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The Corrosion of Working Character in the Modern Work Economy Essay

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Updated: Jun 9th, 2020


The modern ways of working have altered the nature and relationship between workers and their organisations. As a result, the working character in today’s economy has greatly been compromised. Erosion of traditional working standards has repeatedly injured employee expectations, satisfaction, identity, and job involvement. Workers have become easily disposable. Although the modern working economy seems to take a personal-capitalistic approach, it has made workers more precarious and illegible. Issues such as the level of commitment and the traditional bonding culture that was nurtured through job specialisation and teamwork have been slowly eroded and replaced with flexibility. Using Sennett’s work in the book, ‘The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism’, this paper will adopt a discursive approach to analyse how the working character has been corroded by the needs, approaches, and styles of working in the modern economy.

How Employees are Injured by Modern ways of Working

Sennett (1998) presents several hidden injuries that contemporary workers have to encounter in their daily life. He provides a good example of bakers who could not tell the actual titles of their jobs after being repeatedly moved from one place to another. The injury of sabotage comes into play where bosses define and shape the titles of their employees based on the role they want them to play. With reference to the bakers, they could not clearly associate themselves with a particular area of specialisation since they had variations of jobs within the organisation. It was also difficult to predict their future job stations since the organisation retained the authority of determining where, when, and whom they worked with each day. The level of bonding between employees has also been eroded by modern management approaches (Rodgers, 2012).

For instance, the bakers were exposed to different workers in different departments occasionally. Before workers could know each other and bond as a team, one, some, or all of them were moved to different departments. The time for bonding was reduced. Winters et al. (2013) present issues such as goal setting and the zeal to achieve individual goals. Once these areas are interfered with, employees resort to working for money. Using the case of the bakers, this situation culminated in a low sense of job identity where employees are detached from sharing common organisational goals.

It is crucial to compare modern-day work setting with the value of old Quakerism. In the latter, staff members were valued and treated well. Work ethics and beliefs in the old Quakerism school focused on treating workers without any impartiality. The case of Cadbury is an example of how staff members were handled well. They were provided with different activities such as sports and a family-friendly working environment. Such a setting motivated them. Today’s work, as presented by Sennett (1998), is a complete contrast of the above case. Money and rewards are given as a source of motivation, rather than based on ethical reasons.

Do the Ways of Working in Modern Companies make People Disposable?

According to Sennett (1998), working in modern companies has made employees disposable. Sennett’s (1998) concept of disposability of employee implies how workers have been reduced to temporary individuals whose service in an organisation does not bar them from serving in others, irrespective of whether they serve different or similar roles. The amplified application of the flexibility approach has made employees ‘jacks of all trades, but specialists in no areas’.

Particular job design can be attended to by almost all workers in the organisation. Sennett (1998) confirms how shifting employees from one place to another exposes them to a variety of jobs and where workers end up learning the job that their colleagues do. As a result, the privilege of being in possession of a certain reverential power is eroded. Therefore, the absence of employees who are trained or specialised in a particular area may have minimum or no effect on the company since another employee from a different section can easily get in and do the same job in a similar way (Winters et al. 2003).

This situation leaves the company with little to lose, even when such an employee resigns or absconds. As a result, the value of employees to the organisation reduces. According to Gray and Kish-Gephart (2013), the ways of working in contemporary businesses influence employee bargaining power by is levelling it since the management equalises all employee skills. Competition for certain positions and the need for personal development are also compromised since there is little recognition in value addition (Winkelman 2013). The knowledge that one employee possesses in a particular area is shared among other colleagues. They all end up equally equipped and disposable since none of them is advantaged over the other (Ramarajan & Reid 2013). Therefore, employers can dispose of such employees at will since other loyal employees have already acquired the skills and that they can continue serving the organisation at a lesser cost.

Flexible Capitalism

In his view, Sennett (1998, p. 146) says, ‘The indifference, which radiates out of flexible capitalism is more personal because the system itself is less starkly etched and less legible in the form’. Sennett’s (1998) assertion confirms how flexible capitalism is more inherent in some organisations than in others. The traditional system of working seems to be deeply rooted in most of the organisations. However, upon observing the nature and relationships between workers and organisational systems, it may not be easy to decipher how they (workers and organisational systems) are integrated with each other (Sennett 1998).

Different departments have certain standard requirements and qualifications for workers. For example, an employee who lacks basic training in accounting cannot be placed in the department of accounts during the process of shifting. According to scholars such as Hardill and Green (2003), this specification indicates that although flexibility is quickly taking shape in modern working environments, it is still personal. The implication is that it still remains a basic and common requirement that workers in a particular area be in possession of a certain degree of training and experience (Carr & Landry 1999).

In addition, not all companies have adopted the move towards flexible capitalism (Moore 2005a). Borrowing from Sennett’s (1998) expositions on hidden injuries, some organisations still remain glued to the traditional working systems where specialisation is adored and valued. In such organisations, quality of production, efficiency, predictability of value, and competition drive work. Therefore, teamwork, which and strong organisational cultures are developed through reduced flexibility and increased specialisation (Ramarajan & Reid 2013).

According to Sennett (1998, p. 112), ‘sociologist G Kunda calls such teamwork deep acting.’ While teamwork implies a developed mutual relationship where employees cooperate and share ideas to benefit themselves and the organisation, Sennett (1998) shows how the concept is currently a fiction that focuses on finishing a project and embarking on another while not caring about the team’s relationship. Employees have the free will to work either in organisations that embrace flexible capitalism or those that uphold traditional working approaches.

Illegibility of Work

By referring to the modern work as illegible, Sennett (1998) means that it is hard for workers to clearly make sense of the job they do, their titles, positions, their colleagues, and their future in the company. Contemporary employees have little control over what they do, regardless of whether they are trained in it or not. As Sennett (1998) reveals, some employees are shifted from one area to another without their consent on whether they enjoy the job or not. In his opinion, Ba’ (2011) observes how modern jobs are more focused on results delivery than the welfare, satisfaction, and needs of the workers. Employers can also downsize, retrench, or retiring employees, depending on their productivity or at will. This situation has resulted in a stressed human resource. The issue of social class comes into play. High social-class workers have reduced levels of stress.

However, today’s social-class workers are characterised by high levels of stress and illnesses. It can be stressing when a worker realises that his or her opinion is not recognised because of her job position. Sennett (1998) presents Rose as an epitome of injured workers. She suffered stress because she had her opinion rejected because she was a bar attendant, despite being an expert on the issue that was being sought. According to Dembe et al. (2005), majority of low working-class people are more likely to be ill and stressed because of their flexibility, long working hours, poor working conditions, and more than one shift and work.

Sennett (1998) presents Rico as a high social class employee who works for only five hours. He can be likened to people who work in high job positions such as bankers and CEOs whose chances of suffering stress-related illnesses are low. Contrary to the low-class workers, this class enjoys work-life balance. Since people here have enough time with the families, they end up socialising, making friends, and even involving themselves in other leisure activities. Rico reveals the issue of dishonesty that characterises today’s work setting. Since he has much time with his friends and family, he has nothing to hide to them, as opposed to the stressed low-class employees who have to tell lies to their family members to convince them that everything is alright.

Kvande (2009) asserts that work-life balance has also become a major problem for the modern worker. Issues such as the stress of trying to learn new skills every day, trying to cope with a job that one is not interested in, and/or working to meet certain targets make working difficult. Today’s injured workers live with great uncertainty of their future. In the modern-day work environment, people who are trained as teachers have been employed as bankers, lawyers have been employed as journalists, and doctors are working as lecturers (Smith 2007; Moore 2005b). The implication of this career mismatch is that the area of one’s previous training continues to have less meaning in the job market (Roessler 2012). On-the-job training has become more important than the school’s training (Ba’ 2011; Winkelman 2013).

Moreover, there has been a widening gap between classroom-trained skills and the actual on-the-job skill requirement. According to Perrons (2003), companies in the modern-day practice are investing heavily in the induction and on-the-job training. Employees are exposed to different knowledge and skills that allow them to be flexible and to work in different departments within the organisation (Sennett 1998). Therefore, it is difficult to fully train an individual in all the required skills for a particular job.

Precarious Workers

Following the changing nature of the working environment, the modern worker can be perceived as precarious. According to Nolan (2009), today’s employees have little or no assurance of their jobs’ future in most companies. Instability of modern employees has been caused by various modern interventions among them being flexibility, scientific changes, increase in joblessness levels, attrition of job values, poverty, and illegibility of work (Roessler 2012). According to Sennett (1998), when companies embrace flexibility, employees are shifted from one area to the other. They learn how to work in varied sections. Although this plan results in job enrichment, it also compromises their positions. When other employees learn to do what one does, it is easy for him or her to be replaced or be rendered irrelevant (Walker 2009). The fact that modern-day work is highly indecipherable also makes workers insecure (Kvande 2009). Employees cannot clearly know the titles of their jobs since they do not have permanent positions (Smith 2007). This situation compromises their experience and specialisation. Crucial levels of experience in certain areas, which may be required by future employers, are also compromised, thus making the worker stagnate in one organisation or position (Carr & Landry 1999; Devadason 2007). As Wells and Graafland (2012) reveal, precarious employees cannot clearly distinguish what they actually do in an organisation.


Sennett’s work, which forms the basis of the above discussion on the witnessed changes in the modern working environment, indicates how employees are injured by the modern ways of working. This injury corrodes their character. In addition, ways of working in modern companies have made workers disposable. Moreover, the unresponsiveness, which spreads out of supple capitalism, is more personal because the working structure is not blatantly fixed. Besides, it is less decipherable in form. Since most modern work has become scribbled, workers are now increasingly becoming insecure.


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