Jobs: Did Positive Thinking Kill Your Career?

If American business executives, middle managers, and worker bees had been a bit more cynical, the country might not have plummeted into its current economic mess. Big banks such as Lehman Brothers would have heeded employees' concerns about the firm's deep investment in the growing real-estate bubble. Executives at the mortgage giant Countrywide Financial would have, with greater skepticism, picked apart the logic that every American could qualify for a home mortgage, and Wall Street analysts would have handed out company ratings more judiciously. Yet optimism prevailed in each example in journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

According to Ehrenreich, the business culture of the last 20 years shunned statistics and science in favor of motivational speakers and self-help books. Against that backdrop, money and success flowed from one's attitude rather than one's skill set. Ehrenreich recently spoke to NEWSWEEK's Nancy Cook about the ways in which the cult of positive thinking has affected American workers—along with her prescription for solving America's jobs crisis. Excerpts:

Cook: So, what's wrong with being happy at work?
Ehrenreich: Well, it's wonderful to be happy. Optimism sometimes is justified, but what has happened in the American business culture has been some kind of staggering retreat from reality. I always assumed that corporate culture was rational because of my background in science and in journalism, but what I began to understand in the 1980s, 1990s, and throughout this decade was that the business culture had become unmoored. The idea of being the CEO went from being someone who had mastered the business to being someone who was a charismatic figure. Some business writers started to talk about the corporation more like a cult.

I remember reading one of these crazy books on attraction—about how you can get what you want by wishing it. One of blurbs on the back was written by a guy who worked for the company that held my retirement funds. That scared me. It's clear that the build-up to the financial meltdown involved real denial and people acting on the idea that it's bad to have negative people around.

How has this emphasis on positive thinking changed workers' daily lives?
It means artificial smiling and artificial cheer. It's a strain on people emotionally; the effort of managing the appearance of one's emotions is work. It means not asking the hard questions you think about asking. When people have been criticized for being negative at work, very often what that means is that they asked too many questions. I always thought asking questions was a good thing.

How do you imagine people's work life will look after this great recession?
It's really hard to say if we are going to be working for large organizations in the future or whether we will be freelancers or people who start their own businesses. The overall trend has been for employers to take less and less responsibility for their employees. We've seen the collapse of the corporate welfare state that guarantees your pension and health insurance. Now you assume all of the risk. The insecurity is the terrible part.

I've been pretty lucky as a freelancer in that I got into freelance writing when people were still getting paid well to do it. I like the adventure and the independence, though at times I would not have minded health insurance. But what does it mean for people who have been blue-collar workers? They can't become a freelance auto-parts manufacturer. And what are we retraining people for? We can't all be nurses. We're stuck. It's a huge impasse.

What do you think the federal government and the Obama administration should do to help the jobless and the underemployed?
I'm better at usually saying critical things than being constructive but, historically, one approach was organizing unions. Through unions, workers were able to demand more. That has not been going great so far. A lot of people are really scared and adrift.

I suspect that inside the Obama administration—not counting Larry Summers, who's been a very conservative influence on President Obama—you have some people pushing to create public-sector jobs. You could put people to work very quickly and that would make a huge difference. There are so many things you could do—like in so many neighborhoods ruined by foreclosure, you could put some people to work restoring and fixing the houses. This probably would not be profitable for any particular company, but companies aren't that interested in hiring. The business culture has changed. What do they need employees for? If some people are going to call their eviscerated health-care reform socialism, what are they going to say about public-sector jobs?

Do you think this cult of positive thinking is here to stay in the business world, even with the financial collapse as its backdrop?
I would hope that it doesn't stay. There has to be some kind of realism seeping in, but I'm not exactly sure whether or not companies are turning away from forced emotional labor.