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WELCOME TO YOUR NEW JOB

F irst, you are lucky to be here. Also, we do not care about you. We
offer no job security. This is not a career. You are serving a short-
term tour of duty. We provide no training or career development. If
possible, we will make you a contractor rather than an actual em-
ployee, so that we do not have to provide you with health benefits or
a 401(k) plan. We will pay you as little as possible. We do not care
about diversity: African Americans and Latinos need not apply. Your
job will be stressful. You will work long hours under constant pres-
sure and with no privacy. You will be monitored and surveilled. We
will read your email and chat messages, and use data to measure your
performance. We do not expect you to last very long. Our goal is to
burn you out and churn you out. Your managers may not know
what they are doing. They also may be abusive. If you are female,
there is a good chance you will be sexually harassed. HR will not
help you. If you file a complaint, you will probably get fired. If you
get pregnant or turn forty, you also will be fired. You may be fired
even though you are doing a good job. You may be fired for no rea-
son at all. We do not offer day care. We do have ping-pong. There
are snacks and beer in the kitchen.

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CHAPTER FIVE

BUILDING THE WORKFORCE OF


THE FUTURE (OR: SORRY, YOU’RE
OLD AND WE’D LIKE YOU TO LEAVE)

H ow do you make a lab rat feel depressed? That sounds like a


setup for a joke, but it’s actually a question scientists needed to
answer. Their ultimate goal was to test out new antidepressant
drugs on these rodents before trying the concoctions on humans.
But to test an antidepressant you need a depressed test subject. It
turns out there is a simple, guaranteed-to-work method for mak-
ing an animal depressed: just put it under a bit of low-grade stress
and maintain the stress for a little while. Voilà—you’ve manufac-
tured depression.
Scientists call it the unpredictable chronic mild stress (UCMS)
protocol. The process involves making small changes, like putting a
rat in a new cage, maybe one that previously was occupied by an-
other rat. Scientists might also tilt a rat’s cage, change the cycle of
light and dark, or give rats wet bedding or sawdust that has been used
by other rats and still contains their urine and feces. They might play
recordings of predator birds for ten minutes, or put a rat into a tight
restraint tube for fifteen to thirty minutes, and then set it free again.
The changes are randomized and altered frequently, so the rats can’t
get used to a new condition.
The rats are not deprived of food or water or subjected to any

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physical pain. Nothing life-threatening occurs, and there is no real


danger—just some environmental changes and some mild stress.
That’s all it takes.
Within weeks the rats slide into a state that looks a lot like clinical
depression in humans. They become apathetic and lethargic. They
stop grooming themselves. Their coats get matted and dirty. They
won’t build nests, they lose interest in running in their exercise
wheels, and they become less motivated to seek out treats like cook-
ies. (Scientists call this anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure.) The
rats gain weight. They show signs of despair, have difficulty making
decisions, and experience sleep disturbances. They exhibit immune
system dysfunction, problems in the hippocampus and amygdala, and
higher levels of cortisol, which in humans has been linked to heart
disease and depression.
When I heard about this rodent stress testing, I was taken aback. It
all sounded to me eerily similar to what work is becoming for more
and more of us humans. Ther’s no danger to our physical safety. But
there are constant, random changes. Loss of privacy or familiarity.
Dealing with bad, disturbing technologies creeping into our envi-
ronment.
A new study on rats at West Virginia University suggests that
chronic stress diminishes blood vessel function, so much that animals
whose weight is normal end up with blood vessels that look like
what you find in obese animals. One of the researchers tells me these
findings have direct implications for workers. Stressed-out workers
could have “an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood
pressure, stroke, heart attack, and cardiovascular mortality,” said Evan
DeVallance, now a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh.
Consider how big companies are rushing around adopting Agile
and Lean Startup, changing where and how people work, forcing
employees to embrace new routines, and crowding workers into
stressful new environments like noisy (and sometimes even smelly)
open offices. Think about how we’re working longer hours, but also
less predictable hours. Or how we now worry more than ever about

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losing our jobs and finding health care, and whether we will be able
to retire. Think about how often you hear someone at work say,
“Change is the only constant.”
Squint your eyes a little bit and the whole thing looks a lot like
a human version of the unpredictable chronic mild stress protocol.
Could the rising antidepressant usage and suicide rates we discussed
in Chapter 1 be related? Could other health problems?

Here in Part 2, I’m going to take a deeper dive into the four factors
that contribute to worker unhappiness: money, insecurity, change,
and dehumanization. Also, I will explore the ways in which Silicon
Valley and the Internet have contributed to those four factors.
Why do we now have so much tumult and upheaval, and this
sudden flurry of activity, all this talk of reinvention, accompanied
by constant “change initiatives,” with their workshops, and classes,
and role-playing games? Some of this comes from fear. Compa-
nies are scared of getting killed, so they start racing around in a
kind of frenzy, trying to tip things upside down and transform
themselves.
I wonder whether all of this sound and fury is also a form of dis-
traction, a sideshow created to keep us so busy and so scared that we
don’t notice how companies keep eroding the terms of the bargain
that once existed between workers and employers. Distract work-
ers with Lego workshops, put them in new offices, ply them with
snacks and Ping-Pong and meditation rooms, bombard them with
rhetoric about mission and purpose and “changing the world,” and
maybe they won’t complain that their pay has gone down, their ben-
efits have been pared back, the pension fund was raided, and their
jobs are no longer secure. Maybe it is all just sleight of hand, a form
of corporate misdirection. Focus on the cards in the magician’s hand,
and you don’t even notice that he’s stolen your watch.
Consider what’s going on at IBM, which is putting all of its
366,000 workers through Agile training—but has also spent the past
two decades screwing its workers. IBM’s massive Agile campaign be-

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gan in 2015 and will take four years to complete, costing hundreds of
millions of dollars. So far more than two hundred thousand IBMers
have been trained. IBM’s goal is far more ambitious than just teach-
ing software programmers to crank out code faster. IBM wants to
completely rewire its corporate DNA, by applying Agile to every
part of the business—sales, marketing, and so on. Agile will become
“an engine for business transformation,” Sam Ladah, vice president
of human resources, wrote in a July 2017 blog post, adding that Ag-
ile will help IBM build “a workforce of the future.”
That last bit about the “workforce of the future” was a canny bit
of corporate doublespeak that covered up something else that IBM
was doing with Agile—using it to get rid of workers. As part of
its “business transformation,” IBM opened new offices called “Agile
hubs” in six cities in the United States, with groovy decor and desks
jammed into pods, in what Quartz described as “a sitcom version of
an ‘Agile office.’ ”
Then IBM told thousands of employees who had been working
from home that from now on they would have to work out of one
of these Agile hubs. Or they could quit. It was their choice. The
problem was that many of these people lived hundreds of miles from
the nearest hub. To keep their jobs, they’d have to sell their homes
and move. It’s not clear how many quit instead of relocating. In his
blog post, Ladah said about five thousand employees would return
to working from an office instead of working at home. By some es-
timates, 40 percent of the company’s employees don’t work from a
traditional office, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The reason IBM had so many remote workers was that for years
the company encouraged employees to work from home, so that
IBM could save money on office space. Now IBM is reeling peo-
ple back in and taking away the “work from home” perk, but
announcing the decision using the happy-face mendacity that big
companies love: “It’s time for Act II: WINNING!” read the sub-
ject line on a message that Michelle Peluso, the company’s chief
marketing officer, sent to the company’s five thousand market-

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ing people when she announced the end of the work-from-home


policy. Workers were not cheered by all the WINNING! Many
were devastated. The announcement reportedly sent shock waves
across the company.
IBM’s Agile campaign comes after two decades in which IBM has
slowly but steadily robbed its workers while enriching top executives
and Wall Street investors. In the 1990s, under CEO Louis Gerst-
ner, IBM gutted its employee pension fund and used some of the
money to boost its earnings, as former Wall Street Journal reporter
Ellen Schultz details in her 2011 book, Retirement Heist. IBM also
slashed retiree health benefits, which “generated a fresh pool of ac-
counting gains that the company added to income over a period of
years,” Schultz reported. In 1993, Gerstner presided over the biggest
layoff in corporate history, nuking sixty thousand workers.
Nine years later, in 2002, Gerstner waltzed away with a severance
package worth $189 million. His successor, Sam Palmisano, IBM’s
CEO from 2002 to 2012, walked out with a package worth $270 mil-
lion, according to Footnoted.com, a stock market watchdog website.
IBM’s current CEO, Ginni Rometty, earned $33 million in 2016.
For the past few years Rometty has been busy slashing jobs, espe-
cially targeting older workers. From 2014 through 2017, IBM fired
thirty thousand American workers, and twenty thousand of them
were over age forty, according to a March 2018 investigative report
by ProPublica, which said IBM had “flouted or outflanked U.S. laws
and regulations intended to protect later-career workers from age
discrimination.” ProPublica later reported that the U.S. Equal Em-
ployment Opportunity Commission had launched an investigation.
The thing is, from 2012 to 2017, when IBM was firing all those
American workers, the company was turning hefty profits and in
fact generated $92 billion in cash. Where did the money go? IBM
delivered most of the loot—about 80 percent—to investors, via div-
idends and stock buybacks, according to Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst
at Sanford Bernstein, a Wall Street firm. Sacconaghi said IBM could
have used that money to acquire other companies. IBM also might

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have launched new products and business lines. Instead IBM used the
money to prop up its stock price. By buying back its own stock, IBM
reduced the number of shares outstanding. That increases earnings
per share, since there are fewer shares. Higher EPS tends to boost
the stock price. That’s great for investors in the short term. But for
the long term companies are better off trying to build new lines of
business to replace the ones that are fading away. Devoting money
to buybacks often means management is just throwing in the towel,
admitting they have no good ideas.
Where did IBM get the cash for buybacks? In part by laying off
tens of thousands of workers. In effect, IBM used their wages to
buy back shares and pump up the stock price. Why do that? Be-
cause the executives’ own compensation is tied to the stock. The
trick didn’t really work; IBM stock has shed a third of its value from
2013 to 2018, plunging from $213 to $141. But who knows how
much worse things could have been without the stock buybacks?
As for management, the ploy worked out great. In 2017, the board
awarded Rometty, the CEO, with a pay package worth $50 million,
according to Institutional Shareholder Services, which advises big in-
vestors. This wasn’t the first time. “IBM’s CEO writes a new chapter
on how to turn failure into wealth” was how Michael Hiltzik in the
Los Angeles Times put it in January 2016 when Rometty raked in a
$4.5 million bonus. But hey! Let’s talk about Agile, and the work-
force of the future! Let’s talk about how we’re turning IBM into a
start-up!
You see how the trick works.

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