Until recently, most management experts were in rough agreement about what the role of the worker in the American corporation was to be. In the 1940s, Peter Drucker taught in The Concept of the Corporation that the large American business, by offering generous benefits in exchange for a lifetime of work, would act as a private welfare state and ensure that America would never suffer from central planning or social democracy. In the '50s, John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society assured Americans that big business would use advertising to steadily seduce the masses into buying its products, thus ensuring rising profits, increased market share, and happiness for its workers.
This conventional wisdom has now been turned on its head. The optimism of the '50s has now been replaced by fashionable gloom. The workplace used to be thought of as the road to happiness; it's now seen by far too many pundits as the gateway to hell. Our parents spent 40 years toiling for a large business in return for a nice house in the suburbs and a generous pension; the baby boomers and busters will be lucky if their boss smiles before tossing them out on the street. Even if you manage to survive in your job, you'll have to do battle with your colleagues, some of whom may follow the management philosophies of the Marines, Joseph Stalin, or Attila the Hun. And in every large enterprise, there's always the mysterious man with a big black hood and an industrial vacuum cleaner, who sucks up your job and spits it out in Mexico or the Far East.
Some observers have even doubted that Americans know what it means to be middle class anymore. Our old notions of middle-class jobs, observes New School for Social Research sociologist Alan Wolfe in the Summer Wilson Quarterly, are "increasingly obsolete: yeoman farmer, small-town merchant, independent entrepreneur, male breadwinner, stay-at-home mom, hard-working school teacher, self-employed lawyer, family physician." Is Zoë Baird, with her $500,000 salary, in the middle class? How about an executive who's living on his wife's income while starting a new business? How about a Korean grocer? Or "an assistant professor of anything"?
Even the wealthy, notes Houghton Mifflin editor Richard Todd in the September Worth, are racked with insecurity and doubt. The confident, heroic entrepreneurs of the 19th century built grand homes that, when converted to museums, still delight Americans nearly a century after they were constructed. After they built their fortunes, they retired to lives of pleasure, leisure, and philanthropy. But now the rich aren't the leisure class; they're the frenzied class. Microsoft's Bill Gates, the modern equivalent of a Carnegie, Ford, or Rockefeller, has built a house mostly made up of tunnels, where he can hide from the world and spend his spare hours gazing at his "collection" of 100,000 paintings. Gates doesn't even own these paintings; he just bought the electronic rights so he can broadcast them on huge high-definition television screens. (And, presumably, incorporate them into multi-media software packages.)
"Stress, not bountiful ease, seems to be the lifestyle lesson that the upper-class models for the rest of the society," Todd writes. "Busy-ness is becoming our liturgy, if not our national religion." This is particularly true in Hollywood; Todd reports that the most fashionable accessory for the wealthy actor is a political consultant, who recites the latest gossip while a personal trainer makes her sweat.
All this activity, Yale emeritus professor Robert E. Lane notes in the Fall Public Interest, is unlikely to result in happiness. Most "quality of life" surveys, says Lane, report that people usually say they are happiest with (in order of preference) a strong family, close friends, and an enjoyable job. But there's no correlation between income levels and pleasure in the workplace: Lane recalls talking to a wallpaper hanger "who found his skill in handling corners a source of great delight."
Moreover, says Lane, relying on money as the measure of happiness might cause you to step onto what psychologists call the "hedonic treadmill," where you feel you would be happier if your income increased by 25 percent. Apartment renters would like to be able to get a house, homeowners want a larger house and a second car, and, if you're as wealthy as lawyer Arnold Becker on L.A. Law, you want a top-of-the-line Bentley. (If you're as smart as Becker, you'll have a happy client give you a Bentley.) Once you're on the hedonic treadmill, says Lane, it's very hard to get off, since it never ensures happiness; whatever you earn, you'll always want 25 percent more money. Lane suggests that a better way to live is to realize that "families and friends and a fulfilling job are the true path to happiness."
If you do insist on trying to beat the treadmill, don't think that having paid attention in school will help your effort. As the San Francisco Chronicle's Jonathan Marshall notes in the September Mother Jones, the connection between academic excellence and good wages is very weak. Economists at Harvard and MIT, Marshall reports, recently studied male 1980 high-school graduates who scored at the 84th percentile on a standard test of math skills. Six years after they graduated, these superior students earned only 60 cents more per hour than average students and earned less than 1972 graduates at the 50th percentile with compatible experience. "The notion that only fixing up skills will solve our problems is wrong," Harvard education professor Richard Murnane tells Marshall. "It won't solve the productivity problem or the low-wage problem."
What will improve American productivity, Marshall suggests, is for corporations to abandon traditional command-and-control management practices and devolve power as much as possible. The NUMMI joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, Marshall contends, is a highly productive enterprise not because of mysterious Asian practices but because the company allows workers to make decisions formerly handed down by management. When "forward-looking employers in high-tech fields" need workers to learn technical skills, Marshall argues, they should offer high wages and a less restrictive corporate culture—incentives that will do more to persuade workers to acquire new skills than any government program or subsidy.
But a flattened hierarchy means that the traditional goal of climbing the corporate ladder will no longer be desirable for many Americans. In the September 6 Fortune, Jaclyn Fierman notes that "in today's less vertical corporate world," many workers won't move closer to the executive suite with every promotion; they may move sideways, head for an exit, or even move down to a job "that may carry more weight but promises more growth."
Fierman provides several short profiles of workers who fled frustrating jobs for happier ones. In most cases, workers trusted their instincts in finding a new trade. Roger Proscio, for example, had wanted to be a writer since he was 12 but instead ended up working for a consortium of Miami banks that applied for government grants for low-income housing. Though he made $81,000 a year, had a big condo and season tickets to the opera, Proscio gulped antacids at the office and felt miserable. But after telling his troubles to one of his boss's advisers, who happened to be the CEO of Knight-Ridder, Proscio eventually became an editorial writer for the Miami Herald, where he makes half his old salary but is quite happy.
An anonymous petroleum geologist told Fierman that she had to fire half of the people she supervised and, given low oil prices, would probably get fired herself. But she told Fierman that she was resigned to changing her job. "I decided if I get laid off, so be it. If my husband and I have to sell our house, it won't be the end of the world. There is something very freeing about letting go of these fears."
This woman's attitude is the right way to face an insecure corporate workplace. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Robert Reich are doing what they can to persuade the voter that, somehow, Washington will give them better jobs and nicer bosses. But job-training programs have been a bipartisan boondoggle for decades. Given the history of the CETA and JTPA programs in the Carter and Reagan administrations, it is likely that a new job-training program will end up rewarding well-connected businessmen and major contributors to the Democratic Party and do very little to help the average worker.
America's workers will be happier and more productive if they relearn the virtues their parents and grandparents knew. The person who does what he loves at a low wage is far more admirable than the person who trades days full of hate for a high income. Self-reliance is better than dependence; saving increases independence, while debt ultimately enslaves you; and the best pleasures in life don't depend on money. But the most important lesson of all is that you are more responsible for your fate than the government is. Solving your own problems in the workplace is a far better way to live than depending on a bureaucrat to save you from ruin and despair.
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center.