The subtitle of sociologist Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character calls the book an exploration into the “personal consequences of work in the new capitalism.” One might also describe it as a social history of the work ethic and a reflection on the possible future(s) of that bedrock of stable personal, family, and community life.
In ancient times work was the only viable human reply to the chaos of nature; and since Max Weber’s famous essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it has also seemed for many to be the path to salvation as well. But do not count on such comforts if you labor in the world today, says Sennett. They are gone and may never return.
Instead of stable routines and predictable career tracks, employees today must learn to cope with change on short notice. Staid bureaucracies become fluid networks. Short-term goals replace long-term commitments, and youth-centered “teamwork” is preferred to experience and authority. In fact, experience now counts for less and less: Men still working at ages fifty-five to sixty-four fell from nearly 80 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 1990. In absolute terms, estimates of the number of American workers downsized from 1980 through 1995 vary from a low of 13 million to as high as 39 million.
Sennett anchors his analysis in the real-life experiences of people trying to cope in the modern workplace—workers in a high-tech Boston bakery, a bar owner turned advertising executive, and a group of downsized IBM programmers, many of them the author’s neighbors in upstate New York. For the theological educator, this group may be the most interesting.
Sennett met the IBM programmers after a number of them began meeting late afternoons in a local cafe. The men, all products of an institution that had promised lifetime employment, now felt like passive victims. But, as Sennett watched, the talk at some point switched to their own behavior, and their need to acknowledge that betrayal was not a helpful explanation for their predicament. Indeed, many of the superiors who fired them were themselves fired later, and everyone knew—or should have known—that the company was in trouble. “The dysfunctions of the old corporate culture were plainly on display, rather than hidden.”
With this acknowledgment, attention refocused on high-tech work’s immense recent growth and the skills needed to deal with industrial and scientific challenges. “Something happened to the voices of the men.” They “began to blame themselves for having been too company-dependent, for having believed in the promises of the corporate culture, for having played out a career scenario not of their own creation.”
Later, Sennett noticed the men losing interest in—and dropping—volunteer positions they had held, yet the one community engagement the men continued in is membership in their local churches. This is important to them. Sennett said the youngest member of the IBM group, Paul, told him, “When I was born again in Christ, I became more accepting, less striving.” The author added, “If my neighbors have taken responsibility for their life histories, that ethical act has taken their conduct in a particular direction; they have turned inward.”
Here the writer examines the attempt by some French philosophers to define willingness to stay engaged by distinguishing between maintenance of oneself and fidelity to oneself. The first sustains an identity over time; the second invokes such virtues as being honest with oneself about one’s defects. “The maintenance of oneself is a shifting activity, as one’s circumstances change and one’s experience accumulates; fidelity to oneself, as in being honest about one’s faults, ought to be constant, no matter where or what age one is.”