When IBM made the first of its layoff announcements a year ago, it was shocking, like learning that the picture-perfect WASP couple down the street was breaking up. Here was final proo" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

Broken trust By Debra Goldma

When IBM made the first of its layoff announcements a year ago, it was shocking, like learning that the picture-perfect WASP couple down the street was breaking up. Here was final proo

By contrast, hardly anybody was surprised two weeks ago when Procter & Gamble conceded that it planned to prune employee rolls in the coming months. The trims weren’t even related to immediate bottom-line pressures. Rather, P&G seemed to be making the cuts because it’s the ’90s, and it’s the corporate thing to do.
Workplace divorce has become socially acceptable, even fashionable, and long-term relationships between employer and employee have become passe. In a recent survey by the American Association of Manufacturers, one in four companies in the U.S. say they will give out pink slips in the next 12 months. Of the companies that are hiring, most are seeking the workplace equivalent of one-night stands–temporary workers and consultants-to avoid such ties and obligations as health care and pensions. You can almost hear the corporate powers wondering, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
The irony, of course, is that the middle-aged, whitecollar, educated workers who are the primary victims of this sea change have been through all this before in then’ private lives about 20 years ago. Commitophobia, faithlessness, the ubiquity of divorce: This stuff is so old that the culture has already come out the other end. Society’s new icons are the father with a baby pressed to his chest and the sexy, monogamous couple. Loyalty and commitment are the touted aspirations. But in the workplace, employers are acting like a 50-year-old in a midlffe crisis, dumping longtime employees for some floozy of a temp.
“I have to be prepared every day for my job to disappear,” one woman says matter-of-factly in a recent Fortune cover story. But then it’s women, so imperfectly integrated into the corporate power structure, who are more likely to be matter-of-fact about this situation. Men, on the other hand, feel as vulnerable as unskilled housewives, fearful of being cut off from the source of their financial support, identity and self-worth.
Another cover story on the same subject, this one in the latest U.S. News and World Report, paints emotionally wounded IBMers as middle-aged divorcees bitterly sifting through the ashes of 8, 12 or 25 years of devoted commitment. These Big Blue refugees are attending support groups, where they vent their anger and sense of loss. And, like most divorced women, these men are much poorer. All that’s missing is the Harvard study declaring these men have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than getting another job at their old salary level.
Reading the media’s rendering of the job crisis, you get the feeling that a job seeker has about as much chance of finding a long-term relationship in today’s workplace as a single at a disco, circa 1978. And without going so far as to blame the new corporate commitophobia for the resurrection of platform shoes, I can’t help but think there’s something very retro going on here.
The advantage of having lived this scenario before is that we have some idea how it will turn out. I’d bet that history will record this corporate downsizing as the platform shoes of the ’90s. Looking back on this period, we’ll see that it was fashionable for companies to “find themselves” at the expense of their relationship to their employees. Unburdened by loyalty, workers, too, are looking out for numero uno–the only one they can count on in an insecure world. It’s doubtful that companies will ultimately find commitophobia any more satisfying than private individuals did. The last 20 years of our collective domestic lives teach that there are certain ties which, over the long run, people cannot do without.
Yet when the rapprochement between employers and employees comes, it will not be anything like the old relationship, no more than the rapprochement between the sexes resembles the old compact. The loyal IBM employee of myth, his white shirt as neatly starched as the apron of a full-time homemaker, will be as rare as, well, a full-time homemaker.
Displaced workers will discover that self-determination, independence and control over how and where they work–thanks partly to computers, which are to the workplace revolution what birth control was to the sexual revolution—will be compensation for the loss of security. And having tasted this freedom, they’ll be unlikely to give it up.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)