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.

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.