The Virtual Job

By Nash, Laura L. | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

The Virtual Job


Nash, Laura L., The Wilson Quarterly


Something very odd is going on in the American corporate workplace. Employees are being told to prepare for a radical new condition of permanent insecurity, a future full of sporadic layoffs, endless efforts to upgrade job skills, and perpetually recombining work teams of insiders and "outsourcers." Continuous corporate "rightsizing" will dictate a "portfolio career" strategy: Since workers will no longer spend their careers with one or two employers, accumulating a portfolio of portable skills will be essential. Yet even as the corporation encourages "hard" qualities such as self-reliance and adaptability, it is also rushing headlong toward a supposedly kinder, gentler ethos. Large firms in particular are providing a growing variety of programs and social supports for those who remain under the corporate umbrella--however long that may be. The new formula might be described as a "love the one you're with" approach.

The turmoil in the workplace is being presented as stimulating and exciting, an opportunity for personal and professional growth. The modern corporation will supply precious training and experience, Fortune said recently in describing the "new deal" between employers and employees, and workers in turn will be expected to act like entrepreneurs (or "intrapreneurs,") within the corporation: Find a way to "add value to the organization" and you get a new job. Fail and you look for a job elsewhere. But that is not so bad. "If the old arrangement sounded like binding nuptial vows," says Fortune, "the new one suggests a series of casual, thrilling--if often temporary--encounters."

One might almost be tempted to conclude that a new age of self-actualizing individualism is dawning. Released from the paternalistic and hierarchical strictures of the old corporation, the new employee will be free to blaze his or her own professional trail while the corporation stands by to help tend to personal needs that might impair performance, from child care to treatment for alcoholism. At the same time, it is also possible to see these developments as disturbing signs of an emerging form of corporatism in which areas of life once thought to be strictly private are increasingly regulated by a supposedly beneficent corporation. Those without ties to such a large institution will be spared such intrusions, of course, but may also be forced to go without many of the benefits accompanying it. Despite its simultaneous appeal to humanism and good economic sense, this new corporatism may not be kinder and gentler at all, and it may not even be all that good for business.

Even as it downsizes and rightsizes, the large American corporation is increasingly assuming the role of a nanny. In 1992, benefits accounted for 32 percent of employee pay and were the fastest-growing element of compensation. Benefits include not only the traditional health insurance and pensions but a broad array of other goodies, ranging from those of the sensible-shoes variety (job training and tuition reimbursements at $35 billion annually) to more exotic offerings. Employer-provided legal services, for example, have increased sevenfold in the last decade. The corporate reach increasingly extends into what was once considered private life. Employer-sponsored health maintenance organizations, with their sometimes intrusive in-house "wellness" programs (Stop smoking! Lose weight!) are becoming part of the corporate way of life. Child-care programs of various kinds are proliferating, and among forward-looking people in the business world there is talk of the need to transform child care into "dependent care" programs providing various benefits to employees with elderly parents.

It is not unusual for today's large corporation to offer fitness programs, marriage counseling, substance-abuse detection and treatment, AIDS counseling, diversity training, creative-thinking seminars, treatment of depression, diet and nutrition oversight, yoga instruction, interpersonal-relations counseling, and personal financial planning.

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