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Labor Pains

Examining the State of the United States of Work

White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America

Author:Jill Andresky Fraser
Publisher:W.W. Norton & Company

By Michael Corbin | Posted 3/14/2001

Among the rituals that serve as America's civic religion--sport, television, shopping--few are as genuinely shared as our collective belief in the saving graces of work. Work is literally the measure of our days. We speak of it as a virtue, originally imputed to Protestants, but we regularly round it out to a kind of ersatz patriotism when we invoke the "American work ethic." Even in our usually relativistic society, work remains sacrosanct. We demand it of our welfare mothers as well as our millionaires; politicians claim authenticity by saying they have worked for their living. We find those without jobs to be morally dissolute. To those whom we feel have shirked their responsibilities or need their character built we say, "Get a job." Everyone must make money the old-fashioned way, we like to tell ourselves--they must earn it.

With such weighty symbolic baggage attached to work, looking at the laboring lives of Americans can be difficult. Enter The State of Working America. Biennially published by Cornell University Press and the Economic Policy Institute since 1988 , this citizen's handbook helps clear up the confusion bred by stump speeches, Op-Ed pages, and partisan punditry. It's filled with the numbers and charts of the dismal science of economics, but the book also presents clear, accessible portraits of the forces that shape the U.S. labor market.

The 2000-'01 edition is particularly enlightening because of the unprecedented changes in this so-called "new economy." The authors--Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and John Schmitt, all economists--organize their work around three specific changes in the '90s:

· For the first time in more than 15 years, inflation-adjusted wages began to rise in 1995. "What's more," the authors report, "these increases have been largest for the workers at the bottom."

· Labor productivity (the value of the goods and services an average worker produces in an hour of work) has grown about 2.5 percent per year since 1995, "well above the 1.3 percent rate that prevailed from the mid-1970s through mid-1990s."

· The shape of wage inequality has changed. "In the '90s," the authors report, "wages at the bottom and the middle grew closer while the top pulled further away from the rest."

Connecting all three changes is a fact "unprecedented in recent economic history": At no other time since 1970 has the unemployment rate been below 5.5 percent for more than two consecutive years.

All this bean-counting needs context, and the authors provide loads of it. For instance, as the unemployment data suggest, the latter half of the '90s was a correction, not necessarily a boom; the economy righted itself after a long slide that began in the early '70s. The late '90s only look good in comparison to the severe shocks workers absorbed in the '80s and early '90s.

Moreover, the authors make the distinction between things for workers "getting better versus being good." Inequality remains a distinguishing feature of the U.S. economy (the 1999 poverty rate was 11.8 percent, higher than the 11.1 percent rate of 1973--"despite 30 years of growth"). While the minimum wage was raised for times in the '90s, "the value of the minimum wage was still 21 percent less than in 1979." Meanwhile, from 1989 to 19999 the real wage of the median chief executive officer in the United States rose 62.7 percent; the average CEO now earns $3.5 million a year, 107 times more than the average worker. And while a middle-class two-parent family's earnings grew 9.2 percent in the '90s (to a median annual income of $49,000), that family's work hours grew by about 4.5 full-time weeks a year.

So what is life on the job like for that overworked middle-class family? Jill Andresky Fraser tries to answer that question in White-Collar Sweatshop. Fraser, finance editor of Inc. magazine and a general editor of Bloomberg Personal Finance, spent the last four years interviewing white-collar "refugees," those who have seen their life altered for the worse by the new economy. Her book examines a paradox of the '90s: "how to reconcile the buoyant optimism of the chief executives, business leaders, and management consultants that I interviewed with the often bleak workplace stories and comments I was hearing from my other sources, all those men and women outside the executive suite." Fraser tries to get beyond the numbers by digging into the actual lives of the 80 million Americans defined as white collar, examining the longer hours, the accelerated pace of the office, and the diminishing paycheck and benefits package.

Fraser buttresses her analysis with economic data, but her attention is elsewhere. She looks at the workers who feel betrayed because they don't have time for their kids; who feel not liberated but enslaved by the personal computer, cell phone, and pager; who have no pension and are increasingly in debt.

The poignancy and significance of Fraser's book is unstated, and perhaps unintentional. The aspiring middle-class Americans--those who believed that if they worked hard, got a good education, and got a "good" job, they had made it--are now questioning their diminished lives. Work, they believed, would bring its just rewards. Fraser's book suggests that these white-collar workers never bargained for the sweatshop.

Both books have their limits. With The State of Working America, you'll need a tolerance for economic jargon, and the book's reach for comprehensiveness will tax your attention span. On the other hand, Fraser relies too much on the anecdotes of disgruntled employees--she should stay away from Internet chat rooms and do more basic journalistic legwork. Fraser's suggested changes--say, that employees turn off their pagers and cell phones for some relief--are pathetically winsome compared to the substance of her critique.

Both books speak about the economy as a kind of narrative in which work comes to have meaning, whether through the money we make, the hours we spend laboring, or the vocation we choose. While both suggest that the economy and our work in it are changing, neither offers any real clue as to where we're going. But they will give you a better picture of what it means to make a living now.

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