Is Work Bad for You?

A sociologist argues that the new "flexible" economy undermines employees' character. Our reviewer, a leading business theorist and management consultant, strongly disagrees

THE CORROSION OF CHARACTER: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism

BOB R. is a field technician who works for a telephone company in a southern state. Bob's employer has recently "reengineered" its maintenance process to make the process more efficient. At the heart of the new way of working are small teams of field technicians, each of which is responsible for keeping a group of customers happy: fixing their phones when necessary, conducting preventive maintenance, and even selling add-on services. These technicians schedule their own work and make their own decisions when they show up at a customer site. Here is how Bob describes his new job: "I've been at the company for twenty-three years, and I always thought we were overmanaged, overcontrolled, and oversupervised. They treated us like children. We're having a very good time under the new system. They've given us the freedom to work on our own. This is the most intelligent thing this company has done in years. It's fun." (All people quoted here are specific individuals, not composites. They were interviewed in the course of preparing this review or for my book Beyond Reengineering.)
It is fortunate that Bob has not read The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, because he might discover that his new job is actually very bad for him. In this impressionistic essay, part philosophical rumination and part political tract, Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at New York University and the London School of Economics, asserts that "the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character." Work in the modern world of business, he says, "corrodes trust, loyalty, and mutual commitment," inflicts "demeaning superficiality" on human relationships, and even destroys people's very identity and sense of themselves by "threatening the ability of people to form their characters into sustained narratives."

The root cause of these problems, according to Sennett, is change, inflicted on workers by the usual suspects: rapacious capitalists chasing a quick buck.

As we know only too well, the stock prices of institutions in the course of reorganization thereby often rise, as though any change is better than continuing on as before. In the operation of modern markets, disruption of organizations has become profitable. While 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 assuring word "reengineering." Perfectly viable businesses are gutted or abandoned, capable employees are set adrift rather than rewarded, simply because the organization must prove to the market that it is capable of change.

Sennett maintains that in this world of change everything, especially work and workers, becomes purely short-term. There is no continuity or predictability to one's work life, so fashioning a personal history around a career of work becomes impossible and the result is a "sense of aimless drift." Work in this new regime is so fragmented that it is reduced to "simple, mindless tasks," and so dependent on machines as to make it incomprehensible: "her understanding of work is superficial; her identity as a worker is light." Modern work deprives jobs of any meaning; in a system that "radiates indifference," the question "Who needs me?" has no answer. The amorphous and ambiguous character of careers and organizations makes rational calculation about risk-taking impossible; one has a hard time knowing where one is in the modern organization, let alone how to navigate through it. People lose the ability to create a coherent narrative of their past that allows them to understand their failures and improve their character.

The nonbureaucratic organizational forms -- networks and teams -- that capitalists create to operate through change also "weaken character," Sennett writes, "character as Horace first described it, character as a connection to the world, as being necessary for others." The empty and superficial communication on which teamwork relies corrupts personal interactions, creating a "fiction of community" that turns human relations into "a farce." These mechanisms also offer management the opportunity for "concentration of power without centralization of power," for exercising control behind the scenes without taking responsibility for it, thereby hiding management's domination from workers and creating the "fiction ... that workers and bosses aren't antagonists." Teamwork is especially insidious, because it offers workers the appearance of control without its substance, preventing them from engaging in "straight talk involving demands for higher pay or less pressure to boost productivity."

Illustration by Craig Frazier THESE are just the major sins for which Sennett believes "work in the new capitalism" must answer. He also mentions increased income inequality, age discrimination, and decline in parental authority. There may be others, but it is hard to say, because this book is more an expression of angst than a coherent argument. Full of unsubstantiated assertions, non sequiturs, random digressions, and logical dead ends, it serves primarily as an opportunity for Sennett to express his distaste for "modern capitalism." There are in fact important changes occurring in the world of work, but they have little to do with the "capitalism" that figures so prominently in Sennett's title and throughout his book. These changes are not driven by the stock market or by who owns the means of production, and they are taking place in government agencies and nonprofit organizations as well as in corporations.

To begin with, outside Sennett's fantasy world investors are not so deranged as to reward random change, and managers are not so intent on exploiting their workers. Both groups are far more concerned with a fundamental phenomenon that is reshaping business and work -- one that receives virtually no mention in this book: the ascendance of the customer.

The past twenty years have witnessed an epochal shift in the world economy, as power has moved from sellers to buyers. The forces behind this shift include greater productivity, owing to technological advances and improved work methods, which has increased output to the point where many industries suffer from overcapacity; intensified competition resulting from globalization and reduced barriers to entry; greater customer knowledge and sophistication, owing to greater accessibility of information; and the ever-quickening rate of technological change. Compare the simple act of buying a car in 1999 with the same experience forty years ago. In 1959 your choices would have been essentially limited to the Big Three; unless you were a car aficionado, you would have known nothing about the cars other than what the dealers chose to tell you; and often the new models were virtually indistinguishable (except cosmetically) from the previous year's. No longer. With globalization has come more choice: some thirty car companies now compete for your custom. A host of information sources, from Consumer Reports to Web sites, equip you to bargain with the dealer from a position of knowledge and strength. And the rapidity with which cars now change and improve makes waiting till next year increasingly tempting. You now have the upper hand, and the auto makers know it.

As a result, companies that once operated in secure and relaxed conditions of near monopoly now live in fear of their customers. Large retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot dictate terms to their suppliers; these retailers in turn are desperate to attract and retain fickle and sophisticated consumers. Manufacturers demand ever higher quality and ever lower prices from their suppliers, and are ready to abandon those who do not comply. Even companies in formerly regulated industries (telecommunications, electric power) are now subject to intense competition. The classic conflict between capital and labor has given way to a struggle between powerful customers and the companies from which they buy.

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