A Society of Broken Eggs: Richard Sennett on a Growing Gulf between the Metropolitan Elite and the Rest. (the NS Essay 1)

By Sennett, Richard | New Statesman (1996), December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Society of Broken Eggs: Richard Sennett on a Growing Gulf between the Metropolitan Elite and the Rest. (the NS Essay 1)

Sennett, Richard, New Statesman (1996)

A few years ago, I was doing fieldwork in Silicon Valley, California, when the company I was studying suddenly announced a merger with a competitor. As the company's public address system triumphantly blared out the financial details, the engineers in my office got angry; no one had consulted them, the merger made no sense on the ground, they feared for their jobs. When I asked them what they were going to do about it, the mood suddenly shifted; the angriest person in the room looked down and muttered: "Nothing, I suppose."

That reply -- "nothing, I suppose" -- sums up not just a response to the immense recent changes in corporate life, but also an attitude among ordinary citizens towards political institutions and politicians, the media and civil society.

Resignation is two-sided. In part, it expresses anger and antipathy to the powers who control institutions. In the course of research into the phenomenon, I and my colleagues have found that, in the health service, doctors' most frequent response to the policy plans of their bosses is "they just don't get it". The other side of institutional resignation is apathy; you can't do anything about it, and so you just don't care. This is the kind of dis-involvement that car produce low voter turnout.

The boom of the past decade made tangible a kind of institution a change much longer in the making, one that will persist even as the boom ends. This change is an effort to replace mastodons with cats: to transform hierarchical bureaucratic pyramids into more flexible organisations, able to move easily and to adapt quickly.

The change began in the private economy as share-buyers, awash with capital and seeking short-term profits, looked to invest in businesses that were agile enough to respond to global changes in the demand for goods and services. Businesses had to respond in two ways. First, they had to become flatter, which meant reducing the links in the bureaucratic chain of command. For instance, IBM, a company that nearly went under in the new economy, had 26 links (that is, 26 bureaucratic layers) in their chain of command during the 1980s; after 1993, when IBM began to save itself, it reduced the links to just nine.

Second, companies had to become shorter, in their time frames. They had to focus on short-term projects and products in order to swim in the shifting global current. They also had to transform the stability of the organisation itself: long-long employment went to the wall, seniority ceased to be a source of privilege, companies outsourced as much as possible to reduce their permanent staff.

During the boom, the companies that most visibly operated flat and short were financial service and hi-tech firms, but the changes cut much deeper. Our research suggests that the bigger a firm, or the more involved it was in the global economy -- whatever its product -- the more the company came under pressure to organise itself in these ways.

Flat and short came to serve as guides for remaking the public sector as well. It is often said that Margaret Thatcher forced public services to behave like businesses, but these are changes that really became apparent as the first Blair government tried to reform health, education and transport. In the United States, too, Bill Clinton did to public services what Ronald Reagan never dared do.

Flat and short have a paradoxical effect: they energise people at the top, and depress people lower down. "Short" wreaks havoc on institutional loyalty. As in a marriage, you say: if you are not going to commit to me through thick and thin, why should I commit to you? The attack on seniority rooted out time-servers, but at the price of diminishing the loyalty of others; sheer service to the institution lost its value. So disengagement began to appear in the ranks of people who, in the old mastodon organisations, found a stable identity through committing to the places they worked in.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Society of Broken Eggs: Richard Sennett on a Growing Gulf between the Metropolitan Elite and the Rest. (the NS Essay 1)


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?