Back to Gray Flannel Suits

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The American workplace is changing. So are American workers. Gone or going are the company man and the union man. Standardization is out; flexibility is in. Two-thirds of today's net new workers are women. Male or female, employees want their jobs to fit their lives, not just vice-versa.

And employers are getting innovative. Part-time and flex-time jobs let employees balance home and work. "Cafeteria" plans let them pick and choose the benefits they want. Profit sharing gives them a stake in the business. Some companies even allow two people to take turns doing one job.

But some politicians don't like all this innovation. They don't want flexibility. Instead, they want the government to decide what benefits we should all have and to require employers to provide them. This is the kind of "cost-free" (because it doesn't increase the federal budget) social programs that Democrats in particular are pushing.

If they have their way, Uncle Sam, like some big boss in the sky, will write your contract, and you will take it or leave it. For starters, it will include:

• Health insurance, in the precise amounts and configuration decreed by Congress. Maybe you'd prefer to take higher pay and depend on your spouse's insurance. Maybe you'd like less insurance and a better pension plan. Sorry, you won't have the option.

• Parental leave after a child is born or adopted. Maybe you don't plan to have kids; maybe your kids are grown. Maybe you work for a small nonprofit magazine that can't afford to keep your job open or to pay both you and your replacement when you're ready to come back. (Yes, it could be REASON, but this situation was actually depicted on "thirty-something.") Maybe you'd rather have a flex-time arrangement instead. But, whatever your preferences, Congress—not you and your employer—will decide.

Give the politicians time. If they get these measures through, they're bound to think of more. Why not make employers give people time off to take care of aged parents? Require a month of paid vacation? Force companies to pick up the tab for psychological counseling?

All of these benefits are desirable, at least to some people. But denying people choice is not.

Fans of mandatory benefits are stuck in a 1950s rut. "Concerned" politicians talk a lot about family policy and women in the workplace. But if they really cared about giving women more control over their lives, they wouldn't bitch about part-time work—as they do with pathological predictability. (The fact is, 73 percent of the country's 19.5 million part-timers say they prefer it that way.)

If lawmakers really want to help, they should look for ways to encourage more flexibility to accommodate individual workers' individual needs. And labor law isn't the only route. I recently visited a small high-tech company in northern California. Last year the company wanted to open an on-site day-care center. But rigid regulations—requiring, for example, 75 square feet of outside play area per child and special bathrooms—combined with building-permit restrictions to kill the idea. Cost wasn't the issue; flexibility was. In its urban setting, this family-oriented company, which is about 50 percent female, just couldn't meet all the legal requirements to provide a much-desired employee benefit.

Aside from restricting individual choice, the one-size-fits-all approach has another flaw: like an old-fashioned, inflexible union contract, it ensures layoffs when times get bad. Thanks to greater flexibility, the U.S. economy is increasingly recession-resistant. Part of this change comes from the shift to service jobs, which have always been more secure. But manufacturing, too, is taking on some of the same resilience.

At Steelcase Inc., the office-furniture maker, for example, factory workers average $17,000 a year in hourly pay. But production incentives and profit sharing last year pushed their average salary over $35,000. "If we go into a recession and the bonuses are lower, at least I still have a job," welder John Stuba told Newsweek.

Mandatory benefits don't directly threaten satisfied workers like Stuba. But the indirect costs are certain and predictable. When you have to call your congressman, rather than your boss, to negotiate a new deal, you aren't likely to get what you want.

"We'll never have national health insurance. What we have to do is chip away at things, piece by piece," says Rep. Pete Stark (D–Calif.). Piece by piece, unimaginative busybodies like Stark will destroy our choices and force us back into gray flannel suits.

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