The hard work of making a livingThe unifying theme for this month's column is work, but the term is broadly defined. A lot of choice, opportunity, conflict, change, and just plain worry can fit under the heading of making a living. We'll feature a book on the role of office romances in the 1990s; one on business successes on the Internet; and another on perhaps the biggest workplace pressure-cooker in the capitalist system: the rooms, floors, pits, and exchanges where stocks, bonds, and every imaginable financial instrument is traded.
A fourth book is about how we work, but it covers much broader ground than that. It's about how we live and the impact of the lack of permanence on our lives. It's really not a new book at all, but it is a new and interesting publishing idea. Here it is in a nutshell: take a book published 30 years ago that was forward-looking and amazingly prescient. Have the authors write a new forward and new chapter introductions. The title explains the subject matter, and like much else in this intriguing book it reads like it could have been written yesterday, rather than in 1968, when it was actually penned. It's called The Temporary Society: What Is Happening to Business and Family Life in America Under the Impact of Accelerating Change, by Warren Bennis and Philip Slater.
If nothing else, the re-release of this book proves the value of books that gaze into the future. People in business (or those just looking out for their own careers) have a big stake in anticipating economic and social trends. Those who get in early on seismic changes in technology and social attitudes can often reap huge rewards. Of course, not all predictive tomes are as on-target as this one (which is probably why they aren't being re-released). But predicting the future is a preoccupation of many writers, and even if all else fails, such books are usually fun to read.
Warren Bennis, an author and a professor of business administration at the University of Southern California, and Philip Slater, an author and former professor of sociology at Brandeis University, were on the money about two mega-trends that have convulsed American business and society. They are the growing impermanence of employment relationships and the democratization of the business and political world. They even wrote this 30 years ago: . . . there is considerable evidence that autocracy is beginning to decay in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. It took a while, but how's that for spotting a trend?Why is democracy breaking out in the world and in the workplace? The authors posit that in a world where change becomes the only constant, bureaucracy and autocracy break down. In 1968 they wrote: . . . democracy in industry is not an idealistic conception but a hard necessity in those areas in which change is ever-present and in which creative scientific enterprise must be nourished. For democracy is the only system of organization that is compatible with perpetual change. Slater makes the interesting case that the American family is uniquely suited for adapting to change. Where parents might find in their growing children a simple lack of respect for their elders, Slater sees a silver lining. He says young people's general lack of commitment to the status quo and their own long-standing heritage help them in a world of technological and social change. Fewer people get tied to the past and rendered unable to go with the flow. Meanwhile, Bennis readily concedes in a forward to the final chapter that the authors didn't get everything right 30 years ago. He says they came up short on discussing the shadowy side of change, including the human cost in sense of security and sense of worth. Nor did they foresee the problems of the underclass or predict the huge role women now play in the economy and the workplace.
Neal Lipschutz is managing editor of Dow Jones News Service.