Beginning in the 1980s, appearing in full and obvious form in the 1990s, then proceeding triumphantly into the new century, significant changes have been taking place in the world of work. The pace, scope, and complexity of business have increased. New communications technology has made possible greater speed and better coordination. That, along with improved means of transportation, has enabled markets to expand and include the entire world—a tendency that is frequently referred to as “globalization.” An item sold in a local store or used on a local construction site might come from another continent. Outsourced tasks and telecommunications-based services may be performed by workers on the other side of the earth.
“You don’t ‘just work
Sixty years ago, the United States was the only advanced industrial nation to emerge intact from the Second World War, and as such it dominated international trade and manufacturing. Today, it has rivals all over the world, especially since economic superiority is now based less on tangible assets than on knowledge. New ideas and new technologies can emerge from anywhere at any time and can become obsolete just as rapidly.
The most obvious consequence of these developments is that people now have to work harder and faster than they did in the past. Complaints about exhaustion and burnout on the job became commonplace in the 1990s and the subject of numerous magazine articles, as well as a book or two (e.g. Arlie Hochschild’s Time Bind). A few authors pointed out the similarity to the 1890s. Both decades experienced an increase in the pace of doing business, as well as the resulting worries about mental overload and breakdown. Both even saw the appearance of beverages (called “nerve tonics” back then and “energy drinks” now) that promised to pep up tired minds and raise sagging spirits.
One semi-facetious notion, which was current in the 1990s, suggested that companies hire only young executives who were unmarried, since the demands of work had become so great as to leave insufficient time for normal family life. This stood in diametric contrast to earlier business practice, when being married was often a precondition, if not for hiring, then for promotion. The latter had been a common policy in the corporations of the 1950s—it even provided the basis for a TV sitcom, NBC’s “Occasional Wife”—since in those days marriage was considered a reliable sign of personal normality, stability, and well-roundedness.
Not only has there been an increase in the speed and quantity of work, there has also been a change in its quality. The assembly line, where men imitated machines, is no longer a model for the organization and coordination of labor. Mechanical robots are now able to perform routine tasks, leaving the more difficult work for people. A similar development has been taking place in the white-collar world. Computers can do things that offices full of clerks and accountants used to do. They and their managers now find that they need to function on a higher level.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
reincarnated as CEO
The word that keeps reoccurring is “entrepreneurial.” Employees are supposed to exhibit the attitudes and motivation of someone who owns his own business. Limiting one’s attention to a narrowly defined job and merely performing its assigned tasks is no longer enough. An entrepreneurial employee is supposed to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to improve operations and to take the initiative when he discovers them. Instead of referring problems to higher authorities, he should confront them himself and come up with creative solutions. This is no place for the bureaucratic functionary who is putting in his time. “You don’t ‘just work here’ anymore,” a slogan warned the easygoing and lackadaisical. Entrepreneurial employees should “be taking the business ‘home in their stomach.’”
Management has justified these demands with the following argument. Yes, the work is exhausting, but it is fulfilling and empowering. An individual is exercising his latent talents and realizing his inner potential. Work should be “a source of self-realization...continued growth and challenge...more individualized options and personal autonomy.” At their more heady moments, the advocates of the “reenchanted workplace,” as it has been called, sound like Ralph Waldo Emerson reincarnated as a CEO: “Creativity [in business] is about connecting to your inner self...we are talking about divinity...we’re turning business into a spiritual discipline...the emerging paradigm is inner wisdom, inner authority, wholeness.”
On a somewhat less exalted level, one of management’s arch-gurus and enthusiasts declared, “I want my company to be so attractive...it makes your head swim. I want to give you an exciting work environment.... In turn, I demand that you give your all.... You must perform and grow as you’ve never performed and grown before.” A more skeptical and detached observer recently noticed that the word “passion” has been appearing with increasing frequency: people are being told they should feel passionate about their work. Genuine personal enthusiasm is supposed to ignite “the fire in your belly,” which American business occasionally used to expect from its new recruits and which it is now coming to expect from everyone.
The champions of this brave new workplace cannot announce their program often enough or loud enough: they are dismantling the old bureaucratic corporation, decentralizing its hierarchical structure, abolishing its rigid rules. From the ranks of authoritarian superiors and cowering inferiors, a multitude of liberated, creative people is emerging. Gone are the stodgy, buttoned-down bosses of the past, whose watchwords were loyalty, responsibility, and maturity. In their places are executives who talk like bold innovators, even radicals. The more unrestrained of their public statements and the splashier of their media advertisements explicitly proclaim their resemblance to revolutionary movements. Revitalized business organizations are the new Vietcong and Khmer Rouge; their leaders are latter-day Che Guevaras.
the old ideology of the
free market, gilded with
a patina of the daring
and the cool
Management has been making a deliberate effort to conjure up the old hopes and promises of the Sixties, which were based on individualistic ideals and optimistic egalitarian assumptions. When a hip new CEO declares, as many of them do, that the purpose of his company is not to make money but to enable people to be free and creative, he is not being consciously hypocritical. He is relying on the following implicit chain of naive logic: if one is free, then one will be creative; if one is creative, then one will be productive; and if one is productive, then one will make money. Like every generation of Americans before him, he wants and expects to realize higher purposes in life at the same time as he gets the cash. The doctrines of the new workplace are a turbocharged and technologically updated version of the old ideology of the free market, gilded with a patina of the daring and the cool.
As always, when the fire of individualism stokes up people's motivation, the reality of group control steps in to keep things from getting out of hand. The informality of personal interaction, the increased scope for individual initiative, the extension of greater responsibilities down the chain of command—all these are necessary practices for a company seeking to flourish in the new economy. But they also have their dangers. A workstation in one ultramodern office displayed a sign proclaiming that the word “madman,” which had been used to “gag all innovation,” should instead be regarded as “a title of honor.” Such an attitude may encourage creative thinkers, but it may also unleash those who mistake the voice of their restless ego for the promptings of actual talent.
The latter possibility seldom becomes reality—or at least seldom reaches the danger point of causing serious disruption—thanks to the persisting and subtle power of peer surveillance and control. Despite the absence of explicit rules and overt commands in the new workplace, an employee quickly perceives signs of approval or disapproval from those with whom he interacts, and, being a properly conditioned American, he adjusts his behavior accordingly. This is especially the case in the dealings of superiors and inferiors. The hip CEO and his managers may dress like aging hippies and go on occasional retreats where they play like children, but when it comes time for a serious decision to be made, the CEO’s word is decisive. Of course he listens to what his subordinates have to say, but the final verdict is his. In spite of all the free-for-all frankness with which they voice their opinions, they never forget this reality, and—you may be sure—neither does he.
no more gold watches
for many years of
Underneath the incessant talk about liberation, empowerment, creativity, and self-fulfillment on the job, the employee still remains an employee. When a man owns his own business, he understandably works hard in the knowledge that any profit he makes will be his own. That is not the situation of the employee. He receives a salary or commission; the profits go to the employer. This kind of arrangement lends itself to exploitation: the harder an employee can be induced to work, the more profit the employer receives.
In the new, reenchanted workplace, the employee is required to work harder than before in exchange for the promise, not of an additional material reward, but of an additional emotional one. Such compensation can easily lose its allure. The work that at first seemed exciting and fun can become dreary and burdensome—no longer worth the sacrifice of long hours and extra energy.
The ugly and brutal fact is that today’s employee, subject to the new demands of work, is supposed to behave like an entrepreneur without the prospect of an entrepreneur’s reward (that is, the profits that go to the owner of a successful business). He may get a bonus or some other limited award, but only at the boss’s whim and discretion. Often, all he receives is his continuing employment at salary or commission—and sometimes not even that.
— ♦ —
During the 1980s the corporation initiated a strikingly new practice, which became widespread in the 1990s and has continued to the present day. It has been laying people off—not just blue-collar employees, who had always been liable to this treatment, but white-collar employees, and not just lower-level white-collar employees, but managers. This was not a temporary measure, instituted to meet some urgent and dire emergency. It has proceeded apace even during good times, when business is booming and productivity is soaring.
Those who happen to
escape the ax live in
fear for their jobs.
Corporations acted much differently in the past. It used to be that after a person was hired at the managerial level, so long as he did not commit some enormously egregious blunder, he would always have a job. If the task that he was performing was no longer needed or if the unit in which he worked was phased out, he would be reassigned to somewhere else in the company. For the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and accordingly sought security above all else, this policy and practice was profoundly reassuring, and it persisted through the 1970s.
Then things began to change. With the development of computer technology, corporations found that machines and software could perform the functions, not just of many lower-level employees, but of many middle-level ones. With rapid transformation becoming the norm in the economic world, corporations wanted to be able to discontinue, relocate, or merge various lines and functions of business as quickly as possible. Instead of trying to reassign all the people that these changes had displaced, they simply began getting rid of them.
The way in which the corporation views and handles an employee has altered drastically. Formerly, its own internal rules and procedures had determined his worth and compensation in relation to other employees: what level does he occupy on the organization chart, how long has he been with us, how old is he? Now, it is the external market that increasingly decides the evaluation and the compensation: how do his skills and salary compare with what we can hire off the street, how important is it to retain someone with his experience and abilities? Everywhere the old promotional ladders with their precise gradations of power, pay, and privilege have been disappearing, and along with them the ceremonial awards for long careers with a single company (no more gold watches for many years of “faithful service”).
These new arrangements have obvious advantages for the corporation. Its ability to shed employees the moment it no longer needs them enables it to operate with greater speed and flexibility. The new arrangements also have a certain attractiveness to the employees themselves. Conditions created and requirements set by the outside market are more real, that is, closer to actual business needs, than those which corporations used to devise for themselves or allow to develop. No one can regret the present declining importance of office politics, with its Machiavellian intrigue among coworkers and subtle sycophancy to superiors, which were highly developed and incessantly practiced arts among the old organization men.
If you don’t have a
fire in your belly,
somebody will light
one under your rear.
It is also true, however, that working for a corporation driven by market forces is far more dangerous and unpredictable than working in one filled with backstabbing colleagues and tyrannous, arbitrary bosses. In the old days, the worst a manager had to fear was being stopped in his upward rise through the corporate hierarchy and being frozen permanently at his current level. Avoiding any action that might turn out to be a “career killer” used to be a persistent preoccupation among executives. Today the penalty for miscalculation is much harsher. You have devoted months or years to some particular project; tomorrow, management decides that it is not sufficiently profitable or is otherwise no longer desirable, and you are on the street. After decades with a company, you have worked your way to a position with a large salary; tomorrow, management realizes it can hire younger people who will do jobs like yours for significantly lower pay, or it discovers another firm to which it can outsource these jobs for less, and you are on the street. Your technical training and experience have put you in some high-flying sector of the company; tomorrow, a new technology is discovered, making your skills suddenly out of date, and you are on the street. Not only is today’s employee supposed to act like an entrepreneur without the possibility of an entrepreneur’s rewards, he is also supposed to do so while running an entrepreneur’s risks.
In an effort to disguise these grim realities, management has concocted a new version of the old glamorized image of the individualistic entrepreneur. Far from facing disaster or even disadvantage (the personnel functionaries and public relations spokesmen declare), someone who loses a corporate position has before him a splendid opportunity. He needs to give up his cowardly and futile desire for security and stability. The market contains abundant rewards for those who anticipate and embrace change. A former manager should become a “free agent,” welcoming new experiences, discovering his real talents, growing as a person, and expressing his inner-self. Brazen cant of this sort has often been heard from business motivational speakers and at counseling sessions for the laid-off. It attained its most pithy and pungent expression in the form of a little story or parable entitled Who Moved My Cheese? which became a best-seller in 1998.
The actual experience of middle-aged managers who lose their jobs has proved to be somewhat different. They do not emerge as bold, energetic entrepreneurs; the very idea is ludicrous and pathetic. Most of them end up in inferior companies at inferior salaries. Some sink from the upper-middle to the lower-middle class, with woeful consequences for their family relationships and their own self-esteem. Of course, free-market enthusiasts and advocates of corporate “downsizing”—as the layoffs were euphemistically called when they first came into fashion—blame the misfortune on the victims’ own failure to heed and genuinely take to heart the lessons of Who Moved My Cheese? and similar words of counsel.
Those corporate employees who happen to escape the ax have indeed learned a lesson, but it is not the one being openly preached. They live in fear for their jobs. Rather than share the fate of their unfortunate colleagues and be thrust into what has been touted as the free market of splendid opportunities, they are willing to submit to whatever demands the market-driven corporation makes of them. This is the enchanted workplace’s stick of coercion behind its carrot of enthusiasm. If the latter fails to provide sufficient motivation, the former will. Some companies, most notoriously General Electric under Jack Welch, have adopted it as a formal technique of managerial practice. Every year superiors rate the performance of their subordinates. Those who reach a certain score at the top of the scale are promoted. Those who fall below a certain score at the bottom are discharged. If you don’t have a fire in your belly, somebody will light one under your rear.