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The Human Costs

By Jack Powers

Originally published August 15, 1995

I hate the 90s.

I just got off the phone with a guy I’ve only met once or twice, but whose story I know by heart. He works for a little publishing company that just got bought out by a slighter bigger publishing company, and everything he’s worked for over the last 25 years is about to turn to dust. The new company’s management meatballs are running around "rightsizing" everything: firing half the staff, killing new projects, moving production to the home office in Jersey, chiseling away the perks and lying to everybody about how rosy the future will be. The buyers went into hock so deep to pay for their new toy that they have to rape it just to come up with the vigorish for the loan shark investment bankers.

I spend a large part of my time in other people’s companies, seeing first hand the difference between what the bosses think is going on and what’s happening in the real world. Sit through the top management strategy sessions, the mission statement debates and the executive retreats and you’d think that business in the future will consist of a few deep thinkers wheeling and dealing at the helms of "technology-enabled" companies that suck every last ounce of white collar productivity out of a work force that’s a troublesome but necessary evil.

I’m not saying that things can’t be more efficient, that some operations haven’t gotten fat and lazy and need a good housecleaning, that some companies shouldn’t be allowed to die when their time comes. I’m not advocating carrying losers, investing in failure or going back to hot type. But the great sickness that has come over American industry in the last five years is not simply a desire to make things better, it’s a fanatical zeal to "re- engineer" business so that it can get by without human beings, without continuity, without fun.

Sometimes, the meatballs just chop 10% of all costs on the bonehead theory that everybody can get by with 10% less. Sometimes they farm out work to an outside company because they think it’s cheaper (more likely because they don’t know what it really costs in-house). And sometimes they look to technology as the magic potion that will cut fat and accelerate the profit curve.

But technology is not an unencumbered good. Think of the decades of office time that are wasted every day because secretaries have been replaced by voicemail, word processors and email. There’s nobody to filter the information stream, to follow-up with a client, to remind you that the boss’s birthday is next Friday.

In the publishing business, we’ve killed off thousands of typesetters, prepress shops and art studios in the 90s. Think of the legions of frustrated designers trying to hack a perfect page through Quark instead of just pasting the damned thing up on a mechanical. Or the weeks every month you’ve stared at the Macintosh wristwatch icon because your department can afford a Mac network but won’t spend the extra money for Ethernet. Sure we get to press faster, maybe the layouts are jazzier, and it could even be that the whole process ultimately costs less, but nobody ever figures up the human costs of all this technology or the havoc this cost-cutting frenzy wreaks on many lives.

My friend who’s facing the hatchet was unlucky enough not to get chopped in the first cut. The people who lost their careers in the first round didn’t see it coming; it was quick, like going down in a plane crash. For the folks who are left, it’s more like being trapped in a submarine that you know will never see the sun again. Day by day, the air is getting staler and the food is running out. One by one, people give in to despair; a few start to disappear. And all the time, the people who own the submarine keep telling you over the radiophone that everything will be OK if you just don’t move around a lot and use up too much air.

Life in a downsizing company is a great test of character. Do you do your job the best you can, or do you coast along because the owners are unworthy of your best efforts? Do you go along with the management program, cutting your own workers and killing off speculative projects, or do you fight to get the limited resources assigned to the things you believe in? Do you bitch and moan to everybody you talk to about your situation, or do you try to keep up appearances by lying to the customers about how well things are going? Do you let the resentment eat your guts out, or do you brush off your resume and hit the bricks?

In the 90s, the old career deal of allegiance for security has been broken. Work loyally and diligently for a couple of decades and you used to get a cushier job every few years, a raise that kept you satisfied, and some stake in the business you helped to make. You also built a history in your field, got to understand the relationships between people and between companies, and learned your business inside out.

In creative fields like publishing, advertising and marketing, people were once considered the primary asset. The old saying was that the inventory goes home in the elevator every night at 5 p.m. Today, for many technology-bedazzled, change-obsessed management strategists, people are just overhead, fungible cogs in the commercial wheel, dopes who can’t adapt to the latest greatest technology or see the big picture. And the older you are--the more you make, the more you know--the more burden you are.

There are two silver linings, though. First, the meatballs almost never last, and they’ll get downsized themselves by the next generation of "change agents." Second, getting canned is probably the best thing that can happen to most people. Hundreds of thousand of downsizees have taken the brains, vision and experience that used to be pledged to some boss and used it to build new careers, to start new companies, to develop untapped talents. Some get started in business by doing their old jobs as off-the-books contract "consultants," others spend some time at home getting re-acquainted with their families. Many are working out of their second bedrooms in the more than 40 million home offices that have blossomed in America in the last decade.

It’s a much tougher life, being your own boss, taking responsibiliy for your own success, leaving the security of a 30 year job. But there’s no going back to the good old 60s, 70s and 80s and we may as well get used to a world in which the people with the best job security are the freelances without steady jobs.\\



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