Winners Take All

Winners Take All

Crossing the Great Divide: Worker Risk and Opportunity in the New Economy
by Vicki Smith
Cornell University/ILR Press, 2001, 240 pp., $29.95

Recession’s harsh light having awakened us from our dreams of a new economy, we’re now looking bleary-eyed at what transpired in the boom-time 1990s. Opportunities seemingly abounded for the middle class to get ahead: from middle-class dreams of a share of corporate gains through stock options or 401(k)s to the “just like you and me” personas of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Beardstown Ladies’ Investment Club. Like all good dreams, that of winning the stock market lottery had just enough grounding in reality to leave a vague sense of regret when it was over. Of course, as the Enron debacle shows, we’re all paying for those dreams now.

Before the crash, there seemed to be nothing but a perpetual “upside” in this strange new economy. Tom Peters urged us to become “free agents” and take our chances jumping between “Wow!” projects rather than settle for the fuddy-duddy stability of a full-time job. Stock options instead of a paycheck? At one point such a gamble seemed like a savvy career move, just as people clamored to put their Social Security funds with their retirement savings into their stock portfolios. Dreams of cashing out early have faded, as individuals increasingly have to handle the “downside” of risk on their own. Taking risks during good times is one thing; being left completely alone in a recession is quite another.

Crossing the Great Divide is an exposé of the downside of the risk in the new economy. Vicki Smith argues that “temporariness and risk,” have become intertwined with workers’ expectations of opportunity and advancement, which were understood in the days of the old economy as the rewards for hard work or even dedication.

Smith questions the line between so-called “good” jobs offering opportunities, growth, and ongoing training on one side, and the marginal, dead-end “bad” jobs of low-wage work. She argues that corporate America increasingly expects workers to bear the burden of economic risks in jobs across the “post-industrial terrain,” as flexibility demands all workers adapt to more uncertainty on the job, fewer benefits, and less room to advance. Although Smith wouldn’t disagree that some jobs truly are “bad,” she points out that privileged workers now share in many of the same elements of marginality, expendability, and insecurity as their low-wage peers. Work in general has become riskier, because “corporations no longer buffer their workers from the uncertainty of production and employment,” and workers themselves “take risks and expend great personal and group resources to control that uncertainty.” Smith defines two broad forms of these risks. First is in the general i...