You Have A Job, But How About A Life?


The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism

By Richard Sennett

Norton 176pp $23.95

Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character had me repeatedly musing on some obscure but durable lines of poetry: "We are free, free, free--/ like empty sailboats lost at sea." The author, a minor poet named Tess Slesinger, was reflecting on a different era, the 1920s. But the two writers have a similar focus: a freedom that, for all of its promised exhilaration, leaves us wanting. As his subtitle indicates, Sennett explores "the personal consequences of work in the new capitalism." In our flexible, reengineered economy, Sennett asserts, we are unmoored--from our pasts, our neighbors, and ourselves. Our newfound liberty may be so costly and attenuated as not to be liberty at all.

Sennett, a sociologist at New York University, is among the country's most distinguished thinkers. His books--including The Fall of Public Man, The Conscience of the Eye, and The Hidden Injuries of Class (co-authored with Jonathan Cobb)--rate comparison with David Riesman's classic The Lonely Crowd and the incisive social critiques of the late Christopher Lasch. Sennett's works span 25 years of thinking about and observing our civic selves and civic spaces. His 1994 work, Flesh and Stone, considered the human body in relation to the urban environments we make for it. The book began in ancient Athens and ended in modern New York.

The Corrosion of Character may not seem to possess the sweep and ambition of these earlier works. But don't be misled, for Sennett has concentrated into 176 pages a profoundly affecting argument as to what we are doing to ourselves as we reshape our work to stress short-term goals, chop-and-change professional paths, decentralized structures, incessant risk, and teamwork as against the hierarchies of yesteryear. Although Sennett has long been understood as a liberal-left thinker, this is not a shrill call to turn back the clock: His purpose lies more in showing us where we are going. At the end of this road, he says, is the decay of personal character. "Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals," he writes. "How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment?"

Central to this book are the notions of fragmented time and its consequence, the loss of coherent personal histories with beginnings, middles, and ends. "Career," Sennett points out, originally meant a carriage road--and as applied to work, a clear path forward. We can no longer count on that. As he notes, these days one is advised to anticipate 11 job changes during a typical working life. And as we move from island to island in our corporate archipelagoes, friendships and community ties take on "a fugitive quality."

In this context of atomized personalities and communities, Sennett astutely points out, some of us tilt toward Main Street nostalgia and the cultural conservatism that often goes with it--resentment directed toward welfare mothers, calls for reduced immigration, and so on. Seldom do we recognize, however, that the vain search for idealized communities is precisely in reaction to the conditions of work that we've erected in the name of flexibility and efficiency.

That's the thesis, in a nutshell, and exploring it sounds daunting, doesn't it? Well, Sennett has never been less than challenging. The Corrosion of Character is closely argued, and the intellectual rigor pays off. Along the way, the author draws in everyone from philosophers Diderot and Adam Smith to sociologist Max Weber and journalist Walter Lippmann. He also introduces us to high-flying consultants, laid-off IBM execs, bakers on the overnight shift, and a barkeep who tried life in the glass-and-concrete towers only to conclude that she preferred the brass rail.

Sennett takes up many dimensions of life in the new corporation. High among them is the shift from individual effort to teamwork, which he calls "the work ethic of a flexible political economy." Because it relies on "the fiction of harmony," teamwork stresses mutual responsiveness at the expense of original thinking. Unity requires the team to confine its members to specific tasks and superficial processes, without much reference to either the experience or perspective of individuals. In the team context, you no longer have a boss--you have a "leader." This obscures ordinary power relationships, a condition Sennett calls "power without authority." Above all, Sennett says, the team disallows conflict--so turning itself into a new form of domination.

This takes us to Sennett's conclusion. In his final chapter, "The Dangerous Pronoun," he examines the idea of community, including the version advanced by those who call themselves the communitarian movement. The "we" of these intellectuals who emphasize individual sacrifice and common moral standards creates a false cohesion by obscuring conflict, he says. "There is no community until differences are acknowledged within it. Teamwork, for instance, does not acknowledge differences in privilege or power, and so is a weak form of community."

That sort of acuity runs throughout The Corrosion of Character. You may not agree with Sennett's arguments, but he'll lead you to new places. That's every writer's challenge, and Sennett meets it admirably in this book.

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