Blood, sweat and anxiety

After Success - Talking Work
November 15, 1996

These two books deal with changes in the labour market, the nature and experience of work as reflected in personal history interviews. Both give a voice to the workers and managers who are at the sharp end of the many changes in work structures and practices.

Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook present a series of oral history accounts of the experiences of working-class people in the 20th century. Although these accounts successfully chart the changing experience of work, they contain little that is new or surprising. The language and images are very familiar: dirty, sweating men in mines, showers of sparks in steel mills, lines of women bent over machines. They do however evoke strongly the physical commitment required by heavy industry, the sheer boredom of much labour, the lack of personal autonomy and control except through a unionisation tied to traditional concepts of work.

The rise and fall of labour during the 20th century is particularly salient in the accounts given by those involved in the miners' strike and the mass redundancies in the steel industry in the 1980s, who present powerful images of confrontation between workers and state. Grown men cry, communities are shattered. Some interviewees mention appearing on news and current affairs programmes; their stories complement and reinforce the mass-mediated images of work in the 20th century. Accounts of contemporary workers reflect a postindustrial landscape of exclusion, risk, exploitation and despair.

In stark contrast, Ray Pahl interviews the beneficiaries of the 1980s: successful managers who participated in the public-sector entre-preneurial revolution or raced up the fast track of the leaner, fitter service industries. He suggests that these changes have produced a form of achievement motivation akin to compulsive disorder, for these people are full of angst and stripped of humanity. They have lost their balance in a headlong rush into the success culture of postindustrial Britain.

What emerges from both books are two historical trajectories with very different outcomes: a displaced, disempowered and disillusioned working class who live in fear of exclusion from economic and social life, and a group of anxious, self-obsessed, repressed achievers. Two accounts of hell: the disinherited and the lost souls. Social exclusion is now more the result of economic forces that demand the restructuring of work practices than of culturally reproduced social class divisions. Alongside that change is the impact of technical innovation on the nature of work. What results is both unreasonable pressure on those in work and the failure of the new service industries to provide enough employment to reduce the numbers excluded to manageable proportions.

Blackwell and Seabrook's edited transcripts are accompanied by cursory authorial comments, with no account of sampling or the conduct of interviews. Pahl, in contrast, has a strong authorial voice, privileging his interpretation over the interview material. In his interpretations he appropriates the psychoanalytic work of Karen Horney and Melanie Klein. He suggests that the new entrepreneurial culture has encouraged administrators and managers who, having been brought up in insecure households, obsessively attempt to achieve an ideal self through devotion to work.

I have mixed feelings about a sociologist engaging with psychoanalytic writing in this way. The artificial separation of psychology and sociology has been deeply problematic for social psychology, and so attempts to cross the boundary are encouraging. However, a sociologist reading a smattering of psychoanalysis, asking a few questions in interviews about family relations and then offering an interpretation based on a limited exposure to psychoanalytic theory hardly seems conducive to a new, productive relationship between the disciplines.

What I want from a sociologist who interviews successful people in the 1980s is an analysis of how the cultural conception of success changed during that time, not a probably spurious individualistic account of the consequences of child-rearing practices. How did it become possible and desirable to adopt an obsessive, all-consuming conception of achievement? Why were some people given such an opportunity and how much have people had to bend themselves to new forms of achievement? The increasing importance in the workplace of psychological factors is affecting recruitment and assessment and opening up a broader conception of job skills, and the notion of personal development. But this development is produced by new forms of regulation of work. Pahl could instead have adopted Horney's conceptions of supportive versus competitive environments for the analysis of work contexts.

Perhaps the book is best read as Pahl's reflections on himself and his generation. As a sociologist, he was successful in the 1980s and may well have now reached a point of self-assessment. Certainly, his book is littered with asides about higher education, intellectual knowledge, and the academic career. We may be in for a lot of such writing as the millennium draws close.

Both books are opposed to postmodern accounts of life in contemporary consumer society. While it is the fashion to be sceptical of postmodern accounts, arguments about social theory are not developed in either book. Yet workers and managers are concerned with the breakdown in collective processes of insurance against the risk of unemployment. For the skilled worker, the loss of communities, decrease in trade union power and deskilling has led to the breakdown of social and institutional support. In the case of managers, the erosion of traditional bureaucratic career structures and the emergence of flexible careers and greater emphasis on individual achievement has surely led to new forms of risk in working life. In both cases there is a shift from collective to individual responsibility. For the worker this means moving, taking on unskilled work or dropping out. For the manager it means an increasing emphasis on a diverse portfolio of work experience and having the appropriate personality at work.

The voices in these books express the increasing importance to individuals of the resources they can draw upon when faced with the considerable uncertainties of contemporary life. Whether it is the rapid shift from collective to individual risk or the inherent nature of the new risk societies that has caused such anxieties, remains to be seen.

Peter Lunt is lecturer in psychology, University College London.

After Success: Fin-de-Siècle Anxiety and Identity

Author - Ray Pahl
ISBN - 0 7456 1333 0 and 1334 9
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 219

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