What’s happened to the Social Contract?

There’s a great blog post over at IT Toolbox, on the Original Thinking blog by Dennis Stevenson on The Myth of Job Security- Employer Version, with a promise for a follow up giving the employee’s point of view. I was going to comment, but because my comment was so long, I thought a separate blog post was more appropriate.

Job security is largely seen as old fashioned these days. People are downsized as soon as their salaries get too large and the business feels they can be easily replaced with a cheaper and less expensive worker-widget. Likewise, employees are just as likely to jump ship as soon as a more attractive offer comes along. But what is the fall out from all this movement, seeking out the better, cheaper and faster ways to accomplish everything?

I think the interesting contrast here is when there is no longer any “job security”, there is no reason for employees to have any loyalty to the greater mission or goals of the enterprise, no matter what the size. Therefore, their only core motivation has to be what is best for them and their families- a mercenary “available to highest bidder” mentality. And why should it be different? With no social contract between the employee and employer anymore, other than that of health care and any remaining employee benefits, there is no reason to stick around and keep your money on the table, so to speak, with your employer, since they are just as likely to terminate you without any warning at their earliest convenience. And should you bother to “do the right thing” and provide notice? Why? The favor is rarely returned in kind. The social contract is (has) disintegrated over time- there are no more rules as to what is appropriate.

I grew up in Rochester NY, a company town with Kodak, Xerox and more for many years. The decline of “cradle to grave” job security has changed the nature of the community, now making the town more transient than ever before. People go where the job is more and more rather than stay in their current situation if a job is terminated. Families rarely live in the same town where one or both parents grew up. The social ties of living in a place where everyone knows your name is becoming an anachronism more and more.

This means less long term investment in social infrastructure in real life communities, like museums, art galleries, churches, charitable organizations, etc. Why should people spend their precious time and resources supporting the community when they are just transient residents in nature, and will never personally benefit from any of the good they are doing? Regular towns and cities are becoming mere way stations along a pathway of jobs, and people have no more incentive to make a long term investment in the success of schools or civic organizations than summer time residents of beach communities do in making sure those towns are sustainable 365 days of the year. They only care that their needs are met at a price they can afford during their brief stint to pump some money into the local economy, and then their contribution is over.

This is true just about everywhere- we are seeing the same transition happen in Wilmington, DE now that MBNA has been bought out by Bank of America. The lack of job security means lack of loyalty on both the part of the employer and employee, and people speak of just doing what they have to to get by, not investing in any sort of larger sense of contributing to a company- they are just collecting a paycheck, nothing more.

I agree businesses can’t necessarily be job charities, but by totally forgoing the social contract of employment, they gain no loyalty and thus the same people who businesses have invested time and money to train and educate have no reason to stay in that position if they can get a better deal elsewhere. I’m not sure this is necessarily a long-term success strategy for helping all boats to rise, so to speak, but it does create cut throat competition where people become more isolated and only concerned for themselves. You can’t expect people to “take one for the team” and act altruistically if the team is unlikely to return the favor.

What do you think? How do we balance efficiency and economics with the importance of building sustainable communities for the long term? Is it possible?



Filed under community, economics, politics

14 responses to “What’s happened to the Social Contract?

  1. There are still some people (like myself) who WOULD rather stay with one employer and give that employer their loyalty rather then jump at the next ‘better’ offer. There are also employers who still would reward employee loyalty as well. The trick is to find one. Both of the times that I’ve found those types of companies it’s been in smaller, family run companies. As soon as a corporation is large enough to answer to stockholders, for example, it ALL becomes about the bottom dollar, and everyone and everything becomes expendable in that quest.
    The demise of the ‘mom and pop’ business, and the rise of the corporate juggernauts such as WalMart, etc have been huge factors in this trend. Most large corporations with branches spread out across the world wipe their behinds with any Social Contract that might have been, and only treat employees with any respect at all because the Union demands it. It’s a sad state, as you said, all around.
    As far as people not having as much vested interest in museums, art galleries, charities etc, I believe that may be in PART to the transient nature of a large percentage of the population, but I think that also it’s largely due to the direction we as a society are unfortunately headed in. So much of our lives now take place in our homes that going out and mingling with, and dealing with people has become something that’s almost avoided in a lot of cases. As far as charities go, well, again, due to the ‘plugged’ in nature of so many people, and Mass Media’s urge to take advantage of that, I believe that most people’s hearts grow just a little bit harder everyday, and even those with the ways and means to contribute don’t feel the need. We have so much horrible, tragic news thrown at us everyday (IF we choose to consume it, that is) that soon it breeds a feeling of “there’s nothing that I can do anyways, so why try?”

    Stevie Z

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  3. “It ain’t personal; it’s business.” — Michael Corleone, The Godfather

    It is explicitly stated on employment applications I’ve seen that employment in Ohio is “at-will”, which means that either the employer or the employee can terminate a relationship whenever they want. There are no guarantees of a long-term relationship anymore, as you have said.

    Maybe my experience has caused me to be a bit jaded, but I have to remember that it ain’t personal; it’s just business.

    I have to remind myself of this as I do my work. I am concentrating on building my personal brand and looking for opportunities to communicate and exude that personal brand, both with my current employer and beyond.

    You have an interesting point about what this change means for our communities. The community will decide what it values by what will spend money on. Every business exists to make money, and every non-profit has expenses. The community will decide what it values.

    Am I being jaded here? I think I’m just being realistic.

  4. I have got to agree with Daniel and don’t think it is being jaded.. It is good, in fact very healthy for us to seek opportunity and exercise choice.. It ain’t personal, it’s business, goes for both the employer and the employee. What can we be doing to create a compelling resilient work ethic that attracts opportunity even in times of business change?

  5. I agree with you both that Business is Business and as such, has to look out for its best interests as much as individuals should look out for their own. That’s reality.

    But I think we are losing something if we don’t recognize that if everyone approaches every problem or challenge from the “What’s in it for me?” perspective, we may be losing some of the things that bind us together as a team, as a community, in work or in play.

    What about basketball players that hog the ball at the expense of the team, seeking personal fame and fortune? Works for a short period of time, but in the end, everyone loses from that mentality.

    Let’s look at big, complex problems like the mortgage crisis. You screwed up, why should I use my tax dollars to help out the irresponsible? (And I do feel this way, in large part) but I also recognize thousands and upon thousands of homeless families is not such a great thing wither for our economy or our crime rate, for that matter.

    Why Vote? What’s in it for me?
    Why recycle or be concerned about the environment? Not My Problem.

    I am being facetious here, to make a point that at some level, we do have to start caring about each other, and looking out for the common good as well as “what’s in it for me?” if we want our endeavors, public, private, personal and beyond to be successful. That may be overly idealistic, but I’ll take that over jaded any day.

  6. Jeff Hertlein

    I also have to agree with Daniel. I am pretty young at 22 and still within my first years of experience in my field. I think that most people in my generation look at jobs in a completely different way than our parents did. For a lot of us after we get out of school we plan and expect to have about 4 or 5 jobs by the time we get the job we want to retire from. That’s just how thinking is now, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I think one reason for this is that we see the Baby Boomer generation retiring in huge numbers, and that makes job hopping largely available to a lot of young professionals.

    Personally I grew up in a household in which my Father was the primary supporter, and he has had the same job since he got out of school and will retire from that job. So I do think that it is kind of sad, and I would love to have a job in which I knew that I was going to retire from, but it’s just not reality anymore.

  7. First and foremost, great post.

    As for my thoughts I’m kind of on the fence. As a local Cincinnatian (like Daniel), I agree that business is business. If I get an opportunity that is going to make me a better person (skill-wise or however else) and it pays better, why wouldn’t I take it? I don’t think this is saying “what’s in it for me”. I look at it as, “I become a better person/professional and am able to provide more in return”.

    I guess a quality counter argument would be the community aspect and a willingness to give back, knowing I may not be in this particular community in the near future. And sure the “community” will decide what it values, but if there’s not as many people partaking in the community, will it really be that strong?

    As a military veteran and living in several military towns, the movement from place to place is very apparent. The community has the same number of people but the people are different. If you’ve been to a military town, you know that they are usually rather run down and have several businesses struggling to stay afloat, aside from the local Wal-Mart. The reason for this is b/c the “passer-bys” don’t have the same sense of community as those that have been rooted there for a long period of time.

    In the end though, you have the stabilizers and the players. The players will move from job to job trying to find the best opportunity to display their talents. And in my opinion, these are the people who drive the successful companies. Stabilizers are ok waiting on the paycheck each week and like staying rooted and don’t have the need for adventure.

    Granted, I’m the only expert of my opinion and the expert of only my opinion.


  8. I agree Cory- military base towns often have a sense of temporariness about them- this message encourages everyone to become loners in a sense, and less connected to what’s around them.

    College Towns can often be this way as well. Some people come and stay, but many leave. In Philadelphia, there’s big concerns that all the grads from some of the best schools around are taking off and not staying and making Philly their home town. How to change this is being discussed in the Great Expectations project, where the University of Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Inquirer and others are sponsoring community forums , along with the Mayor’s office, to answer questions about what Philly wants to be- how we can grow and change positively.

    Stability creates community; transience does not. We’ve become a much more mobile society- my husband and I both live many hours from our nearest relatives, and that’s not always an easy thing, when raising children and trying to maintain connectedness in the family, let alone the real world.

    In social media, we create all forms of relationships that by their nature are portable, and I think this helps people feel a part of something when their real world lives are less than fully connected and stable- at least those people on twitter will still be there….

  9. I think the view depends so much on where you are standing. I believe that you and the commenters here are right. But I also know that there are still people working, not with an eye toward advancement. They are social workers, nurses, doctors, police officers, fire fighters, EMT’s, and others. They work for whatever the taxpayers or the non profits can pay them.

    I also think (perhaps idealisticly) that wherever there are parents who care for their children, there will be a social connectedness, whether through the schools their children attend, the churches their families attend, and anywhere else children go.

    I know that in the business world, the view is different. But there are anchors in our communities that will bind us together, tragedies and triumphs that will draw us to each other.

    I realize that may all sound very optimistic and I am truly a realist at heart. I know that “the bottom line” drives many of us. I recall a discussion with my boss, where he was trying to put me in the path of higher ups to get me noticed. I chuckled at his expression when I told him I wasn’t interested in a promotion – I just wanted work that was interesting and made a true impact.

    I think where we are “at the end of the day” will continue to be important to many (and thank goodness! we need them!). But I also think that as the social contract further disintegrates, more and more people will be motivated by something other than the bottom line, that the connections will become more important – because that’s what they’ll have been missing.

  10. Whitney,
    Thanks for the post and the link. Sorry it took me so long to find it and get in on this discussion.

    First, I did write an employee view post about job security. It’s right here: http://it.toolbox.com/blogs/original-thinking/the-myth-of-job-security-employee-version-26066

    To your points… I wrestle with the “in extremis” tendencies I pick up from what you wrote. Essentially you are saying “because absolute (i.e. entire career) loyalty doesn’t exist, no loyalty can exist.” I don’t really agree.

    I have loyalty to my current employer. It is not absolute or un-considered, however. I will do hard and even yuchy work for them – because I understand that is part of the gig. Because to achieve the kind of impact that I want to make really will require that. Because I understand there is give and take in this relationship (and it still is a relationship).

    However, if my employer wanted to go a direction that I don’t find fulfilling, I don’t feel obligated to stay on board. In fact, it is almost my obligation to get out of the way and make room for someone who will do a better job of serving the new vision. This whole “new direction” thing happens a lot more often today than it did in the days of the golden pocket watch.

    To your other points, I think character matters. Selfish people will act selfishly regardless of the circumstances. Generous people will behave generously, even if they won’t be around to “reap the rewards”. Neighborhoods thrive based on the interactions of the neighbors, not necessarily their longevity (but that is nice if they are good neighbors).

    That’s sort of my take.


  11. Hi Dennis!

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I think we have a continuum here, where there are many shades of grey along the path.

    I don’t think we necessarily should have cradle to grave job security- I think this is the model many unions have been based on, and it’s led to accumulation of dead wood- people that are not interested and passionate about their jobs and because of the job security, don’t have a lot of motivation to do something that does make them excited – the security trumps risk taking.

    However, I think treating employees as just another replaceable cog in the machine does not build any kind of loyalty or social contract between employers and employees, and in the end, both lose on that model as well.

    What we need to find is the proverbial sweet spot, where employees get a sense they are working for something bigger and are an important and valued part of a company’s success. Employers need to know employees aren’t out to milk them for every penny, and that by treating people well, they will stick around even when times get tough.

    I think a great example of this is how many companies have seen improvements in employee turnover and loyalty once they have adopted programs like day care, flex-time and kid sick leave. Moms can be a tricky demographic in the workplace, since they have to meet the needs of sick kids, school vacation/teacher work days, school meetings, etc. and god forbid they get sick themselves. But when these programs are in place, the moms on the team tend to work harder, longer, and are less likely to leave, because there is something in place that let’s them sync their work life and home life together well. Without these programs, these experienced, bright women might leave the workplace all together.

    So, I think there’s a place in the middle where we can have employers and employees care just a bit more for the social contract as well as the business contract, helping all boats to rise.

  12. Whitney,

    I agree with you on the “middle place”. The situation is not all bad, and it is not all peaches and cream. Some employees work this out well and find reasonable loyalty… Some play badly and get hurt in the process. The same thing works for employers

    In my experience, there has been reasonable loyalty – and I have been the person to initiate separation from my previous employers… I wanted to go a different direction than what they were choosing to pursue. I think employers are learning how important people are to their corporate success, and how hard it is to find good people. So there is an incentive to make it work if at all possible.

    Some of the programs you list above are really great. Glad to see employers offering some of these – but I would point out that this is fundamentally a DIFFERENT contract than what was in place back in the day….

    Daycare, telecommuting, flex hours… all these are contracts for the present. Historically the contract was focused on the future (employment for life). I think it is much more healthy in the employment relationship to focus on the more immediate and short term exchanges that are necessary.

    Changing demographics are also supposedly changing the contract – but I haven’t seen much of this.

    Thanks for contributing your thought to the dialog.


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