Monday, December 05, 2005

The New York Times replaced the business pages today with a special section called "Outlook"; the section has a few business-trend stories and a lot of ads. The lead trend story is about "how much the corporate social contract has been transformed for managerial and skilled professional workers in America." It's a story the Times has run over and over again, under different bylines and in different words, for nearly a generation. And it's infuriating every time it runs:

When Vincent Papke joined I.B.M. in 1963, the implicit bargain was simple -- his labor and loyalty for security. Getting rich was not an expectation, but a steady job and regular raises were. The company, he recalled, was a kind of extended family. There were company basketball and softball teams, company activities for the kids, and company social gatherings like Christmas parties.

"They trained you," he said. "You worked hard, you played hard and you advanced." ...

Steven Cohn, 29, came to I.B.M. earlier this year with a very different mentality. He worked previously at an investment bank and an Internet advertising company, and then got an M.B.A., before signing up with I.B.M. as a software salesman.

Mr. Cohn has a checklist of things he looks for in an employer. He should be excited, he said, by the vision and strategy of the company, its management and by the opportunities he will have to make contributions, add to his skills and further his long-range career goals. Compensation, he said, should be based on merit and his market value.

The two men can be seen as bookends that illuminate how much the corporate social contract has been transformed for managerial and skilled professional workers in America. Clearly, the old loyalty-for-security bargain that underscored Mr. Papke's career is fading in corporate America. But what is the new social contract? What are the reasonable expectations of the rights and responsibilities of companies and workers these days?

Here's what's wrong with this: It tries to suggest that having some sort of job security is really no more valuable than being "excited" by such aspects of a job as the company's "vision and strategy," even though you could easily lose that job tomorrow. It implies that "excitement" is something young workers seek because that's the way they are -- as if they're completely acclimated to the new way of things and might not even want job security if it were offered. (It also implies that today's jobs really are incredibly exciting in ways that yesterday's weren't.)

So what is the new "social contract"?

... the new mantra is to have employees who are "productive" and "engaged," human resources experts say. Pay and bonuses are based on performance measures instead of seniority.

"It's an, 'If you give, you'll get' model," said David Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan business school. "That's kind of the productive contract."

For Mr. Cohn's generation, Professor Ulrich said, corporate loyalty is seen as a market transaction - a bond that will last as long as it clearly benefits both the employee and the company. "It's very much at-will employment," he said.

But it's not a market transaction between equals. Anyone with real-world experience knows that in today's work world you might not get no matter how much you give -- tomorrow, if your company no longer wants to remain in the field you're in, or if the work you do can be done about as well in Bangalore, you're out on your ass, and other employers who've used the skills you have may at the same time be making very similar decisions about hiring. Workers get for as long as employers wants to give, and merit is far from the sole determinant of how long that giving lasts.

This can be called a lot of things, but "social contract" isn't one of them.

I'm not trying to be utopian -- I don't think the clock can be turned back to the postwar era of lifetime employment. But I'd like the Times to acknowledge that that means workers have lost something -- that they always had the opportunity to look for greener pastures, even in the old days, so they haven't gained anything, but they have lost the option of giving loyalty and receiving security, and that's a real loss.

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