When anthropologists reconstruct the sociology of post-industrial, post-regulation, post-globalization American labor, its defining characteristic will be fundamental disinterest. Famously the subject of 90s cultural icons like Dilbert comic strips or Office Space, the overwhelming ambivalence with which employees and employers regard one another in the contemporary economy is hard to overstate. If the employee-employer relationship of our parents’ post-War generation was a marriage, ours is a drunken hand job behind a bar.
The richest source of material for workplace satires are the omnipresent efforts of employers to make employees give a shit – “team building” exercises, retreats, do-your-best motivational talks, inoculation with a sense of belonging to the corporate family (feel free to share your own hilarious experiences with these) – while simultaneously making it unmistakable that they consider the employees utterly expendable. The pep-rally-meets-at-will atmosphere encourages employees to be subservient, powerless, disposable, fanatically devoted to the Cause, and happy about all of it. Of course the success of “the team” offers employees no benefit beyond maintaining the status quo. In other words, bust your ass and mortgage your life to do whatever the company says and (maybe) they will let you keep busting your ass and mortgaging your life to do whatever the company says.
It did not used to be so. Post-War industrial America let people without education (because we recognized that not everyone’s cut out for going to college and becoming a doctor) make a commitment to a company and receive one in return; bust your ass for us and we will treat you like a human being. We’ll expect you to work late sometimes or make sacrifices for the company, and in return we’ll give you a decent wage. Insurance. Time off to take Billy to the dentist. Sick days. Vacation. You know, things we can read about in history books.
When the nation’s top 5% decided that we would all like to live in a post-industrial economy (circa 1994) and return to 1890s patterns of income distribution, everything changed. Your employer doesn’t give a shit about you. They’ll ship your job to Mexico or Indonesia or California State Prisons at the drop of a hat. Your job is not for life. It’s not even for tomorrow. At-will, no-benefit employment is the norm and workers respond, logically, by not giving much of a shit about their jobs, which of course merely accelerates the cycle of devaluing and outsourcing employees. I wonder why we are less productive than the Japanese.
What the post-industrial economy demands, in essence, is that American workers develop some variation of Battered Woman Syndrome – the series of physiological symptoms displayed by women in abusive relationships. When the company cuts benefits, downsizes, and makes everyone work more for less, the desired response is more sacrifice, unending gratitude, and beaming smiles. Just as battered and abused women sometimes remain in abusive relationships and vigorously defend those who mistreat them, some people react as the economy desires. These are the folks who lead the anti-union campaigns, fawningly suck up to the hierarchy until (and occasionally after) the moment at which they are declared redundant, warn against “troublemakers” who might upset this sweet fuckin’ deal we have going, and steer hard right on economic issues because the rich are our betters, merely getting what they rightly deserve.
The entire corporate culture industry and its successorized nonsense inspire the appropriate response in most of us – none whatsoever. Relationships, as your dad explained when you were 15, are not a one-way street. Fifteen years of economic and political rhetoric have emphasized the fact that you are expendable and the company owes you nothing. So, quite logically, you mail it in. You waste time on the internet (hi!), you look for any reason to show up late or leave early, and you generally avoid doing anything you aren’t forced to do. That’s how human relationships work; when one partner sends out “This is casual and unimportant to me” signals, the other is supposed to respond in kind. Instead, we’re expected to remain slavishly devoted while the other person runs around the world looking for our replacement.