Friday, November 03, 2006
What Is The White Collar Identity?
What is the white collar identity? Does it have any substance? Is there anything compelling about it? When I think of an occupational identity that I would like to have, two criteria come to mind. It must be centered around an activity that is so specific that you can visualize it. This activity must also be practiced by a group of people who are proud of what they are doing, and among whom there exists an intense and exclusive camaraderie. The professions can be like this - you would find both of these criteria among lawyers or doctors or college professors. Small businessmen have it, too. The professionals and small businessmen in any given suburb may share a camaraderie despite the differences among their occupations - think of the local elites where you grew up, the Rotarians, the Elks, the country club alpha males. Artists have it as well - actors, painters, writers, gathering in salons or pubs or art colonies. Get away from the world of professionals and businessmen and artists, and enter the world of action, and you will find the same thing. Athletes will definitely share both the powerful sense of vocation and the bracing camaraderie that I am alluding to. But so will policemen, firemen or soldiers. Some even become policemen or firemen for these reasons alone, regardless of the risk and the mediocre pay.
Can it ever be the same for white collar workers? Sometimes. Salesmen have their own society, that fierce little fraternity of competition in which they are all gunning for Salesman Of The Year. So even do computer programmers - at least in Silicon Valley, and in startups across America, where the clever young Java Jocks code each other into the ground on the way to millions. But if you are a salesman in the cubicled wilderness of a large corporation, you may find your identity diluted into pale versions itself, with unresonant job titles like "marketing assistant" or "customer service representative", while programmers become "analysts". Is there any job title on planet Earth less meaningful - or, indeed, defies analysis more - than that of "analyst"? The natural competitiveness of both occupations is reined in by the dictates of "teamwork". If their practitioners are good - especially if they are good - their energies will be suppressed as they are forced to content themselves with only a fraction of the challenges they can handle. If you are capable of doing too much, you run the risk of becoming irreplaceable, which will prevent the organization from letting you go at its own convenience. It is not about your vocation after all, much less you. It is always about the organization.
That is the crucial disadvantage of being a white collar worker. You belong to an organization whose members do many things, so many things that your own sense of craft is inevitably muddled and diminished. It is only the organization itself that matters. What you do is subordinated to where you stand in the hierarchy, and for virtually all of us that place is very low. The very inevitability of your low status deflates your ambitions, and discourages you from trying your hardest. As it is the hierarchy itself that matters, the only persons within it who themselves matter are those who maintain the hierarchy - the managers, the executives, and the CEO. Rank, not craft, expertise or vocation, is the sole criterion of importance in the hierarchy - and those that have it are esteemed irrespective of what they actually do.
Hierarchies can control occupations where the camaraderie is very strong, like the priesthood or the Marines - to give two very different examples - but hierarchy in the guise of "command" is wedded to the nature of what those organizations were created to do. Even if a Marine answers to a general, he is still a warrior. Even if a priest answers to an archbishop, he is still a priest, and answers ultimately to God. In a large corporation, the purpose of the organization is often so nebulous and abstract - so divorced from what it actually manufactures or the services it performs - that the hierarchy exists for its own sake, in a vacuum. Those of us not at the top are denied the intense redemptive power of identifying with any craft or calling, and are left instead only with what the hierachy provides - that sense of being a cog in the wheel.
The only appeal of sacrificing our most vigorous instincts to employment by a corporation is the hope that it will reward us for our compliance. That it will continue to keep us safe in its cages, and allow us to raise our families in peace and security. Even though the authoritarian demands of corporations remain stronger than ever, they are no longer keeping up their end of the bargain. They downsize us as much out of whim, as out of necessity. When we are cut loose, we know not what to do or how to act. This is because we allowed ourselves to be gelded of our capacity for independence as a condition of our employment. It is time for us to pull off our white collars to work for ourselves - or at least for each other. Our identities will be so much richer once they are no longer being sucked out of us by the vampires of management.