Just Finished Reading: The Corrosion of Character – The Personal consequences of Work in the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett (FP: 1998)
I picked up this admittedly rather dated critique of Capitalism on impulse. Partially because we have adopted several American ‘flexible working’ ideologies at my place of work and I thought it would be interesting to compare the myth with the reality. This comparison actually proved more difficult that I’d imagined because the terms used – although often using the same words and phrases – generally meant different things on either side of the pond. Once I got over that hurdle I settled down to read this book as a straight critique of the American system alone.
Two things immediately jumped out at me: firstly that, despite being published in the late 1990’s that this book was seriously dated! How quickly the ‘new way of working’ has become the accepted norm. The second thing was just how mild the criticism was. Case study after case study used showed how the new working practices slowly destroyed elements of what used to be recognised as basic elements of Character (remember that concept!) to the detriment of not only the individuals concerned but their family, friends, the businesses that imposed these working practices and, by extension, the whole of society. Ideas brought in to make businesses (supposedly) more efficient and more reactive to sudden change by demanding a more flexible workforce actually undercut and finally killed the very behaviours that created strong and long lived companies in the first place. When you didn’t know from one month to the next if you would have a job in makes it impossible to plan very far into the future. Is it worth training in a profession (often taking years of study) if you can’t guarantee years of labour in that profession? Should you invest in a house or rent as you fully expect to be moved around in or between companies every few years? Should you get married if you expect your partner to be posted elsewhere either within the company you have in common or if you’re employed in separate businesses? Should you have children knowing that they’ll either have to move with you – having the make and loose friendships – or to be boarded at schools hundreds of miles from their parents who only see them (briefly) in the holidays? What does this all do to relationships between family members, partners, siblings, friends. Can you have the emotional investment necessary to make anything other than short superficial relationships?
Then there’s the corrosive attitudes within the workplace itself. Why bother being loyal to a company that isn’t loyal to you – that only sees you as a resource to be used or disposed of as global economic circumstances dictate. Why be loyal to your work colleagues who are here today/gone tomorrow on the next project or fired as projects come to an end or fail to compete? Why think about anything other than looking good enough to stay hired and earning the big bucks now knowing that times will be lean soon enough. What kind of work environment does that build, what kind of person can live or even appear to thrive in that toxic soup and what does it do to those who can, and cannot, cope with this year after year, decade after decade?
Despite the apparent gentle drip, drip approach of this book the author certainly gets his point across. We, in the capitalist West, are making a rod for our own backs as we push companies and the individuals employed by them more and more flexible. For seemingly the best of reasons (though actually just to maximise profits for the few) we are destroying the character of the work force and the future generations already forced to cope with the consequences of ‘flexibility’. No doubt we are already paying the price in obvious as well as hidden ways. If the drive for ‘efficiency’ persists this corrosion, this collapse of character can only get worse. Recommended for anyone wondering what’s going wrong and why.