Chains break - but we stay in the workhouse

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The Independent Online

Flexibility and teamwork are seen as the twin peaks in the 21st century results-driven workplace. Gone is the hierarchical, top-down system ruled by an authoritarian boss. In its place is an adaptable, modern workforce.

Flexibility and teamwork are seen as the twin peaks in the 21st century results-driven workplace. Gone is the hierarchical, top-down system ruled by an authoritarian boss. In its place is an adaptable, modern workforce.

But these much-touted vanguards of the new capitalism are not what they seem, according to leading sociologist, Richard Sennett. Flexibility and teamwork are, in fact, nothing less than a sham, an invention dreamed up to increase production and gain greater sway over the workers. The modern office is a latter- day workhouse where people talk less, take fewer breaks, and perform tasks in isolation. The upshot? Many employees are worn out and fed up.

Mr Sennett's book on the modern workforce claims that employment systems are undermining people's self-esteem and even their personalities. Flexibility is held up as the liberating element of the modern workplace, superseding the bureaucratic structures of routine. They claim it allows workers to organise their own schedules without kow-towing to an overweening boss. And it makes change easier to embrace.

According to Mr Sennett, this is not the case at all. Flexibility is the deliberate disintegration of the institution and of time. The old workplace had "continuous time" - long-termism, loyalty, dependence and paternalism - which gave lives a shape. What we have now is "discontinuous time" - dislocation and loose networks altered at managerial whim.

On the evidence of research in America, even flexitime isn't necessarily what it claims to be. Invariably it is granted to the more favoured employees, who are usually white, middle-class, day-time workers. Flexitime is not offered to night workers, who are often Hispanics or other disadvantaged groups.

Even working at home now has in-built controls, when you are required to phone in and supervisors have the right to open emails. "Workers exchange one form of submission to power - face-to-face - for another which is electronic," writes Sennett. "The appearance of freedom is deceptive. Time in institutions and for individuals has been unchained from the iron cage of the past, but subjected to new, top-down controls."

If modern bosses are no longer grisly figures of hatred, what are they? Enter postmodern, ironic man. Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, typifies this new-tech mogul: the ultimate manager of change and expert in company re-engineering. This new breed is able to let things go, forget the past. New products emerge in no time, only to disappear as quickly. "Lack of long-term attachment marks Gates's attitude toward work. The disposition to bend is evinced by his willingness to destroy what he has made, given the demands of the moment - he has the ability to let go."

A growing body of opinion is arguing that what we actually need is less work, not more. Writing in the Independent on Sunday recently, the broadcaster Laurie Taylor confessed that hours of being rooted to his PC had led him to smoke again just in order to chat to people in the smoking room.

"What makes me walk out of my office," he wrote, "is the desperate need to find space and time where I can relax and chat. One dramatic result of this lack of association is that employees have become isolated from each other ... This sense of isolation is encouraged by the new world of short-term contracts ... a [once] coherent workforce has become a set of insecure and fiercely competitive individuals."

None of this would matter if that second dogma of the new capitalism, teamwork, was the corrective. But that too is a fiction. Teamwork espouses the "soft skills" of sensitivity to others, being a good listener, co-operative: Sennett sees it as "the group practice of demeaning superficiality".

What is needed are portable skills and adaptability to different colleagues. Detachment is required too: process is everything. All of which helps feed the machine of short-termism.

And peer pressure is the driving force not the managers. Today's "facilitating managers" are not responsible for their acts: "the team" has decided, not them. After all, we're all victims of time and space in this postmodern world.

Which may still be fine if it wasn't for the degrading effect all this has - incomprehension, alienation, and lack of control. In short, erosion of career leads to corrosion of character.

But this bleak vision has an optimistic note. This level of alienation cannot go on indefinitely, Sennett argues. Eventually, he says, workers will take the necessary steps to bring it to an end. Is that the whiff of 21st century revolution in the air?


'The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism', by Richard Sennett, is published by Norton, £9.99.