Among the many truisms that power business in this age of “change management” is the idea that “disruption is an opportunity.” It’s a thought that’s particularly popular among those who are shielded from the risks that disruption always brings. Disruption is an opportunity – as long as other people perform the requisite suffering, preferably out of view.
Richard Sennett, the New York University sociologist, has for years been looking at the human consequences of a global economy built on what the economist Bennett Harrison calls “impatient capital.” A few years back he wrote about some of his findings in a short, sad book called The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. He came out with a new book earlier this year, The Culture of the New Capitalism, and he writes about his recent research in a column in today’s Financial Times.
Sennett’s subject is the “middle” – the middle-aged, the middle class, the moderately smart and moderately ambitious. They’re the ones losing their pensions and their health-care benefits and watching their salaries slowly erode, the ones shunned by the “cutting-edge businesses [that] want young employees who can work long hours.” They’re the ones who get fed nice-sounding but empty platitudes about “retraining” and “career flexibility.” “Nothing was more grinding to me,” Sennett writes about the interviews he did, “than listening to people my age talk of ‘re-inventing’ themselves to be more competitive, mouthing cliches they barely believed.”
Anyway, I found this paragraph worth pausing on:
Instability can be an opportunity – if you have real wealth to invest, or are young and unattached, or an immigrant exploring cracks in the labour force. If you are dutiful but not brilliant at work, if you have children and a mortgage, if you are worried about old-age hardship, then instability does not equal opportunity.