Hey look! It’s the Time magazine special issue on the Future of Work, and boy is it shiny! You’d think, in the throes of a recession where unemployment seems to be on track to crack double digits, the sober strokers of the great collective Luceian chin would plumb some bread-and-butter issues like the plight of unions, the disappearance of pensions, the strangling of health benefits and the like.
But that’s just gloomy-Gus, industrial-age naysaying, says our special package, which bears the poignant, optimism-of-the-will online headline “Employment Opportunities.” Yes, “unemployment is at a 25-year high,” our editors-the lucky survivors of last fall’s 600-worker layoff at Time Inc.-reluctantly concede. But hey, you never know: After all, “ten years ago Facebook didn’t exist…. So who knows what jobs will be born a decade from now?”
Well, Time does, that’s who! “We will see a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world.” Uhm, yay? But don’t fret about fusty details like security-let alone benefits or pensions or collective bargaining or deindustrialization. Just check the demographics. There will be hip young managers-“a generation with new values.” Also: gender equity in the boardroom. “Women will increasingly be at the controls.”
It may seem at first glance that the American worker of the future will be a temp at Facebook, hoping to snag a promotional snowboard at year’s end in lieu of a raise or promotion. And, well, that’s not far from the mark, to judge by the cotton-candy content of the magazine’s 11-part package. So look smart, Harvard grad hoping to join the financial elite on Wall Street-you’re now an entrepreneur, dude! The next new economic thing, after all-cloud computing, say–“will come from the companies that entrepreneurs can create.” Richard Freeman, director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, agrees: “these really sharp, aggressive Harvard-type students doing entrepreneurship, forming new businesses . . .would be the best thing that could happen to this economy.” Whatever you say, pal.
It’s true that the bad old industrial-age workplace won’t entirely vanish. As David von Drehle reports in an entry grudgingly titled “Yes, We’ll Still Make Stuff,” the United States remains very much the workshop of the world, manufacturing-wise. It’s just that, well, there aren’t quite so many jobs left: “Using constantly improving technology to make more-valuable goods, American workers doubled their productivity in less than a generation-which paradoxically, rendered millions of them obsolete.”
If only there were a robust American labor movement to bargain for wage increases to keep pace with productivity gains. Oh, well-at least there’s a “gleaming, antiseptic room in Southern California” where artificial heart-valves are assembled. That, von Drehle reports, is “the sweet spot for manufacturing in the coming years”: “highly skilled workers creating high-value products in high-stakes industries.” Yes, U.S. companies had “an initial surge of enthusiasm for shipping jobs of all kinds to low-wage countries”-an practice that, in breezy Time-ese, sounds less like a concerted race to the bottom than a regrettable Red Bull binge. But now “many U.S. companies are making a distinction between exportable jobs and jobs that should stay at home.”
And really, why should communities be attached to big factory operations anyway-it’s all so… culturally recherchÃƒÂ©.
“We rue the loss of once-smoky, now silent megaplants,” von Drehle muses-but really, “what’s endangered is not U.S. manufacturing. It is our deeply ingrained cultural image of the factory and its workers.” Oh, and the real workers in those jobs that companies deem “exportable”-but you know, whatever.
Besides, look how flexible everything’s getting! Laura Fitzpatrick duly gushes over the family-friendly new HR regimes that give people telecommuting options, generous portions of downtime and whatnot. True, there are corresponding moves to downscale pay and benefits-but really this is no more than “companies… searching for creative ways to save-by experimenting with reduced hours or unpaid furloughs or asking employees to move laterally.” It’s not the company ladder any more, explains Deloitte vice chair Cathy Benko-it’s a lattice. Of course a lattice is, um, full of holes-but just consider things from management’s point of view, won’t you? “Creating a flexible workforce to meet staffing needs in a changing economy ensures that a company will still have legs when the market recovers.”
Which is not to say, you know, that corporate managers won’t also be hanging onto aging Boomer workers whose retirement funds went down in so many default-swapped flameouts. Those stubbornly employed oldsters will likely make this recession worse, notes Stephen Gandei, pushing unemployment past 10 percent by stopping up the normal exit of older employees from the workforce.
But hey, that’s more old-paradigm, short-term thinking: once there is a recovery, “the presence of older workers could be a positive.” For one thing, “a healthy supply of older workers can be the salve for one of the worst types of economic poison-inflation.” Yes, that will likely “make it harder to get a raise,” but “it will also lead to higher profits, lower-priced goods and a stronger economy.” In other words, that’s not management pissing on your balding pate, you curmudgeonly wage-stagnant, stooped-over 34-hour-a-week Wal-Mart greeter: It’s the bounty of a job-challenged recovery, trickling down majestically all about your ears.
Besides, why tarry with the old? Like yesteryear’s assembly-line worker, they are, like, so over. Why, here are Claire Shipman and Katty Kay marveling at the crumbling corporate glass ceiling. Citing recent management studies, the authors deliver an essentialist moral of Carol Gilligan-esque feminist empowerment: Women managers work “more cautiously than men do. They focus on the long term…. Wouldn’t the economic crisis have unfolded a bit differently if Lehman Brothers had had a few more women on board?”
They seem to be suggesting that Lehman would have somehow magically refrained from directly competing in high-yield markets out of separate-sphere scruples-something that’s a little hard to credit, given the firm’s institutional stake in advancing the female management style.
In the case of women managers, as with the Deloitte wage-slash…-er, I mean, work-life furlough-plan, the watchword is that new all-purpose elixir of the chastened corporate workplace: flexibility. “When a company gives employees freedom, it doesn’t just feel good or get shiny, happy workers-productivity goes up. Ask firms like Capitol One, which runs a company without walls or mandatory office time.”
But also, please don’t ask those wall-crashing workers to ask for anything like wage increases, or to bill for all the funky work hours they log at the local Starbucks. After all, “flexibility is no longer a favor to be handed out like candy at a children’s birthday party; it’s a compelling business strategy…. [W]e need to get rid of the nutty-crunchy moral component of the work-life balance and make a business case for it.” Of course, nutty-crunchy is a luxury Shipman herself can readily dispense with, at more than $700K a year.
And really, who are more flexible than the young? Not only women, but that edgy “Generation X” you’ve heard so much about, will soon be the American economy’s managerial vanguard. What’s more they’ll be managing Generation Y-“the tattoed, techno-raised bunch born from 1979 to 2000.” It’ll totally be like “The Hills” meets Season one of “The Real World”! And so existentially meaningful!
“[S]uccess will be defined not by rank or seniority, but by getting what matters to you personally,” burbles Bruce Taglan, head of the New Haven-based consulting firm Rainmaker Thinking. “Companies want more short-term independent contractors and fewer employees because contractors are cheaper.” But, dude, do not stress out over compensation or job security, all right? “And seniority matters less and less as time goes on, because it’s about the past, not the future.” Yep, as that great ur-hipster Henry Ford reminds us, history’s bunk-fuck the past, man.
The Gen X managerial set won’t just be tearing down the tyranny of the past-it will be running roughshod over the very notion of place, in a way unthinkable to those sad old square managers, with their “more hierarchical management styles and relative geographic insularity.” After all, the networked, consultant-heavy workplace of the future will mandate “collaborative decisions-making that might involve team members scattered around the world, from Beijing to Barcelona to Boston.” And that’s just the B’s-in your face, geographical insularity! “By 2019,” reports Tulgan-also the author of “a new book about managing Generation Y called Not Everyone Gets a Trophy“-“every leader will have to be culturally dexterous on a global scale.”
Well, Time these days is nothing if not culturally dexterous, on a scale that Time Warner Inc. devoutly hopes to be global. But something more than dexterity is at play when a major newsweekly assembles a package on the future of the workplace narrated almost entirely from management’s perspective. It’s a bit like having Harvey Weinstein coordinate the magazine’s movie coverage, or handing the media beat over to Sarah Palin. But hey, what do I know-I’m an aging office drone, with nary a flextime benefit to my name. I wonder how I’m going to look in a greeter’s vest?