A Piece of Work

Three decades after the groundbreaking book Work in America, its authors tell us how things really turned out.

In 1973, a book appeared that would define the conversation about the American workplace for the next generation. Work in America was an unlikely hit, the report of a task force commissioned by Elliot L. Richardson, President Nixon’s secretary of health, education, and welfare. It was a rather academic assessment, rooted in research papers and scientific surveys. But the findings were explosive: They described “the alienation and disenchantment of blue-collar workers,” “the search by women for a new identity,” and “the quest of the aged for a respected and useful social role.”


The chairman of that task force was James O’Toole, then a young special assistant to Richardson; Edward E. Lawler III was part of a University of Michigan research team that produced the report’s key data. Now, 33 years later, O’Toole and Lawler–both at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California–have prepared a sequel using the same methods: The New American Workplace (Palgrave-Macmillan, July).

The New American Workplace is, in a way, an optimistic updating–not least because work actually has, for many people, become more fulfilling and democratic in the manner Work in America prescribed. But it also reckons with technological forces and a global economy that are radically and rapidly disrupting business organizations. “Our general conclusion,” the authors write, “is that, in far too many instances, the United States is attempting to implement tomorrow’s competitive strategies with yesterday’s managerial ideas and public policy infrastructure.”

We asked O’Toole and Lawler to revisit Work in America in the context of their more recent work. Their assessments follow excerpts from the original book.


On Job Satisfaction

“Significant numbers of American workers are dissatisfied with the quality of their working lives. Dull, repetitive, seemingly meaningless tasks offering little challenge or autonomy are causing discontent among workers at all occupational levels.”

Good news here: Surveys show American workers are more satisfied with their jobs today than they were in the 1970s. Much to our surprise, Americans also report higher satisfaction with their work than they do with other aspects of their lives. Have jobs become better or have personal relationships gotten worse?

On Self-Employment

“Our economic, political, and cultural system has fostered the notion of independence and autonomy, a part of which is the belief that a hardworking person… can always make a go of it in business for himself. This element of the American dream is rapidly becoming myth…. The trend of the past 70 years or more… has been a decrease in small, independent enterprises and self-employment, and an increase in the domination of large corporations and government in the workforce.”


Thank goodness that trend reversed itself: In 2002, the Census Bureau reported that 17.6 million Americans worked for, and by, themselves. When enterprising Americans are laid off by corporations, they increasingly become independent consultants, contractors, landscape gardeners, and computer coaches. If it hadn’t been for the growth in self-employment during the prolonged 2001-2003 recession and accompanying downsizing, the nation’s unemployment rate would have been really alarming.

Indeed, it appears that working alone in homes, cars, hotel rooms, libraries, Wi-Fi cafés, Starbucks, and FedEx Kinko’s is gradually replacing working with others in traditional offices, factories, and stores. We find that one of the major sources of societal discontent is the loss of the “community” that was once found in traditional workplaces. While freedom is a good thing, it is hard to put a happy face on the increasing social isolation of the American worker.

On Women At Work

“What is the quality of working life for women in the labor force? The job of secretary is perhaps symbolic of the status of female employment in this country, both qualitatively and quantitatively. There are 9 million secretaries, and they compose nearly one-third of the nation’s female workforce. Judy Klemesrud has written that the secretary is often stereotyped as a ‘gum-chewing sex kitten; husband hunter; miniskirted ding-a-ling; slow-witted pencil pusher; office gofer; reliable old shoe.’ Certainly, many secretaries have very poor jobs by the accepted standards of job satisfaction.”


Here is an area of clear progress: The government does not even keep statistics on “secretaries” anymore, and the great majority of women are no longer trapped in low-paying “women’s jobs” as they were in the past. The gender wage gap has closed remarkably–particularly as women are now more likely than men to attend college and thus, get better jobs.

On Retirement

“The thrust toward ‘early’ retirement calls into doubt the very meaning of ‘retirement.’… [R]ecent analysis of census data indicates that older men increasingly do not and will not want to retire at age 65.”

Wow, did we get that right! Americans’ deferral of retirement is good news for corporations as we head toward a labor crunch with the aging of the boomer generation. Alas, the willingness of Americans to soldier on is not simply a voluntary response among work-loving men and women who are living longer, healthier lives and want to feel productive. Many workers want to retire, but they are not able to do so “in comfort”: Boomers are discovering that the once-prevalent company pension plans that funded their parents’ retirements will not be able to pay for theirs.


On Trade Unions

“As Irving Bluestone of the UAW writes, ‘Just as management is beginning to ponder the new problems of discontent and frustration in the workforce, so must unions join in finding new ways to meet these problems.’ If new ways are to be charted and accepted, the trade-union movement must be among the initiators of new demands for the humanization of work.”

The unions had their chance and blew it. Inexplicably, union leaders did not play a significant role in the efforts in the 1970-1980s era to improve the quality of work life in America. Their failure undercut their power and credibility. It might also be argued that when unions walked away from promising experiments to improve American industrial competitiveness through worker participation in decision making and profit sharing, they contributed to the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs in U.S. Rust Belt industries. And there is no doubt that their failure to respond to their members’ desire for improved working conditions contributed to the decline of industrial trade unionism.

On Worker Involvement

“Most of the work redesign effort has confined itself to small work groups. Little of it has embraced the wider implications of the system’s viewpoint and involved a plant or a corporation as a whole. The major exception to this trend is a General Foods manufacturing plant that was designed to incorporate features that would provide a high quality of working life, enlist unusual human involvement, and achieve high productivity…. [I]ndustrial engineers had indicated that 110 workers would be needed to man the plant. But when the team concept was applied… the result was a manning level of less than 70 workers…. [And] the major economic benefit has come from such factors as improved yields, minimized waste, and avoidance of shutdowns.”


The Gaines dog-food plant in Topeka, Kansas, became the most talked about factory in America since Henry Ford’s first assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan. The bad news: Within a few years, General Foods executives decided against applying its high-involvement management approach at the company’s other facilities. They then added layers of managers and supervisors in the plant until the productivity of the once-self-managing workers was whittled down to the company average!

The good news: Over the next few years, other companies (most notably Procter & Gamble) copied practices introduced in the plant, including the empowerment of work teams to choose their methods of production, to allocate their own tasks, to set their own schedules, and to recruit new members. Today, many U.S. manufacturing plants and customer-service organizations operate with self-managing work teams, flat hierarchies, and financial-gain-sharing plans.

On Obstacles To Change

“So far, we have seen that the redesign of work is feasible, that a careful alteration of jobs can lead to participation in responsibility and profits, and that the precise nature and extent of participation is a matter for experimentation within each workplace. [So] why not simply get out of the way to avoid being crushed in the stampede? The answer is, of course, ‘it isn’t as easy as it looks.’ Single remedies (e.g., ‘job enrichment,’ ‘job rotation,’ ‘management by objectives’) abound for the ills of work. Such efforts have failed because there is no single source of job dissatisfaction. In brief, the bad experiences of employers in the past have led them to ask: ‘Whom can I trust?’ “


We were naive. We failed to recognize that the greatest obstacles to high-involvement workplaces are the attitudes and assumptions of top executives. Many are still threatened by the prospect of worker participation. And too many leaders of American corporations still believe they have “no choice” but to match the working conditions and employment practices of their lowest-wage competitors at home and, increasingly, abroad.

They are wrong. In 2006, the most promising fact we are able to document is the existence of high-involvement, high-wage, high-profit companies in almost every industry–for example, Southwest Airlines, Nucor Corp., W.L. Gore & Associates, Xilinx Inc., Harley-Davidson Inc., UPS, Costco Wholesale Corp., and Alcoa Inc., to cite just a few. These are productive and growing companies that have lower labor costs overall than their low-wage competitors. Because these companies involve their workers in decision making, reward them fairly for their efforts, and provide them with good training and career opportunities, their employees reciprocate the favor in terms of much higher productivity than workers in comparable low-wage companies. As executives at Starbucks explain, they are able to offer unusually high benefits to their employees not because they charge a premium for their product, but because their productive, customer-sensitive employees allow the company to realize a premium for the products and services they offer.

The bottom line: All the evidence shows that workers who participate in decision making, training, profit sharing, and stock ownership are so much more productive than workers who don’t enjoy these working conditions that they pay for their own higher salaries and benefits. They also work to keep jobs in America.