The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity

In Talent Wants to Be Free, Orly Lobel’s masterfully demonstrates the importance to business, employees, and society at large of workers who are free to move and free to innovate. The symposium this week has seen well-deserved praise heaped on the book from many of the nation’s leading scholars in the area. Lobel, a legal academic, explains the law in a way that non-lawyers (and even lawyers seeking a summary of the law of covenants not to compete, confidentiality agreements, and trade secret) will greatly appreciate.

The shift she describes is part of the larger move from status to contract that has marked modernity—a world in which individuals make and remake themselves. I have myself embraced this model in my own way in my book The Electronic Silk Road. I accordingly find myself entirely sympathetic to Lobel’s prescription. In that book, I describe and embrace the ways that production processes are now splintered across the globe, with global supply chains now including services, not just manufactured parts, supplied in disparate locations. There is liberation implicit in this—on the Internet, no one knows what class or caste into which you were born (though cultural markers are never entirely absent, even in cyberspace). Equally important, it allows individuals in developing countries to participate in lucrative markets in developed countries that would deny those individuals visas.

When I moved to Northern California a decade and a half ago, I carried my Midwestern and East Coast sensibilities with me. When a former student told me he was leaving his job after just one year at one of the leading technology law firms, Wilson, Sonsini, I was not entirely sure this was wise. He joined an important Silicon Valley operating company, and worked there for two or three years. He surprised me by then informing me that he was returning to Wilson, Sonsini. I would have thought that his leaving his law firm after such a short time might have made him persona non grata there, but he returned there certainly a lot more knowledgeable about the needs of the firm’s clients. Wilson, Sonsini clearly understood the virtues of freedom of employees—seeing it not as a sign of instability or disloyalty, but a marker of curiosity, dynamism, and ambition. Lobel would certainly approve, both of the employee and of the employer.

But I want to take this opportunity to mention the disruptions that the move from status to contract entails. The critique I offer is equally relevant to my work as hers, and so I do not mean to detract from her important analysis. In his commentary Frank Pasquale has begun the line of inquiry I wish to continue here. Pasquale worries that we ordinary workers are likely to be exploited in this highly fluid economy. After all, labor mobility is often promoted by corporations, not employees. Employee unions instead typically promote labor stability and long-term contracts. And with respect to my own work, increasing the array of potential suppliers of a service boosts the bargaining power of the purchaser of services, which is typically a corporation. Are we creating a world that is ideally suited to serve the interests of corporate bosses and shareholders, rather than one that serves ordinary workers?

The Age of Mass Mobility is also an age of employee insecurity. The lifetime job is largely a thing of the past. Of course, it is easy for me to declare this because I don’t have to worry about job security—like Lobel, I have the virtue of tenure at a major university. But neither Lobel nor I are dismissive of the dislocations that the contemporary economy generates. We need to ensure that we support workers through government-sponsored transition adjustment programs. To prepare workers to compete in the global economy, we need to ensure adequate funding and intelligent structuring of public education, from pre-K to higher education.

I want to note yet another disruption. In the striking image on the cover of the book, an employee breaks free from her peers and lifts her arms, breaking the human chain. The other employees are left still holding hands. There is an aspect of individualism in this action that seems to neglect our common bonds. Like Lobel, I embrace individualism, but want to acknowledge some of the tensions that might result.

I have been thinking about the lessons of her book as I have participated in a symposium today at the University of Pennsylvania on “Information Harms.” One of the speakers, Dr. Kesenia Gorbenko, gave an excellent overview of the process of sterilization that hospitals must perform. Previously, operating room nurses sterilized equipment between operations. In this new century, hospitals increasingly employ a specialized workforce—the Sterile Processing Department, or SPD. Nurses, it turns out, are far more expensive than the staff of the SPD, which almost invariably labors in the hospital basement. SPD employees, however, do require extensive training to clean the complex tools of modern medicine. There is a clear efficiency-based argument for this move. Dr. Gorbenko noted interestingly that in at least one hospital, the SPD is under video surveillance to ensure that they perform their crucial job of sanitizing instruments properly.

At first glance, such video monitoring seems uncontroversial—don’t we want to ensure that people are doing their jobs well, especially when it comes to ensuring that instruments are sterile? But Lobel argues that “excessive surveillance can have counterproductive boomerang effects of mistrust and suppressed motivation” (133). I agree that any surveillance should be carefully considered and justified. Moreover, I might believe that the hospital was truly concerned about ensuring the best medical care through video monitoring if the surveillance extended to the doctors performing the operations and, even more important, the administrators making decisions (such as how much to spend on employees or instruments) that impacted the quality of care.

Orly Lobel’s Talent Wants to Be Free should be and will be widely read among all those who care about freedom, innovation and growth. I learned much from it, and I very hope policymakers around the world pick it up.

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