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The Great Unmooring

September 22nd, 2022 | 9 min read

By Chris Krycho

Richard Sennett. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York: WW Norton, 2000. 176pp, $15.99.

Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel. Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2021. 272pp, $27.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 necessitated a mass adoption of remote work for many — and surfaced deep disagreements between employers and employees about what they owe each other. For all their recent heat, though, these debates are hardly new to American life. Nearly 25 years ago, Richard Sennett published The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, a screed against “flexible work.” Sennett’s story goes like this:

For a few decades in the mid-20th century, American businesses modeled a very specific ideal. Companies provided lifelong stability in exchange for lifelong loyalty; that loyalty was in turn the foundation of good character. Sustained hard work over time brought predictable rewards. In the late 20th century, though, American companies abandoned this model. Spurred on competition from Asian and European companies who were eating their lunches, they embraced “flexibility” as their ideal.

The result was the steady dismantling of a decades-old set of norms which had structured many Americans’ lives. Benefits, pensions, and the promise of stable careers evaporated, and in their place companies offered new goods: flexibility, specialization, autonomy, and even teamwork. All of these Sennett damned without remainder: they were corporate-speak for giving workers the short end of the stick and they fundamentally undermined the formation of character, healthy families, and healthy communities.

Sennett put his finger on some real problems — highlighted over and over again in the years since by many other commentators — but The Corrosion of Character is intellectually vacuous. First, he never bothers to make an actual argument for why this virtue trumps that one, and he contradicts himself often: why are autonomy, responsibility, and teamwork bad for office workers, but a terrible loss when taken from bakers? Second, he freely admits that the narratives he shares were cobbled together from a variety of sources, leaving him able to tell whatever story was most convenient to him. Even so, the barest poking at his narratives raises difficult questions. Summing up his (cobbled-together?) story of a bartender-turned-adwoman-returned-bartender, Sennett simply takes a woman’s word that the young women she had worked with were “patronizing.” On the evidence of Sennett’s own telling, though, they sound earnestly supportive and kind.

The Corrosion of Character is also morally bankrupt. Sennett excuses the stifling bureaucracy, totalizing ideology, and racism and sexism of the mid-20th-century company — because at least they offered steady jobs, union memberships, and pensions. People could build virtuous lives and model virtue for their children… by remaining in near or actual poverty: after all, it was a stable kind of poverty. Worse, in the climax of the book, Sennett suggests that workers were better off as anti-black racists who “had clear pictures, whether true or false, of their friends and enemies” (146) than their successors in a bakery run by a black man and with time allocated to community service. Why? Because the bakery now failed to provide stability or identity — even through wicked lies.

We must not equivocate on this. We may mourn the loss of skill and ownership that came with the introduction of automated technologies while recognizing that those technologies were safer, were less ruinous of people’s bodies, and sometimes produced better results. We should be moved to forge a path which provides safety and reliability and ownership, autonomy, and solidarity. But we must never excuse past wickedness because it came bundled with other things we value.

Sennett does make one important point in the midst of all that nonsense, though. Picking up on themes from Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another, Sennett asserts that “‘Who needs me?’ is a question of character which suffers a radical challenge in modern capitalism” (146) — and that it “has no immediate answer” (147). This question — “Who needs me?” — is at the core of what has made not only work but all of society feel so empty to so many for so long.

In March 2020, as COVID hit in earnest across the United States and Europe, everyone who could work remotely suddenly had to work remotely. Leaders in many companies, including the tech companies you might have expected to be leading the way, responded poorly. Some spoke of being out of the office as if it were a worse stressor than living in a once-a-century pandemic. Many companies initially planned to demand all employees return to the office after the end of the pandemic, even when their employees had flourished in a remote environment.

Some of these leaders were clearly uncomfortable with a shift away from the environment they had come up in, and which they worked best in. The rapid adoption of surveillance technologies suggests that many were also unwilling or unable to manage results instead of by tracking “butts in seats.” More charitably, though, many leaders were responding to a sad reality. The office is the last place many people experience a sense of shared purpose, and therefore find their communities and identities. Of course people isolated at home during the pandemic missed the only community they had. Of course getting rid of the office felt like a threat.

Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen’s Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home was written during the pandemic, in response to the mass shift to remote work. Warzel and Petersen echo Sennett on the ways that “flexibility” has often been code for asking people to do more work with less support and without more pay. (Thankfully, they do not echo his tendency to excuse the inexcusable.) But they also argue that a mass adoption of remote work offers an opportunity to rethink the relationship between workers and employers, and indeed between workers and work. No such redefinition will happen automatically, though; it will require concerted effort. So far so good. Unfortunately, both their idea of what work ought to be and how we ought to achieve that ideal are woefully insufficient.

First, for Petersen and Warzel, work itself is — always — something to be liberated from. Sennett thought even drudgery could at least build character. Warzel and Petersen have no such hopes. Theirs is not a deeply considered view of work, though. On the one hand, they clearly love their own jobs, and they recognize that many other people do, too. They even go so far as to point out the good things about office jobs lost when going remote. On the other hand, they consistently write of both policy changes and technological interventions as means of working less, indeed of being saved from work.

In an extended discussion of email and related productivity tools, for example, they write: “We created productivity tools to manage a productivity tool and found ourselves deeper and deeper in a hole, desperate for the solution that promises to finally allow us to dig ourselves out” (148) — a pithy description of what Jacques Ellul termed “technique.” A few pages later, though, they enthuse about programs with guardrails built in to prevent tech overload and gush about the possibilities of virtual reality platforms, apparently unaware of the contradiction.

Most muddled of all is their handling of the surveillance tech many companies have forced on their newly remote workers: screen tracking, calendar monitoring, scheduled bathroom break stops, and more. Warzel and Petersen spend a half dozen pages on the dangers of these surveillance technologies. Unfortunately, this comes mere pages after their glowing description of tools built for managers to help their employees… by monitoring their work habits. Warzel and Petersen even admit these could be weaponized by malicious managers, and point out that employees, not managers, disproportionately bear the costs of surveillance. Like the tech companies behind these tools, though, they fail to reckon with how the normalization of surveillance technology will empower abusive companies and even abusive individuals within otherwise-healthy companies far more than it will ever help employees.

Sennett recognized how good work can form peoples’ characters, but would not grant work as also satisfying and provides people opportunities for real growth. For Warzel and Petersen, work is a (sometimes enjoyable) necessary evil which at best merely gets in the way of the rest of life. Neither book admits the classically Christian alternative: that work is both a creational good and the site of many of our greatest frustrations. For Protestants especially, work is a creative good, a calling for all of us, which should escape the “bounds” of the office, should be integrated with the rest of our lives, and can indeed be part of producing character. And yet it is toilsome, apt to be a site of abuse and control, a jealous god which consumes all other goods when given free reign.

Nor does either book ever question the division of work from the rest of life. Sennett takes issue with the old 9-to-5 only insofar as it was not fully socialized and unionized. Much of the familial destabilization he decries is just the long-term fruit of mass industrialization, though. Perhaps enduring the drudgery of a 9-to-5 does build the virtue of patient endurance; but it does so at the cost of the ordinary life together as a family which characterized pre-industrial economies of all varieties.

Warzel and Petersen do a little better. They recognize that the flexibility afforded by remote work might let us shape our days for the pursuit of better things than merely more “productivity.” But if work is always just an impediment to the rest of life, the best we can do is enforce strong boundaries on work. Tellingly, children rarely appear in the book. (Hiking and skiing come up more often!) Their one extended discussion of families focuses on government-provided childcare. The goal is to enable parents to be unencumbered by children in the industrial economy rather than to reconfigure the economy to put families first.

Pre-industrial economies were a mixed bag. They inculcated virtues and afforded goods missing in the 9-to-5 world. They also had their own, very significant, problems: not least that they often ran on various forms of slavery and were subject — to the point of starvation — to the vagaries of weather and clime. Is there a path forward which gives us some of those goods back while keeping the genuine gains we have made through industrialization? Warzel and Petersen are right to suggest that the shift to remote might give us a chance to answer that with a yes, even if their own proposals are insufficient to the task of reforming, still less of renewing, our work culture more broadly.

One way to understand both of these books is to take them both as reactions to the profound sense of being unmoored — of isolation and instability — that seems endemic to late modernity.

Sennett and Warzel and Petersen alike lament that unions fell out of favor in the 1980s. Sennett thinks flexibility, teamwork, and autonomy undercut character because they undercut clear social structures. Warzel and Petersen are enamored of terrible technologies because they claim to replicate some of what people miss about the office: presence, community, and respect for boundaries enforced by physicality. Sennett observes people struggling without an answer to the question “Who needs me?” Warzel and Petersen describe communal activities they hope will fill the time opened by remote work specifically and flexible work generally. Implicit in both books is a gnawing hunger for some source — any source — of community and personal meaning.

The opportunities for the church here may be obvious, but worth stating all the same. First, the church should also encourage more home- and family- and community-friendly work. Churches should support people trying to create home economies. Deacons should know the companies in their towns and cities well so they can help people find jobs that will be good — and they should know wise lawyers who can defend people when their jobs go bad. Churches can foster garden co-ops and skyscraper ecologies. Above all, they can provide a shared mission and identity.

Second, churches can help people to think rightly about work: that it is part of what we are made for, not something to be liberated from, but also a terrible master; that surveillance cultures are wicked and that defrauding one’s employer is also wicked; that the technocratic habit of applying technology to every perceived problem undermines human dignity and only creates more problems to be “solved” (inevitably, of course, by yet more technology). Thoughtful Christians should take the lead in envisioning post-industrial economies which see the home as the foundation on which all of society rests. We can dream of everyone having the opportunity to do good work and the flexibility to team up on parenting and housework and errand-running and all the ordinaries of daily life. Our inability to realize those dreams in full does not absolve us of the responsibility to work for them, for all our neighbors’ good.

For decades, work has been the one place in America where people have found purpose and community. It has always been an empty promise, though. Work can be the good it is meant to be only if the church is what it ought to be: a family formed around a shared new identity, with an all-consuming purpose in the worship of God.

Chris Krycho

Chris is a husband and dad; theologian, composer, poet, and essayist; software developer; runner and triathlete; podcaster; and all-around nerd.