Book World: What ails the American workplace – and a few ideas on how to fix it

|      William Grimes     |

AMERICANS have a few reasons for joy, right? The economy is strong and unemployment is low. Yet as the 2016 presidential election – and daily headlines since – reminds us, large swaths of the country are marinating in misery.

High-wage, union-protected jobs have gone the way of the buffalo, replaced by low-wage jobs in healthcare and the service industry.

Lifetime employment and the middle-class life that went with it have given way to short-term contract work and freelance gigs with no paid leave, healthcare benefits or pensions.

Uncertainty and turmoil reign, the offspring of that unholy trinity: globalisation, digitalisation and automation.

This is the terrain that Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a correspondent for the Atlantic, stalks in The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change.

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change by Ellen Ruppel Shell. – CURRENCY

It is a sweeping, snappily written survey that looks unsparingly at what the author calls “our national jobs disorder” – which she characterises as a constellation of ills that include low wages, stagnant incomes and sick corporate cultures.

The book also takes a critical look at America’s worship of entrepreneurship and high-tech heroes and questions the value of worker retraining and higher education.

There is a lot that’s wrong, and Shell expends a lot of energy looking into it. She is a lively, engaging writer, with a gift for translating economic abstractions into plain English.

The grim picture Shell paints is familiar in its outlines, but arresting examples add colour. In laying out her indictment of the economic status quo, Shell pursues some provocative lines of argument, although her appetite for statistics at times can turn manic. The idea of higher education for everyone is not, she argues, the panacea so many people think it is.

In many cases, she points out, it does little or nothing to increase earnings and can actually have a negative effect. The bottom 25 per cent of college graduates, she notes, earn no more than high school graduates, and students who have dropped out of college earn even less.

In any case, American education, as Shell describes it, is something of a con game that’s oriented too much toward the needs of employers. Her bete noire is the notorious skills gap – too many skilled manufacturing positions chasing too few skilled labourers. This, she maintains, is a hoax.

Citing a recent survey of manufacturers conducted by Paul Osterman of MIT and Andrew Weaver of the University of Illinois, she writes, “The problem was not that workers lacked skills but rather that employers could not find enough workers with even the most basic skills willing to take their low-paid jobs.”

All hope is not lost. In the second half of the book, Shell makes an impassioned plea for what she calls “sustainable and worthy work” outside “the vagaries of a fickle global marketplace”.

In the tradition of Thomas Carlyle and William Morris, she throws down a challenge: “to sort out and fiercely protect those elements of work that are essential not only to our economy and our democracy but to our very humanity.”

Travelling the world in seven-league boots, Shell talks to pioneers who are trying to redefine the meaning of work and transform the relationship of businesses to their employees and to the communities around them.

She meets, among others, a Finnish sausage maker, a motorcycle designer in Brooklyn and a self-employed broom maker in Kentucky. All have one trait in common, a determination to “get work right”.

To use the old revolutionary slogan, what is to be done? Shell turns for inspiration to business models like the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Cleveland, whose workers own shares in the company and have a voice in how it is run, and the Snellman sausage company in Finland, where workers are encouraged to “invest in themselves” by spending more time with their families or taking company-sponsored language courses.

Shell loves small workshops, quirky craftsmen and big public-policy ideas, like a guaranteed income, or cutting the workweek to 21 hours to create a labour shortage that would boost wages. She is, in full flight, utopian.

Shell has written a spirited “dare to dream” book with a tantalising promise, that “work as it can and should be is well within our reach”. Despite her detours into Neverland, she is persuasive enough to make it seem that it might even be true.

(Grimes is a former book critic for the New York Times).The Washington Post