InReview – Issue 10

The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism by Richard Sennet; New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1998; 176 pp.

Richard Sennet teaches sociology at the London School of economics, and is the author of many social studies books and three novels.

Reading this book was a very enjoyable and challenging experience, almost like an intense conversation with a wise and interesting seat partner on a long airplane trip. I wish he had built a bibliography of his references, as they range from 17th century French business to 1990s technology. We follow him from the dirty basement restaurant in a tough part of New York city to the mega business and political summit of powerful people in Davos, Switzerland.

For Sennett, “character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end.” How does character survive the global technology age of work in a virtual company?

Sennet creates interest and emotional connection with the subject through lengthy discussions with individuals from today’s work world. One is the son of a laborer, the first in his family to go to college because of his father’s sacrifice. At mid career he feels disconnected from his family and fears eroding skills in the work world he has given himself to. Another story describes what happened to an Italian bakery staffed by Greek immigrant bakers who used to make wonderful bread. Now automation has taken over the shop and the baking steps are run by a computer that the workers don’t understand. They don’t know how to make bread, and the bread is not what it used to be.

The point is not nostalgia. He freely identifies areas where technology has freed people to be more creative in a richer work environment. Rather, the author is concerned about what happens to the people doing a broad spectrum of work, and whether there might be a better way. He is also concerned about the bread, and about the community of people who eat it. He is constructive in challenging us to ask that next question: not just “will it work” but, “does it add value.”

Sennet is comfortable with the tension of these ideas. Some people flourish in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, he says. On the other hand, “routine can demean, but it can also protect,” he writes.

If I had actually had the conversation, I would certainly probe more deeply on some points. He makes strong statements against the concept of teamwork and open discussion, which he regards as superficial. Certainly it can be, but he takes down the integrated product team and collaborative learning in the process.

In discussing loyalty, he says “usually deeper experiences of trust are more informal, as when people learn on whom they can rely when given a difficult or impossible task. Such social bonds take time to develop…The short time frame of modern institutions limits the ripening of informal trust.” This thought is certainly counter to modern organizational wisdom that changing assignments every two or three years (inside or outside a company) is the ideal career path. It explains what is missing when you have a new boss every two years. Yet loyalty seems to develop in a short time in a sorority or in the Army. I’d like to pursue this a bit with him.

He closed the book with the statement, “But I do know a regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.” I turned the page hoping for more. This book is worthy of thoughtful discussion.

Reviewed by Al Erisman