Archive for March, 2009

The death of the job

Jobs are a thing of the past.

If you write me off as unduly pessimistic, I can only echo Robert Lowell when he said that the light at the end of the tunnel is usually the light of an oncoming train.

I caught a glimmer of that train in the early 1990s when I took a freelance job with a now defunct pharmaceutical company called Ciba-Geigy. The company’s department of internal communications had hired me to write stories for a newsletter that touted the virtues of Total Quality Management. The TQM premise is that everyone in an organization — from new hire to executive manager — should do whatever it takes to “delight the customer.” TQM was especially popular in post-war Japan. Its biggest proponent, W. Edwards Deming, underwrote its set of business principles that in many ways led to the supremacy of products such as Toyota and Sony. You can’t knock a business philosophy that turned a nuked Japan into one of the world’s most successful economies.

But TQM also has an anti-social side. Several of the articles I wrote were based on conversations I had with HR people in which I learned that each employee has to think like a self-employed businessman. Everyone in the company has to apply their skills to a specific task. Once that task is completed, you target your skills at another project. If no additional project exists in your department, you have to look for one in another department. If there’s no match between your skills and a company project, you have to look somewhere else. Where you look is up to you.

I couldn’t help but think that employees had become like the itinerant carpenters or schmate peddlers of a foregone era who carried their tools and wares on their back. Sure, we were free to hit the road and hire ourselves out. But how would we negotiate wages on our own? Where would we call home? What would we be loyal to? Where would we live?

By the time I got to IBM in 2000, I didn’t hear much about TQM. But by then, the TQM belief had become an implicit part of corporate ideology. Today it is even sewn into the warp and woof of Internet culture. To wit, it has turned millions of people into amateur businessmen and artistic producers who delight their customers with everything from Beatles memorabilia to videos of concerts, salsa lessons and porn. Of course, most of the goods people are buying and selling are crap. That’s because the department stores, newspapers and companies that used to serve as a critical filter for ideas and products are vanishing. It’s now incumbent on each one of us to become his own producer and distribution center — whether we are qualified for the task or not. Each of us has become a glorified schmate peddler.

In our age, the I-am-my-own-master mentality promotes a super-individualistic, highly circumscribed way of acting and thinking that is turning everyone into a self-important mediocrity.

I see the results of this hyper-individualism in at least two places.

  • Newspaper websites. The New York Times website, for example, lets you design your own news feeds. Let’s say all you care about is “news about Barack Obama.” Click on “subscribe” and the Times will e-mail you links to Obama stories. By now, of course, every newspaper that has managed to survive lets you pick-and-choose the news at no cost to you. What you are getting is a Balkanized approach to public affairs. “Reading” the Times has become like asking the three blind men to describe the elephant. We are all looking at the Times, but we have no shared cultural experience of it. What happens when a society cannot even decide on what conversation we should have?
  • Facebook. This “social utility” lets you create a customized universe of “friends” whose “stories” you can track to your heart’s content. “Friends,” of course, can be people you met for five minutes at a conference. And “stories” are stories only in the sense that “war” in 1984 is “peace.” They aren’t stories at all, but trivial notes that publicize an acquaintance’s favorite restaurant or movie. In any case, these stories simply mirror your own likes and dislikes. Facebook collects these biases — that’s all they are — to create your own “individualized” online “profile.” What a surprise. Your Facebook friends listen to the same kind of music, watch the same kind of movies and vote for the same kind of president as you! The pressure to conform with the herd is as strong as it is on any sixth-grade playground. 

Two things are happening at once: The disappearance of the job is forcing us to become individual peddlers of our own narrowly defined skills. And our individualism is turning us into narrow-minded conformists.

I don’t think anybody in the mid-1940s could have foreseen that Total Quality Management, which helped rebuild Japanese industry and brought customer-focus to the American corporation, would have contributed to the obsolescence of the job and the silliness of individuality. 

Goodbye, jobby! We hardly knew ye!

See the Wordle image of this blog post.

See also: Putting yourself out there on a shelf to buy [The New York Times]

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A sign of the Times.

The New York Times building logo

Might the Times one day go the way of Pan Am?

The New York Times arrived at my door on Saturday morning like the half-dead victim of a Mafia hit. It lay face-down on the fold, hurled by a delivery man who no longer expects a Christmas bonus next December. In a month, maybe two, he may even toss the poor anemic broadsheet into a mass grave down in the lobby, and we tenants will be forced to identify our own copies by the toe tag: an apartment number marked in black ink at the top of the front page.

The Times in this post-newsprint economy stirs my pity in the same way that the Twin Towers did in 1993 after a car bomb attack attempted to bring Tower One down onto Tower Two. What once looked like an indomitable journalistic edifice now looks as vulnerable — and as outdated — as the nineteenth-century serial novel.

I remember the time — was it only seven years ago? — that I joined a boycott of the paper to protest what I saw as unfair bias against Israel. Back then the Times was a mighty media giant with the power to project an all-knowing, albeit tendentious, journalistic voice. For my friends who were diehard Democrats, just saying “I read it in the Times” was evidence enough for them that their point-of-view was persuasive and mine wasn’t. When we argued about Israel, or any number of stories in the paper, I often felt like the therapist who has to assure her clients that it’s okay to skewer the parents. The Times wasn’t an infallible authority figure and its critics weren’t wayward children.

I don’t regret participating in that short-lived boycott. But I wish I had foreseen just how fragile the Times would become in an economy buffeted by the new media and a new financial instrument called the credit default swap. Because whither goes the Times also go The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal and all the rest of the old-economy papers. Who could guess that by March 2009 the weekend edition of The New York Times would start to look as insubstantial as South Jersey’s Courier Post?

How I am contributing to the erosion of the Times

In my own defense, I never intended to contribute to the Times’ debt — estimated now to be about $1 billion. In fact, for 35 years, I have been precisely the kind of reader the Times has nurtured.

In college, for example, when our dorm chipped in to buy the Sunday Times, I was the first one early Sunday morning to tear into the “Arts & Leisure” section. When I got my first corporate job and discovered the vagaries of the capitalist system, I poured over “The Week in Review.” As a 23-year-old staff writer for Liberation News Service, I read the international news so that I could understand how the Times supported the status quo. In my more conservative years, I read the same news and concluded that the Times‘ editors were in favor of any social movement, the more radical the better. As a novelist and book reviewer, I read the “Book Section” from cover to cover to see what the competition was writing. When I wanted a break from my graduate school studies, I studied the Saturday crossword puzzle as if it was a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle. And if the “Sports” section had a human interest story, I even read that. Reading The New York Times was like working for a global organization: If you got tired of one department, you could try to find something interesting in another one.

In my view, what’s contributing to the welterweight size of The New York Times is my getting laid off from IBM. The Times marketing people were not wrong to have their telemarketers call me during my boycott years. In spite of my curmudgeonly relationship with the paper, they knew I would “come home” some day. Their own demographic surveys had long tracked my interactions with the paper’s various sections, its advertisers, its online features. The Times understood that somebody with my vocation, educational background, cultural interests and religious affiliation would philander with the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. But when it came to defining a political and cultural reference point, I could always say — with respect or mockery — “I saw it in the Times.”

Consider that this year IBM has laid off an estimated 4,600 employees like me — people who have either an BA, MA, MBA or Ph.D. Consider further that a lot of those former employees are 45 and older. Now you’re talking about a well-educated, semi-affluent demographic that consumed just about every section the Times ever published. It’s true that this same Internet-savvy demographic has been responsible for a precipitate slide away from the Times‘ print subscription in favor of the el cheapo Web version sans ads. But I for one can vouch that I continued to look at the print edition for clothing sales, restaurant and food news and home furnishing ads. Without the job, I’ve put a moratorium on all discretionary spending.

What I do look at these days are the advertising circulars. Did you know that you can save 40 cents on a box of Ziploc (R) Brand Bags and a dollar on any size of Woolite Dry Cleaner’s Secret? Who knew that “just 20 minutes in your dryer delivers affordable dry cleaning results?” As for all of you erstwhile fashionistas, you can get a complete pair of single-vision eyeglasses at Factory Eyeglass Outlet in Queens, Long Island and Staten Island for $39.95. I always knew those Calvin Klein frames were a rip-off!

I am also beginning to rue my annoyance with the pound or more of advertising circulars that used to fall out of the Times as I carried the paper from the door to my L-shaped sofa (great Times-advertised deal at Fortunoff’s). Nowadays the pickins are slim. This Saturday I found only three thin circulars. They too are vanishing along with the Times itself. Just when I need them the most.

See a pictorial implication of this blog post in Wordle.

See also: Seattle Paper Shifts Entirely to the Web. Could you cry?

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