Is it bad workers or bad jobs?

William Bole

September 08, 1993|By William Bole

THERE'S a new message about the economy trickling down from board rooms and think tanks. It has to do with average working people who have been laid low by hard times. Word from on high is that these folks are falling not because of an awful economy, but because of their own awful habits.

DIn a way it's an old line. It's a toss back in time to when prophets of industry decried the revolting habits of the working class. As the famous Baptist clergyman Russell H. Conwell told audiences during the Industrial Revolution of the last century, "Let us remember that there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings."

Today you can hear a New Age version of this in the meditations of management gurus. The people who can't seem to make it in post-industrial society, they say, are the ones clinging to old habits and resisting the new.

These are the "lost souls" of modern capitalism, lost because they are "change aversive," say management consultants William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone in their recent book, "The Virtual Corporation."

Willingness to spend time in "continuous training" and desire to actively contribute to the corporation are mentioned as key habits missing among the lost ones. In sympathy, the authors lament that so many workers "will find themselves unable, by personality or sensibility, to cross over to the Promised Land."

The new knowledge-based economy, that is.

You can get the message also from conventional moralists like Michael Novak, philosopher-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.

To prosper in this age, Mr. Novak writes in his new book, "The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," people need more than ever to form the correct "moral and cultural habits." Such as: "hard work, ambition and regularity." (He regards envy, namely envy of the rich, as the worst of habits.)

Mr. Novak and the others have an undeniable point, as far as it goes. Take "regularity," Mr. Novak's word. If you can't wake up in time for work or a job interview, it's your own fault. As Woody Allen once said, 90 percent of life is just showing up. So of course there are habits -- initiative and flexibility, to add a couple -- that will help you squeeze into a cramped economy.

But how far do bad habits go in explaining why millions of people have slipped a step or two or more down the economic ladder? What about the growth in recent years of a working underclass -- men and women who work all week and still can't make a living?

Many of these people used to do steady work for decent pay. They learned well, in factory or office, and contributed to the enterprise. Now they shuffle from one bottom-wage, dead-end job to another. What happened? Did they all of a sudden become lazy or dim, or both?

In a way it's natural to blame the habits of working people. It's easier than tackling the big problem -- bad jobs -- that has capped an era of working-class prosperity that began in the 1940s.

Back then, in the garment shops of Brooklyn, N.Y., my mother took in about $20 a day. It was good money in those days. More than four decades later, she's still a dressmaker in Brooklyn. And she's back to making about $20 a day, the same as she did shortly after World War II. (She gets paid by the dress.) I'm talking actual dollars, not "inflation-adjusted."

Granted, my mother goes in a day or two a week more for the fellowship than the paycheck. But what about the others, many of them young women from Asia and Latin America who work the dress line for their daily bread? Will better moral and cultural habits save them from the new sweatshops of New York?

One habit the management gurus shy away from is solidarity: people coming together to make the workplace a more human place. Maybe that's because talk of solidarity can lead to talk of unions and strikes -- a dubious habit, at best, according to the gurus.

Anyhow, the habit of preaching will do little if anything for the wounded workers. It's an irritating habit that needs to be broken.

William Bole writes from Lowell, Mass. He is co-author, with Msgr. George Higgins, of "Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a 'Labor Priest,' " recently published by Paulist Press.

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