Business world has forgotten humanity

No wonder we 20-somethings are so harrowed in finding jobs. Look how hard it is for 50-somethings.

Forty-five partners were fired or demoted recently at Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw, a Chicago-based law firm. Partnership at a firm was “once considered as secure as tenure at a university,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. In our parents’ generation, a firm was a team. Any team needs many different people, serving with varying degrees of flashy repute. A space remained hallowed for a veteran partner, boosting the firm not with revenue, but the social and intellectual glue of good judgment. Now, many firms ask lawyers to leave. This spirit of free agency does not benefit only the firms. “Rainmaking lawyers are no longer loyal to the firms that recruited and trained them … sell[ing] their services to the highest bidder.”

Beyond law, this change in business culture extends to less lucrative, more common work. It hurts workers who cannot fall back on severance pay. The Mayer Brown story is significant for revealing how this trend cuts across professions and classes. No matter one’s savings, to be older and out of work is scary. More than one or two companies’ cost-cutting, these moves amount to a fundamental shift in how we serve society and how our society takes care of us.

Consider another traditional business culture: Japan’s, where layoffs and plant closings are rare. Nissan, in 1999, stumbled under debts and losses. Enter new CEO Carlos Ghosn, ethnically Lebanese, born in Brazil and educated in France (even Thomas Friedman could not have invented a better exemplar of the intercultural capitalism of the “flat world”). Ghosn vowed to close three plants and fire 21,000 people.

Soon Nissan was earning profits, rendering Ghosn a hero and his strategy — “nobody is indispensable” — a dogma. The faltering General Motors held talks with Ghosn last year on a potential alliance. When talks failed, GM’s biggest shareholder, who thought GM needed Ghosn, sold 14 million shares.

Is it really true about our world that nobody is indispensable? So many philosophies of community — from America’s civic republic to the idea behind college to the Judeo-Christian idea that man is in God’s image — come from the idea that every person is valuable, not only for what he does but also for who he is. On paper, that worker who has been fired may be just another man with a family, a mortgage and maybe a hobby or two, baseball or poker. But these are as real to him as my life is to me and yours to you. In the short, irretrievable time we have, what is life but families to raise, mortgages to struggle to pay and poker nights to relish?

The culture of labor unions ossified and acted on this principle in 19th- and early 20th-century America. Walter Reuther, as head of the United Auto Workers in the 1950s, forced Detroit to pay workers even in sales’ low tide. From such protection to the lightest social event, bringing people together for a reason other than work, unions broadcast that humans are not automatons. We are people. Globalization — though its rush of market forces can produce laudable innovation — has forgotten this idea.

Here is the climate our generation enters. We must find jobs amid this achievement maelstrom our parents have set up for us. When someday we run this culture, it will be our task to repair its human costs.

Translating ideals into action is not impossible, just controversial. Mayer Brown was not about to go under. Their profits per partner, in 2005, were $0.9 million — about the same amount as 30 average Americans pooling yearly earnings. But Mayer Brown’s rival, Sidley Austin, boasted profits per partner exceeding $1.2 million. The firms brought in similar amounts of revenue, each making American Lawyer magazine’s Top 10, but at Sidley, each partner got a bigger share. Would we, in the clutch, refuse to fire people from their jobs? As a price, would we accept $0.9 million rather than $1.2 million?

Right now, the question sounds silly. We’re college students. We should be so lucky to have paying jobs at all. The question is whether we will remember how that feels, when someday, people of our generation run Mayer Brown.

Most of us will not run Mayer Brown (including this future starving writer). Still, we all face the clutch: moments — often small and subtle — when it is up to us to act from a spark of human connection. That spark makes college marvelous. If we can bring it out of college with us, we may be able to spare our children the madness of careerism — or, at least, maybe then the “real world” won’t be so bad.

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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