The national economy savages the social contract

The Argument

On Labor Day 2001, despite widespread prosperity, the lives and prospects of many U.S. workers are cruelly grim.

Books

September 02, 2001|By David Kusnet | By David Kusnet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On Labor Day, 2001, the new economy seems to be getting old, with tech start-ups failing, tech stocks tanking, economic growth slowing and layoffs increasing. But, even before the current jitters, many Americans complained that new economy workplaces weren't keeping their promises of flexible rules and schedules, the freedom to do one's best work and unlimited opportunities for those willing to learn new skills and accept new challenges.

Instead, many spoke of a nightmarish new workplace, where secure jobs, rising earnings, stable benefits and the traditional bonds of loyalty between employers and employees all were being cast aside.

Reflecting these growing discontents and, perhaps also, a nagging sense that good economic times wouldn't last forever, a batch of books have been published this year about work in the new economy. For once, nonfiction booklists are leading, not lagging, indications of what people will be arguing about and policymakers will be grappling with if unemployment grows, incomes stagnate and worker discontent deepens.

After all, most years produce only one or two books for general readers about workers' lives and livelihoods, compared with dozens about race, gender and lifestyle issues. But, this year, a slew of studies of work-life have appeared. Even more remarkably, they were researched and written before the recent economic uncertainties made people more anxious.

Explicitly or implicitly, these books explore the issue of whether the new economy's erosion of stable institutions - major companies, secure jobs, effective unions, familiar career paths and secure health and pension benefits - is good, bad or a little bit of both. Not surprisingly, the debate accentuates the negative. More people write books to criticize social ills than to praise the status quo.

Still, these indictments of the mistreatment of low-wage workers, white-collar workers and high-tech workers are plausible, while a celebration of the joys of "free agent" self-employment seems Pollyanna-ish, if provocative. Taken together, these books, including the "free agent" evangelist's sensible policy prescriptions, suggest that the nation needs to make new rules and build new institutions to provide new-economy workers the same security their parents and grandparents enjoyed over the past half-century.

Revealing how widespread worker discontent is, the words "sweatshop" and "slave" appear in the titles of books about white-collar and high-tech workers, not the working poor. In White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America (Norton, 278 pages, $26.95), financial journalist Jill Andresky Fraser reports on four years of interviews with professionals in banking, telecommunications, investment and information technology.

She finds that - after two decades of corporate mergers, hostile takeovers and frequent downsizings - paternalistic business practices have been replaced by a new "culture of overwork and underreward." Just to hold onto their jobs, much less qualify for all-too-infrequent increases or promotions, employees are working longer hours, including nights and weekends - a phenomenon Fraser calls "job spill." One veteran bank employee asks, "How long can they tighten the screws on people?"

For the young people working on the frontiers of the Internet economy who are profiled in Net Slaves: True Tales of Working the Web by Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin (McGraw Hill, 248 pages, $19.95), worklife is best described not by "job spill" but by the modern watchword "24/7."

Many of the stories began shortly after midnight, with a Web worker pulling an all-nighter or being awakened by an irate supervisor or customer. There's humor in these war stories, as well as in the authors' typology of the "new media caste system," with "overworked, abused desktop support techs" called "Garbagemen" and "itinerant, faceless drones who code web sites for a living" called "Cab Drivers."

The inescapable conclusion of these interviews with web workers during 1998 and 1999 is that intelligent and energetic young people were being worked to death by bosses who had little idea of how to manage people or run a company.

While these two studies describe Darwinian workplaces, a journey to the world of the working poor portrays Dickensian conditions. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 221 pages, $23), the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich tells about her own experiences taking low-wage jobs in Florida, Maine and Minnesota. Working as a waitress, a house-cleaner, a nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart sales clerk, she earns little more than the minimum wage and plunges into an underworld of cheap hotels, ramshackle apartments and trailer parks.

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