By the time I'd finished this book, it was peppered with Post-it notes and scored with underlining for re-reading. This is not a work you can take in at one sitting: partly because it is so packed with thought, partly because it is so profound and challenging. I ended up full of admiration for the subtlety and originality of Richard Sennett's work, while feeling frustrated that his critique of the everyday humbug that cripples our working lives won't get the hearing it deserves.
To some extent, the complexity of the writing is determined by the subject. Modern employment relations are so riddled with paradox and ambiguity that the process of pinning down the relationships of power, authority, responsibility and accountability is impossibly hard. Marx's dictum "All that is solid melts into air" seems all too fitting.
Or, to take a more concrete example: a couple of years ago I wanted to find out who was responsible for the wage levels of a group of office cleaners in Canary Wharf. I contacted the bank that used the offices. It didn't set the wages, the bank said. I was directed to the contractor. After being referred on a couple more times I reached the subcontractor, who told me that he would love to pay his cleaners more but would lose the contract if he did. It wasn't his fault they were on a pittance; it was all down to the market.
George Soros has written that "transactions have replaced relationships in people's dealings with one another". The more distant those transactions are, Sennett argues, the less of "a felt connection" there is and the more scope for social inequality. "The celebration of self- management [by subcontractors and so on] is not innocent; the firm needs no longer to think critically about its own responsibility to those whom it controls."
Sennett is here opening up a fascinating debate about how modern institutions, with their constant restructurings and delayerings, are generating ever-sharper inequality. Not just material inequality, but social inequality, too. For a society to be properly equal, Sennett says, people need to feel several types of connectedness: a secure sense of self, a feeling of being anchored in social relations beyond themselves, and a degree of competence and autonomy. All these things are being undermined by the institutional forms that are emerging.
The new economy serves the skilled elite well. With their confidence, connections and educated versatility, they are well placed to adapt. But these same people have ignored how the new conditions have stripped many others of the social context that work used to provide. We've heard plenty of commentators claim that flexi-bility, portfolio careers and "self-management" have liberated us from Max Weber's "iron cage" of bureaucracy. But for most people these things have meant the erasure of loyalty, the attenuation of responsibility and the proliferation of anxiety.
It is this last that forms a particularly telling theme of the first essay in the book, "Bureaucracy". More days are being lost every year to stress than to strike action, and Sennett's insights into how ambiguity is used as a management tool are critical in helping to explain the phenomenon of stress. He quotes an administrative assistant: "Each time you start a new job, you need to fake it. The boss expects you to know how things should be done and what he wants. But of course you don't. It's a challenge." That kind of "faking" is very stressful, and has become part of most jobs. It represents a dramatic shift from the old-fashioned bureaucracy in which "everyone had their place and each place, a defined function". People knew exactly what was expected of them. Sennett acknowledges that this was a rigid system, yet he is sceptical that the institutional models now used across the private and public sectors have benefited the human beings who inhabit them.
So why do we keep working - and working so hard? Sennett's "spectre of uselessness" - the subject of the second essay in the collection - is an important part of the answer. The fear of uselessness is perpetuated by jobs being outsourced to the east, passed on to the more accommodating young, or automated out of the labour market. This anxiety explains why working ever longer hours has become a status symbol.
Similarly enlightening are Sennett's thoughts on the ubiquity of the concept of potential. Judging potential, he writes, is much more subjective than judging achievement. Managers admit that they use "gut feeling" to do so. Potential is innate; either you have it or you don't, and someone can make that assessment quite arbitrarily. There's no comeback: how do you develop potential? All you can hope is that someone will recognise that you have it. When potential is the most prized characteristic in an organisation, the past is in effect discarded and the individual cannot build up a sense of worth based on solid achievements. Quite apart from this, it's an ageist concept: who over 45 is ever described as having potential?
Overall, what Sennett seems to be suggesting is that, in much of the workplace, there are no longer any rules. It's the chancer, the trickster, the chameleon, the illusionist on the hunt for the big break who flourishes. The rest of us, insecure and anxious, just hope to scrape together a sense of connectedness sufficient to keep loneliness, disorientation and meaninglessness from the door.
Madeleine Bunting is the author of Willing Slaves: how the overwork culture is ruling our lives (Harper Perennial)