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]



  1. Peter Wortsman said

    Which taken to the ultimate extreme, of course, translates as:
    Arbeit Macht Frei–a cheerful prospect.

  2. modestine said

    I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. It seems that every political system figures out a way to misuse the habits and products of human labor.

  3. Will Runyon said

    Barbara – You’ve made some interesting arguments. I’m not sure I agree with your causal link between today’s “hyper-individualism” and Dening’s TQM models and today’s job market. I think hyper-individualism is due more to the Internet and the ease of publishing one’s ideas or rants in all forms of media. Yes, quality is now perhaps more subjective than ever, but it’s the reach of the Internet that gives “virtual” individualism such power. Newspapers are failing for the same reason so many content monopolies have – music, movies (yes, even porn) and soon TV and telephony – because they’ve been disintermediated by the Internet and the rise of free internet protocols, file sharing and bit torrents. What I do like about it all – fire-walled intranets, too – is the user has more control than ever to scope and read what they want. If they choose the lowest common denominator that says more about their limited imagination and desire to learn. If they throw a big net, and lots of them, they’ll catch a lot of good ideas that will work their brains and hopefully their jobs.

    • modestine said

      Hi Will. Your argument is cogent. I can’t disagree with any of it. I do think, however, that several factors might be responsible for the “hyper-individualism” we see in the popular culture. It may be, as you say, that the Internet inherently promotes the ascendancy of the individual. But I can also see how the HR message I heard in the 1990s — that we are all kind of Lone Ranger entrepreneurs — contributed to this idea that we are a nation of individuals, in our workplace, in our journalism and in our so-called social networks. — Thanks a lot for taking the time to read and comment. B

  4. Scott Porter said

    Hi Barbara.
    When you write, “What happens when a society cannot even decide on what conversation we should have,” are you implying that the NY Tiomes, in toto, represents “society?” I hope that it does not. I, for one, prefer to read the articles in the Times (and other news sources, regardless of which end of the political spectrum they represent) that are less prone to political or cultural bias and more prone to quantitative reporting.

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