Here's a quiz:
Do you like your job? Do you trust the people you work for? Do you feel needed and valued at work? Are you loyal to the company you work for? Is it loyal to you? When the time comes, do you count on your employer to take care of and protect you?
The most significant thing about this quiz, of course, is that most of the people reading it don't need to bother to take it.
An enormous shift is under way in the workplace, according to economists. There is a huge transfer of wealth from lower-skilled, middle-class American workers to the owners of capital, and to a new technological aristocracy.
This change is transforming the nature and character of work. And not for the better. The technological aristocracy is creating lean, mean, corporate machines. But for more and more people, work sucks.
The new techno-managers and their companies no longer care about individuals or their work or personal lives. They take over companies primarily to strip them down for re-sale, merger, or greater profitability. They've adopted a newly "flexible management style in which goals and structures constantly change, and older, more experienced workers are sometimes brutally abandoned; only younger presumably more malleable (read overworked) employees are favored, until they too are inevitably tossed over the side.
This chilling view of what technology is doing to work is unsparingly laid out in Richard Sennett's "The Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences of Work In the New Capitalism (Norton, $US 23.95). Sennett, who teaches sociology at the London School of Economics and New York University writes that the booming new economy teaches corporations to value flexibility over almost all other considerations.
Flexibility, he argues, has become the prime ideology, the golden rule of corporate life. Companies and executives place change and rapid-response above all other values. Notions like loyalty, security and character get chucked along with the expendable workers. Accordingly, large numbers of mostly younger people have no choice but to try a kind of extreme risk-taking, gambling that they will be among the survivors, the chosen few. In this increasingly cold-blooded scenario, those who succeed sweep the table of gains, like poker players after a winning hand; the mass of losers who remain divide the crumbs.
Instead of thinking of organizations as pyramids as they used to, says Sennett, management sees them as networks - network arrangements are faster, more efficient. This means that promotions and dismissals tend not to be based on clear, fixed rules, that tasks are never "crisply" defined. Instead the network is constantly refining its structure to remain efficient, competitive and profitable enough to satisfy stockholders and analysts, everybody's new bosses.
Drawing on interviews with dismissed IBM executives in New York, bakers in a high-tech Boston bakery, a barmaid turned advertising executive and a few others, Sennett argues that the new capitalism creates an environment where companies are continuously forced to down-size and re-organize.
Older employees are necessarily more resistant to continuous upheaval, saddled as they often are with mortgages and kids, and companies perceive them as difficult and more stubborn anyway. They're toast. Thus more and more workers are now must the most vulnerable precisely when they're the neediest.
This change is already so profound that American worklives are being dramatically shortened. The number of U.S. men aged 55 to 64 who work has dropped nearly 80 per cent in l970 to 65 per cent in l990. Statistics tell the same story - or worse - in France, and Germany. And much of this change has been involuntarily, prompting epidemic feelings of anger, guilt and uselessness rather than the chirpy contentment of early retirements portrayed in TV commercials.
That could accelerate: in America and Western Europe, sociologist Manuel Castells predicts, "the actual working lifetime could be shortened to about 30 years (from 24 to 54) out of a real lifetime span of about 75-80 years" - with older workers forced from the workplace long before they are physically or mentally unfit.
The image of corporate "deadwood" is so pervasive it has become a media cliché. Sennett quotes an advertising executive: "If you're in advertising, you're dead after thirty. Age is a killer." A Wall Street executive confirmed this view: "Employers think that if you are over forty you can't think anymore. Over fifty and they think you're burned out." Older computer programmers are rare enough to be stuffed in museums.
Recent flaps over age and hiring in television reveal that few TV writers are over 30; nor do many large Wall Street firms smile on bankers over 40.
That makes older workers instantly targetable during the ceaseless reingineerings, takeovers and mergers that characterize large corporations. The rate of involuntary dismissals for men in their 40's and early 50's, has doubled in the last twenty years.
But that thinking also puts considerable pressure on the young, sociologists argue. Experienced workers tend to be more judgmental about their superiors than novices, more likely to challenge unfair or arbitrary decisions. Younger workers are often forced to do a variety of jobs, whether they like them or not, and to be willing to move, whether they want to or not.
Sennett argues that the work values of the new technological elite threaten character, not only economic security.
"Who needs me?" is a question more and more workers are ask themselves. The new system radiates indifference. "Such practices obviously and brutally diminish the sense of mattering as a person," writes Sennett, "of being necessary to others."
Sennett's book is powerful documentation of what most people are learning the hard way: the great majority of those who toil in the "flexible" regimes are going to get left behind. One-sided, temporal relationships with employees are increasingly the only ones that make sense.
Technology has made corporations vastly more efficient, but at an enormous cost: they can no longer afford to be human.
Life in the technological workplace, toiling on behalf of the technocracy, is filled with ironies and contradictions - all that money and opportunity, hardly any loyalty, appreciation or safety.
Sooner or later, the elite and their corporations - connected to their workers only by money, by transitional and exploitive relationships - are bound to find themselves in serious conflict with the people they most depend on. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org