THE CACK-HANDED COPS
Professor Richard Sennett
should be a hero of careers work
all I know Richard Sennett - the sociologist - is a descendant of
Mack Sennett - the Hollywood Director. There is what could be a
family likeness. Mack made us laugh at The Keystone Cops - in their
day the cack-handed guardians of proper standards. They pursued
Charlie Chaplin up, down and across the streets and alleys of 1920s
Hollywood. They were a scrambling and careering disaster area, forever
tripping over their own ineptitude and crashing into their own contradictions.
Professor Richard Sennett also tells stories, his stories also have
a point and their point also undermine the pretensions of guardians
of what passes for contemporary standards - in particular standards
Richard Sennett is said to be one of the more important and original
thinkers in the modern age. He teaches Sociology at the London School
of Economics and New York University.
book, The Corrosion of Character is particularly useful to
careers work. Its central method is story-telling - NY stories of...
a young and ambitious businessman, beginning to wonder about the
> a bar owner, trying to move
on to something better;
> bakery workers, coping with the automation of their workplace;
> a janitor who has seen more,
and has learned to hope for less;
> executives, cast out by high-tech industry.
stories are personal and disclosing. Richard Sennett has a quality
that how-to-do-research textbooks will not teach you: he is plainly
an engaging,comprehending and trusted listener.
And he is unhappy about what he hears. With a broad sweep of sociological
and business-management thought, he constructs an account of contemporary
work life which he says is corrosive. Contemporary working life
hurts and damages people.
Take the experience of Rose, a 55 year-old one-time owner of a city
bar. On what might seem a whim, Rose landed a job in a marketing
company, working with a team tendering for a contract to promote
Vodka. Pick up the story where things start seriously to go bad.
'Rose kept intruding
information about how people actually drink in bars, which lay outside
the purview of those who were in the loop. For instance, she mentioned
that vodka is a drink of choice for people who are secret alcoholics,
since they believe no one can smell they've been drinking. Her colleagues
reacted as if this were her private knowledge, disturbing their
was the beginning of the end for Rose. They thought she
was out of touch! In the ensuing team work her colleagues by-passed
her. They had no way of dealing with personal experience, they thought
it an intrusion.
the team failed to get the contract, Rose found it hard to understand
why there was no review. People just moved on - seemingly untouched
by their own experience.
Richard's explanation of what is going wrong is disturbing. He starts
from the business use of 'networks', which can be rapidly assembled,
dismantled and re-assembled to meet changing conditions. For this
and other reasons, fewer of us ever really get to know other people
at work - we are, no more, long-term witnesses to other peoples
that is not all. It is no longer helpful for us to try to understand
how things work - we need only to know what to do to operate the
process or mechanism. We are working on what we do from the outside.
This is true of technology; but it is also true of human systems:
Roses knowledge of people was not wanted because it would
have required more than anyone could find time for. People see no
need for in-depth understanding of problems. Difficulty is embarrassing;
the team is there quickly to agree a solution. Mavericks are not
processes must, then, be superficial. They require 'skill' rather
than 'understanding'. Richard argues, for example, that the skills
of 'cooperation' are - too often - no more than a willingness to
work with easy agreements. Any deeper and more sustainable account
of reality may call up unwanted conflict.
Workplace team managers commonly use sports metaphors - prizing
'teams', 'competition' and 'winning'. But, Richard Sennett, blows
the gaff: in the work game, he says, it may be unrealistic to rely
on other players in your team - especially if things get rough or
need the investment of sustained effort. There is an increasing
chance that 'team members' wont know enough, will want to
avoid conflict, will be deterred by difficulty, and will probably
feel that their current risk quotient is quite high enough. When
things really get tough, you could be on your own.
Corrosion of Character' is pretty radical for a title. The author
obvious means to warn us about something serious.
And it might be even more serious than he documents. He does not
mention the possibility that the condition is seeping into schooling.
But the too-easy talk of 'skills', 'competition' and 'employability'
are, increasingly, part of the way we think about education. Targets,
standards, performance indicators and other policing techniques
use the same trite, superficial and banal language. At first site
it might seem that careers work does well to identify itself with
these trends - careers work is, after all, about pursuing employability.
But there is accumulating evidence that the policing of education
is corroding what is playful, exploratory and social in the experience
of learning. What is being corroded is, of course, exactly the underpinning
learning which enables children to develop a sustainable understanding
of what they can do in their lives. Careers work should be no part
of the corrosion of that part of our character.
Richard Sennett's take on working life is seriously different from
that of the - ever-positive - Charles Handy. Careers workers who
have, in the past, drawn upon Charles, should now give Richard a
go. With thought, he may even persuade some of our own, more docile,
people to stop trotting out the trite language of 'employable skills',
with little regard for their meaning - either in the intentions
of the pursuers or in their consequences for the pursued.
what do we do? Richard Sennett knows better than to look for any
return to some idyllic past. But we do need to know how to move
on. And, in careers work, we must not reinforce the damage that
Roses inept work-mates played in her disappointment. It will
require a better-founded and more deeply-considered view of contemporary
career management than we usually find among enthusiasts for contemporary
standards - in the streets and alleys of careers work.
which way not to go is as important as anything else. Richard
Sennett shows why it is not in the direction of the cack-handed
custodians of facile standards.
The Corrosion of Character the Personal Consequences of
Work in the New Capitalism
London: W W Norton
ISBN 0-393-31987-3 (pbk)
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