In his brilliant essay on the notion of failure in contemporary life Richard Sennett discusses an approach toward striving for meaning in one’s life that centers on Walter Lippman’s idea of career. Sennett frames the problem through the lens of an ongoing discussion he has observed between several disenfranchised former IBM employees. In the employees’ evolving understanding of the roots of their predicament Sennett finds an effective way to connect Lippman’s idea with the more recent trend toward globalization.
The group of former IBM employees moves through a series of three steps on the way to making sense of what happened to them, and therefore—at least to an extent—of their own identities. In the first of these steps the group fastens on the idea that they must have been victims of greed and malice. They try to recall indications from the final phases of their employment that this is so. Eventually they realize that there need not have been any malice on the part of individuals; and any that there might have been likely played little role in their fates.
The second step, which Sennett aptly labels the ‘protectionist phase’, finds the group blaming certain tendencies within globalization, in particular the outsourcing of tasks and jobs to other countries, most notably India. This step would not survive reflection primarily because the employees began the process of looking inward. They realized that a digital global economy could hardly be viewed as the enemy, given the nature of their work (about which many of them were passionate). They also had to recognize the high-quality of some of the work coming out of India.
Finally, the group was led to think that they themselves were somewhat to blame, inasmuch as they both should have recognized signs of what was happening, and had opportunities to strike out on their own. If they had done this they might have avoided being hostage to the fate of IBM’s seemingly whimsical risings and fallings.
Sennett ends his essay by explicitly connecting the intellectual and individual voyage taken by members of the group with the challenge faced by nearly any occupant of the age of globalization. The key in each case, he suggests, is that a stronger sense of community is necessary for dealing with the thousands or millions of blameless failures which will inevitably attend capitalism in this stage of its development.