Take It Easy


By Robert B. Reich

Knopf 289pp $26

In his insightful new book, The Future of Success, Robert B. Reich mulls the New Economy paradox: As Joseph A. Schumpeter's "gales of creative destruction" rip through the economy, sparing only companies that are constantly innovating, things get better and better for buyers. But we are also sellers, notably of our work. The ever greater uncertainty about careers leads us to work harder and harder, having ever less time for our lives.

Reich's book is notably short on policy prescriptions for the current malaise. Where he is strongest is when writing from personal experience. He stepped down from his position as Labor Secretary in 1996 after an epiphany about his workaholic ways and how they were robbing him of time with his family. Although few may be able to downshift so easily and comfortably (Reich is now a professor at Brandeis University), many can likely identify. Despite the growing rounds of downsizings, Americans work harder--and longer--than most other people.

Since his book was written before people felt the full force of this downturn, Reich's call for a massive reexamination of priorities might seem out of sync with this winter's harsh realities. After all, who has the luxury of getting a less time-intensive gig when they're afraid of getting laid off?

Still, a skills shortage is likely to dog Corporate America for the next 20 years. That means many workers will face increasing pressure to slave away. It will fall on them to manage the New Economy with the intensifying demands that Reich describes. Cheaper airfares! Custom-made for less! And the added downside, Reich notes, is that the acute competition--though thrilling--means that corporations have to be far more nimble and fluid, axing workers when demand slows and staffing up when things get going again, resulting in job security that is at an all-time low.

Nowhere is the ensuing strain more apparent, Reich writes, than in families. Bargains have spurred a consumption binge that has driven household debt to record levels. Families have become like small corporations, he says, outsourcing child care, birthday parties--even limo rides to the toddler's shrink.

At the same time, the divide between the cake eaters and those left with the crumbs is growing deeper. As Reich writes: "Bill Gates's net worth alone is equal to the total net worth of the bottom 50% of American families." For less lucky families, it's a game of single-parent-does-it-all, or two working parents playing pass-the-baton with their kids.

Is the 24/7 work life really worth it? Reich thinks not. In general, though, he seems to feel that the responsibility falls upon individuals to make different choices, just as he did when he left Washington for academe.

By Michelle Conlin

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