Reimagining American Community

Recently I began wondering about the relationship between community “at work” and community “everywhere else.” For example, are the relationships we form around the water-cooler or the Xerox machine of the same character as those we form at the park or the backyard BBQ grill? Obviously they differ in many respects; but one would think, at least based on the fact that both contexts involve conversation, occasional joviality, and time spent in close proximity, that the resulting “relationships” formed between participants in each group would be somewhat analogous.

And yet they aren’t. The qualitative difference is hard to put into words, but it expresses itself plain and simple in the numbers. According to Robert Putnam’s famous survey Bowling Alone:

“Most studies of personal networks find that co-workers account for less than 10 percent of our friends. Workplace ties tend to be casual and enjoyable, but not intimate and deeply supportive. In the most careful study, when people were asked to list their closest friends, less than half of all full-time workers put even one co-worker on the list. On average, neighbors were more likely to appear on the list than co-workers. When people were asked to whom they would turn to discuss ‘important matters,’ less than half of all full-time workers listed even a single co-worker.” (Chapter 5: “Connections in the Workplace”)

This becomes more surprising if we acknowledge the fact that more people spend more time in interaction with their workmates than 50 years ago (workforce participation was at 59% in 1950, rising to 67% in 1997), but still trust their neighbors more, or at least prefer their company.

Putnam points out as a significant contributing factor the “new labor contract” between the employer and the employee that has gained acceptance in the last 30 years. He relates that “World War II veterans joining IBM were instructed to consult with their wives before taking the job, because ‘once you came aboard you were a member of the corporate family for life.’ ”

Anyone who today has worked for a large corporation will acknowledge that the same “corporate family” rhetoric is alive and well; but what has changed is that it is no longer taken very seriously by its target audience, and is often more a source of suspicion. This is because the “downsizing,” “restructuring,” and “layoffs,” which became a common practice of large firms in the 80’s and 90’s, made all employment take on a “contingent” character.

In this new contingency contract in which security rises and falls with the business cycle, IBM’s piece of advice transforms from a prudent warning about a long-term commitment to something different: it becomes a feel-good slogan attempting to build confidence in an understandably uneasy labor force.

I myself had the opportunity to attend a typical corporate rally in which employees from all over the state were brought into a stadium and treated to praise, profit reports, prizes, and references to the “corporate family.” Several months later I arrived at work to find HR representatives waiting in the office, not for me, but for another not-so-lucky workmate who had been chosen for a company-wide layoff. Most of us survived the “event,” but we were left with survivor shock, and a not-insubstantial amount of survivor’s guilt, as well as a sense of anxiety that never leaves after that. According the Putnam, the end result is that workers put their heads down, become more silent and more withdrawn, “focusing more and more narrowly on one’s own job.”

This is exacerbated by the fact that many of the social expectations for family life in America were formed on the assumption of a long-term stable, predictable, financial situation. The commitment and foresight necessary to buy or build a house, for example, assumes great confidence in one’s financial future. All these institutions and expectations were built around the old labor contract which sought to deliver stability “for life.” The problem enters when these expectations remain intact, and when Americans continue to participate in them, even though the contract has inverted itself. This spells anxiety, at best, and, at worst, personal catastrophe.

In such a context, where one’s livelihood is tied to the impersonal forces of the “business cycle,” and where company leadership, regardless of the fact that it is often composed of some very decent and good-willed people, is quite obviously impossible to trust and rarely shares in the vicissitudes experienced by the wage-earners, how could the combination of social ingredients necessary for the formation of friendship ever come together? Vulnerability, for example, the existence of which is a fundamental touchstone between friends, has no place in the professional context. In fact the very word “professional” is used as an antonym for “personal,” and since there can be no friendship that is not personal, are we to assume that there can be no such thing as a “professional friendship”?

That “family feeling” which contemporary businesses try to instill is only an evil if it is pressed dishonestly into a contradictory context. In my experience, the context within small enterprises is such that the “family” analogy is at least somewhat appropriate. But the analogy becomes less appropriate the larger and more impersonal the enterprise. I suppose it is conceivable that, at one point, the corporate context did not automatically excluding the basic elements of human intimacy; IBM, for example, may have been conveying the truth about their 50’s “corporate family.” But if that was true then we’ve got to ask what steps need to be taken to restore things to what they were. Under what conditions, or after what sort of revolution, could companies repeat IBM’s mantra and have it actually express the truth about the corporate-employee relationship, rather than having it obscure an unpleasant and alienating professional reality?

About the Author
Daniel Schwindt is Editor-in-chief at Solidarity Hall. He hails from the plains of central Kansas, a cultural navel of the world, and from there hurls his literary lighting bolts far and wide. His writings include Letter to my Generation: On Identity, Direction, and Disbelief, The Pursuit of Sanity, and Holocaust of the Childlike.