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Less Loyalty in New American Workplace

Author Interview

It's a new world for the American worker, and not necessarily a brave one.

Where monolithic giants once offered lifetime employment for loyal workers, downsizing has become an acceptable, often desirable, element to strategic planning.

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And job-hopping has emerged not only as a way for the American worker to respond, but to prosper and build an attractive rsum.

So says Barbara Rudolph, author of a new book that recounts the stories of six former AT&T employees forced to make the transition to a world of new workplace economics.

The vignettes in "Disconnected" (Free Press, $25) tell of people laid off during mid-1990s downsizing and their lives since then.

"The depth of the emotional experience for these people was surprising," says Ms. Rudolph. "When it happens to you, the range of response that people have is interesting,"

"It was an emotional experience for me, as well," she says.

Community vs. competitiveness

From the end of the Great Depression until recently, says Rudolph, large companies tried to offer lifetime job security.

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"The old world of work was identified by words like loyalty and community - especially at AT&T," she says. "You can't underestimate the sense of family people had."

But this paternalism dulled the competitive edge of many big US companies, and they were eventually forced to adopt a less familial workplace.

As a result, the labor market has changed, says Rudolph.

"Restlessness is an asset. Emotional detachment serves you well. And some will deal with that better than others."

So how do individual employees react to this new environment in which, as Rudolph puts it, "people are always looking ahead for the next job, next product, and next employer."

The responses were mixed.

Kyle Stevens, for example, was a onetime rising star whose career had stalled in the AT&T corporate ladder before he was laid off. (The name is a pseudonym.)

Now in his 40s, Mr. Stevens quickly overcame the disappointment of being fired and found a new job.

He began working for a consulting company, as part of a division that used to be part of AT&T and whose biggest client is AT&T. So Stevens's knowledge of the company was a big asset - it made him a leader of the consulting team, and he now makes more money than he did at AT&T.

The flexibility he brought to the new job is key, says Rudolph.

It was important for him to let go of his relationship with his former employer quickly.

Tom Chase's challenge

Others are not so successful. The story Rudolph found most poignant comes from Tom Chase, a Harvard University graduate and Vietnam veteran who floundered around in life before going to AT&T.

Mr. Chase proved to be highly skilled as a corporate strategist, and gained a reputation at the company as a creative thinker.

When told that his small division would be eliminated in June of 1994, he became frustrated and dispirited and turned to alcohol.

He didn't work particularly hard at finding a new job within AT&T. Sending out hundreds of rsums outside of the company netted no job offers.

His drinking became severe enough that his family and friends persuaded him to enter a clinic.

He kicked the alcoholism, but his marriage ended. He has experimented with consulting to small business, but has not pursued it enough to earn a steady wage.

He was fired from another job and temporarily went back to alcohol. His relationship with his ex-wife and children remains strained.

Long term problems

And while many American workers, like Chase, suffered from corporate America's push to downsize, the corporations themselves end up as the biggestlosers, Rudolph says.

"Who serves the long-term interest of an enterprise? Who's looking out for the long-term interest of a company?" she wonders.

"There's a kind of Pollyanna quality to a lot of these theorists who think we can blithely move workers from job to job in this seamless way."

"It's much more emotional and difficult than that."

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