It’s often observed that the leading industry of New York City is not media or fashion or finance but the creation of a highly individuated, vigilantly tended self. Of course, this is not confined to that famously introverted city; it can be found along the length and breadth of the U.S. and around the world. At play, and as never before at work, people are insisting on the dominion of their needful natures. Sometimes it seems as if everyone is singing in chorus, “I’ve gotta be me.”
Three new books tackle this trend and its consequences, directly and indirectly, on the workplace, and in strikingly different ways. Po Bronson’s What Should I Do with My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question (Random House, 2002) is a collection of personal stories about career dissatisfaction and its myriad causes and solutions. Allison Pearson’s novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), throws the subject of work/life balance into stark and sometimes hilarious relief, bringing home with a one-two punch that workers aren’t ciphers with skills but individuals with lives with which managers have to reckon if they are to keep the best talent. In The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism (Viking Penguin, 2002), Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin argue that corporations either haven’t understood the disquiet that Bronson’s stories illustrate or the needs of the Kate Reddys of the world. Or, if they have recognized the individuation movement, they can’t respond effectively because managerial capitalism, no matter how it contorts itself, isn’t up to this potentially economy-transforming task.
In short, these books argue that employees are asking for more from their work life than paychecks and corporate ladders to ascend; people want rewarding work, to belong to a worthwhile enterprise that allows for personal growth and caters to differences. If contentment isn’t forthcoming, employees increasingly feel free to seek it elsewhere. As Thomas Stewart pointed out in his terrific and humorously titled Fortune magazine essay “Gray Flannel Suit? Moi?”, in the new workplace “…learning supplants security; freedom to maneuver supplants power; relationship supplants task.” Stewart pokes fun at this trend — “an orthodoxy of the unorthodox” — but it could also be argued that it’s one genie that won’t go back in the bottle.
The Sweet Spot
Po Bronson, author of Bombardiers (Random House, 1995), a classic novel about Wall Street traders, and The Nudist on the Late Shift and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley (Random House, 1999), sounds his theme loud and clear in the opening of his latest book: “We are all writing the story of our life…. We demand of it something deeper, or richer, or more substantive. We want to know…. we will not have squandered our time here.” This sounds like a bit of easy sloganeering, but Bronson has written a book that goes deeper and reflects the tenor of our questing times.
Bronson’s subjects, selected largely from his peers (middle-class Gen X dot-commers, ex-Clinton staffers, and MBAs), are dissatisfied for any number of reasons. Parents pressured them into the wrong career or they chose a career path that didn’t suit their skills or ended up in a job that caused them moral disquiet. Others are addicted to change or have had exhilarating jobs in the White House or Silicon Valley, but are now out of work. Many are frustrated by corporate indifference, and, like the disconsolate television anchorman Howard Beal, played by Peter Finch in the 1976 movie Network, they’re as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. They want their professional and personal selves to mesh, and their workplace and private morality to be one and the same.
Because Bronson’s approach to his subject is anecdotal, it can be criticized for not being representative research, but the book’s bestseller status and the writer’s popularity as a speaker indicate he has struck a chord. One reason is that everyone likes a good story, and it’s certainly Scheherazadian. When Joe, a banker, becomes a superintendent of a school system through a series of flukes, will it work out? When Claude, a marine biologist, acknowledges he dislikes nature and loves people, what will he do? The improbable answer: He enters dentistry school and winds up happy as a pig in mud. What about Kurt, a silver-spoon type under pressure to take over his family’s ball-bearing company? Well, he defies societal and familial pressures and becomes a street cop. And then there’s Bryce, a geologist who works for Big Oil, covering up companies’ misdeeds. When he loses out in some fierce politicking by his colleagues, he leaves his company for a position with the county, policing those he once worked with and earning a quarter of the money. For those of us with gray hair, there’s Sidney, a 70-year-old research chemist who follows his bliss to become a lawyer. Ah, people in their infinite variety.
Most of Bronson’s subjects don’t rip large holes in their life easily. Sidney faced monolithic age discrimination, and he wasn’t doing it for the money, as is the case for many who switch careers in midlife to become lawyers. Although Sidney chose chemistry in a fit of youthful pique, he had always pined for the puzzling challenges of the law. Bryce’s ex-colleagues at the oil company taunt the former geologist for his lack of wealth, and they try to seduce him back to his old job. And although he might now be on the side of the angels, he has to deal with government bureaucracy. He makes his peace with it, but with great difficulty.
Anyone who’s suffering from nagging career dissatisfaction, no matter his or her age or experience, would benefit from Bronson’s book. These are case studies that bring all kinds of thoughts out of hibernation, even if the problems discussed are not identical to one’s own. Any managers interested in knowing what’s on the minds of other employees would do well to read it, too.
There is another reason for managers to read what Bronson has to say. He does not just write about the pursuit of happiness but argues that companies, to stay competitive, should encourage their employees “to find their sweet spot” because “productivity explodes when people love what they do. We’re sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and round pegs in round holes…. It’s a huge economic issue.” Although productivity is already booming, at least in the U.S. economy, the implication of Bronson’s book is that the boom would be even stronger and longer if managers could better understand the mind-set and discontents of their employees.
In his “square peg, round hole” argument, Bronson echoes an argument made by London Business School’s management guru Sumantra Ghoshal. Ghoshal has long urged companies to stop making employees conform and instead “release their entrepreneurial hostages.” Of course, this contradicts the typical corporate imperative that says to rise through the ranks, employees must make sacrifices. And let’s not forget the typical callousness of corporations, as one of Bronson’s subjects reminds us: “In the U.S. the trend in the labor market is to make you disposable. I was a replaceable commodity. That’s no way to live a life. I lived in fear.” Much would have to change for Bronson’s and Ghoshal’s ideals to prevail, although a predicted shortage of college-educated workers as baby boomers retire might force this change. This demographic crisis will create a seller’s market, and employers are going to have to reckon with employees’ needs, including their selfhood.
Balance and Productivity
In being proactive about employee discontent, corporate management has to confront the work/life balance issue, not just give it a perfunctory nod. This affects all workers, but particularly women with children, who are working in a system that’s toxic in most companies for anyone wanting to combine a career with motherhood. Allison Pearson’s tartly humorous novel I Don’t Know How She Does It has sold millions of copies, striking an even deeper chord than Bronson’s, with the hero, Kate Reddy, becoming an Everywoman figure. The novel does fall into the category of “chick-lit” fiction. But men would gain from putting down Tom Clancy and reading Pearson (guys, you can always put a brown paper cover on it) to learn what’s going on in the heads of female colleagues. Be prepared for a shock; this is a humorous book, but it’s also a mirror of a dysfunctional society.
Protagonist Kate Reddy, a star hedge-fund manager, is not a square peg in a round hole, and though she gripes about her Neanderthal male colleagues and a workplace hostile to her needs as a mother, she’s still an inspired worker. “Here’s the thing: I love my job,” she tells the reader. “I love the blood-rush when the stocks I put a punt on deliver the goods … the synapse-snapping satisfaction of being good at it, of being in control when the rest of life seems such an awful mess.” And her life is an awful mess. Poor Kate: “My lovely funny [husband] … once looked at me as Dennis Quaid looked at Ellen Barkin in The Big Easy and now, thirteen years into an equal, mutually supportive partnership, looks at me the way a smoking beagle looks at a medical researcher — aware that such experiments may need to be conducted for the sake of human progress but still somehow pleading for release.” Kate, not always likable in her misery, is neglectful of her husband, but she earns sympathy for her suffering at the hands of a manipulative nanny, incompetent house cleaner, ghastly in-laws, and those nasty co-workers.
In the end, like many corporate women, Kate realizes that the work world won’t be changing anytime soon. So, despite a sympathetic boss and an offer of more money, she gives up her job. She also departs with a bit of venom, engineering the career demise of her most brutish male colleague.
Then she moves her family to the country and goes into business manufacturing dollhouses. Certainly this is an ungainly capitulation for someone who says to a younger female colleague, “There’s never been anything like us before…. Century after century of women knowing their place — and suddenly it’s twenty years of women who don’t know their place, and it’s scary for men. It’s happened so fast.”
To be sure, such glibness is a trademark of chick-lit fiction. All the same, it’s not a genre that can be ignored, because it’s become an outlet for the frustrations of a new generation of women. They read it for the same reasons that an older generation read feminists Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer: to laugh, cry, vent, identify, and make sense of the world.
The New Individual
Bronson and Pearson are zeitgeist writers. They bring to life problems of an era. However, although they pose good questions, they don’t answer them. (Manufacturing dollhouses is not an answer to the saddening attrition rate among corporate women.) In their provocative, rewarding book The Support Economy, authors Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and professor at the Harvard Business School, and her husband James Maxmin, the ex-CEO of Thorn Home Electronics, Volvo U.K., and Laura Ashley, try to provide some answers. As their subtitle indicates, they start from the same premise as Bronson and Pearson. Individuals today, they argue, have a sense of self that is “more intricate, acute, detailed, vast, and rich than at any other time in history,” but “a chasm” separates them from the business organizations in which they work and that provide them with goods and services.
Organizations are unable to understand these “new individuals,” as the authors call them, or the business opportunities they represent, because, for all the protestations about putting individuals first, managerial capitalism is just not adequate to the task of providing the “sanctuary, voice, and connection” — also an echo of Thomas Stewart’s words — that workers now desire on the job and at home.
The paradox is that managerial capitalism and its inventions and range of choices gave birth to the “new individual,” but because managers are so focused on the institution’s performance, they aren’t up to the care and feeding of individuals. Zuboff and Maxmin prescribe a Copernican inversion of managerial capitalism, which would put individuals rather than the business organization at the center of our endeavors, and then imagine a world where everything works toward satisfying people — whether they are producers or consumers. To deliver goods and services, they propose a federation of agile, responsive, accountable support networks, which they call “the support economy.” In this “distributed” economy, they write, “markets are no longer targeted, attacked, penetrated, or saturated by corporations. Instead they are self-selected and self-defining.” Marketing is replaced by dialogue between customers and companies.
Workers delivering the support that makes this happen will be as satisfied as the consumers because they will be operating by a new managerial canon based upon collaboration and coordination instead of supervision and administration. Instead of surrendering important personal values like common sense, judgment, and empathy to organizational demands, the institution will honor each employee as a whole person by enabling him or her to apply personal values in delivering support to customers. Interestingly, the women fleeing corporations are often doing so in order to form businesses that are more human-centered, less hierarchal, where employees don’t feel bound by exacting organizational needs but still do their jobs well and have full lives.
The end of corporations? The rise of a federation of support networks? Marketing replaced by dialogue? Readers might wonder at first what Zuboff and Maxmin are smoking. Yet their ideas are not science fiction; already there is a marked trend toward specialization and away from vertical integration that sounds a lot like the way their federation idea would work. As economist Virginia Postrel announced in the New York Times in June, “From payroll management to movie special effects, vertical integration is out. Specialization is in.” She quotes business historian Alfred Chandler, who saw “the visible hand of managerial coordination [replacing] the invisible hand of the market,” an observation that’s at the core of Zuboff and Maxmin’s argument: Let the market and not self-interested organizations respond to the “new individual.”
A New Corporate World
The authors of The Support Economy bring to their work an impressive breadth of references, and, best of all, a capacity for thinking outside the box. Having followed the authors in imagining a system that favors the individual and not the organization, the reader will find it hard not to see possibilities everywhere for linking individual satisfaction with wealth creation. In Zuboff and Maxmin’s vision of a new corporate world, Kate Reddy’s problems at work and home, for example, would disappear; she’d eat up a support economy. Po Bronson’s subjects would find the workplace transformed from meanly aggressive to beneficially progressive, with responsibility shared, with room to maneuver and to nurture talent.
All this, of course, is blue-sky thinking. But, still, it might not hurt us to climb out of our “cognitive bunkers” and consider these ideas. We’ve been talking now for a long time about how to bridge the professional and personal divide, but more often than not we reach an impasse. It’s time to make it happen. We have to acknowledge, as Zuboff and Maxmin emphasize, that people have changed much more than the organizations that depend on them. It’s time for business to catch up.
Kate Jennings (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Moral Hazard (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, 2002), a novel about Wall Street in the 1990s, which won Australia’s Christina Stead Prize and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times fiction prize. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Snake (Back Bay Books, 1999). She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Prospect and Challenge magazines, and the Australian Financial Review. She is currently working on a book about creativity in the workplace.