Sennett bemoans downfall of skills economy

Richard Sennett addressed an audience last Thursday decrying the decline of a skills-based economy in the United States
Richard Sennett addressed an audience last Thursday decrying the decline of a skills-based economy in the United States

“If you’re part of the elite, this is a great country to be in. Otherwise, it is not,” said Richard Sennett, co-founder of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, during a lecture last Thursday. Sennett’s talk, “Falling Behind: The Skills Economy Becomes Weak,” focused on inconvenient economic truths and marked the second in a three-part lecture series that the College is hosting about the future of capitalism.
After an introduction by Olga Shevchenko, associate professor of sociology, Sennett wasted no time arriving at his thesis: Modern capitalism of the kind found in America is inimical to the formation of skills, he said, and the resulting “de-skilling” of workers will ultimately lead to America’s decline.
Sennett began his criticism of modern capitalism by familiarizing his audience with the traditional logic behind off-shoring and outsourcing. According to Sennett, consensus used to hold that that American employers “would keep the good stuff and send away the poor-quality, non-skilled work.” However, Sennett said that outsourcing showed its problems in the crude distinction it made between skilled and unskilled labour, entirely neglecting semi-skilled labor. The latter, according to Sennett, acts as a bridge of sorts towards more skilled work or, in some cases, entrepreneurial independence.
To bolster his assertion, Sennett cited the example of Indian call center workers who were able to pick up communication skills on the job and eventually launch their own businesses. Another example Sennett brought up was that of Chinese seamstresses who parlayed their semi-skilled jobs into an education in logo design, commercialization and management. He lamented the loss of these semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing and services – which he sees as crucial vehicles of upward mobility – and blamed American corporations that “had no idea people could convert semi-skilled work into an asset.” Sennett imputed the corporations’ ignorance of semi-skilled work’s valuable potential to American capitalism’s degrading view of lower middle-class and semi-skilled workers.
According to Sennett, neglecting semi-skilled work has polarized America’s work force: there exist highly-skilled jobs on one end and a large number of what he called “McJobs” that generate no skills on the other end, with few opportunities in between.
Sennett also argued that American capitalism has, by virtue of its focus on short-term returns, fundamentally altered the nature of work and business. “Jobs are replacing careers while firms themselves are becoming chameleon corporations,” Sennett said. He noted that the average time an American spends in the same job has fallen from 14.6 years in 1976 to three years in 2003. A consequence of increasingly transitory jobs and ever-changing core businesses is that few incentives for developing skills remain. “If an employee no longer has a long-term career, why invest in him or her? And if a company keeps changing identity, skills can’t be developed in workers over time,” Sennett said.
Another element of American society that Sennett singled out for its corrosive effect on skill acquisition is “the belief that really good work can only be done by exceptional people.”
Sennett said that this belief has created a system that seeks outstanding people and lavishes them with resources while scanting everyone else, that is, the vast majority of people. Sennett noted the imbalance in funding between community colleges and well-endowed private institutions, an example that may have hit particularly close to home for the audience here at the College.
During the question and answer session, Sennett clarified that while he would prefer there to be more semi-skilled jobs in America, he does not advocate a return to protectionism, which he sees as a negative proposition. Instead, he would rather see the United States and Britain invest more money in small businesses rather than in larger ones, as he believes the former are more effective at developing human capital.
In concluding the lecture, Sennett expressed his desire to see the U.S. emulate the German model, where unions provide entry training programs for incoming workers and firms are mandated by law to take on apprentices.
However, Sennett’s expectations for change remain low. “Democrats are almost as right wing as the Republicans, and the two political sides look like one reactionary force,” he said.
His lecture was sponsored by the Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum, the Lecture Committee and the Oakley Center. The three-part lecture series concludes next Wednesday with a talk by James Fallows, a noted journalist who will speak on “China Rising.”