Not the same ol' Ma


BOSTON -- I hate to date myself, but I remember Ma Bell. She was a maternalistic sort who rarely kicked people out from under her sheltered roof. She was the matriarch of the era when large companies called themselves "families" with a straight face.

But in the 1980s, Ma's family was broken up. All the baby Bells went their own way. They joined a new economy in which companies merge and split more often than Elizabeth Taylor.

Want to know how the corporate culture in America has changed since Ma's day? Ponder the warm, personal way that her eldest offspring, AT&T;, told employees that the company was breaking up again. This past Wednesday they got the news by e-mail. One mouse click ahead of the press.

A cold call

Later that afternoon I got a cold call at home from a saleswoman who must rank just below the e-mail threshold. As she began telling me I should have my service increased, I interrupted her pitch. "Do you know your company just split in three?" I asked. "You're kidding!" she answered, as the sales script dropped to the floor.

I said: "I hope you have some stock." She said: "I hope I have a job!" We both hung up. Have a nice day.

Well, there isn't anybody in America, let alone at American Tel and Tel who doesn't get it by now. The work force goes down 8,500 jobs; the stock goes up six points. More than 100,000 AT&T; workers have been cut since the family breakup. No, Ma Bell doesn't live here anymore.

In this much-heralded, much-lamented new world, companies merge or split, and either way the payrolls are cut.

There are two things that Americans now take with them from one job to another (often lesser) job: their individual skills and their insecurity. In Rosabeth Kanter's new book, "World Class," a generally hopeful look at "thriving locally in the global economy," one man offers this vision of his job future: "I don't even buy green bananas."

Job jitters

Surely lifetime tenure had its downside, its deadwood and dead ends. But the side effects of job insecurity go beyond the troubles of people who have been permanently outplaced from the working world.

These effects can be measured inside, in the anxiety of those who still have good jobs, in the downsizing of their commitment and loyalty to any employer.

Everyone from Labor Secretary Robert Reich to the neighborhood management guru now urges workers to think like independent entrepreneurs. We are warned to prepare for six, 10, 12 jobs in our lifetime.

We are encouraged to stay in training, to be ready for the next career at the turn of the global economy. We are supposed to think of this as an exciting challenge. Even a growth experience.

But how do you build a solid company when your employees all have their mental resumes out? And how do you make the commitment to do good work when you are waiting for the boss' next e-mail -- or the news of a merger, a takeover, a "right-sizing" -- to determine your fate.

The old rules and the old bonds between owners and workers are cracking everywhere. Employers and employees often seem like two people trying to maintain a relationship while they're both out dating.

It hasn't been that long since Americans connected in neighborhoods or parishes. Our sense of community was built around Main Streets, subdivisions, extended families.

In the last generation families became less permanent and neighborhoods less stable. Our companies became our communities, our co-workers became our extended family. Now, gradually we are losing that neighborhood too, as we are turned into competitive, transient and temporary workers. It's another kind of isolation.

Now maybe something new will come out of this economic disruption. And, after all, no business is ever really a family.

But in an electronic heartbeat, a former Bell pushed the anxiety level of its workers up almost as fast as the price of its stock. This was the message in the e-mail. You can't go home to Mother.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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