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Category: Reflections Date: 26 Apr 04


I'll eat the swanky high-heeled shoes which have already broken an ankle if any employee of government or private sector hasn't been subjected to a boring but deeply menacing spiel like this one from management as exquisitely exposed in last week's Guardian Weekly by journalist Larry Elliott:


"We must become more flexible and dynamic. Rigidities in the economy must be eliminated so that we can be more competitive when facing the new global challenge."


Here is Elliott's translation of the spiel. Here's what politicians and managers are REALLY saying:

"We must become more flexible (accept lower pay) and dynamic (enjoy fewer in-work benefits). Rigidities (trade unions and welfare states) must be eliminated so that we can be more competitive (companies can make larger profits and pay less tax) when facing the global challenge (if you don't like it, buster, there are plenty of people in low-wage countries willing to take your job).


Elliott says this is called "tough love", an "unshakeable article of faith from corporations, lending agencies, and central bankers worldwide that flexibility is the key to lower unemployment.”


As Elliott strenuously and convincingly argues, this notion is a fallacy. The whole "flexibility" ruse is only really applicable to youth with low skills. In the US and the UK, who have signed up for this particular orthodoxy, unemployment rates are worse than for their counterparts in Europe (none of which believe in "flexibility”).


The Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Austria, he says, have higher employment and greater protection for workers. "Flexibility" simply widens the gulf between the rich and poor, providing the better off with a source of cheap and insecure labour.


The Guardian Weekly writer further refers to David Howell and Friedrich Huebler whose investigations reveal that more inequality in the labour markets does not lead to higher employment.


These academics argue that a nation's labour market institutions reflect its values and suggest that it actually makes economic sense to protect low-skilled workers from extremely low wages while simultaneously providing better education and training for them. These countries exist and thrive. "And there are those countries," Elliott concludes, "where 'dynamism' really means a lack of decency."


This excellent piece in the Guardian Weekly initially interested me not for the economics but because of how globalisation has altered the psyches of people everywhere.


Job insecurity at all levels has destroyed an essential innocence in workers. Who are they? Just people-mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, friends.


So that today's workplace (unless their employer is smart, and really looks out for the staff) are caverns of backbiting, fake supplication, tight fake smiles, rings, circles where people whisper, hoping to crawl over someone while kicking them all the way down, pools of fear and barely contained dislike. Then there's the stress and its attendant clawing on the body - exema, migraines, panic attacks, stomach aches, eating binges.


There is no empathy here, and a real conversation, where people are honest, is impossible.


It's called survival, I hear you saying. It's about paying for the babysitter, and the formula, and the mortgage. It's about travel money and doctor's bills.


Yes, but what does it do to people? Besides creating bitter little corners in their mouths which proclaim the unfairness of the world, there is a loss of humanity, along with the innocence, stuff that is required to allow us to do cartwheels to the new moon under some unruly blossoms well into middle age and beyond.  It's an atrophy of the spirit.


People of my generation were brought up with formulas for life, and in the peak of our lives -dare say our mid lives-we find they don't work anymore in this world which is far more frightening that the one our parents lived in.


We were taught by our parents, teachers, grandparents, to be reticent about taking that last piece of cake, to be modest, to be polite, always, always to be fair. We were taught about friendship, of taking in a friend, of helping with a loan, of being there with someone in the hospital. They disarmed us! They left us defenseless!


Somewhere along there, with harsh words and tenderness, we were injected with a conscience. So that we owned up when we did wrong. We learned that it was strong, not weak to say sorry, thank you.


Didn't they know the rules have changed? That we would be pilloried for following the old way, their way?


There was the time when we reached for other people by being truthful about our own flaws as a means of saying none of us is perfect, so here we are, face to face, human to human.


The rules changed. That does not work. What can be used against you, will.


And forget reticence. That's just seen as cowardly. And forget modesty. That means that you're no good. If you're brazen, loud, forceful. That works.


Once I walked ahead of my mother through a door, failing to hold it open for her. I just walked through. My father, while chastising me, told me something I never forgot. When the small courtesies go, the big ones go. So even though I am stuck between generations, even if people take courtesy for weakness, I tell my children, even if people kick you in the teeth for it you will have to do it, you will have to be honest with yourself, and you will have to be fair, and you cannot take advantage of the weak because otherwise you're not winning. You're denying yourself precious innocence, of some essential humanity.


The consolation is that Machiavellian stuff in the workplace doesn't work. It doesn't even make economic sense.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur