Anxiety Attack


This year marks the centennial of the World's Columbian Exposition, the great fair that brought the world to Chicago. In 1893, 28 million visitors wandered through its classically inspired buildings, sampling oranges at the California exhibit and iced cocoa at the Java Village, riding the first Ferris Wheel (which took 40-person cars 264 feet in the air), marveling at the moving pictures of Thomas Edison's new kinetoscope.

The fair was a tribute to world cultures, technological progress, and material abundance. It captured the spirit of its age.

But history looks different when you're living through it. Then, as now, progress was not uniformly benevolent. 1893 was a year not unlike 1993, a time of worldwide recession and long-term economic restructuring.

Farmers, in particular, resented the Columbian Exposition's display of wealth and optimism. For them, abundance meant not oranges and kinetoscopes but falling crop prices and an uncertain future. The Farmer's Alliance in Gillespie County, Texas, resolved to ask that the fair's organizers "let the world of pleasure, leisure, and Style see the men and women in their jeans, faded callicoes, cotton-checks who by their labor and handicraft have made it possible for such an Exhibit. Let the Farmer's cabin, the miner's shanty and the tenement of factory hands be beside those magnificent buildings which represent the State and the Nation."

In 1893, the farmers' request, and the resentment and anxiety behind it, went mostly unheeded. In 1993, similar sentiments have thrown the country—or at least the opinion makers who define the spirit of our age—into an anxiety attack over jobs.

We hear the voices of those 19th-century farmers in Ross Perot's cry to "Save Your Job, Save Our Country" by rejecting free trade with Mexico. They echo in the letter to the editor of The Atlantic that declared, "WalMart is the embodiment of the excessive greed of the eighties and the horrendous devastation that has been its byproduct." They murmur throughout Robert Reich'sThe Work of Nations, whispering not of "the world of pleasure" versus "labor and handicraft" but of "symbolic analysts" versus "routine producers" and "in-person servers."

The mass-production revolution traded the independence of farming for the relative security of factory work. Our current "age of discontinuity," in Peter Drucker's prescient phrase, reverses that flow. Technological change, global competition, decentralized institutions, and knowledge-based economics have disrupted—and in some cases destroyed—the stable organizations and predictable careers born of the very changes that displaced the farmers of 1893.

We've moved from mainframes to laptops, from union members to entrepreneurs, from overtime to flextime, from Ma Bell to Friends and Family. Temporary work, that bane of social critics who long for assembly-line security, has become the safety net for independence-minded people with skills. It allows them to move across country, to quit jobs with near-impunity, to break into new industries.

But today's leaders suggest that economic dynamism is either a natural disaster like the Mississippi floods—an unstoppable force against which we are powerless—or a conspiracy of the elite against the masses. The former is the position of most Clintonites, the latter of self-styled populists. In 1993, we see only the faded jeans and calicoes, the tenements and shanties. It is not fashionable to talk about Ferris Wheels and cocoa.

The fashions that dictate a scared new world stem partly from the understandable desire for the products of dynamism without its costs. Politicians who promise utopia, who speak of "electronic superhighways" while pretending they can be built without upheaval, only feed resentment on the part of displaced workers who feel they've been conned. Yet talking only of the inevitability of economic change, without mentioning its benefits, drives the fearful into the arms of those who peddle the politics of stasis.

The question no one, least of all Perot, will ask is, What should your country sacrifice to save your job? Consider IBM. In late July, the company said it would eliminate 35,000 jobs by the end of 1994. Since 1986, it has slashed its payroll from more than 400,000 employees to about 250,000.

That's quite a shock. For decades, IBM represented security. Although it required constant upheaval in the personal lives of its organization men—people joked that the initials stood for "I've Been Moved"—it promised lifetime employment and the prestige of association with a progressive big company.

It also offered a sense of purpose. In the old days (not coincidentally, Ross Perot's formative business years), IBM was the future. It was moving America into the age of data processing, a future where "black boxes" with spinning tape drives manned by brainy guys in white shirts would make the world clean, efficient and orderly. (To social critics, of course the guys in white shirts represented conformist "mass man," consigned to live a bland, unfulfilling existence in "little boxes made of ticky-tacky.")

But that wasn't the future we got. Instead, long-haired California misfits exploded the centralized mainframe and put a computer on everybody's desk. Nowadays the biggest question facing computer users isn't whether the data-processing department will accept their job order but whether to wait six months to buy an even better machine at an even lower price.

Despite its best efforts to keep up, and at times they were very good, the old IBM couldn't adapt to a decentralized, often chaotic market in which desktop machines took on the power of mainframes and brand loyalty was nearly nonexistent. "Everything I learned at IBM is worthless," a laid-off engineer told the Los Angeles Times. It remains to be seen whether IBM can reinvent itself or whether, like the Sears catalog, it belongs to the ages.

The anxiety peddlers never ask, Would you give up your laptop to preserve 150,000 jobs at IBM? Do you wish the Mac had never been invented? If you could, would you wipe out desktop publishing, saving not only all those IBMers but also untold numbers of typesetters and paste-up artists?

The personal-computer revolution, like the industrial revolution, is not a natural disaster, though it may feel like one to those whose jobs it flooded out. It is, like the transportation revolution that made possible oranges in Chicago, a technological response to the desires of millions for a better life.

Those desires do not please our social critics. In an age of mass production, they railed about the alienation of the worker. Now they complain about the service economy and the shortage of high-paid, workingmen's jobs even as they denounce frivolous consumption and planet-threatening growth. They long for dark, satanic mills.

It is easy to be nostalgic for the world we have lost, easier still when voters can be bought with nostalgia for the jobs they once held. But the age of discontinuity, too, recalls earlier ages. It asks a familiar sounding question: Are we better off than we were 100 years ago? Who was right—the farmer or the fair?