Losing Our Religion

R.E.M. just broke up. It's an occasion for mourning not just the end of the pop band's 31-year run, but the decline of lasting teamwork in our society.

R.E.M. just broke up. It’s cause for mourning not just the end of the pop band’s 31-year run, but the decline of lasting teamwork in our society.

I’m a big R.E.M. fan, having seen them in concert a couple times in the 1980s. But bias aside, it’s safe to call R.E.M. one of America’s best rock bands in recent decades. They emerged from the alternative music scene to become huge in the 1980s and ’90s and shape much of mainstream rock during that period.

The band also stood out for highly collaborative songwriting. In contrast to many groups and artists where one or two band members get credit for songs, R.E.M. attributed its songs to all its members. And each apparently had a genuine say in the songwriting process.

Apart from this egalitarian style, R.E.M. is testament to the potency of long-term work relationships. The original members of the band—lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry—remained together from 1980 until 1997. They produced a series of excellent songs in their early years. But it wasn’t until their 11th year together that they scored a top-5 U.S. hit with “Losing My Religion.” It took time for them to gel—at least, commercially.

With R.E.M’s announcement earlier this month, it made me think about how the music world is famous for its dramatic breakups. But it also may be the industry that best shows how effective it can be to keep a team together. A few years ago, I saw singer Stevie Nicks perform. Only it wasn’t just Stevie Nicks. It was Nicks and her band, which has stayed largely intact for decades. True, Nicks hasn’t released new songs that have done as well commercially as those from her days with Fleetwood Mac or her early solo career in the 1980s.

But as a live performer, she continues to deliver a stunning show. And that’s directly a result of the joy you see her experiencing on stage with her musicians and back-up singers. One of those back-up singers is actually her sister-in-law, but the band as a whole is clearly a family.

Companies sometimes call themselves a family. But after waves of layoffs and restructurings, it doesn’t ring as true as it did during the 1950s-’70s. Sure, the lifetime employment deals of those days had pitfalls. Company performance could be suboptimal and people could stagnate in their positions. But the relative permanence of those bonds was positive as well. In terms of both the products that emerged and the ties people had with co-workers.

Scholars Ed Lawler and James O’Toole have written that work can help meet the fundamental human need for supportive social relationships. And columnist David Brooks has argued that people live rich lives not when they spend years trying to find themselves but when they lose themselves in a cause, a project, a mission.

American jobs often fail to provide such a worthy mission these days. Employers are focused on short-term results, the need to cut costs to compete internationally and the appeal of contingent workers. Workers have gotten the message. They now devote much of their energy to “building my personal brand.” Much of what they do for a company—say, blog for it or present a paper at a conference—is done with an eye for how it may help them move to a better gig six months or a year from now.

But there’s something a little sad, shallow and lonely about the way each of us is now directed to pursue fame and fortune on our own. According to one account, “Losing My Religion” was R.E.M.’s best song. To a significant degree, we’ve lost our belief in working together over the long haul. Maybe R.E.M.’s passing will help us find that religion once again.