Take This Job and Find a Better Way

About 15 years ago, I was in Reno on a business trip with a colleague. While we were waiting to meet with a client, we ate lunch in a hotel restaurant and had a brief conversation about the nature and value of work.

As we ate, a thin woman who may have been in her late 50s wandered through the dining area and repeatedly announced “Keno” in a high-pitched voice. She was wearing a uniform of some sort that identified her has an employee of the establishment. She gave off a vibe of tedium, which seems understandable if all she did for eight hours a day was solicit wagers on the Keno games inside a windowless hotel casino. (In case you’ve never been to Nevada, pretty much all hotels are casinos.)

Photo: John Sanphillippo

My colleague and I watched her come and go. After a while, my colleague looked at me and said, “Is that the kind of job that makes someone grateful to be employed?”

“No,” I said with a sad chuckle. “She actually seems rather pathetic.”

Employed, but pathetic.

Up until recently, our current president was very proud of the number of people employed in the United States. Whether these statistics portray an accurate picture or not, there was a lot of verve in the economy before the coronavirus brought things to a screeching halt.

Since March, a lot of people have lost their jobs. Some of those job losses will be temporary, but many will likely be permanent. And it is worth asking whether those were jobs really worth having to start with. Perhaps there is something more than the job/no job binary.

There are many in this country who have a point of view that goes something like this:

  • any employment is better than no employment
  • having no job is “bad,” as in “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
  • all jobs are of equal quality when viewed in the employment/no employment dichotomy
  • any job will be a step up the ladder of progress.

This is a very simplistic perspective that ignores many realities of human interaction. Among them are the fact that employers take illegal (and sometimes immoral) advantage of their employees all the time, day in and day out. One has only to look at the number of lawsuits that employees or former employees have filed against companies to get a sense of the magnitude of the situation.

This also ignores the plight of the working poor, who are employed and yet still unable to afford basic necessities such as decent housing, food, and health care, and have no guarantee that things will improve. Also, freelancers, contract workers, and those stuck in the so-called gig economy have little reason to feel that they’re being paid fair compensation for their efforts.

The job vs. no job view of employment paints a flat picture. It disregards the idea that employment–serving a valued role in society–can be key to one’s sense of self-worth. Once, all employment, with the possible exception of royalty, served a purpose. Today, there are far too many “bullshit jobs.” Perhaps we will actually be better off if many of these just go away, to be replaced by truer, more worthwhile vocations.

This may sound unsympathetic, but I would question how much people really enjoy selling shit on Ebay day in and day out, or taking money from drivers while sitting all day in toll booths, or calling out the next round of Keno betting in a forgettable lunch cafe in Reno. I think there is a better way, and I think we can take some time during this moment in our history allow ourselves to consider the possibilities.

There is a perhaps unsolvable tension between the economic need of having the means to fulfill one’s basic needs and the psychological need for fulfillment and understanding. We’ve created a society where the two are often mutually exclusive. Perhaps we could do better.

Gen X Has a New Hero

A few years ago, I wrote about how people from Generation X*–my generation–are essentially nonexistent in the public sphere. With few exceptions, we are almost invisible.

I used the example of Reid Hoffman, billionaire founder of LinkedIn, as an example that proves the point. Without Hoffman, who I went to summer camp with, there is nobody of my generation who has “made it.”

I now want to amend that statement and add to my list Eric Garcetti, the Gen X mayor of Los Angeles.

Garcetti began serving as mayor of L.A. around the time I wrote my post on Hoffman, and has shown in the past seven years to be very capable of being in charge of a large and diverse city.

Los Angeles currently has about 4 million people and serves as the keystone to a metropolitan region of about 19 million people. It is often said that the region has more Koreans than anywhere outside of Seoul, the most Mexicans outside of Mexico City, the most Iranians outside of Tehran. The economy of the Los Angeles region is larger than the economies of several nations, including Argentina, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden.

I think that whatever Garcetti is doing, he’s doing it right. Like any large city, L.A. has its problems, including crime and homelessness. But no one person can solve all of a city’s, state’s, or country’s social problems, despite what some people want to believe. That takes everyone working together.

However, an effective leader provides the vision and the glue to keep a large and diverse city, state, or nation on track. Garcetti is clearly doing this, and I’m impressed.

*NOTE: I am using the Pew Research Center’s definition of Gen X, being people born 1965 to 1980.

Three Awards

The corporation I work for has three awards to recognize employees’ accomplishments, none of which I qualify for.

One is for journalists, and I am not a journalist. One is for people who work on specific products that we offer, and I work on none of those products. And one is for managers, and I am not a manager.

Which leaves me in the pool of employees who essentially work unrecognized, day after day, year after year. This would include people such as accountants, help desk representatives, or the people who make sure the toilets still flush.

However, there is one award we all qualify for: the “service award.” This is the “award” people get for sticking with the company for 10 years or more. It basically recognizes people for being unambitious and unable to be employed anywhere else. It rewards people for not being creative enough, or providing enough value, to be noticed. It rewards people for blind loyalty and doing the minimum required to not get fired.

The situation does not inspire me to achieve much. I was laid off once from this company and I fully expect that it could happen again.  I know I’m expendable. This makes the “service award” less impressive than the others. (Full disclosure: even people who’ve won the above mentioned awards have been laid off.)

Which means that all the corporate-speak about teamwork, collaboration, and excellence ring hollow. If employees truly mattered, there would be more ways to recognize, more value placed on everyone’s work product (and not just the work product of the few). There would be a CEO who actually spoke to employees, not at them (we used to have one; he’s dead now).

Corporations are different than they used to be, and I don’t think it can be entirely blamed on the economy. My father ran a commercial operation for over 20 years in San Francisco and he knew the name of every one of his employees. This could still be done today if the CEO wanted it to, instead of wanting more salary and to please the shareholders. Or to achieve greatness. In other words, corporations are the people who compose them, more so than their stock ticker or SEC filing. It would be nice if they behaved that way.

Take a Survey: Attitudes about work and life

People have various attitudes about work and life. Some are enthusiastic about their careers while others are much less so. Some are optimistic about life while others find it a struggle.0206150838

Individuals, of course, are the product of a complex set of unique variables. But larger groups, affected by similar social and economic forces, tend to share similar views (called the “cohort effect”). These generations may collectively have attitudes about work and life that are noticeably different from each other.

Below is a link to a quick survey (three questions) that I hope will shed some light on this.

Take My Survey!

Let me know what you think in the comments section of this post. I will share the results at a future date.

The Few, the Young, the Underemployed

Recently, I wrote about how people of certain age and generation have found themselves locked out of the opportunities presented by our current economy. And I wasn’t talking about the very old or the very young.

Many (myself included) have remarked about how tough things are for young people just now finding their way in the job market. And while that continues to the true, these recent graduates have something in common with people a generation or so older who were caught off-guard by a massive economic shift.

Specifically those who graduated from college between 1989 and 1992. Let me explain.

Picture with me career advancement as a made-up metric called “level of opportunity” (hey, it’s no weirder than the term “utility” used by economists). Granted, there is no way to project across a population how successful each individual will be, due to the unique circumstances of each person. What this metric measures, then, is what the chances are (the probability) that someone at that age will be able to achieve career goals and a satisfying return on their education.

Normally, the expectation is this:

oppur_graph1

Generally, under normal circumstances, one’s level of opportunity rises with age and experience (ignoring other factors such as financial means, gender, and race). As you get older and accumulate more experience in a career, you are regarded as more valuable. You have a greater ability to receive higher pay and to make a positive influence on your field of expertise. The curve drops off around retirement age.

This stands in contrast to what people of my age group have been dealing with:

oppur_graph2

As you can see, instead of rising over the years, our professional lives have been slammed with repeated setbacks that have left us far below where we expected to be.

I thought that by now I’d be in a position to make a difference in this world instead of continuing to be underemployed, plodding toward retirement. As I approach the 50-year-old milestone, I am only as far along as someone in their early thirties.

I actually know several younger people who have surpassed me, doing what they enjoy in a way they want to do it, including:

  • a senior principal at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association,
  • the senior manager of communications at the Share Our Strength non-profit,
  • the executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators,
  • the chief executive officer of an international luxury jewelry company, and
  • an assistant television editor for such programs as “Jennifer Falls,” “Whitney,” and “Mulaney.”

In addition, I know many others who’ve started their own businesses.

This proves two things. First, being too young is not the problem. For years, I told myself that if I just was patient a bit longer, my worth would be proven, my years of service recognized, and opportunities would open up. Now I’m convinced that ain’t gonna happen.

And second, my generation–or my slice of it–is especially blighted. Due to the fickle nature of economic and demographic trends, we, for the most part, have missed out on the benefits that should have accrued to us. We’ve been overlooked, swept aside by the tides of history and there’s no going back.

The upshot is this: for those of us who are low on the opportunity totem pole, the impacts to our lives are very real and quantifiable. We don’t get asked to join meetings or conferences, which in turn means we have a very small network of colleagues. Our contributions are undervalued, which leads to a corresponding devaluation in our career field, both inside and outside of our organizations. This can lead to lower than average salary and fewer chances to move up. We don’t get asked for advice or input despite the fact that our ideas are as good as, or maybe better than, those of better-known colleagues. We aren’t recruited for new job openings.

Which only reveals one thing that we already know: life ain’t fair.

Now that I’ve vented a little, maybe it’s time to get something done.


 

Stay tuned: in the next few days, I will be inviting folks to take a survey about how your work/life attitudes may be affected by your generation. I hope you will participate.