A recent article on “The Disposable Worker” (thank you, Rosa) has me ruminating about our culture. Especially after learning that Walmart and Kelly Services are the two largest employers in the United States beyond the Federal Government. Walmart alone has 1.8 million employees, and has been subject to considerable controversy regarding its business practices. Kelly services, of course, is all about temporary workers. So it is this notion of what is happening to people and to the American Dream, or should I say, the American Illusion, that I have been thinking about.
Entwined with the fundamental philosophy of individualism, the belief that anyone can rise to meet a personal dream with enough hard work, are darker threads, including this one: that people increasingly have become commodities, economic objects — the very opposite of what individualism originally stood for. “Commodity” means something that can be bought and sold, merchandise on the retailer’s shelf. The recession has only worsened the trend. People do what they are told, work long hours without benefits or fair compensation, live with the increasingly fearful prospects of unemployment, while the separation of the very wealthy from the bulk of wage-earners continues its appalling rise. The notion that we all end up as millions of “Brand You” individualists, a term coined in 1999 or before by Tom Peters, represents a powerful, scary, and also appalling prediction of where, in fact, we are today. Appalling because Peters’ book celebrated the glorious independence of the contract worker — the death of an entitlement mindset no one needed — but completely missed the people-as-disposable-commodity part, which appears now as the biggest shadow-side to the American Dream. Shadows, by their nature, are not something that fit with our optimist ethic. We don’t like to look at them, but we need to. If we don’t, anger and further polarization are likely, the sort that given enough gestation time and continued wounding leads down the path to violence. I’m not kidding.
Before we get that far, it would be great to identify an alternative business model or two, since many employers (noting the first article cited), are apparently thriving on the shadow trend rather than attempting to disrupt it. But how do we get to that alternative model? We can’t go backward in time. We are not going to recapture the dream of “permanent” employment. That’s the past. And on the future side, we don’t have answers either. Social media and globalization, while encouraging different forms of organizational life and structure, can create a similarly illusionary, romanticized version of groups or communities formed around the notion that somehow people will be naturally collaborative in electronically connected settings — if only they are allowed to have their own wikis and blogs, and mobile devices of their own choosing. It’s a yearning for an electronic utopian democracy in a world where the best ideas always prevail through open debate rather than hierarchical power. But, to be honest, this version is also chock full of shadows. People are people, vertically or horizontally. Behavior is not necessarily better over the net than around a table. There are electronic arguments, retributions and blackmails, certainly destructive talk behind one another’s backs, and not so nicely, either, not to mention sadistic attacks and many other lesser forms of human abuse through everyday snarky comments and other troll-like behavior.
So let’s go a step further and acknowledge a fundamental principle of any business model.
Human creations all have shadow-sides. Hierarchy won’t cure it and neither will Enterprise 2.0. There is no such thing as the perfect organizational design or economic system. Power and status and the distribution of resources and rewards will always be issues. Technologies, no matter how equalizing will not save us from our own propensities to need intangible, psychological things and sometimes go after them in highly dysfunctional, if not violent ways. The question is what we do with our designs, how we behave within them, whether we adhere to an ethical vision of humanness; how we structure our actual relationships more than how we structure the company. Can we recognize the frailties of our humanness without learning patterns of exploitation? How much self-knowledge do we actually have, especially in our impact on others, and do we care about that impact? What do we do about conflicts, especially deep-seated conflicts in values? What is meant by wealth, really? What is the social responsibility of a corporate entity and how does it come about? How much double-think and denial and hypocrisy and exclusion are a hidden part of the systems we build? And what is that caused by? Obviously, people have been searching a long, long time to figure these things out, this elusive set of discoveries that might be the underpinnings of first a culture that nourishes the best parts of the human spirit and then the organizational form of a better workplace. If we are going to find a better model then I think we will all need to start working on the answers to these and other questions in earnest, because, given the trends, time is probably running out.
I genuinely wish I had better answers. Some days ninety-nine percent of what I do seems to be a compensation for bad organizational models. Other days, a similar percent is due to lack of meaningful models at all. But insofar as we create these models out of ourselves and our own ideals, what I do know is that they all contain our incompleteness and our own flaws. And so, if we want to change things, we have to touch those flaws, get to know them well in order to confront our real values and character and soul. Right now Walmart is a symbol. It appears to be us. It is what is becoming of the American Dream. Bunkers of commoditized goods where the only market differentiator is cost. Bunkers of cheap merchandize to fill the holes in the illusion of who we thought we should be. Stark lights. Vast warehouse. Of goods? Or of people? Let us hope, in the effort to find a deal, a bargain, a close-out, we do not look up to find ourselves on those shelves, too. I think of the slogan, “Save money. Live Better.” Live better? Live better?! Are you kidding me?
I’m interested in your views of what we can and should do. What do you think?