Home > Uncategorized > Freedom From Corporate Overlords Results in Unintended Consequence: Freedom From Security.

Freedom From Corporate Overlords Results in Unintended Consequence: Freedom From Security.

August 20, 2018

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an op ed essay by Louis Hyman, the director of the Institute for Workplace Studies at the ILR School at Cornell, and author of a forthcoming book titled “Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary,” from which his essay is adapted. The essay describes how our economy evolved from one overseen by corporate overlords following World War II to the “gig economy” we live in today, which, he writes:

…has been underway for at least 40 years, encompassing the collapse, since the 1970s, of the relatively secure wage-work economy of the postwar era — and the rise of post-industrialism and the service economy.

Over these four decades we have seen an increase in the use of day laborers, office temps, management consultants, contract assemblers, adjunct professors, Blackwater mercenaries and every other kind of worker filing an I.R.S. form 1099. These jobs span the income ranks, but they share what all work seems to have in common in the post-1970s economy: They are temporary and insecure.

Mr. Hyman posits that the driving force behind this shift was a desire on the part of corporations to seek profits by shedding full-time employees, clearly a result of the CEOs adopting the “shareholder primacy” ethos that emerged in the early 1970s:

The emergence in the 1970s of a new, strictly financial view of corporations, a philosophy that favored stock and bond prices over production, of short-term gains over long-term investment. Theories of “lean” corporate organization became popular, especially those sold by management consultants and business gurus.

I DO believe that shareholder primacy was a driving force behind the shift away from corporations adopting a colder libertarian ethos that stripped employee pensions and limited employee benefits in the name of “increasing efficiency” to achieve higher short-term profits. But I also think the anti-establishment temper of the times played a role as well. Many of us who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s— the baby boomers— witnessed the downside of our parents selling their souls to corporations. In order to succeed in a corporation one had to accept Involuntary transfers and ever increasing workloads, military style hierarchies, and corporate standards that ran from formal dress codes to informal codes of conduct dictated by whoever was in charge of determining promotions. In exchange for adhering to these corporate guidelines, employees were rewarded with defined benefit pensions, health insurance for them and their families, and relatively high pay. For former soldiers coming out of World War II this looked like a great trade-off. For those of us born and raised in the post-war suburbs and whose standard of living met the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this trade off seemed too much. The idea of waiting decades to achieve a pay-off for hard work seemed preposterous, especially in an era when entrepreneurship was celebrated and “working-for-the-man” was decried.

In retrospect, Baby Boomers should have been careful what they wished for, especially when we decided that ALL regulations, including government regulations, were a constraint to freedom. Instead of working for a corporation that offered job security in exchange for independence we got independence with no job security.

Mr. Hyman’s essay looks at this evolution away from corporate dependence as a result of technology. While I believe technology played a role in the changes that occurred over the past 40 years, I think that ethos played a larger role. I do think, though, that the way out of our current predicament is the same in either event. Mr. Hyman’s conclusion, thus is the same as the one I would reach:

We can’t turn back the clock, but neither is job insecurity inevitable. Just as the postwar period managed to make industrialization benefit industrial workers, we need to create new norms, institutions and policies that make digitization benefit today’s workers.Pundits have offered many paths forward — “portable” benefits, universal basic income, worker reclassification — but regardless of the option, the important thing to remember is that we do have a choice.

Insecurity is not the inevitable cost of technological progress. Only by understanding that fact can we act to make capitalism work for us, not work us over.

Stated through the lens of ethos and politics, I would emphasize that we STILL have a choice, but it is a choice based on a collective understanding that our government can work for us only if we vote and only if one of the political parties stands up for the need for government to regulate corporate behavior. Unless we collectively decide to limit the profit motive by creating AND imposing new norms on profiteers we will soon lose our choice, for today’s corporate overlords are increasingly borderless and only beholden to their shareholders. We should vote to ensure that profiteers remain beholden to voters.

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