Corrosion of Character
There’s a telling footnote in a new book about the changed character of work in North America: The largest employer in the United States is now Manpower, the temporary help agency. It has 600,000 people on its payroll, compared to 400,000 at General Motors, and 350,000 at IBM. Between 1985 and 1995, it grew 240 per cent.
This is an age of downsizing, turn-on-a-dime corporate leanness, almost instant obsolescence, high-stress risk taking, and intense scrambling for momentary advantage.
The consequence for employees, says the author Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character (W. W. Norton & Company, $33.99) is they face « a turnstile world of work.’’ The enormous growth in temporary help agencies, is just one example of how transitory jobs have become.
Sennett is an American sociologist who teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University.
A growing insecurity for workers is eating away at their moral identity — corroding their character — he says. And if he’s right, it doesn’t bode well for the environment.
Companies have reconfigured themselves, he says, creating what he calls flexible capitalism, so they can stay alive in a fast moving and turbulent global economy. At every step along the way, this has brought bruising change for employees.
In stripping away their bureaucracies, companies have rejected pyramid structures to become flatter and more flexible. For employees this has meant there were no longer clear lines of authority.
Work is performed by teams on a project by project basis, which allows companies to shift quickly as consumer preferences change. As a result, he says, work has become episodic.
Instead of old-time continuity, dealing with the same process year after year as they gradually moved up the chain of command, workers now shift with their teams from project to project. Their most important skill has become how well they cooperate with teammates, not how well they perform a specific task. And their direct superior is a team leader, whose job is to facilitate, not to direct.
The result, says Sennett, is that workers are losing a sense of place, because the place where they find themselves is always shifting, and it’s not clear who is calling the shots.
Companies are configuring themselves more like networks, he says, because « networklike arrangements are lighter on their feet.’’ Networks include suppliers, consultants, and subsidiary organizations all over the world, and because everything is handled under short term contracts, companies can quickly rearrange the network as the need arises, dropping consultants, changing suppliers, shifting teams to new projects, and letting employees go.
In this configuration, there is no long term. There are, says Sennett, few links to the past. Whatever works is what rules. Companies reinvent themselves almost overnight. As employees are fired or shifted, and consultants and suppliers rearranged, to suit the newly reinvented corporation, the history of their accomplishments is irrelevant. The company has become a different entity. The past no longer matters.
As one downsized-employee-turned-consultant quoted by Sennett says: “I’m always at square one.”
All these changes mean there is no mutual loyalty or commitment, and from employees, no trust.
The lesson for employees, says Sennett, is, There is no long term, so: « Keep moving. Don’t commit yourself. Don’t sacrifice.”
Sennett doesn’t argue for a return to earlier ways. There are great benefits to flexible capitalism, he says. However, as it’s now practised, it raises fundamental questions: « How can long-term purposes be pursued in a short-term society? How can durable social relations be sustained? How can human beings develop narratives of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments?”
Since environmental issues are long-term, and commitment and trust are important to any lasting initiatives, these are troubling questions. And although Sennett doesn’t mention the environment, his book once again underlines how close are the connections among the economy, the environment, and the welfare of individuals.