Networks vs. hierarchies

Historian Niall Ferguson has written a very interesting book for anyone interested in the intersections of power, institutional hierarchies, and social networks. It’s titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies, and the Struggle for Global Power (2018). Here’s a snippet from the publisher’s description:

Most history is hierarchical: it’s about popes, presidents, and prime ministers. But what if that’s simply because they create the historical archives? What if we are missing equally powerful but less visible networks – leaving them to the conspiracy theorists, with their dreams of all-powerful Illuminati?

The twenty-first century has been hailed as the Networked Age. But in The Square and the Tower Niall Ferguson argues that social networks are nothing new. From the printers and preachers who made the Reformation to the freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was the networkers who disrupted the old order of popes and kings. Far from being novel, our era is the Second Networked Age, with the computer in the role of the printing press. Once we understand this, both the past, and the future, start to look very different indeed.

I’ve spent some time with this book, and although its focus is on the grander sweep of history, it’s a thoughtful and provocative read for anyone who wants to contemplate the hierarchy vs. network dichotomy generally.

In fact, the book’s main theme may have special significance for those of us in “underdog” roles with the ideas and causes we’re advocating for, in a world where political, economic, and social power can feel so stubbornly concentrated. In essence, The Square and the Tower invites us to think about how we can use our horizontal networks to overcome entrenched hierarchies. It’s not easy, but it can happen, and access to digital communications can help us do it. Technology is not a panacea, but it can be an accessible and relatively affordable connector, not to mention a welcomed complement to face-to-face communications.

Of course we shouldn’t err in assuming that all networks are good and all hierarchies are bad. Structures can be created and activated for positive and nefarious purposes alike; human motivations and actions give them their meaning.

This theme is but one element of the much larger conversation of how we can change an increasingly plutocratic society, with its enormous hierarchies of wealth and power. Nevertheless, it puts some historical “oomph” behind the notion that networks matter and can impact change.

Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered

If you were born between 1954 and 1965, then you may identify as a member of “Generation Jones,” that large cohort sandwiched between classic Baby Boomers and classic Generation Xers. The thesis is that Gen Jonesers, on average, have had very different life experiences than those of folks in the two iconic groupings. Indeed, with a 1959 birthdate, I am a card-carrying member of Generation Jones, and I have long believed that, on balance, our group is different than the mainstream Boomers with which we are often categorized.

Gen Jonesers now range from their early 50s and early 60s. And currently, this age group is getting hammered by economic conditions and policies, personal financial circumstances, and frequent age discrimination in the workplace.

To some extent, this Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog (here, for example), America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

My own interest in this topic relates to my work on workplace bullying. I’ve witnessed the challenges that face those in middle age who have lost jobs and livelihoods due to bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work. The ongoing specter of age discrimination often undermines their efforts to seek new employment.

These are difficult topics, but they are vitally important, and they should be front and center in our national political and policy debates, even though anyone following the news knows they are not. For those who want to learn and think more, however, I’ll make two suggestions:

First, watch Elizabeth White’s TEDx talk, “Fifty-five, Unemployed, Faking Normal.” It’s an 18-minute reflection on what it means to have lost your job at middle age and to face the financial challenges that can follow. I’ve written about her important work before, and I’m a big fan of her book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life (2016). Richard Eisenberg, writing for the Next Avenue blog, previews White’s TEDx talk:

White’s TEDx Talk, filmed earlier this year in Richmond, Va., is a composite of her story and her friends’ — women and men in their 50s who are “faking normal.” By that, White’s talking about people who had good careers and lives until they didn’t. She describes them in the TEDx Talk as people who “entered the uncertain world of formerly and used to be.”

Second, read Elizabeth Olson’s New York Times piece, “Shown the Door, Older Workers Find Bias Hard to Prove,” which explains the legal challenges facing laid off workers who are alleging age discrimination:

Yet, even as the work force has a large number of older employees, one of the principal tools to fight such discrimination, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act — which Congress passed a half-century ago — may not be up to the task, said Laurie A. McCann, a lawyer with AARP Foundation Litigation, which is providing legal counsel to the Wichita plaintiffs.

“Ageism unfortunately remains pervasive in the American work force,” she said. Only two of the cases the E.E.O.C. filed in court last year involved the federal age discrimination act, according to a list assembled by AARP, the nonprofit older citizens group.

They were among a total of only 86 workplace discrimination cases litigated in court last year, AARP found. Few cases are taken to court because such complaints are complicated and expensive; it can take a long time to assemble relevant evidence and testimony.

How do social and economic class differences impact workplace bullying?

Do social and economic class differences impact workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors? If so, how?

America continues to think itself as a classless society, despite deep and worsening wealth divisions. Now, however, it appears that a combination of the ongoing effects of the Great Recession and the tumult associated with the election of Donald Trump has prompted some closer looks at class distinctions. For example, The Guardian newspaper has launched an ongoing investigative study of class and inequality in the U.S.:

We’re calling it On the Ground: reporting from all corners of America. The series is funded in part by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support the Guardian’s reporting on wealth inequality in America. The Rockefeller grant will fund a broader Guardian project called Inequality and Opportunity in America, focused on economic disparities due to work, class and inequality.

Also, Annie Lowrey, writing for The Atlantic, spotlights a new book by Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders (2017), that points a finger at America’s upper middle class as a major culprit in reinforcing inequality. While recognizing the extreme wealth concentrations enjoyed by the top one percent, Reeves argues that the top twenty percent have also enjoyed considerable success in recent decades, leaving the others in their wake. He further posits that these advantages are being passed on to their children in ways that will only harden social and economic class inequalities.

I’d like to take a closer look at these commentaries in a future post, but for now let’s return to bullying and class distinctions. I did a quick search for studies examining potential relationships between workplace bullying and social/economic class and didn’t come up with much. But the more I ponder the question, the more I’m convinced that class can play out significantly in this realm. It may manifest itself in a well compensated manager or highly degreed professional who looks down at less educated, lower paid co-workers and treats them accordingly. It may involve a group of co-workers who see a peer as not being from their side of the tracks (whichever side that may be) and bully, harass, and ostracize that individual because of it.

In any event, this topic is ripe for more research and understanding. Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse may occur due to many reasons. Class distinctions definitely belong on the list.

The 4-hour workday vs. no work at all: Utopian and dystopian visions of laboring

Could we be more creative and productive by working only four hours a day? If the work habits of folks like Charles Darwin are any indication, the answer may be a resounding “yes.”

In a feature article for The Week, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016), looks at the work habits of highly accomplished creative people through history and finds that they:

…all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

As for Darwin specifically, he authored 19 books, including the paradigm-making Origin of Species. Once a workaholic, he settled on a daily schedule that looked something like this, as Pang writes:

  • “After his morning walk and breakfast, Charles Darwin was in his study by 8 a.m. and worked a steady hour and a half.”
  • “At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters.”
  • “At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary or greenhouse to conduct experiments.”
  • “By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.”
  • “When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters.”
  • “At 3 p.m. he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife and family for dinner.”

So, if you want to know how to write 19 books and fundamentally change the way we think about human evolution, you might start by cutting back on the work hours! Alright, maybe it’s not that simple — I’m guessing that Darwin’s mind was hard at work even during his “down time.” In any event, Pang’s full article is a thought-provoking read and challenges the notion that a constant nose to the grindstone makes us more creative.

When technology eliminates jobs

The idea of the four-hour workday may be enormously appealing to those who enjoy flexibility in their work schedules and who are involved in creative endeavors that generate income based on the result rather than the time clocked in on a job. But what about the vast majority of workers whose livelihoods require being present on the job for x hours a day? What if their work literally disappears? Yuval Noah Harari writes for The Guardian:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs.

 . . . The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

If you want a prime example of how this is already occurring, consider corporate responses to fast-food workers who are advocating for a living wage: These workers are at risk of being replaced by robots. As Kate Taylor reports for Business Insider:

“It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging french fries,” former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi said in an interview on Tuesday on the Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria.” “It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”

According to Rensi, rising labor costs are forcing chains to cut entry-level jobs and replace workers with machines. Currently, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are rolling out kiosks across the US, in part because of the rising cost of labor.

Long hours by choice…or not

Here in America, we love to extol the virtues of the work ethic, and for better or worse, it shows. For example, Ben Steverman reported for Bloomberg last fall on a new study by economists Alexander Bick (Arizona State U), Bettina Bruggemann (McMaster U), and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln (Goethe U) shows that Americans put in some of the longest work hours per week compared to their European peers:

A new study tries to measure precisely how much more Americans work than Europeans do overall. The answer: The average person in Europe works 19 percent less than the average person in the U.S. That’s about 258 fewer hours per year, or about an hour less each weekday. Another way to look at it: U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans.

This study adds to the continuous string of research studies documenting the long work hours put in by Americans, including a 1997 International Labour Organization report showing that “US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations.”

Of course, many of those working long hours aren’t doing so by choice. As has been reported over and again in the news media, the overall state of the American economy and labor market is such that millions of workers have been compelled to take two or three lower-paying, part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.

I think we’re in quite a pickle here. Overwork — by choice or challenging circumstance — is sapping creativity, health, and overall well-being. Technology — a term that instantly causes some people to experience paroxysms of awe and wonder — threatens to make a lot of people unemployable. At the very top, a small number of people (think the McDonald’s ex-CEO in Taylor’s article) stand to grow increasingly wealthy from this dynamic.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

Bully Nation: How economic power and inequality are fueling a bullying culture

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Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016) by sociologists Charles Derber (Boston College) and Yale R. Magrass (UMass-Dartmouth) takes a “big picture” look at how the economic Powers That Be have fueled a deeper, broader culture of bullying behaviors. Here’s part of an excerpt published on AlterNet

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities.

This looks like a promising book. Unfortunately, however, Drs. Derber and Magrass also take an unmerited swipe at the anti-bullying movement, by suggesting that we have failed to link bullying to the broader economic and political forces that frame their analysis:

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

It appears that the co-authors neglected to do the necessary homework to learn more about the workplace anti-bullying movement. Indeed, the ongoing campaign to enact legal protections against workplace bullying has its philosophical roots in the value of employee dignity. In the law review article that led to my drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), I explore the social and economic conditions that are fueling bullying at work.

In addition, I connect the dots between the state of workers’ rights, employee dignity, and economic power in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review, 2009). My 2014 blog post drawing from that piece stated:

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

Furthermore, we know darn well about the plutocratic forces that want to keep workplace bullying legal. Here in Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has spearheaded opposition to the Healthy Workplace Bill. The Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management are among the other corporate friendly trade groups that have opposed employer accountability for severe workplace bullying.

This oversight aside, it appears that Bully Nation has the potential to raise our collective consciousness about how concentrated power is fueling abusive behaviors. I look forward to taking a closer look at it.

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