Review: The Corrosion of Character


Richard Sennett 1998.
Norton Books.

In the 1970’s Richard Sennett wrote a book about working class life in the US. In the course of writing that book he interviewed Enrico, a janitor. Twenty five years later, a chance encounter with Enrico’s son at an airport led him to write ‘The Corrosion of Character’. Enrico’s son had made good, unlike his father he was an affluent professional. The stories of the father and the son illustrate how the world of work has changed. No longer is there a job for life. Enrico’s work was mundane and boring. He knew exactly where he would be and how much he would be earning when he retired. In contrast his son’s work is interesting and variable. He earns a lot more money than his father. He however faces an unpredictable future, he doesn’t know where he will be working next year, where he will be living the year after. In this book Richard Sennett examines the effect of these new work places on the people who populate them, and on society in general.

Though this book is drawn from the US experience, many of the workplaces described in it will be familiar to those of us working in Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy. He describes how workers feel pressurised to change jobs frequently. If they stay still they are being insufficiently ‘flexible’, seen as being weak, as being failures. So they move. Yet they have no way of calculating whether their move will be to their advantage or not. They take risks, they gamble without knowing what the odds are. The frequent shuffling of the workforce breaks up any bonds between workers. Solidarity is destroyed.

He describes how team work has replaced supervisors of old. It might be thought that in team-working, a sense of workplace community would be fostered. However teams too are broken up frequently, no lasting networks are formed. Within teams workers learn to develop a false persona, they fake co-operation, they know how to say the right things so that they can be seen to be ‘team players’.

When things go wrong, when jobs are lost because a company is downsized or operations are moved to a cheaper economy, the employees blame only themselves. They decide it was their own fault for not keeping up to date with the right skills, or for not leaving the company soon enough. They are blind to the global economy, to the capitalist system that determines their lives. Instead they buy the lie that they are in control of their own destinies. This myth, and the sense of personal failure it creates, further prevents them from turning towards each other for help.

This is a thoughtful and thought provoking book. It describes a section of society that is affluent and yet hollow and empty. Yet Sennett is not pessimistic for he concludes that "a regime which provides human beings with no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy". Anyone working in a Celtic Tiger computer company will find much to think about in this book.

Aileen O’Carroll


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This edition is No63 published in March 2001