for workers with a high school diploma. Yet only a fifth of jobs in the labour force in America require a college degree, and the percentage of these highly qualified jobs is only slowly rising.

    An immense shift is taking place in society: a huge transfer of wealth from lower-skilled middle-class workers to the owners of capital assets and a new technological aristocracy. Under these conditions, a kind of extreme risk-taking takes form in which large numbers of young people gamble that they will be one of the chosen few.

    Such risk-taking occurs in what economists call "winner-take-all markets". In this competitive landscape, those who succeed sweep the board of gains, while the mass of losers have crumbs to divide up amongst themselves.

    Flexibility is a key element in allowing such a market to form. Without a bureaucratic system to channel wealth gains throughout a hierarchy, rewards gravitate to the most powerful. In an unfettered institution, those in a position to grab everything, do so.

    Failure is the great modern taboo. Popular literature is full of recipes for how to succeed, but largely silent on how to cope with failure.

    Failure is no longer the normal prospect of facing only the very poor or disadvantaged. It has become more familiar as a regular event in the lives of the middle classes. The shrinking size of the elite makes achievement more elusive. The winner-take-all market is a competitive structure which disposes large numbers of educated people to fail.

    Downsizings and re-engineerings impose on middle-class people sudden disasters which were in an earlier capitalism much more confined to the working classes. The sense of failing one's family by behaving flexibly and adaptively at work is more subtle, but equally powerful.

    Richard Sennett begins his book with an interview with "Rico", a man who knows all about downsizing, company "re-engineering", teamwork and short contracts. According to Sennett, Rico and his wife are the "very acme of the adaptable, mutually supportive couple", but "both often fear that they are on the edge of losing control over their lives" in a world where there is only short-term work and short-term profits.

    Rico's experiences of changing jobs and becoming a consultant where he has no fixed role and never really belongs to a company have "set his inner and emotional life adrift." He is haunted by a sense that he cannot provide his children with the ethical discipline that his parents instilled in him.

    Rico's working life, with its constant changes, doesn't provide his children with examples of values such as loyalty, trust and service. Rico told Sennett: "You can't imagine how stupid I feel when I talk to my kids about commitment. Its an abstract virtue to them, they don't see it anywhere ..." For Sennett, Rico is Everyman whose dilemmas show how "short-term capitalism threatens to corrode his character, particularly those qualities of character which bind human beings to one another and furnishes each with a sense of sustainable self ... the flexible self which has brought him success is weakening his own character in ways for which there exists no practical remedy..."

    Corrosion of Character
    -- The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism
    by Richard Sennett
    (pub 1998 by WW.Norton and Company)
    ISBN 0-393-04678-8

    order here

  • see also Ulrich Beck on Insecurity and Re-defining Work

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