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.

4 thoughts on “Disrupted

  1. vinnie mirchandani

    Nick, we can sympathize but what is he suggesting? Stop the world? I would say small businesees like yours and mine are one solution and our economy has allowed us more opportunities than in many other countries where a job equals social status and frankly, livelihood. Small businesses are not always stable but neither are too many corporate jobs. Our country has had a stream of disrupted people for 2 centuries now – immigrants. Rich Karlgaard has a book out on 150 places to live richly – he is talking about migrtaion to secondary towns. With opportunties for global trade growing, there are new opportunities for people to move around. I know – not in people’s comfort zone, but nothing is truly safe…the DJIA components change every few years, the Fortune 100 changes every year…even if the US turned kinder and gentler to our employees I suspect the Chinese and Indians will not slow down their ascent…

  2. Nick

    I’d say he’s more interested in documenting than suggesting, and that’s ok. Sometimes I think the intensity of our focus on “solutions” these days may just be a way for us to avoid looking closely at the problems.

  3. Espen

    Concurring with the first commenter, I would offer the conclusion of David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations“:

    […]Not easy. The people who live to work are a small and fortunate elite. But it is an elite open to newcomers, self-selected, the kind of people who accentuate the positive. In this world the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.

    The one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. We must cultivate a skeptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to choose means.

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