Reich's 'Future of Success': frenzied America

January 28, 2001|By Pia Nordlinger | By Pia Nordlinger,Special to the Sun

"The Future of Success," by Robert B. Reich. Alfred A. Knopf. 275 pages.$26.

Robert Reich knows you're overworked -- and he knows why, too. In "The Future of Success," a work of cultural and economic analysis, the former secretary of labor offers a way of thinking about the lightning-speed U.S. economy and how it affects Americans' work habits, personal lives and communities.

Americans live in the age of the "terrific deal," he argues. As consumers, we are constantly searching for -- and finding -- great deals on improved services and products. Competition for our dollars is fierce, so businesses trip overthemselves to meet our demands.

On the other hand, we are also -- directly or indirectly -- sellers in this economy. All participants must think, connect, market and sell faster all the time. Keeping up with the speed of change places new pressures on businesses, and the implications ripple through the culture: "In short," says Reich, "rewards of the new economy are coming at the price of lives that are more frenzied, less secure, more economically divergent, more socially stratified."

Reich devotes the meat of his book to explaining how this has come to pass.

In the first section, "The New Work," he gives a detailed account of work in the past and present. He deftly shows how the old rules that governed employment -- such as predictable pay, loyalty and wage compression (limiting CEO salaries in order to raise them for workers) -- have melted away. What's replaced those rules is market-value. If a CEO is valuable to a company, it will pay outrageous sums to keep him. If an average worker is too costly, his job is terminated. Being fired, Reich notes, is now less often a comment on one's behavior; it's more a reflection of the bottom line.

The second section, "The New Life," picks up this point to reveal the effects. In times of uncertainty, people work harder. And harder. "The amount of paid work in most people's lives is increasing dramatically," writes Reich. "The very character of paid work is becoming far more intrusive on the rest of our lives."

People have grown so busy that personal relationships are impoverished. Friendships are harder to maintain. Families are shrinking, and not only through divorce: Americans are having fewer children, and the elderly are not often cared for at home. Communities are growing smaller and more private as people sort themselves into haves and have-nots.

Reich, for the most part, has produced a clever book, with keen observations. His writing is conversational, though sometimes perhaps oversimplified in order to bring complex topics to a wide audience.

His "points of departure" for reform, however, are highly debatable. Reich suggests a near-redistribution of wealth and a healthy dose of employee-friendly mandates on businesses. He is also questionable when suggesting that high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births are not the result of a moral crisis, but of economic upheaval.

This book will interest anyone who enjoys thinking about societies as they evolve. If you've ever wondered why Americans work so hard, "The Future of Success" will, at the least, give you something to grapple with. At best, it will give you an answer.

Pia Nordlinger is the news editor of Working Woman magazine. Previously, she was a member of the New York Post editorial board and a reporter for the Weekly Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in National Review, ArtNews and City Journal.

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