The Corrosion of Character

In The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, Richard Sennet, a noted sociology professor, returns to the theme of his The Hidden Injuries of Class (1973) to discuss the effect of the capitalist economy on the lives of workers. He views each life as an ongoing story, structured by the passage of time and highlighted by significant career-related events. Rather than criticize the current condition of the economy, he briefly traces its evolution and judges its effects in the lives of individuals.

Sennet describes work as a constant scale used to measure success, the passage of time, and personal value. To workers before the mid-twentieth century, a job provided a sense of identity and security. Skilled workers operated in a time-structured world and stayed in one job field for an entire career. Sennet sharply contrasts this past with the current condition of American workers, and uses personal examples to illustrate his points.

Rico, for instance, is a successful technology advisor who has risen above the time-punching janitorial job his father held. He also is the victim of “flexible capitalism,” the term Sennet uses to describe the modern economy. “Flexible capitalism” describes the goal of most modern companies, to be able to continuously change to fit the market. Companies no longer provide job descriptions or long term contracts, but rather an opportunity to compete in a winner-takes-all market. Rico’s talent has freed him from the curses of routine, but as he scrambles to focus on the latest market development it becomes unclear to him what success and security really are. Because of the lack of structure in the economy, Rico finds himself drifting from one job to the next and confused about his identity.

Sennet tells the stories of other middle-aged American workers whose identities are also challenged by the inconsistencies in the workplace. He documents how they deal with the risks they must take and the familiar concept of failure. Through these personal stories he brings to light the ethical disadvantages of the capitalist system that has brought the American economy to power.