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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Downsizing Days Are Here Again (January 1999)
The return of big corporate layoffs -- and what the government can do.

Unsparing Witness (December 1998)
Few of us are aware that the topic of sex and slavery was treated openly and unflinchingly in the early nineteenth century.

Newt's Last Stand (November 1998)
Christopher Caldwell, the author of last June's "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," on why Newt Gingrich couldn't save his party from its paralysis. Plus, Jack Beatty offers "A Modest Proposal" to Republicans in search of a unifying issue.

The Last Refuge of the American Bigot (October 1998)
The murder in Wyoming and the search for the roots of anti-gay violence.

The Dissipation of Decency (August 1998)
The real political scandal these days is the abandonment of those without health insurance.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

What Work Costs Us
A recent book examines the demoralizing effects of the newly ascendant business regime

by Jack Beatty

February 10, 1998

Is work in the new flexible economy bad for you? Richard Sennett, a sociologist whose writings linger in the cultural air for decades, answers "yes" in a new book titled The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. Today, Sennett writes, "the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character." Sennett defines character as a kind of psycho-moral integrity, expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, by the pursuit of long-term goals, and by delayed gratification in reaching them. These are yesterday's stabilities, the moral props of the old economy. In the new economy, Sennett argues, "instability is meant to be normal." Long-term commitment is becoming passé in our "project" or "contingent" economy, in which young people will, on average, change jobs eleven times in their careers and change their skill base three times; in which "fleeting forms of association are more useful to people than long-term connections"; in which, in short, "institutional loyalty is a trap." In the midst of a massive downsizing at AT&T, one of its executives gave memorable voice to the emerging corporate ethos. "In AT&T," he said, "we have to promote the whole concept of the work force being contingent." Sennett's point is that the emerging business regime of incessant reinvention, of flexible production, and of employee "empowerment" (in other words, "If something goes wrong, it's your fault") undermines character.

corrosbk picture The new capitalism discounts age and experience in favor of youth and energy. Manuel Castells, a Berkeley sociologist, speculates that the average working lifetime may shorten to as little as thirty years, from ages twenty-four to fifty-four. According to Sennett, there are now 15 percent fewer men between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-four in the workplace than in 1970. An article in The California Management Review explained the prejudice against maturity this way, as paraphrased by Sennett: "Older workers have inflexible mind-sets and are risk-averse, as well as lacking in the sheer physical energy needed to cope with the demands of life in the flexible workplace." Authority is diffused; indeed, it is sometimes projected beyond the human: "Change is the responsible agent," Sennett writes. "Change is not a person." The flexible workplace insists on teamwork. The team ostensibly requires the suppression of ego and conflict, but it actually masks the reality of intra-team competition, along with the coercive element in work.

The Corrosion of Character is primarily a work of theory, and the evidence that Sennett offers for his proposition that the new capitalism is undermining the characters of real people is anecdotal. Logic and a priori assumption, not empirical research, led to Sennett's insight -- which is not invalid for being unproved. Social science is a collective endeavor, and others will test Sennett's hypothesis against such evidence of the new capitalism's effect on character as can be measured.

I wish Sennett had confronted the strong form of the argument that "flexible production" is a giant step forward for human freedom -- one that marks an end to the mass-production model of work that Charlie Chaplin sent up in Modern Times. Men and women can walk and chew gum at the same time. The new capitalism asks them to use their intrinsically human capacities -- thought, knowledge, judgment, "flexibility" -- in the workplace and leave the rote jobs to the computer. Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, said that technology has made possible "the human use of human beings." The new capitalism is an attempt to organize and manage epoch-making technological change with the potential, as Peter Drucker has speculated, of repealing Adam's curse by ending "toil." Sennett should have used Drucker or the work of James Champy, a publicist for company reengineering who makes a convincing defense of the new capitalism, as intellectual foils. Sennett bails out on complexity, singling out only the economist Joseph Schumpeter's classic formulation of capitalism's dynamic of "creative destruction."

Three further complaints. Instability is rife in other institutions, notably marriage, but Sennett, disappointingly, does not link work to other sources of instability. He focuses rather too narrowly on the personal, not the social, consequences of work. Finally, Sennett gives too much credence to the mercenary braggadocio of management consultants and change gurus. Routine being to the organization what gravity is to the planet, one suspects that as yet there is more talk about reinvention in the workplace than actual reinvention.

But these are minor faults. The Corrosion of Character, like Sennett's earlier works, The Hidden Injuries of Class and The Fall of Public Man, will last. It is the first book to evoke a condition that, for good or ill, has a long future.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of
Post & Riposte.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

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