Why are we here? Is our purpose in life a) to find fulfillment and human dignity in relationships of mutual love and respect? b) to act as stewards of the earth's bounty and nurturers of its inhabitants? or c) to maximize shareholder value? After years of living through a supercharged but sometimes vicious business environment, some Americans are focusing anew on that existential question and wondering why they seem to have chosen option c for much of the 1990s. Prosperous times allow for the luxury of introspection, so that managers, employees, and consumers can rethink their roles in the corporate food chain. This month, four new books offer fresh perspectives on the roles of work and commerce in our lives.

The radio voice of David Brancaccio is familiar to listeners who tune into National Public Radio's Marketplace program, which he hosts. Squandering Aimlessly: My Adventures in the American Marketplace demonstrates that Brancaccio's voice as an author is just as arch and incisive as his on-air personality. He roams the country and the consumer landscape to ask himself a simple question: What would I do with a windfall? In these days of just-add-water initial stock offerings that mint overnight millionaires, it's hardly a hypothetical query. And its implications are not necessarily comforting: Suppose you've got your money. Where will you find your meaning?

Squandering Aimlessly is a Canterbury Tales for our times, a road-trip that introduces us to characters who illustrate the vices and virtues of the age. Brancaccio shadows a high-amperage market specialist on a stock-exchange floor who looks, in his little framed kiosk, like Lucy in a high-tech lemonade stand. He wanders the Nevada desert in the company of a drifter who has frittered away a $133,000 nest egg. He passes a quietly weeping woman as he walks into the Mall of America. And he encounters kindred spirits whose life journeys involve the metaphysical question: What am I to do with my blessings? The architecture beneath Brancaccio's anecdotes is an understanding of how wealth happens in our society and how people think about the money that affects their lives. Those concepts are elusive, but he explains them with clarity and moral vision. Those of us who can't help feeling a little ill-at-ease about the gospel of modern prosperity will find this book thought-provoking. Those who have been firm believers in that gospel will find Squandering Aimlessly a worthy challenge to their faith.

Joanne B. Ciulla's The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work probes the ways that work has assumed outsized importance in so many of our lives. Displaying a broad and deep command of business and labor history, human psychology, and the philosophy of work, Ciulla identifies continuities that have remained evident through centuries of working lives. More trenchantly, she identifies the ruptures that have lately torn at the unspoken social contract between employer and employee. Of many telling statistics in this book, one has stuck in my mind as an illustration of the creeping dominance of work in our lives: In 1986, when Christmas fell on a Thursday, 46 percent of employers gave workers Friday off. In 1997, when Christmas fell on a Thursday, only 36 percent did. One can argue that working harder has made us more prosperous. After years of stagnation, worker productivity began rising dramatically in the 1990s, fueling what is likely to be certified, this month, as the longest economic expansion in American history. But at what price? Ciulla paints a portrait of America as a dysfunctional workplace, where employers try to manipulate subordinates through the latest management fads but find it increasingly difficult to motivate or satisfy the people under their command. That situation is untenable; workers do have other options, and the stigma of job-hopping has largely evaporated since employers have abolished the concept of job security.

Ciulla's prescription for healing the country's wounded labor relations boils down to a single word not often seen in management books: justice. She makes a persuasive case for not trying to get more for less from employees, not trying to turn the office into a surrogate family, and not trying to make buzzwords like Total Quality Management into a way of life (a common piece of corporate parlance whose sinister undertones are only now becoming evident). It remains to be seen whether managers in the new decade will understand that workplace justice is in their enlightened self-interest but if they don't, they can't say Ciulla didn't warn them of the consequences.

Neither gender has a monopoly on anxiety about balancing the demands of making a living and living a life. Still, it's undeniable that women face special dilemmas in this regard. Creating Your Life Collage: Strategies for Solving the Work/Life Dilemma, by Kathy McDonald and Beth Sirull, is a valuable how-to guide for women who feel a psychic need to move beyond wage serfdom.

This is a book about vision. McDonald and Sirull exhort the working woman who feels trapped in a life-sucking job to visualize her life as a collage of activities that are productive not just producing income, but producing fulfillment. Drawing on interviews with scores of ordinary women who have turned life into art in this manner, the book offers practical advice and motivational therapy in equal measures. Anyone considering a transition into self-employment, part-time work, job-sharing, or telecommuting will benefit from the sound suggestions in Creating Your Life Collage. Anyone just wondering how to start seeking a more fulfilling daily life will benefit even more.

Senior managers have their own set of frustrations about the way people work in this country. The endless complexity of the knowledge economy often saps the attention of CEOs and shop-floor employees alike. Consultant Bill Jensen presents a road map for moving beyond complexity perplexity in Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster.

In his own way, Jensen is addressing the same paradox that this month's other books examine: We are more productive and prosperous than ever, and yet many of us feel utterly frazzled as we cope with the daily demands of this wonderful life. The beginning of a solution, Jensen argues, is for all of the colleagues in a workplace to recognize they are competing for the time and attention of the people they work with. He presents a convincing case that successful business people intuitively make the most of every minute spent with others on their teams.

Competing on clarity is Jensen's term for that kind of success; its opposite is the white noise of wasted time. A manager who wastes the time of employees is no longer just costing the company lost hours he or she is incurring deep resentment on the part of workers whose time has become a precious and scarce commodity. The author shows how managers and team leaders, working from an understanding and respect for time and attention, can design business processes that make jobs more fulfilling and enterprises more productive.

Many business self-help books cite nightmare examples of mismanagement, caricatures that allow the managerial reader to think I'm glad I'm not like that. Simplicity is a challenging book precisely because it indicts the reader: Few of us who work with other people can truly claim not to be guilty of the sin of making things too complex in some way. Read this book if you're ready to face that challenge.

Briefly noted:

Cyber-ideas come to print in The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. Last spring these authors, a la Martin Luther, nailed up, on the Web, 95 theses intended to herald a new age of business based on the principle that markets are conversations. This provocative book encapsulates some of the continuing conversation that has resulted from that online effort at reformation.

The blithe indifference of most Americans toward languages and cultures not their own is a national liability in an era of open-border commerce. Reading Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures, by Robert Rosen with Carl Phillips, Marshall Singer, and Patricia Digh, would be an excellent first step for anyone now awakening to the globalization of the world economy. Based on a worldwide survey of top executives from a variety of national cultures, the book not only examines the peculiarities of individual cultures but also explores the meaning of cultural literacy.

Finally, if you want to help an ambitious teenager or college student turn imagination into reality, a fine place to start is The Young Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting and Running a Business, by Steve Mariotti with Debra De Salvo and Tony Towle. The guide clearly and comprehensively tackles the basics of entrepreneurship, illustrating each principle with an inspiring real-life success story.

Journalist E. Thomas Wood is product-development director for the Champs-Elysees.com family of European language-and-culture products.

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