Money  /  Book Review

Work Sucks. What Could Salvage It?

New books examine the place of work in our lives—and how people throughout history have tried to change it.

Contrary to popular belief, the aspiration to self-employment is not intrinsic to the American character—it has a history. In Waterhouse’s telling, it is a product of the late twentieth century, particularly the economic crises of the seventies and eighties. During the prosperous decades after the Second World War, Waterhouse states, working for oneself wasn’t particularly appealing. Large corporations could afford to be relatively generous, at least to those workers (mostly white, mostly male) who executives felt were entitled to a decent standard of living. Workers desired, above all, a piece of this pie, which meant they often dreamed about “working for someone else.” In the March on Washington, Waterhouse writes, poor Black workers demanded not only “freedom” but “jobs,” a slogan which he contrasts with Richard Nixon’s program, a few years later, for “minority business enterprise.” At the other end of the class hierarchy, the young élites featured by William Whyte in “The Organization Man” evinced little interest in going into business by themselves, focussing their energies instead on climbing the corporate ladder.

Then, in the seventies, things fell apart: stagflation, oil shocks, jobless recoveries, financial turmoil. “The big, hierarchical corporations that had bestrode the business landscape in the 1950s and 1960s looked like outdated relics,” Waterhouse writes. The nation began to hearken to a new generation of business gurus and management experts who claimed that “the road to renewed growth would be paved by those brave risk-takers who embraced change and started their own companies.” The M.I.T. economist David Birch produced widely cited statistics popularizing the idea that small businesses were responsible for the vast majority of job creation in the U.S.––as high as eighty per cent. Birch’s studies had major methodological issues, as critics soon pointed out, and his findings were difficult to replicate, but the basic idea still rang true for a lot of Americans. “When upward promotion at a traditional job became out of reach for so many people,” as Waterhouse explains, the American Dream seemed to require “building a business yourself (or buying one), and reaping the rewards.”