New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle is a mild and measured man, but he has hit his boiling point. "Everyone who talks to me about the book wants to make it about finding an enemy or blaming or politics ... they don't get it, and you don't either," he says in an interview. "This is not a book about unemployment. It's simply a book that sticks to what happens to people after they've been laid off." That is exactly what will make his new book,
The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (Knopf, March 28, $25.95, 304 pages), difficult for many to digest. He simply tells what happens to workers, blue- and white-collar alike, after they are laid off, and the stories taken together paint a picture of Americans unable to fully recover from the toll that two decades of downsizing have had on productivity and dignity. In doing so, he challenges conventional business reporting, political rhetoric and Wall Street wisdom that says layoffs are the best way to cut costs, that a constantly shifting workforce is the law of the land, and that caring about workers is antithetical to good business. Using anecdotal and statistical evidence, Uchitelle reminds readers that before the layoff became a popular and socially acceptable form of cost-cutting, it was a sign of corporate failure and a violation of acceptable business behavior. That's because corporate America decided that a dedicated highly skilled labor force was the most efficient and profitable way to manage capitalism's most unruly and unpredictable variable: the worker. Over the course of 90 years, companies began to trade job security, pensions and profit-sharing for dedication, skill and motivation. He also fairly lays out the economic forces, primarily globalization, that made the American version of job security an economic liability, allowing the system that took nearly a century to create to be undone in about two decades.
"There's no question we don't have the hegemony we once had, and we're not going to reverse the global economy and layoffs," Uchitelle tells me. "But we can recognize what we've done and what the real costs are." The book holds that three myths allow layoffs to be seen as a margin-boosting panacea rather than a sign of corporate and social malady. The first is that all these layoffs will eventually result in a revitalized corporate America. But even as profit margins grow, there is no end to the firings of working- or professional-class employees. And, he argues, this level of instability will eventually hurt companies. "What started as a legitimate response to America's declining hegemony has become an unending, debilitating condition," he adds. The second myth Uchitelle examines is that the laid-off must save themselves. In the face of corporations bent on using only the cheapest workers, no amount of job training or extra education will make a personnel professional in Manhattan as desirable as one who lives in a cheaper city. In the book, Uchitelle uses Citigroup ( C) as an example, a company that farmed out call-center work to people in Dublin, Ireland, and eventually did away with the very human resources team that had helped employees deal with the fact that their jobs had been outsourced. These professionals face a bleak future, he contends, given the fact that their skill level would not save them from a corporation that embraced layoffs as the ultimate solution. The third myth, he contends, is that the merits of layoffs are entirely measurable in dollars and cents. Americans are trained to think of our worth in terms of the fact that we can work, he shows, and destabilizing that part of ourselves, he argues, destabilizes more than just our economy.
"The laid-off are cut loose from their moorings and rarely achieve in their next jobs a new and satisfactory sense of themselves," he writes in the book. "Layoffs damage companies by undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and got jobs again." While his first two points may ring true for most, the third is the one most likely to be dismissed as pap. Like it or not, there are plenty of people who don't care about the fact that laid-off workers may suffer from depression, are often forced to take a more menial or worse-paying job, or that private lives are damaged by the loss of a job and the esteem it confers. And since this is the overarching theme of the book, The Disposable American may not prove ultimately convincing. Uchitelle may be able to reach some doubters, because this book is not a treacly ode to "made in America" sentimentality. It's a straightforward, matter-of-fact and sincerely saddening elegy to the American worker. His frustration during our interview can be felt throughout the book, because it is shared by all of the people he interviewed -- people from all walks of life who were axed in the name of cost cuts, and then unable to match their original positions in pay, prestige or challenge. When asked what his solution would be, Uchitelle does not want another toothless bill or a Democrat-vs.-Republican fight for the hearts and minds of the people. It would be a start, he says in our interview, for the nation to acknowledge that "we've given up on trying to figure out what value job security still has." "Just the effort to figure out
a new reason to value job stability will bring us together," he says. "And then you have an entirely different debate."
The The Disposable American forces us to think harder about whether downsizing alone will give corporate America its edge back -- the downfall of a company like General Motors ( GM) would imply that it won't -- and to understand that even if GM is saved, its workers may be lost. And how can we have a dedicated workforce, an innovative workforce, under these circumstances? Will we still be able to produce Americans who believe that there's anything worth fighting for if it's not even worth it to fight for our jobs? One could argue that a successful book would offer responses to this new debate, and Uchitelle does not convincingly do this. But he deserves credit for putting the hard questions on the table, and we can only hope that Americans together try to answer these questions.