No Longer Just Company Men: The Flexible Workforce and Employment Discrimination, Review Essay on 'from Widgets to Digits Employment Regulation for the Changing Workplace', by Katherine V.W. Stone (2004)
14 Pages Posted: 24 May 2006
In her new book, From Widgets to Digits, Professor Katherine V.W. Stone reviews and analyzes the dramatic changes, both technological and demographic, that have transformed work in America during the last thirty years. The book broadly documents the shift from an economy that primarily relies on the production and consumption of goods to one in which learning and the transmittal of knowledge is central to the creation of wealth. Professor Stone describes how in the past, workers may have expected job security and long-term employment, but that recent economic, social, and technological change have led to a more temporary and transitory relationship between employers and workers. Today, workers face the challenges and risks of a "boundaryless career" in which they advance by moving laterally from employer to employer, acquiring skills and knowledge along the way. Meanwhile, Stone argues, the legal system remains mired in the industrial age, with serious consequences for post-employment restraints, anti-discrimination law, fringe benefits, and unionization, among other areas. The challenge, Stone contends, is for the legal system to respond to these changes creatively and effectively, advancing the needs of both employers and workers in a new age of flexible employment.
From Widgets to Digits presents an insightful analysis of the modern "psychological contract" between employers and workers, their understandings about their mutual obligations. Perceptively, Stone concludes that the new goal of employment law should be to establish rules that assist workers with training opportunities, guarantee ownership of the intellectual capital that they develop at work, ensure benefits are easily transferred between jobs, and provide safety nets for those that are left behind by technological change. If there is any area where the analysis is incomplete, it is in its treatment of employment discrimination issues, especially those that women workers must face. Stone contends that employment discrimination was part of the old life-cycle model of employment, and states that with the new boundaryless career, "there is reason to believe that discrimination might subside in the future." For the more subtle forms of discrimination that remain, Stone advocates alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as the preferred solution. Perhaps I am more pessimistic about the persistence of gender discrimination in the modern workplace than is Professor Stone. I argue that it is an open question whether the structural changes in the workforce will benefit or harm women workers.
Keywords: employment law, employment discrimination, ADR
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