The Unbundled Society

OUR worklife is being unbundled around us. People are released from jobs in layoffs - the most radical form of unbundling. Others are released within organizations to regroup in new teams, alignments, or divisions, which themselves may last only months. Jobs are unbundled into part-time assignments or are farmed out to firms that specialize in short-term work. Electronic data banks, computer work stations, laptops with modems, and cellular telephones facilitate the process of unbundling.

When I was Midwest bureau chief for this newspaper in the mid 1970s, I would take the 5:30 train to Chicago's Loop on mornings when the temperature sank to more than 20 degrees below zero to file a story. I would first punch out the text on a telex tape and then run the tape through a machine, hoping that static wouldn't produce sheer garble in Boston. Today our writers can write on laptops at home, in hotel rooms, or just about anywhere, and file by modem. Unbundled from an office, they are freer to roam; this wider scope enhances their value. The focus properly becomes what appears in the newspaper, not where the writer's physical body happens to be.

Something parallel is happening at the home office. Page layouts that appear on every writer or editor's screen will enable everybody to work on the same project at once. Physical proximity with its roots in typewriter hard copy gives way to random stationing; editors and writers who can serve many departments will have to find in-house markets for their wares.

A consequence of this trend is the placing of greater responsibility directly on the individual. Supervision necessarily slackens - even though contributions may be registered electronically or in other ways.

Organizations take on less long-term obligation. The supervisor who cannot guarantee job tenure now offers the worker broader participation instead, a bigger piece of the action; the worker thus acquires intellectual or knowledge capital, where before he was rewarded principally in cash, vacation, health benefits, and pension.

To take advantage of this new remuneration the worker must accept the responsibility of rebundling his life. This can be tough. At today's starting salaries, a savings plan of 5 percent or 10 percent of earnings a year for workers just out of college - with student loans to pay off - may appear unrealistic. But it seems prudent, given the likelihood of underemployment for long periods. Along with the main job, another interest should be cultivated, one that could become income-producing or at least keep one growing if the main job withers. Some ongoing education - in music, athletics, mathematics, languages - decreases one's vulnerability in a society that measures people less by character than by organization-assigned role.

Work should be viewed more as life-long learning and less as a job. Family and friend relationships will become more valuable as work bonds grow less secure.

The unbundled worker may want a work station at home. As fewer supervisors or editors will remain to clean up one's performance before wider review, individual effort will be more directly exposed: All the more reason to practice the basics of grammar and unaffected usage. The worker must take risk as opportunity, and lost dependence as a call for greater self-reliance.

r Richard J. Cattani is the Monitor's editor.

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