Early in The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America, Rick Wartzman introduces readers to what many may feel to be a mirror image – those whom labor economist Guy Standing calls “the precariat.” Wartzman goes further: “a group of people who invariably live lives defined by economic insecurity and are all too aware that they’re stuck in the mud, if not falling ever further behind. Their ranks extend well beyond those in gig jobs or other forms of ‘contingent work,’ and their disenchantment with how poorly they’re faring is hardly new.” The not-so silent majority is ever growing and living from paycheck to paycheck has become the new normal. How did we get from the American Dream to this nascent nightmare?
It’s a great, if unhappy, story, impeccably and compellingly well-told by Wartzman, who elects to follow the history of relations between employees and those in charge of four major American corporations; General Motors, Coca-Cola, General Electric and Eastman-Kodak. In just a little more than a hundred years, America has journeyed from welfare capitalism to corporate welfare. Wartzman keeps his eye on the liminal space between those in charge and those on the line, taking readers from the creation of what we now understand to be The American Dream, to its peak, and then through the decades in which it is nibbled to death by ducks. And here we are.
Wartzman is a superb historian and storyteller. He has a knack for finding great stories and characters within each of his chosen realms, and an amazing ability to re-create the past from the perceptions of the past. This helps us experience the birth of what we now call “The American Dream” – a good job with pay that enables a middle-class lifestyle not so different from the lives of those who lead the company. Critical too, was the security of the employment and the social contract between employer and employees, with the former understanding that the latter were key elements in the success of the company. Wartzman explores the truth, explodes the myths and tells a lot of great stories about a lot of great characters.
Balance of story, history, concept and character are vital to the success of this book. It’s a lot of fun to read, chock-a-block with colorful characters and pretty wild scenes, especially to those of us today who will look upon the days of “welfare capitalism” with more than a whiff of head-spinning utopian nostalgia. Wartzman is also a master of showing and not telling, allowing readers to arrive at their own moral conclusions and letting the facts speak for themselves.
One of the most engaging aspects of The End of Loyalty is Wartzman’s ability to weave corporate and human character arcs, so we can judge for ourselves, for example, the impact of “Electric” Charlie Wilson versus Jack Welch over at GE. However you may feel about corporate morals, or the lack thereof, the stories are a powerful and sobering look at what the 20th century did to the average worker.
For all that The End of Loyalty is a serious work about something that matters greatly to each and every American, Wartzman understands how to tell an unhappy story in a manner that will make readers happy. The End of Loyalty offers up a full serving of American Quirk, with blow-hards, do-gooders, self-promoters, self-starters, suburban dads, working moms, corporate raiders and the old-New and new-New Deal. It turns out we’d be lucky if we were to “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alas, we are not going back. But if we read The End of Loyalty, at least our next steps need not be off the same cliff from which we have so slowly fallen.
As an example of the American Slowly-Boiled Frog, I experienced The End of Loyalty with a combination of wonder, depression and hope. Wonder was the result of reading Rick Wartzman’s flawless prose creation of The American Dream, depression a result of reading his incisive dissection of what happened, mostly from the time I entered the workforce onward, and hope, well – when you listen to Rick Wartzman speak, the reasons for hope will become clear. You can tell The Man where to go and how to get there by brazenly listening below, or just follow this link to the MP3 file of our lightning round.
For an extended discussion of How We Came To This Terrible Place, follow this link, or simply invite your supervisor over and have them listen with you.