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

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.

To borrow from Samuel Gompers's old labor slogan, powerful modern customers -- whether consumers or corporations -- want one thing: more. They want more product for less money, more quality and service, more flexibility and convenience, and more innovation. The guilty party in the morality play that is modern business is not the rapacious capitalist or the manipulative manager; it is you and I, every consumer who looks carefully at price and quality, who shops around, who abandons yesterday's product for today's better one. It is the powerful customer who has forced radical changes on the reluctant managers of organizations in every industry.

THE classic industrial model in which workers perform specialized tasks under layers of managerial oversight is completely unsuited to the new economic environment. It is too slow, too costly, too inflexible, to satisfy powerful customers. The result has been nothing less than the abandonment of that model -- "Fordism," as the sociologists preciously call it. Customers will not accept the errors and excess costs that result when work is handed off from one narrow task worker to another, so jobs are becoming much bigger and broader. Customers will not abide the delays that ensue when workers must bring all decisions to managers, so responsibility is being devolved to people on the front lines. Customers will not tolerate the inflexibility and complexity that come from dealing with a host of departments, from sales to service to production to accounting, so the walls between these departments have been knocked down and work is increasingly being done by teams of people from different departments. Customers will not be satisfied with yesterday's products, so innovation has become the new routine and learning is a fundamental part of everyone's job.

These changes are not confined to a few companies; they are taking place across all sectors of the economy.

  • At GTE Telephone Operations, now GTE Network Services, a new position, called customer-care advocate, has been created. This job combines three previous positions: the customer-service rep who handles customer calls, the line checker who attempts to resolve problems by means of a computer system, and the dispatcher who sends out a field technician if necessary.

  • At Hill's Pet Nutrition, a division of Colgate, the manufacturing worker at the Richmond, Indiana, plant who operates a machine now also is responsible for its maintenance.

  • At Owens Corning orders are filled by a team composed of people from customer service, finance, transportation, and other departments. They have collective responsibility for an order from the time it is received until the bill is paid.

  • At Progressive Auto Insurance calls from customers with accident claims go directly to a claims representative, who is responsible for seeing to it that the claims are handled immediately and settled quickly. The claims representative does as much as possible over the phone and arranges for the vehicle to be inspected by a teammate in the field.

  • At The Trane Company, a manufacturer of air-conditioning equipment, production teams schedule their own work and deal directly with suppliers to get the parts they need.

  • At Duke Power, a division of Duke Energy Corporation, a line technician is given a week's worth of jobs rather than a day's and is expected to schedule them himself. If he decides that the instructions for a job are not right, he has the authority to depart from them. He also has responsibility for a range of issues, from selecting cable size to placing lights, that were previously the province of an engineer.

    None of these changes has grown out of an ideological or humanitarian impulse. But neither are they part of some Machiavellian plot to oppress the masses. They are simply responses by corporate managers to the threats posed by strong customers and surging competition. But, serendipitously, changes of this kind are having far more positive effects on people's work lives than did the fulminations of generations of ideologues. For the great majority of workers who hold them, the new jobs are much more fulfilling and rewarding than were the old jobs they replace. (Ironically, in many ways modern jobs actually resemble the Marxian ideal of Tagwerk, which Sennett approvingly cites.)

    Diane G. processes applications for an insurance company. In the old days she was a clerk who did the same task over and over. Now she handles applications from beginning to end. She says, "The main thing that has happened is that the work is a lot more satisfying, because we are focused on customers and wanting to help them. With most of the busywork gone, we can concentrate more on the customer's need and on trying to make sure everything is done correctly. The company is letting me do the best job that I can do. They have shown us confidence. I feel appreciated and am not just a number anymore."

    Jerry P., a team leader in a manufacturing plant, says, "We now have more control over our own jobs. In the past we had no say-so. People who do the work know it best, and now the company takes feedback from them. People now enjoy their jobs. It's not a drag coming to work each day. People have more pride in what they're doing."

    Deborah P. does accounting for a media company. "Before, I was pretty bored and thinking about leaving," she says. "I felt like I was in a box. Now I'm really challenged and stimulated by the work. I could never go back to the old kind of organization."

    Ed B. is an accounts-receivable team leader in a manufacturing company. He says, "The best part of how we work now is that you can see where you fit in, how all the parts of the company fit together."

    VIRTUALLY everything Sennett asserts about modern work is, in a word, wrong. He claims that "difficulty is counterproductive in a flexible regime." To the contrary, flexibility demands larger and more-complex jobs. A person doing a broader (and therefore more difficult) job can respond to a new situation far more easily than can a mass of uncoordinated people doing simple individual jobs.

    Sennett also claims that modern capitalism creates "detachment and confusion" among workers. To the contrary, modern capitalism demands much greater involvement and understanding on the part of its workers; only engaged and knowledgeable workers can make the day-to-day decisions they are called upon to make. Duke Power, as part of a growing trend, has dramatically increased its training budget and has put thousands of front-line people through a program that explains the changing nature of the electric-power industry, the competitive threats the company is facing, and the economic structure of the company. Deborah P., the media-company accountant, says, "Management is much more open with us. I received a copy of my team's budget in today's mail with last year's forecast, the year-to-date actuals, to what degree we're over or under. In the old days it was unheard of to know the real numbers. I think people are starting to feel that the company's goals and objectives are theirs, rather than something that was just handed down."

    Sennett disdains teamwork; Jerry P., the manufacturing-plant team leader, does not. "In the past," he says, "it was my work; nobody cared about the next person. If something went wrong, it was somebody else's problem. Now it's teamwork, and we work together as a group to fix problems."

    John B. is a thirty-three-year veteran at an electric-power company and a former president of the union local. He was also a member of the team that designed the new ways of working in his company. He says, "In the old days there were strict trade-craft rules; a repairman didn't do an electrician's job or an operator's. Now the lines are blurred, and people can do more to work to their capabilities. There are fewer foremen, and the front lines have the power to decide their own work. People have more impact on the business, and you can see the difference in their attitudes. They feel more ownership of the business. Morale is excellent."

    Perhaps Sennett would suggest that John B. and the others suffer from false consciousness. But in reality modern work is an enormous improvement over classic industrial-era jobs. The life of routine and hierarchy, which Sennett describes with nostalgia, was actually stultifying and oppressive; it destroyed the worker's mind and soul. (As one worker at a pharmaceutical plant puts it, "For twenty years I had to check my brain at the gate.")

    But what of Sennett's central contention that a world of change and uncertainty corrodes people's characters by destroying their ability to form coherent narratives of their lives? This, as the lawyers say, must be answered in the alternative.

    First, today's jobs are not nearly as tenuous or in as much jeopardy as Sennett implies. The era of slash-and-burn downsizing is largely over, primarily because companies have learned that it does not work. People need not fear for their jobs at every turn. Nonetheless, the old certainties are indeed gone; no one can count on a "job for life" anymore. But why should a lack of certainty and predictability be injurious to one's character? Ed B., the accounts-receivable team leader, does not believe that it is. He says, "Flexibility is good, because it gives me the opportunity to experience new things, to put new tools in my back pack, to add to my personal career development." The old social contract between companies and employees traded obedience for a stable job, but taxed the transaction with routine and boredom; under the new one, the company expects flexibility and initiative from the employee, and offers in return an opportunity to learn and grow, to have a real career instead of merely a job -- though this career may not all be spent at the same company. Who is to say that the old deal was better than the new one?

    At some level, however, the debate about whether flexibility is good or bad is academic in the worst sense of the word, because there is nothing to be done about it. The customer is the one who demands flexibility from companies, and therefore from employees. A company is able to guarantee its employees long-term employment only if the customer guarantees the company long-term business -- which is not about to happen. As the president of an auto-parts maker has told his employees, "I can't guarantee you a job. A union contract can't guarantee you a job. Only the customer can guarantee you a job."

    The new world of work is hardly Edenic. It poses troubling questions of the sort that one would have hoped to see this book address. As people become more engaged in their daily work, finding in it satisfaction rather than tedium, will they have less time and energy for the other parts of their lives? The new work environment expects everyone to be a kind of entrepreneur: self-starting, autonomous, responsible. What about people who are not up to this challenge, or simply do not want to rise to it? Some people report that as many as half of their co-workers have difficulty adapting to a world of responsibility; what will their fate be? How will people react to a career path based not on hierarchical advancement but on personal development? These questions compel our attention, but they will have to await the insights of someone who approaches them with a more open and more informed mind than Richard Sennett displays in this unsatisfying book.

    Michael Hammer is the president of Hammer and Company, a management education and research firm. His latest book is (1996).

    Illustration by Craig Frazier.

    The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Is Work Bad for You? - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 87-93.