The way we work

By Patrick McCormick| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Spirituality

One reason "Mission Impossible" was so successful as a thriller this year it that lots of American workers could understand Tom Cruise's sense of betrayal when he discovers that good ol' Jim Phelps, played by Jon Voight, his trusted friend and benevolent supervisor, has decided to "downsize" the Impossible Mission team. But Voight isn't the only downsizing fiend around. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's summer slugfest "Eraser," James Caan is a back-stabbing boss who decides to "erase" Arnie (and several other employees) as part of his own restructuring and retirement plan. These two are just the latest incarnations of pink-slipping Ebenezers.

Why are so many Americans worried about their jobs or their future at a time when corporate profits and productivity are high and the economy seems to be in a modest but steady recovery? Simple. Work as we know it-in America and around the globe-is going through a fundamental transformation, and few of us have any real sense of where this change is leading.

Note that dozens of recent books and articles, from Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995) to the New York Times' recent seven-part series on "The Downsizing of America," are saying pretty much the same thing: that three factors_rapid advances in computer and communications technologies, an increasingly competitive global labor market, and pressure from Wall Street to keep corporate profitability high-are contributing to a metamorphosis of corporate life. At the very heart of this transformation is the development of what many are calling the "virtual corporation," the "virtual office," and maybe even the "virtual worker."

The virtual corporation
In her essay "The Virtual Job" (The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1994), Laura Nash describes the virtual corporation as a "legal-financial entity whose physical plant is scattered across the globe and whose people-parts are almost as interchangeable as chips in a motherboard." With the aid of state-of-the-art telecommunications technologies, these multinational corporations are able to coordinate their global financial, manufacturing, and marketing efforts beyond the constraints of any local or even regional government, economy, or culture. At the same time, their increasing use of what Nash calls "moveable feasts of temporary global teams" (groups of full-time, part-time, and temporary workers that are constantly reconfigured to take on new projects) has significantly altered the relationships these companies have to their workers. Indeed, the reason such corporations are called virtual is that the ties that bind them to people and places are increasingly seen as tentative, temporary, and optional.

Downsizing
If there is any single trend that most of us associate with the growth of these virtual corporations, it is downsizing.

In "The Downsizing of America," the New York Times reported that since 1979, our economy has lost better than 43 million jobs. And although the same economy has generated far more new jobs, giving us a net gain of 27 million positions, "enough to easily absorb all the laid-off workers plus the new people beginning careers," the problem is that these new jobs do not pay as well or offer the security or benefits that went with the lost positions. For the first time since World War II, a generation of American workers are facing the threat of making less than their parents.

The first group to be affected by corporate downsizing were blue-collar workers in the manufacturing sector. Just as Sally Field's "Norma Rae" (1979) was rallying Alabama textile workers to fight for higher wages, plant owners and managers all over the Northeast were closing shop and moving South in search of nonunion labor. In their wake, they left a growing rust belt of idle factories and dying towns, the likes of which Billy Joel sang about in his 1981 hit "Allentown."

As a result of these moves, as well as economic slowdowns and technological advances throughout the '70s and '80s, millions of factory workers were forced into the service sector, and the average salary of male high-school grads dropped from a high of $24,482 in 1973 to $18,366 by 1987, a decline of 25 percent. The situation was even worse for high-school dropouts, who lost 36 percent of their earning power in the same period.

Within the last decade, however, the cancer has spread to white-collar workers as well, so that while blue-collar laborers still make up the majority of jobs lost every year, it is by a pretty thin margin. In fact, the New York Times series argued that "in a reversal from the early '80s, workers with at least some college education make up the majority of people whose jobs were eliminated . . . and better paid workers-those earning at least $50,000-account for twice the share of the lost jobs than they did in the 1980s."

It's not that layoffs and cutbacks are new to the labor market. They have always been part of cyclical downturns in the economy, a corporate strategy for dealing with low productivity and hard times. What is jolting, however, about downsizing is that it seems like a permanent condition. To steal a title from Agatha Christie, life in business is beginning to look like ten little managers-"and then there were none."

Even in a steadily recovering economy, with corporate profits and the stock market booming, layoffs have not dropped much from their 1992 peak of 3.43 million. It now appears that healthy and profitable corporations are currently using downsizing as a preventive measure to stay competitive in a global market. Critics like economist Jeremy Rifkin warn about a permanent shift in the workforce, producing two increasingly disparate and unequal groups of laborers, while "A World Without Work?," a recent piece in The Economist (2/11/95), offers a much more optimistic picture of ways in which information technology and a global market can continue to produce good jobs for most workers.

Two ways in which virtual corporations have been able to downsize their permanent labor pool have been outsourcing work to other firms and increasing their reliance upon part-time and temporary or contract employees. Outsourcing, the practice of farming out less profitable divisions or functions to other companies, allows corporations to pay for this work without providing benefits or pension plans, thereby cutting labor costs by as much as 40 percent. Given these incentives, it may not be surprising that Business Week reports that "a quarter of those employed today do so on a temporary, part-time, or contract basis . . . [or that] the number of Americans working part-time has grown by 2.2 million since 1973."

In fact, according to the New York Times, "the country's largest employer, renting out 767,000 workers each year, is Manpower, Inc., the temporary-help agency."

An argument can certainly be made that part-time and temporary work is attractive to a large number of employees because it gives them a flexibility and freedom they can't find in full-time work, and many employees would not be able to work if it were not for such positions. One could also argue that a large number of part-time and temporary workers are getting their benefits or pensions through a spouse or partner, for clearly millions of American households have compensated for stagnating wages by shifting to two-income families.

Still, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., the recent growth in part-time work is "entirely a function of more involuntary part-timers who would like to be working full-time." More people are working part-time because they can't get full-time jobs, meaning that what's good for the company's bottom line is not necessarily good for the worker.

Delayering and team-based systems
Another major trend in virtual corporations is the reported shift away from hierarchical structures of management. According to the theory, increased access to information technologies allows workers at every level to participate more fully in decisions previously reserved to management and thereby creates a win/win situation. Employees, like the folks in all those Saturn ads on TV, are given more training and encouraged to take greater responsibility and initiative on the job and thus increase their sense of ownership and loyalty to the company. Meanwhile, corporations can increase flexibility and do away with a lot of high-paying managerial jobs. This process of empowerment has proven so popular that most corporate employers have adopted some form of team-based management.

Even more, this empowerment approach echoes Popes Pius XI and John XXIII's call for subsidiarity in the workplace, allowing people to participate more fully in the decisions that affect them by giving responsibility to folks with experience and knowledge of the problems at hand.

Unfortunately the results of this highly touted process have been extremely uneven, due in no small part to the fact that at the very moment these corporations are asking for an increased level of commitment from workers, management and ownership are slashing thousands of jobs. It's hard to believe one is part of a team when corporate downsizing and cutbacks show no sign of slowing down.

The corporate nanny
A final trend going on in virtual corporations is, according to Laura Nash, the introduction of the corporate nanny. Ironically, at a time when companies are less willing to promise the security of long-term employment, some corporations (along with the traditional package of benefits given full-time employees) are now offering things like legal aid, in-house HMOs, child or elder care, fitness centers, wellness programs, addiction counseling, and financial planning. This cornucopia of services is a definite boost for all those two-income families so strapped for time and resources, and it probably provides a valuable incentive for increasing employee loyalty.

Nonetheless, the nanny's apron strings can sometimes seem a little tight, like when an employee is informed that lifestyle choices outside the office, such as use of tobacco or consuming too much cholesterol, are not in line with company policy, or when employers want access to a worker's psychiatric or medical files. It's occasionally helpful to remember that the last time we had full-service corporations they were called company towns. If that seems attractive to you, you might want to rent a copy of John Ford's 1941 Oscar-winner "How Green Was My Valley."

So what are we to make of these virtual corporations and their various trends? What impact is downsizing, outsourcing, and delayering having on our experiences of work? It is no longer reasonable to hope that a company job means lifelong financial security or that one can plan a career climbing one corporate ladder. And that might not be all bad. The past few years have also witnessed a tremendous growth in small businesses, and the self-employed tend to earn about 40 percent more per hour than those who work for others.

Nonetheless, the current instability is bound to create lots of anxiety in workers, and unless corporations or other major players in the economy can figure out a way to help employees negotiate issues like health-care benefits and retirement plans, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to expect loyalty or commitment from their workers.

At the same time, many of the changes introduced by new technologies and team-based approaches to management offer employees opportunities for vastly more rewarding and challenging work-as long as these same empowering processes don't simultaneously close out large segments of the labor force, leaving them to rust like so many abandoned steel and textile mills dotting the American countryside.

The virtual office
It's not just the corporation, however, that's gone virtual-it's the office, too. In "The New Workplace," Business Week (4/29/96) reports that the places where we work are also undergoing major transformations as companies try to cut costs, reduce commuting time, utilize new communications technology, and increase team-based decision making. This has led to major redesigns of corporate headquarters, the development of mobile offices and telework centers, and increased support of telecommuting from home offices.

Back at corporate headquarters the corner office and the mahogany desk may be going the way of the communion rail, relics of a crumbling hierarchical structure. According to all the reports, the executive suite and secretary that Melanie Griffith lands at the end of "Working Girl" (1988) are being replaced by the sort of open cluster of desks we see weekly on police dramas like "NYPD Blue." The $9.5 billion office-furniture industry is busily tearing down corporate walls, ripping out elevators, and putting almost everything on wheels. Clusters of open cubicles encircle "huddle spaces" in what has been described as the "cave and commons" design, and mobile desks can pull together for team projects or brainstorming, or slip back into their individual caves for more private work.

Still, there are some bugs in the plan, as many workers in these new clusters complain about the distractions and overstimulation of working in such open proximity to others. As everybody who used to get a key to the executive bathroom knows, privacy is a value, too.

Outside of headquarters, however, not everybody has been able to hold onto a permanent desk, even a mobile one shuttling back and forth from a cave. In an effort to slash real-estate costs, trim office commutes, and have employees spend more time with clients, more and more corporations are introducing mobile offices and telework centers, encouraging workers not to think of the office as someplace they come every day, but as a "hotel," or resource center, where they might drop in to accomplish particular tasks. IBM, which got a lot of press two years ago after consolidating five New Jersey branch offices into a 220-desk warehouse used by over 600 sales and service workers, reports savings of nearly a $1.5 billion from nationwide implementation of such mobile offices.

At the same time, lots of workers are happy to be able to take advantage of new telework centers popping up around the country. These satellite offices, replete with all the current computer and communications hardware, cut commuting time for suburban employees by allowing them to skip the drive to corporate offices downtown two or three times a week.

And for those who prefer not to drive at all, there's the option of telecommuting from home. In the New York Times article "Nudging Workers From Comfy Nests" (7/30/95), Barbara Presley Noble reports that the "number of conventional corporate employees who telecommute rose from 2.4 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 1994," with some predicting an increase to 11 million by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, in "Setting Up Your Own Home Office" (Fortune, 7/10/95), Michael Himowitz notes that a record 43 million Americans work at home at least part of the time, and that this number is increasing at about 5 percent annually. According to Himowitz, "large corporations, including AT&T, Holiday Inn, IBM, and Travelers, have developed programs to keep some of their workers at home part of the time."

Unfortunately, while telecommut-ing could cut commuting time and costs and increase worker flexibility and productivity (studies show workers can often get more done at home, away from the distractions of memos, phone calls, and meetings), there has been a sudden downturn in this practice. Two recent surveys indicate that the number of telecommuters may have dropped by about one million in 1995, and that overall this practice has not cut commuting in any appreciable way. Interestingly enough, while earlier resistance to telecommuting came mostly from middle managers who were afraid of losing control of employees, the current slowdown seems to flow from the belief that in a downsizing corporate climate, it's better to be around the boss as much as possible.

Still, there are two significant concerns generated by the decline of the traditional office. First, as we are more and more able to take our work with us, we could find it dominating our lives. According to Business Week (4/29/96), "Work anywhere, anytime is the new paradigm. Your car, your home, your office, even your client's office. Work alone, coupled, teamed. Work in real space or in cyberspace." But if work is everywhere and can be done anytime-where is leisure? Aren't we in danger of losing a sense of ourselves as more than just workers? Certainly Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American (HarperCollins, 1991) makes a persuasive case that Americans are losing the fight for leisure, reporting that leisure time has decreased by 40 percent since 1973.

Second, the office is more than just space, furniture, and hardware. It is also a network of other persons who work with and relate to us, and in "Let's Hear it for the Office" (Fortune, 3/6/95), Julie Connelly argues that office work provides us with discipline, men-toring, and critical social interaction. Contrasted with the sensory deprivation and isolation of working alone at home, office work gives a sense of community.

The virtual worker
And just how are all these shifts in virtual corporations and virtual offices shaping work for contemporary and future employees? If current trends continue, many are concerned that future workers may increasingly be divided into two very separate and unequal groups-a relatively small cadre of highly educated and well-paid "knowledge-workers" who will constitute the "core-employees" of virtual corporations and a much larger group of underemployed and underpaid persons working either as contingent laborers or full-time employees in the burgeoning service sector.

Virtual corporations are increasingly looking for and hiring a cadre of "knowledge workers," offering them excellent pay and benefits and encouraging them to work overtime. Indeed, one of the ironies of the present situation is that in the midst of layoffs and cutbacks the surviving workers in these downsized corporations are putting in record amounts of overtime, in part because the same amount of work is now being distributed among fewer employees, and in part because the remaining workers are anxious about losing their positions.

At the same time, in spite of some recent losses, low-paying jobs in the service sector continue to show the biggest growth. More and more workers are being shifted from low-skill union jobs to work at the local Wendy's or K-Mart. They're losing wages, benefits, and long-term security, and being forced to take on moonlighting work to supplement their greatly reduced incomes. Along with this, the increase of part-time and temporary workers who would like to be working full-time suggests a large group of American workers who are increasingly underpaid or underemployed, people who experience themselves as marginalized by the shifting labor market.

This doesn't mean that the growing polarization in the labor force is inevitable or that things will have to turn out badly. Other major transformations in the world of work-like the industrial revolution and the Great Depression-have threatened the lives and livelihoods of tens, even hundreds of millions of workers, and societies have figured out ways to generate new work or protect the rights and incomes of marginalized employees. Laws concerning a just wage, Social Security, worker safety, health benefits, the right to unionize, and the prevention of child labor have helped to correct imbalances in the social contract between employer and employee. All we need is the will, determination, and conviction that workers (because they're people) are at least as important as profits.

Why we work
Curiously enough, in spite of all the anxiety and insecurity about work, one thing that has remained constant throughout all these changes is that most Americans like their jobs. As Seymour Martin Lipset reports in The Public Interest (Winter, 1990), "almost all surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans-over 80 percent-are satisfied with their jobs," and that "there has been no significant change in these figures over time."

This fact is even more curious when coupled with observations by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who argued in his national best-seller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Collins, 1990) that, although Americans are always crying out for more leisure or vacation time, they are generally happier when at work! "On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time they feel there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure." Maybe that explains why one survey reports that 85 percent of Americans say they would keep working even if they won the lottery or inherited a fortune.

Of course conflicted feelings about work are nothing new. Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced work as both a blessing that allowed them to share in God's creative activity (Gen. 1:28) and a curse that made life burdensome and oppressive (Gen. 3:17). As Pope John Paul II writes in the encyclical Laborem exercens ("On Human Labor"), "Our lives are built up every day through work, indeed, from work human life derives its special dignity, but at the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering and also of the harm and injustice which penetrate into the social life of nations." Csikszentmihalyi captures this paradoxical quality of work very nicely by citing an Italian proverb: Il lavoro nobilita l'uomo, e lo rende simile alle bestie ("Work gives man nobility and turns him into an animal").

One way to get a handle on the enigma of work is to ask just why it is that humans labor, even when work is difficult, oppressive, and boring. In Gaudium et spes ("The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World"), the bishops of Vatican II wrote that "it is ordinarily through their labor that humans support themselves and their families, are joined to their neighbors and serve them, and are enabled to exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing God's creation to perfection." In other words, we work for three reasons: to earn our daily bread, to find and fashion a place for ourselves in the world, and to share in God's ongoing work of creation.

Over a century ago Pope Leo XIII wrote that work has a necessary quality about it, that most of us must work to live. We work to put food on the table, clothes on our backs, and roofs over our heads-and to pay for our education, health care, and retirement. And though we sometimes inherit, win, or steal the things we need, for most of the human race, work has been the way we managed to stay alive, to protect our children, and to preserve our dignity.

This may explain why Catholic social teaching has been so concerned about work, and why John Paul II writes that "work is a key, perhaps the essential key to the whole social question." It is certainly the reason the church has argued that all persons have both a duty and a right to work, even more, a right to work that pays a living wage without crushing laborers under its weight. It is also the reason church teachings have supported workers' rights to organize and barter for better wages and safer working conditions.

In America we have a fairly strong sense of our obligation to work, and politicians are always ready to rail "that those who do not work should not eat." What we sometimes forget, however, is that the struggle for "our daily bread" is not just a personal responsibility, but a social obligation as well. Just as the Hebrews in the desert were warned not to hoard the manna they collected each morning, but to share it among all the tribes and families, so, too, our work needs to be organized in ways that allow everyone to meet their basic needs.

There is something terribly wrong when Schor reports that one of the primary reasons so many Americans are working harder and longer is that they own and consume twice as much as their parents did in the years after World War II, and that this spiraling consumption goes on even as the numbers of the working poor and underemployed continue to grow. Hard work is not a virtue if its aim is accumulating goods and services that we don't need while depleting global resources and depriving others of labor that would allow them to live reasonably safe and happy lives. Instead, this kind of work is a kind of addiction, perhaps some kind of theft.

Because we also work to find or fashion a place for ourselves in the world, the loss of a job isn't just the loss of an income, it's the loss of a place in society. As Robert Kennedy once noted, "In America a person is what he or she does, and doing nothing means being nothing." It is through our jobs and our work that we participate in the economy, make a contribution to society, and gain access to the community of laborers building up our culture and fashioning our future. In a glorious scene in Peter Weir's 1985 film "Witness," Harrison Ford joins in an Amish barn raising, and we are touched by the symmetry and aching beauty of work shared with others, while in 1995's "Falling Down," Michael Douglas shows us some of the terror of losing one's place in the workforce.

But perhaps the deepest reason for working is that, as John Paul II writes, "work is a good thing for us-a good thing for our humanity-because through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings, and indeed, become more human." Here the pope echoes the sentiments of M. D. Chenu in his minor classic The Theology of Work (Regnery, 1963). Chenu argued that work is the normal way we achieve our perfection as persons, perhaps the only way the mass of humanity can find self-realization.

William E. May argues that the church has not always seen the work that most of us do as having any intrinsic value. Instead, traditional teachings often reflected an "attitude, derived largely from the monastic tradition, that life in the world and worldly work inhibited and did not contribute to the spiritual life of the Christian." Today, however, Catholic theology has a better grasp of the critical vocation of all Christians, and of the way our work expresses and fulfills that calling. As the passage on work in Gaudium et spes concludes: "Indeed, we hold that by offering our labor to God humans are associated with the very redemptive work of Jesus Christ, who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth he worked with his own hands."

In our work, then, we not only shape the raw clay of our tools and products, but-for better or worse-we express, fulfill, and fashion ourselves. Through the work of our hands, we live out our very vocation as persons, either sharing in God's ongoing work of creation or mocking and ruining that labor through our carelessness or greed. In that same work, we can either help to forget a humanity that is more and more noble and humane, or we can fail in the most important project we have been given. Reason enough, I think, to get up when that alarm goes off.