Take this job and shove it
White-collar workers under increasing pressure in the new economy

Like many people these days, Gemma, - a highly successful New York City marketing executive, -- takes advantage of the time offered by the long the train ride to her suburban home, to check her voice mail and return calls via cell phone.

She hates disturbing other passengers and tries to keep her voice low. "It's the only way I can leave my office most days at five o'clock and get home to have dinner with my family," she tells Jill Andresky Fraser, author of White-Collar Sweatshop, a treatise on the deteriorating working conditions of white-collar Americans.

Usually Gemma gets home by a quarter past six. But after a quick meal and some homework with the kids, she joins her husband in their home office to handle more phone calls and wrap up paperwork, to ease her workload for the next day.

Like for many of today's white-collar workers, there are few boundaries between Gemma's work and personal life, and she feels increasingly stressed by the incredible demands of work and family life.

"I fantasize every day about doing more things for myself, I want to work out but I can't, I need physical therapy and can't get it," she tells Andresky Fraser. "You work hard to rush home to be with your family, and then you are short with them. You get testy, exhausted."

Gemma is not alone in her frustration, says Andresky Fraser, who interviewed countless others like her during research for White-Collar Sweatshop. Her subjects - whom she met in chat groups, and through industry and personal contacts -- tell of massive overwork caused by companies trying to get remaining employees to make up for those laid off or "restructured" out of the workforce. Among the culprits cited are the banking, telecommunications and high-tech industries.

Since many of her sources feared the consequences of talking to a journalist, Andresky Fraser uses pseudonyms, and camouflages the companies and sometimes even the industries they work in. Despite this frustrating device, the anecdotes ring eerily true to anyone who has been following the evolving North American work environment.

With the resulting surge in productivity stock market valuations in corporate America, one might assume that there would be considerable rewards and opportunity for the country's 80 million white-collar workers.

Yet by almost all accounts, white-collar workers in large American (and Canadian) companies have had increasingly tough time. Every time two companies merge, or one needs to trim the fat to boost quarterly earnings, their ranks are the first to feel it.

Those especially hardest hit are older workers, who grew up in an era when the word "job" meant something different than it does today. During the post World War Two prosperity, pensions, benefits and security were part of a social contract that emerged between employee and employer. Many who joined large corporations thought that they would be there for life.

Andresky Fraser - a skilled business writer - does a wonderful job of chronicling the increasing disillusionment of white-collar workers - managerial, professional, sales and administrative - as those employment benefits were steadily eroded by the downsizing and re-structuring of the 1980s and 1990s.

However White Collar Sweatshop will be a difficult read for many business observers. Its focus on the workers as victims, who bear little responsibility for their plight, is a blatant over-simplification.

The corporate downsizing coincided with a massive outflow of white-collar employees who joined or started small businesses, notably in high technology. This significantly increased the competitive environment, to the point where Fortune 500 companies occupy a far smaller share of the economy that they did 20 years ago.

Loyalty one would assume is a two-way street. Andresky Fraser gives little indication that a worker's loyalty need extend beyond showing up and punching a clock, to encompass for example, retraining himself or updating his skills, to keep himself useful to his employer.

Nor does Andresky Fraser fully deal with the perplexing question why the companies laying off these employees were becoming more, not less efficient. She leaves us to understand these gains were achieved by overworking existing workers, an explanation that is at best incomplete. In fact, North American businesses were vastly over staffed and un-competitive in the early 1980s and cutbacks were essential part of remedying this situation.

However Andresky Fraser provides considerable anecdotal evidence that the pendulum has swung the other way and that some retrenchment may be in the works.

So despite the fact that her solutions to the problem tend to involve wishful thinking, (example: companies should enforce the 40-hour workweek), or even worse may involve the dreaded "U" word, the book provides a significant contribution to the dialogue about workplace conditions.

 

 

White-Collar Sweatshop, The Deterioration of Work and its Rewards in Corporate America, by Jill Andresky Fraser, W. W. Norton & Company, 278 pages

Diekmeyer is Montreal-based business writer. He can be reached at: peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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