Craving individuality in the global village

Some sociologists have long argued that Americans' craving for individualism makes them more and more isolated.

Today that theory is pretty well supported by developments in the world of work.

The postwar power pyramid - a workplace hierarchy where legions of "company men" bought into the company line and worked together like army ants - is largely gone. In its place: legions of self-employed, self-directed workers, "units of one" in the parlance of New Economy trackers. These workers are loyal primarily to themselves.

Along with this shift in worker motivation stands an old American bugaboo - the notion of class.

Status and self-loyalty are the two biggest factors influencing how middle-class Americans view their work today.

These factors also lead us to behave in one of two ways:

1. We work to make money and to create more comfortable lives for ourselves and for our families. Work is not necessarily appreciated in itself, but for the goods it provides. Interpersonal relations at work are not strongly invested. The primary role of co-workers is to offer a basis for comparison. The individual is king. Attitude such as these are most pervasive among the middle-class and blue-collar levels of society.

2. We make an emotional investment in work. The job acts as a vehicle for self-fulfillment. In this case, work is more than a means to an end. It can also provide satisfaction and aid self-actualization, the archetypical upper-middle-class American value. Career paths are chosen so one can become "all that one can be" and have access to a broad palette of personal experiences.

The notion of self-actualization is clearly a lower priority for many blue-collar workers. For them, surviving, making ends meet, and keeping things together matter most. They put a premium on a sense of community and a common cause. To achieve this, they tend to want to surround themselves with people who share their goals and vision - people who also put a premium on predictability, security, and social order.

They are likely to become bigger than "units of one" by investing in the defense of such a symbolic community - giving teeth to the symbolism, for example, by collectively bargaining for better deals at work.

The central question today: Can a workforce with an overwhelmingly New Economy, free-for-all mindset take a page from the all-for-one tactics of laborers - and apply itself toward the loftier goal of bettering society?

The answer appears to be yes. And the motivation doesn't even have to be altruism. For professionals and managers, getting behind corporate goals can help further personal success. By identifying with their employers' objectives, they are likely to be more highly valued as employees and to achieve professional success.

Individualism and the pursuit of collective goals, in other words, can go hand in hand for this group. Professionals may even welcome being overworked as a condition for their professional success. "Working too hard" becomes an expression of company loyalty, and can be self-imposed.

This loyalty can be shallow, however, as it relies on contingent personal interest, instead of on a true commitment to higher ideals.

For lower-rung workers, investing in corporate goals makes less sense as a collective strategy. For them, maintaining distance from corporate goals often appears a better option, especially if their jobs offer few opportunities for self-fulfillment and mobility.

In the context of this group, becoming bigger than a "unit of one" is achieved primarily by investing in personal relationships at work, in neighborhoods, and in family lives. Meaning is found not in money or corporate success, but in affirming values.

There are reasons, however, why investment in corporate goals can present the same advantages for workers as it does for professionals. One ray of hope: a labor market that remains tight means that, at least to some degree, workers can shop around for employers with whom they find shared values. The Internet's information revolution allows more and more of them to drill into a given company to learn about its core values.

Of course, that degree of autonomy comes much easier in the world of skilled professionals. Usually free of the constraints of shift work, they typically have more flexibility over how they operate, and consequently, the number of hours they put in. Some also take the option of downgrading their standards of living (witness the "simple living" movement) while remaining comfortable.

Because workers devote more of their income toward covering necessities, they have considerably less leeway in this respect. A sizable number of them have to hold two jobs in order to ensure a decent income. In their case, being overworked is less "optional" than it is for professionals. For them, achieving an ideal balance between work and life may be an unreachable dream.

In a way, the success of the television program "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" exploits this failure. It offers to all the possibility of becoming rich quickly by deploying individual savvy and knowledge. Many of the questions it asks are resolutely low-brow, and knowing the answer does not require having a college degree. Hence, it makes the dream of social mobility and work/life balance possible.

Another way to move up is entrepreneurialism. Yet this sacred American value also mostly affects the relationship between individualism and investment in collective goals for professionals and managers. In the upper-middle class, success often largely depends on showing initiative and ambition. It is also often facilitated by changing employers every few years to maximize salary and work conditions, that is, by thinking of oneself as a free agent, autonomous from collectives - or at least from corporate interests.

In contrast, entrepreneurialism is a path that tends to reduce the prospects for success among workers. Blue-collar and lower white-collar workers often value long-term stability in jobs because it gives access to all kinds of seniority privileges. Moreover, working-class jobs often discourage autonomous decisionmaking and require obedience.

Nevertheless, interviews show that workers value entrepreneurialism and dream of being self-employed, although they rarely make this dream a reality.

So where do laborers and middle-class workers find common ground? Consumerism. It can be a means to demonstrate that one belongs to a larger unit, that one has membership in the wider society. The more one can afford, the more one can claim inclusion in a wider range of circles - even the most exclusive.

One bit of evidence of the convergence among classes and races: The fact that specialists in African-American marketing are spreading the message that blacks "belong" because they can afford to spend, too.

Such marketing provides the dubious message that membership is available to all through consumption of exclusive luxury goods - goods which, in fact, will always be available to a relatively small minority.

MTV videos that highlight highly conspicuous consumption by rap stars with poor, urban roots may have the same effect.

To a degree, in fact, this is largely an American phenomenon. French workers, for example, continue to be far more critical of the "upper half," and more skeptical about the values of those who flaunt wealth than are their American counterparts.

The French are less likely to measure morality - or the lack of it - in terms of economic success. They put more emphasis on alternative criteria of worth, ones separate from monetary success. They are more likely to focus on an individual's willingness to help, to show solidarity with the poor and other marginalized groups.

In much of Europe, commitment to corporate goals would not be viewed as a way of "becoming bigger than one," because corporate goals are viewed as private, by definition, and not necessarily linked to the public good. Many people abroad still lack the "activist shareholder" mentality that has taken hold in the United States.

One principal lesson can be drawn from Americans' evolution as workers: High on the ladder or low, a wage-earner's impact on society may ultimately be stronger if his or her efforts are directed toward establishing and defending personal values, rather than by blindly investing in corporate goals - or even lining up behind the goals of a group that has special interests in mind.

To identify the causes that would truly make them "bigger than one," workers of all stripes must learn to think beyond profitmaking, even as capitalism remains king.

The support of broad goals aimed at the common good could ultimately nourish their individualism, even as it helps them move beyond it.

Michele Lamont is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and the author of "The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration" (Harvard University Press, Russell Sage Foundation).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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