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The New Modern Times: Factors Reshaping the World of Work.

There is a striking resemblance between the act of planning a menu and planning an edited volume. One can adopt either a "prix fixe" or a "pot luck" approach to the endeavor. A host or editor adopting the first approach delineates a theme or issue guiding the endeavor and identifies contributions whose content and quality will support that theme. The result offers less variety, but each "course" builds incrementally on its predecessors, leading to a more balanced and intense - albeit predictable - experience for the consumer. Those choosing the second approach solicit contributions more loosely, allowing contributors' interests and initiative to drive the endeavor. A pot luck offers more variety but can also produce a bizarre clash of tastes and quality; it maximizes the probability that consumers will find something they like, but often at the price of an acute case of indigestion.

The editor of the New Modern Times has adopted a pot luck approach to planning this volume. The book, a collection of ten essays by fifteen authors, investigates various changes wrought in work and employment relations by institutional, technological, and demographic forces. The chapters investigate historical and current shifts in the world of work and speculate about future transformations. The contributors hail from disciplines as diverse as history, sociology, education, economics, women's studies, and planning. And the topics covered range from the role of women in the scientific workforce to vocational education, from theoretical reconceptualizations of worker involvement to national research programs on work and employment. Clearly, Bills and his contributors are intent on setting a table in which virtually anyone interested in work studies can find something of interest. That the book focuses on a subject that is both timely and relevant merely heightens its appeal.

Unfortunately, this melange of ideas is ultimately more unsettling than enticing. This results from two problems common to the pot luck: a lack of thematic focus and inconsistent quality. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the book is to "bring some perspective" to changes in the nature of work (p. 3). What that perspective might be is left entirely to the individual contributors to delineate. Consequently, the essays represent a mixture of ideas unguided by central questions; they neither build on each other incrementally nor collectively inform specific issues or debates. The outcome is a book with a dusting of interesting data and arguments, but generally lacking continuity or purpose. One senses that this is a collection of whatever relevant work the contributors had on hand at the time. Nevertheless, several themes do emerge from the text.

Historical and more recent changes in the skill content of jobs is a subject tackled by several authors. Meyer offers a brief historical overview of the impact of industrialization and technological change on skills and work in six American industries. Asher reviews historical changes in the nature of work skills in Connecticut factories since the Civil War. And Spenner painstakingly sifts through the massive amount of evidence produced on the effects of technological change on skill requirements over the past thirty years. Although proponents of deskilling and upskilling often portray the effects as being unequivocal, Spenner finds the available evidence contradictory and unconvincing. He concludes that the dominant portrait painted by these studies is one of uncertainty and identifies various factors that can account for the variable outcomes of technological change that these studies collectively depict.

In addition, two chapters offer compelling critiques of assumptions currently guiding policy decisions on work and education. The major purpose of Teixeira and Mishel's offering is to debunk the popular notion that America's economic crisis is rooted in a deficit of worker skills. After a concise yet careful comparison of data on existing levels of skills in the workforce and the skill demands of jobs, they conclude that impediments to productivity and competitiveness can be attributed to a lack of managerial insight rather than a deficit of worker skills. DiTomaso and Friedman question the analysis and interpretations found in Workforce 2000, an influential report on economic and labor force projections frequently cited by policy makers. They carefully unpack the report's findings to reveal a number of questionable and potentially misleading assumptions buried within. Both essays convincingly demonstrate the need for critical scholarly reviews of popular rhetoric in policy debates.

The impression that individual contributions were dictated by expediency as much as relevance is heightened by the uneven quality of the chapters. Several essays, most notably those by Spenner, Teixeira and Mishel, and DiTomaso and Friedman, offer concise, well-constructed arguments that make modest contributions to theoretical or political debates. But others are marred by poor writing, faulty logic, and a tendency to rehash old arguments. For instance, in an essay on the impact of increasing numbers of women employed in scientific occupations, Rosser asserts that female scientists adopt a more "holistic" approach to defining problems than male scientists and consequently choose qualitative and mixed methodologies more frequently. This is an interesting argument, but Rosser makes little attempt to explain why women may adopt more holistic approaches, explicate the causality between holistic problem definition and methodological choice, or offer more than minimal evidence to substantiate her claim. Similarly, Meyer and Asher offer competent reviews of historical data on skill change, but their findings are unexceptional: technological change produces both downskilling and upskilling, massive unemployment for certain occupational strata, and differential effects on white-collar and blue- collar labor. The variable quality of the aforementioned essays made me wish that the editor had injected a bit more structure and critical assessment into the book as a whole.

Editorial styles, like menu planning, are a matter of personal taste. Readers who prefer a more predictable, structured experience will expect the editor to do much of the planning and selection beforehand, while readers who delight in discovering new topics and issues will probably find the pot luck irresistible. They prefer to make their own selections, construct their own experience, and would likely find volumes that adopt a prix-fixe approach a bit narrow. But the pot luck must include a balanced array of high-quality offerings for them to do so effectively. And while the New Modem Times gets points for variety and timeliness, it fails to provide enough high-quality essays to select a balanced meal.

Bonalyn J. Nelsen Johnson Graduate School of Management Cornell University Ithaca, NY 14853
COPYRIGHT 1997 Published for Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School.
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Author:Nelsen, Bonalyn J.
Publication:Administrative Science Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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