Values for Labor Day: work's meaning, purpose

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

Current literature on the condition of work and workers raises the modern question: 'Where am I?'

September 05, 1999|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

Ever since Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden, people have seen work as a grim necessity that gives structure, as well as sustenance, to our lives.

But in today's turbo-charged economy, where new jobs last little longer than Hollywood marriages, does the lack of structure in our work threaten our identity and integrity?

So asks the respected sociologist and workplace-watcher Richard Sennett in his "The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism" (W. W. Norton & Co., 176 pages, $23.95). It's touched off a debate in intellectual journals between those who believe the flexible new workplace sets us free from deadening routine and those who fret that it cuts us loose from stable human relationships.

To my mind, both sides are right -- with the optimists having the edge on description but the critics offering the better prescription.

By all means, we should encourage the technological progress that is replacing old jobs filled with grime and grunt work with new jobs requiring training and discretion.

But we should also exert whatever influence we can -- through government regulation, labor unions, community pressure and consumer choice -- to please make sure that today's workplaces respect time honored values, such as skill, loyalty and quality.

This conclusion is in keeping with what most Americans are telling public opinion surveys ("What Workers Want" by Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers, Cornell University, 226 pages, $25), and also with some of the most vivid and insightful writing about work, excerpted in the new anthology "The Oxford Book of Work" (edited by Keith Thomas, Oxford University Press, 617 pages, $35).

After all, as Sennett notes, the debate between advocates of structure and flexibility dates back to the earliest accounts of the industrial era included in the Oxford book.

The 18th-Century French encylopedist Denis Diderot presented the first factories as miniature societies where every worker had a defined and dignified role. But his contemporary, the British economist Adam Smith, wrote that "the man whose life is spent performing a few simple operations ... generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."

Although crudely dismissive of those who earned their livings in industry and raising the question of why Smith so fervently supported the division of labor in free-market economies, his remark foreshadowed less patronizing portrayals of factory life.

After all, people's most basic beliefs demand respect for the skills they develop and the work they accomplish.

Thus, Genesis teaches, "In the sweat of your brow, you shall eat your bread." But Ecclesiastes adds, "There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works."

Indeed, of all the writings excerpted in the Oxford book, the most moving questions are posed by Bertolt Brecht and George Orwell:

Who built the pyramids? And what of those "on whose backs civilization after civilization rested generation after generation [but] have left behind them no record whatever"?

These questions cut to the core of what people mean by the "dignity" of work -- some sense that a person's contribution is remembered, respected and rewarded.

But is work more dignified in yesterday's workplace or today's? Consider a Boston bakery that Sennett observed two decades ago while writing an earlier study, "The Hidden Injuries of Class," and revisited just a few years ago when he was researching his latest book.

Twenty-five years or so ago, the bakers worked in sweltering heat, often getting burned by the ovens. They strained their muscles stirring primitive dough beaters. But they took pride in their work because it was difficult, and they did it well.

Today's bakery no longer smells of yeast and sweat. Bakers work at a computer screen, where they click on icons that determine whether they're making bagels or baguettes that day. Nobody touches the dough. Most workers admit they couldn't bake a loaf of bread on their own. And few want to stay at a job that offers them a decent paycheck but little pride.

To hear Sennett tell it, what's been lost is at least as important as what's been gained. Many workers can no longer tell themselves or their children exactly what they do for a living.

To make this point, Sennett offers another before-and-after example: an immigrant janitor who was a subject of his earlier book and his computer-consultant son whom he interviewed recently.

The elder Enrico worked long hours for low pay, but his secure job allowed him to save money for his son's college education and teach him the values of perseverance, self-discipline and hard work.

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