Missionaries in a Mercenary World: Apprehensive Individualism

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In my last post, I talked about how many professionals, even Christian ones, define themselves in relation to the symbolic image of the Mercenary—a person who is oriented towards “apprehensive individualism.” What does that mean?

Individualism isn’t simply self-centeredness; as many scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor have pointed out, it can also be a moral vision. But there are different types of individualisms—for instance, an expressive individualism in which one believes they ought to privilege authenticity and self-expression above all, or a utilitarian individualism in which one believes one must maximize one’s self-interest.

Apprehensive individualism makes it normative not to trust one’s colleagues or organization—one believes one ought to be distrustful and wary of colleagues, and failing to do so compromises one’s mobility. The Mercenary model holds up such mistrust as a form of maturity or wisdom.

One senior HR director at a major global technology firm told me: “At my level, I need to be smart enough… Yes, you learn by mistakes and things like that. To trust certain people, tell them something, they go play around, et cetera—that’s part of life, right? It’s not so smooth.” He was betrayed by colleagues, and has learned as a result to keep his cards close to his chest and be wary of his peers.

The pursuit of career mobility is the key ethical impetus for the Mercenary. In stark contrast to the “organization man” of old, the Mercenary believes one should not “stagnate” in the same company or position for too long; one ought to be constantly pursuing other opportunities.

The apprehensive individualism of the Mercenary amplifies the logic of mobility that Richard Sennett began to uncover in American firms in the late-1990s, a logic in which failure to move was tantamount to failure overall. One manager Sennett spoke to described this new tendency among his employees: “When somebody tells me there’s no future here, I ask what they want. They don’t know; they tell me you shouldn’t be stuck in one place.” One has to keep moving—where and why don’t matter as much.

Mobility is thus an indication of worth. People assume from the very beginning that they will be moving on from the company. Not immediately, of course—one needs to equally give the impression that they are committed, that they are not going to get up and leave the next day, and that investing in them will not be a waste. A pattern of moving based on less than a year or two in companies looks bad on a résumé, so one needs to stay on for three years at least. But beyond five years, it is understood that one will move on. Staying on means stagnating, and hence, failure.

This is why professionals such as Ashwin Mathews, no matter how deeply committed they are to people in their lives outside the workplace—such as their church communities—prefer within the workplace not to get to know colleagues too well. “Leaving the organization becomes that much more easier,” he counsels, if you “don’t become close” to people.

Despite the sense of choice and imperative that professionals express in their decisions to move, there is also an element of rationalization in having to justify this as free choice rather than being a victim of circumstances. But downsizing and layoffs loom as a perennial threat in the background.

The Mercenary’s detachment and ever-preparedness to move on are understandable modes of self-protection in the face of fundamentally unstable and unreliable environments. As Richard Sennett puts it: “Detachment and superficial cooperativeness are better armor for dealing with current realities than behavior based on values of loyalty and service.”  

There is a strange parallel in the Mercenary’s detachment with theologian William Cavanaugh’s analysis of contemporary consumerism: what matters is not the purchased object itself (which gets discarded soon enough), but the process of perpetually acquiring something new. One has to keep moving on; one shouldn’t become stagnant or obsolete. It isn’t surprising, then, for Mercenary professionalism and consumerist lifestyles to go hand-in-hand, reinforcing similar orientations, as the quote from Anil in my last post suggested.

The character of the Mercenary thus embodies a particular moral framework, a distinctive vision of the good. Unless we recognize this character for what it is, we don’t be able to properly understand the hold it has on professionals’ lives, and why it is so difficult to overcome—even for those who espouse deep faith commitments.

Brandon Vaidyanathan is Director of Research at The H. E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas and Public Policy Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

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