The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism

Richard Sennett’s book, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, was published in 1998 yet it has a particular resonance today as employment becomes less and less stable. Before COVID, some young people seemed to enjoy the challenge of insecure employment, of working several jobs, having the flexibility to travel and not be tied to permanent workplaces. From such a perspective Sennett’s book might appear nostalgic or even elegiac in its examination of the steadily increasing insecurity experienced by workers that, in his opinion, make it impossible to achieve a moral identity.

Sennett shows what happens to people in an economy that systematically destroys what has given meaning to human life.

As so many small businesses face a difficult, if not impossible future and part-time, casual employees have to grapple with insecurity and anxiety, Sennett’s critique of capitalism has become even more relevant and rather than pointing to an old-fashioned past, offers possibilities for a new, and better future.Quote 1:

 The short time frame of modern institution limits the ripening of informal trust … detachment and superficial cooperativeness are better armor for dealing with current realities than behaviour based on values of loyalty and service. It is the time dimension of the new capitalism, rather than high-tech transmission, global stock markets, or free trade, which most directly affects people’s emotional lives outside the workplace. Transposed to the family realm, ‘no long term’ means keep moving, don’t commit yourself, and don’t sacrifice (pp. 24-25).Quote 2:

 This conflict between family and work poses some questions about adult experience itself. How can long-term purposes be pursued in a short-term society? How can durable social relations be sustained? How can a human being develop a narrative of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments? The conditions of the new economy feed instead our experience which drifts in time, from place to place, from job to job (pp.26-27).Quote 3:

If we are disposed to view routine as inherently demeaning, then we will attack the very nature of the work process itself. We will abhor both routine and its father, the dead hand of bureaucracy. We may be largely driven by the practical desire for greater market responsiveness, productivity and profit. But we need not be just greedy capitalists; we may believe … that people are stimulated by more flexible experience, both at work and in other institutions. We may believe in the virtues of spontaneity. The question then becomes: will flexibility with all the risks and uncertainties it entails in fact remedy the human evil it sets out to attack? Even supposing routine has a pacifying effect on character, just how is flexibility to make a more engaged human being? (p.45)Quote 4:

If all risk-taking is a journey into the unknown, the voyager usually has in mind some destination. Odysseus wanted to find his way home; Julien Sorel wanted to find his way into the upper classes. The modern culture of risk is peculiar in that failure to move is taken as a sign of failure, stability seeming almost a living death. The destination therefore matters less than the act of departure. Immense social and economic forces shape the insistence on departure: the disordering of institutions, the system of flexible production – material realities themselves setting out to sea. To stay put is to be left out (p. 87).