James M. Flammang, author of more than two dozen
books (including six for children), is at work on
several more, including the title described below.
A veteran automotive journalist, Flammang concentrates
on the "big picture," whether he's writing about cars,
consumer issues, simpler living, or any other topic.
During 2013, Flammang is expanding his efforts into
the areas of work/labor, consumer concerns, and travel.
Brief Summary: Conventional wisdom dictates that work is always good. Not only does it provide income and accomplishment, it generates a sense of responsibility and participation.
Sorry, but this book begs to differ. Starting with my own first full-time job, when I was ready for retirement 10 minutes into the first day, I call upon personal experiences and anecdotes, coupled with lifelong study of labor history and the work culture, to assess what's wrong with our excessive emphasis on jobs and careers.
Is working in a cubicle what humans were meant to do? What happened to the notion of truly blending work and other aspects of life, rather than separating them? What do we really learn from our first jobs, and our last, and every one in between?
If work is so wonderful, why do workers spend so much time chatting about coffee breaks, nighttime partying, and forthcoming days off (if any)? These and many other serious questions about the alleged beauty of modern-day work will be addressed–in a light style, meant to suggest alternative ways of thinking but not trying to pound new views into anyone.
Scattered throughout will be references to work as depicted–accurately or not–in the movies, in books, on TV, and in life-lesson booklets for teens. Rounding out our worklife story are appropriate observations and analyses by labor historians and activists, over the past century and more.
Introduction: Conventional wisdom insists that work is invariably good. Jobs of any sort enhance character, many an analyst–professional or amateur–has proclaimed with utter certainly. Within these pages, we shall observe a markedly different scenario–one that contrasts sharply with the traditional view.
Countless words have been written about working at hard, stupid, and/or demeaning jobs. Nearly all have focused on the alleged ultimate benefits of such toil. Many of those observers did such work themselves for short periods, though well aware that they’d soon be moving on–whether back to school, or into a more suitable career. Those real-work episodes were strictly temporary.
My own early worklife history was far different, but it reflects that of millions of reluctant jobholders and frustrated job-seekers. These are the people who trudge from one personnel department (or "human resources" office) to another, over and over. Each new job I obtained, however horrendous–and typically after an excruciating interview ordeal–just might have been the last one I'd ever find. Or, heaven forbid, it could have erupted into the fabled lifetime “career.”
This isn’t how people were meant to live. Is it? Sitting in an office or standing in a factory all day, every day–and being expected to show enthusiasm and gratitude whenever called upon.
Maybe it’s not slavery; or even wage slavery. That would insult those early Americans who were carried across the ocean and bought into bondage. Yet, for far more of us than the experts willingly acknowledge, certain elements of everyday worklives come painfully close.
Though we touch upon labor history in these pages, and the author has been a lifelong union supporter, that's not our focus here. This is a more personal story, and one that could be told by far more daily toilers than the proponents of work as invariably uplifting would have us believe. Balanced against those individual recollections and observations of the workaday world are detailed descriptions of work and toil from a more general perspective–as well as a look at the vast variety of ways, both familiar and little-known, in which people manage to earn a living. Or, in all too many cases, fail in that effort.
Chapter 1: Without a Paddle
Our story begins with my own first day at a full-time job, at age 16, when I suddenly discovered that I was ready for retirement right then. "This is what all the fuss is about?" I asked myself.
We note that it had taken plenty of slogging from one company to the next, before landing this clerical position. Other teenagers started work the day after they graduated from high school. Or, they were already working almost full-time while still in school.
This wasn't my first job of any kind, naturally; nor was it the first evidence that work wasn't nearly as marvelous as I'd heard. This opening chapter takes a quick look back at the travails that took place on my paper route (at 3 years, the longest actual job I've ever had.) We also note my first taste of entrepreneurship, selling nameplates door-to-door. As best I can recall, I sold none–a portent of worklife failures to come. We also observe how a grown man threatened to push me–in my role as a bill collector–down the stairs because he didn't want to pay the monthly installment of his magazine subscription. I was 14 years old.
Clearly, the stage was set early for displeasure. And it was about to come, when I sought and eventually got the next job, and next, and next.
Chapter 2: It doesn’t get better
Distressing as it is to admit, for many of us, a life of business, bosses, and bureaucracy leaves a string of memories that are more painful than merry. This look at the dark side is based upon my own work history, before I became an independent journalist and author, as well as the dire experiences of friends, acquaintances, relatives, and countless people observed. The premise: Dull, tedious, worthless jobs do not necessarily build character or enhance skills and capabilities. More likely, they sap a person’s strength and will.
Most of us are aware of the typical, traditional "career" trajectory: office boy, eventually up the ladder to manager–or the equivalent in a non-business environment. For many or most of us, that never happens. We knew life wasn't as depicted in the lighthearted musical comedy "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." But was the humdrum, closed-in worklife depicted in Paddy Chayefsky's Bachelor Party all that a young person could expect in 1957?
Chapter 3: Cubicle Life – from desk space to Dilbert
Reminiscent of a rabbit hutch, the modern-day cubicle is clearly a strange place to spend the better part of one's life. In my day, office workers had open desk space, not unlike the famous office scene in the classic silent film, The Crowd. Cubicles, if they existed at all, were a step up. Either you had an open desk surrounded by dozens of other desks, or a private (or semi-private) office. Naturally, I never reached that pinnacle. Because of the trouble I had interacting with people, I desperately needed a totally private office that no one could enter without warning. Better yet, there would be a slot in the door to push work through for me to do; and a second slot for me to return what I'd completed. Needless to say, no such setup ever materialized.
Chapter 4: Evolution of a bad attitude
What about all those teenagers who could hardly wait to get out into the “real” world after high school, earning money for cars, courtship, and–face it–frequent drunkenness. As others were on their way to professional careers, or firmly ensconced in labor they accepted as suitable and inevitable, I flitted from job to job, like millions of others. While they developed and established career paths, those in my group were encouraged by no one to be anything more than a drone and a drudge. No mentors, no role models were to be found. This was working-class Chicago in the early postwar years, not some fancy suburb with teachers and counselors who advised their students on what to do after graduation. Even though I attended one of the top schools in Chicago, that's not how it was done in those days.
My father regularly warned me to never quite a job unless I had another one waiting. Nearly always, I failed to follow that sage advice. When I couldn't stand it anymore, I'd simply move on–though knowing only too well that the next job probably wouldn't be any improvement, and might even be worse. Often as not, it was. Year after year, I had no idea what to do with my life, workwise. Half a century later, I still don't. Factor in all my reading about and observing of worklives, and it's no wonder that I developed a negative attitude toward employment.
Chapter 5: Tears and Anger
Academics, journalists, and other observers of human worklife turn out reports, studies, news stories, commentaries by the thousands. Their researches, their analyses, cover every aspect of working in the modern world. Except one. Few appear to pay any attention whatsoever to the workers who go home in tears every night. Or, even if not dispensing actual tears, they feel a compelling urge to run home crying after a hard day at the office, store, or just about any other workplace.
Sartre was right: Hell is other people. That was the basic theme of his play, No Exit, and it’s certainly the case in many workplaces. Maybe in all of them, if the truth were really known. Career counselors and human relations professionals might be aghast at the thought, but plenty of workers run home crying, due to interactions on the job. At the same time, look how many workers spend much or most of their day chatting with co-workers. For them, the job is more of an impediment to their daytime social life than a position to be appreciated, worthy of devoting one's full attention. Here, we look at both ends of the need for interaction in the workplace.
Chapter 6: Jobs versus Careers
Some jobs count, but far more don't. This chapter dissects the vastness of job titles and categories, to discover that few of us spend our worklives doing anything that matters to the world. The differences become clear as we separate what people do for a living into a hierarchy: job, occupation, career, profession, and calling. Sure, it’s different for doctors, firemen, caregivers–those who make a real contribution to the welfare of humanity. But only a tiny percentage of us fall into that category. Hard as it is to hear, the rest of us spend our lives at tasks that amount to nothing–a tedious lifetime of "busy work," which accomplishes little more than making more and more money for those at the top. How many of us, after decades of work, can honestly say that our jobs have made a particle of difference to humanity?
SIDEBAR 1: Does Your Job Matter?
Did you get the job you wanted, or take the one you could get? Not just your current or latest job, but throughout your life. A little quiz will help determine where your job fits in the importance-to-the-world scale. Included are such queries as:
Can it be done as well as (or better) by a dozen, a hundred, a thousand others?
Will your presence really be missed when you leave?
Is this what you wanted to do when you were young? Or at least, close to what you had in mind?
Would you really rather be doing something else with each day?
... and more.
Chapter 7: Pounding the pavement
Some folks could always find work, even in the worst of times. Others had constant trouble and repeated failure, even in the best of times. Naturally, I fell into the latter category. Fortunate people can land in a new country, where laws prohibit working by foreigners, yet land a job within hours. Maybe minutes. For the rest of us, if our money disappeared in such a situation, we would slowly starve, utterly incapable of finding a way to make a few dollars. The major thrust of this chapter is that searching for work is debilitating and depressing. Doing so for weeks, months, years, is a travesty. Regardless of economic conditions, the job search should not become a veritable career in itself.
Chapter 8: Squeezing into square holes
Work problems aren't limited to finding, getting, and keeping a job. This chapter looks at an issue that's at least as damaging to a worker's mental health: being in an unrewarding position or occupation, and seeing no way out.
Contrary to popular perception, an awful lot of employees are spending their lives as round pegs struggling to squeeze into the square holes of the occupational marketplace. To a great extent, that unfortunate circumstance stems from the fact that so many of us agree to "settle" for a job that we know (or suspect) will be distressing, simply because that's the only one offered.
Attempts to find an alternative, once you're firmly settled in the work world, aren't always successful, either. Far from it. We hear a lot lately about older folks, for example, who change careers in midlife. That is, we normally hear about the successful ones, not those who've tried and failed. Or, those who are unhappy with their worklives but have no idea what else to try, and what the chance of success in a new career might be.
In this chapter, then, we peer at the selection and hiring process, to see if there are realistic ways to start off one's worklife in a more satisfactory manner, and to make a change if the job you're stuck with isn't working out.
Chapter 9: Payday
As a friend once referred to it, every Friday he received his “weekly insult.” In this chapter, we take an intensive look at the development of wages and salaries as the industrial world edged aside the agrarian model. We'll observe the role of organized labor, and how its choice of issues to address gradually narrowed down primarily to the financial: to paycheck amounts.
Later, we'll note the growing trend toward fighting for improvements in working conditions as well as money. Still, no major labor leader ever suggested that work was not, overall, a good thing. Few in the movement ever questioned the intrinsic worth of work itself. That was the province of people like the author of Why Work?, who were largely dismissed as crackpots.
On a personal level, not until I became an independent writer did I ever earn a significant amount–and then only sporadically. That's the curse of the freelance life. My best financial years, oddly, were in my 50s and even 60s–a time when most workers were on the verge of retirement, or already there.
Chapter 10: Perks and pensions
At the employment office, the personnel person in charge looked stern. Forbidding. I knew I was supposed to ask pointed questions about the job, so they could assess my “value” to the company as a potentially long-term employee. But no questions came to mind. Finally, I dredged up one query: “What about the pension plan?”
I was 16 years old, recently graduated from high school. Back in the Fifties, even a teenage, first-time job applicant was expected to inquire about such matters.
News stories make it clear that health insurance is the key issue in recent times, surpassing concerns about pensions, vacations, and time off. This chapter compares U.S. fringe benefits to those offered in Europe. We also look closely at the current trend to cut back sharply on benefits, for both public and private workers, under the guise of balancing the corporate books–and the federal budget. Finally, we consider the past, when lifetime work at the same job was not uncommon, and the prospect of pensions was real.
Chapter 11: Bosses and "better people"
Inequality is the main thrust of this chapter. It's not just a question of differences in income, or social class. We consider the possibility that some early-day labor leaders were right when they asserted that workers and bosses have nothing in common. After all, bosses on various levels are the ones who can fire you, declare layoffs, transform you from a full-time employee to a part-timer to save money; and if they're arrogant and angry, can turn a tolerable job into a daily nightmare.
No less important are the differences between workers below the middle of the occupational scale and those who fit somewhere closer to the top. In our discussion, we call them "better people" not becasue they're actually superior to the rest of us, but because they serve in positions that can permit them to make decisions that dramatically affect our lives.
Another element of inequality also deserves a close look: the startling growth in the number and power of celebrities. Not just movie stars and pro athletes, but folks who now seem to qualify as celebs even in far more modest occupations. Amplifying our observations, we consider the grotesque differences in earnings between workers in various everyday occupations and the CEOs and celebrities whom so many of us wish to emulate.
Chapter 12: Making Mistakes
We all make mistakes. Some of them result in being reprimanded, or even fired. What happens when a worker knows he's made a terrible error, or a disastrous occurrence has taken place that was his fault. Do you admit it, and risk being fired? Or do you cover it up, and hope for the best?
That's an easy one to answer ... isn't it? Sure, honesty is the best policy. But are there exceptions? In the principal example, a worker in a publishing company has dropped a "case" of lead type–set up to make a printed page–on the floor, scattering thousands of tiny pieces. This was the early 1960s, when printers still used metal type. Admitting it and accepting the consequences would have changed my entire life. Averse as I was to lying, I could see there was no choice if I had any hope of staying with this type of work for a while. As it happened, I remained with a form of it for the rest of my working life. Was I wrong?
We also look at ways blame is assessed and punishment doled out, at both the upper and lower ends of the worklife spectrum. We also consider layoffs, whether short- or long-term, and how a person decides if and when to quit. On another level, what happens when you're seriously injured on the job? Finally, we consider the options when you have a horrible work history, sure to bring rejection every time you apply for a new position. When is it okay to flat-out lie, and how far can the truth be stretched without falling into falsehood?
Chapter 13: Short-timers, part-timers, and temps
A job for everyone? Not likely anytime soon. Meanwhile, millions are struggling to do the best they can with a series of short-time, part-time, temporary, or contract jobs. Few have benefits of any kind. Few make use of special skills that one might have acquired.
This chapter looks at the trend that’s likely to remain for a long time to come: the use of temporary rather than permanent workers, hired not as actual employees but placed in a category that let the employer forget about benefits and rewards. In addition to describing the transition from full-time to short-term, and considering the growing litany of tasks that lend themselves to this phenomenon, we’ll bring in some research on this increasingly-important subject, as found in such recent volumes as The Good Temp.
SIDEBAR 2: Wages: past and present
Since the 21st century began, many social critics and economists have been saying that workers have fallen behind financially. Are we doing as well economically as our fathers and mothers? Did our grandparents actually fare better on the average-income scale? This sidebar presents some easily-grasped figures that demonstrate just where we stand compared to our forefathers, looking as far back as the 1920s, the Great Depression, the era of postwar prosperity, and the emergence of baby boomers in the workforce.
Chapter 14: Junk Jobs
Those who work at the bottom levels of employment have plenty of colorful ways to assess their situation. “Crap jobs” is just one of many derisive, yet descriptive, terms. It’s a question of Hitting Bottom in the workaday world: minimal income, no benefits, hard or tedious tasks, no psychic rewards, and perhaps most importantly, no prospects. In the realm of work, there are good jobs, so-so jobs, bad jobs–and rock-bottom jobs. Those are the ones you accept when there's absolutely, positively nothing else available, and no likelihood that there will be anytime soon.
Chapter 15: Off the Books
Nobody really knows how many Americans work for employers who don’t bother about record-keeping. Or for themselves, in the hazy, informal world of cash transactions. Even a full-time worker might have a part-time gig that brings in cash, but goes utterly unrecorded by the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security, or any governmental agency. You put in a day’s work (or an hour’s work), and get a batch of bills. Currency, not checks. Nothing signed, nothing formal at all.
Even decades ago, working “off the books” usually meant minimum wage and below, sans taxes, creating the illusion of “putting something over on the man.” A quickie job might have paid only a “buck an hour” or so, but those who accepted such offers often boasted of the fact that they got the whole dollar, with no tax man involved.
Avoiding taxes is just part of the picture, however, though it’s also a benefit to the type of employer who deals with unskilled workers. Mainly, those who agree to put in a day’s work in this way are people who need the money. Period. Not tomorrow, not on next week’s payday, but right now. This chapter also looks at those who work for tips, commissions, and below-minimum salary. We consider the day labor–loading trucks, landscaping–performance by undocumented immigrants and citizens alike. As part of the cash-only business model that serves as a centerpiece for “off the books” labor, we also investigate a more recent phenomenon: folks who sell merchandise on eBay or at flea markets.
Chapter 16: Unconventional Work
A step beyond working “off the books” is an amorphous, difficult-to-count group of people who engage in unconventional jobs. This includes the expected drug dealers and other criminals, large and small, dangerous or relatively harmless. But we also consider a host of semi-illicit undertakings that provide a living to workers in what might be termed the shadows. Sex workers, for one. We’ll skip the anticipated giggles and/or moral outrage, and take a look at what nude models, webcam performers, “adult” movie stars and prostitutes do to earn a living. Finally, this chapter considers other types of performers, including musicians–especially those who play on the street or at small venues (for small fees).
Chapter 17: Danger Ahead
To take a personal example, my own brother lost part of a finger on his very first day at a job in a factory. He got a small sum to “compensate” for having that digit partially slide off, and prevent a possible lawsuit; but needless to say, he never returned to that factory. This chapter delves into the types of jobs that present above-average dangers to workers, whether due to high accident rates, exposure to toxic substances, or other causes beyond the worker’s control. As an example, we’ll take a look at the 1953 movie Wages of Fear, in which a motley group of homeless foreigners in a South American town vie for a job driving a truck across the country–carrying a load of nitroglycerine that might blow up at any moment. Most potentially dangerous jobs aren’t quite that risky, but we also consider the mental dangers presented by excessive intense tasks. To help give this chapter some perspective, we also look at the far different attitudes toward safety in Mexico–past and present.
Chapter 18: Taking Advantage
Long ago, when temporary workers were hired to deliver telephone books, one of those temps had no intention of actually delivering them all. Because we were paid more for each of the old phone books that we picked up than for the new ones delivered, this miscreant spent time each day ripping the covers off a number of new books and returning them as if they were old ones. More pay for less work made him quite pleased, without a thought for the illegality and immorality of his actions.
From theft and embezzlement to the “lesser” crimes of taking home supplies or “signing in” for a fellow worker who’s taken unauthorized time off, plenty of workers perceive their misdeeds as a result of embittered entitlement. They may wish to reward themselves for perceived (or real) mistreatment, or for underpayment compared to what they believe their daily efforts are worth. Recent news stories of mail theft by postal workers reminds me of my own two-year postal career half a century ago, seeing two fellow employees hauled away by Postal Inspectors for stealing or destroying mail. For explanations about dishonesty and cheating on the job, we look at books by psychology professor Dan Ariely (The [Honest] Truth About Dishonesty) and Demos fellow David Callahan (The Cheating Culture).
Chapter 19: Hitting Bottom
In the realm of work, there are good jobs, so-so jobs, bad jobs–and rock-bottom jobs. Those are the ones you accept when there's absolutely, positively nothing else available, and no likelihood that there will be anytime soon. I've had more than my share, including that of telemarketer (formerly known as phone solicitor) and door-to-door commission salesman. Can it get any worse? Yes, if you're utterly incompetent even at those tasks, hate them passionately, and fail completely every time you try your hand. Of course, we also note that what’s rock-bottom to one worker may be a normal day’s toil to another.
Chapter 20: Back to School
When jobs are impossible to get, what's the solution? Go back to school, of course. As we shall see, that option was less available in the past, because sources of funds were far more limited. Besides, would an advanced degree really help? Does it now? Or is additional education merely postponing the inevitable, avoiding a problem that actually runs much deeper? We also survey the growth in often-pricey tech training, which tends to escalate in appeal when times get tougher. Most are doubtless legitimate, but the other kind are always lurking about.
SIDEBAR 3: The Intern experience
When I first entered the workforce, interns worked in hospitals. They put in long hours, for moderate pay, presumably honing their medical skills in real life.
Not until the 1970s did the concept of internship begin to expand into non-medical fields, beginning with government. Now, in the 21st century, entry-level employees earning low but adequate salaries have largely been replaced by interns who are paid little or, increasingly often, nothing at all. Though billed as a learning experience that builds upon knowledge acquired in college classes, interns have all too often become what author Ross Perlin describes as people doing regular jobs in offices and elsewhere, but without a paycheck at the end of the week.
This sidebar looks at the way in which internships have become a boon for employers seeking to save money on salaries, while providing little of educational value. We also see that undertaking one of more internships is becoming a prerequisite for applying for actual employment. Because all of us needs funds to live day by day, those who are able to go the internship route are typically the sons and daughters of the affluent, leaving middle- and lower-class young folks out in the cold.
Chapter 21: Going Governmental
In the past, many workers who just couldn't make it in the private sector decided to make a stab at government work: What some wags called feeding at the government trough. Here, we start with a look at my own short-lived “career” path at the U.S. Post Office, noting how being a mail carrier differed from jobs in the private world. How was it better? In what ways was it not? Why did the animosity toward government workers come about? We also ponder the availability of the military as an alternative to unemployment.
Sometimes, it’s a chance to peek inside the system. Once in a while, even the most unsuccessful job applicants might wind up with an interesting position. Some of them even permitted a peek inside the workings of a governmental agency. So it was with my own stint as a public aid caseworker in Chicago, in the Sixties. Later came a shorter-term tenure as a clerk in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
Were there benefits beyond the paycheck to being a small cog in a system that affected people's lives so directly? Or, did such jobs make one feel like a detective, invading people's privacy. Caseworkers, for one, even wound up counseling clients on employment–an ironic situation for one who questioned the ultimate value of work, yet was compelled to do everything possible to get those clients into the workforce if at all possible. We also look at several other once-popular government jobs, including probation officers and prison social workers.
Chapter 22: Work in Fiction
In movies, in books, in plays and on TV, people work. Most of the time, however, we seldom see them engaged in remunerative activities. When they're pictured on the job, chances are they're engaged in banter with fellow employees, chatting about their next day off (or the one just past), or grumbling about the tasks that have to be done. This chapter skips over the episodes of chitchat, concentrating instead on realistic depictions of the workaday world, along with the tribulations of being without work. This includes such books from the past as James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door, B. Traven's The Death Ship as well as his "jungle" novels about toil in Mexico, and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Films to be covered include Paddy Chayefsky's The Bachelor Party (1957), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Wages of Fear (1953),and Norma Rae (1979). We also consider the lighter side of work on film, including such darkly comic offerings as Office Space.
Chapter 23: Personal Barriers
Nobody’s perfect. Everyone has a set of obstacles, large or small, that may hinder worklife success. Some of us have a comparative boatload of barriers to deal with. In my own case, after only a few months on that first full-time job, I developed a debilitating case of what was later diagnosed as anxiety and panic reaction. Coincidentally (or not), it began suddenly one day, while at work. In a word, I immediately became fearful–petrified–of everything, with a host of terrifying symptoms leaping into action. Not only did this make doing my work difficult, it soon became impossible.
Just getting to work in the morning turned into a terrifying ordeal. Sitting there all day, attempting to complete my various tasks, turned into veritable torture. Interacting with people was even worse. Not much time passed before I had no choice but to leave that job. Then, after a brief hiatus, to try and get myself together and embark upon another one. Thus began a long string of trivial positions, almost invariably separated by breaks of unemployment, which lasted for the next decade. In fact, the psychological problems lasted far longer than that; but as we shall see later, I found a way out: a way to earn a living without having to leave home at all.
Chapter 24: Disabilities and Discrimination
Despite all the laws on the books today, discrimination remains an issue, whether related to race, gender, age, or disabilities. Dissecting the typical selection process used by employers, we find that much of it amounts to simply weeding out the unwanted. Or, eliminating from consideration anyone who doesn’t fit a particular description of the “ideal” new hire. Credit scores and ratings now are considered as a supplement hiring tool–that is, a means to say “no” with a sense of justification.
With respect to physically and mentally disabled people in the workplace, how much progress have we really made, and how far do we still have to go? Because this is a complex subject, we make no attempt to provide an exhaustive survey of discrimination, but will include notes to help the concerned reader find out more.
Chapter 25: Reject! For troubled applicants, job search is futile endeavor
We hear endless tales about folks out of work for weeks, for months, even years. They keep searching, and keep being turned down. An unfortunate and largely unknown number of us are nearly always rejected. Why? Because there's always someone better: more qualified, better educated, younger, smarter, more attractive physically, or simply able to make a better impression in an interview.
This chapter looks at a long string of possible reasons why particular applicants cannot, and will not, be hired. Ever. Or, if hired by some miracle, will be placed in the least desirable position and be the first one laid off when times get tougher. We consider such issues as inadequate or nonexistent job skills, troubled or spotty work histories, being under/overqualified, behavioral problems, personal appearance, inappropriate apparel, unhelpful habits - and simply being unlikable.
Chapter 26: Women in the Workplace
Like the chapter on Discrimination and Disabilities, this one will amount to a brief summary with notes on how to find out more. This issue rose to the surface during the 2012 presidential campaign, when a commentator questioned whether Ann Romney’s role as a wealthy homemaker constituted actual work. Is a mix of outside work and parenthood invariably the ultimate logical goal? Despite propaganda that says paid work is all that counts, we take the position that it’s not necessarily right for everyone, male or female.
At the same time, this chapter looks at strides made and denied toward equal pay and equal opportunity. We also note that women may be at greater risk than men of painful experiences in the workplace, likely more mental than physical but no less stressful. Not to mention the ever-present prospect of unwanted sexual advances, mild and major.
Mainly, though, we wonder: Is it really “fun” to go to work each day? For some, yes. For most, not at all. Therefore, why are so many women adamant about getting into and staying in the outside workforce, rather than contemplating alternatives?
Chapter 27: Retirement
In the words of a cliche from the Sixties, retirement means “different strokes for different folks.” TV commercials make it look exciting, romantic, colorful. Reality, for the millions who rely solely or lately on Social Security income, is far less appetizing. All the more so, as rigid conservative politicians threaten the future of Social Security and Medicare, in the name of fiscal integrity. Private pensions have been fading away for years, and comparatively few retirees have substantial sums in IRAs or 401k accounts, or in investments.
The reality is quite simple: If you’re pushing 60, or 50 - or even 40, or 30 for that matter - you’re less and less wanted as the years roll by, regardless of your continued potential. It’s all part of the ongoing weeding process, not to mention the inevitable emphasis on youth.
Chapter 28: Destroying young people’s dreams
Speaking of youth, 20-somethings are facing a new reality founded on shrinkage and diminished expectations. Many continue to do well economically, but plenty of others see little prospect of ever being as well-off as their parents, even if those parents aren’t all that affluent. Not only is there no job for a growing number of college graduates that makes use of their expensively-acquired knowledge and skills, all too often there’s no job at all. Or at best, a junk job at the bottom of the labor barrel. Toiling in the fast-food business or low-end retail work may be fine for a while, but it isn’t what most educated people had in mind for themselves over the long haul.
SIDEBAR 4: Needed Now: Jobs, not careers
Millions of idle and despearate workers needs jobs now, and careers later. Or possibly, never.
Seldom acknowledged is the fact that people are split by basic occupational preference. Some of us are career-oriented, intent on finding a trajectory early on and climbing aboard, ready to forge ahead, step by step. The rest simply want a job. Preferably a pleasant job; but most important, something that brings in money. Now. Not tomorrow, but today. This sidebar looks into the growing dearth of available jobs, what happened to them, and some alternatives for those workers who are ready to toil, but neither want nor could qualify for a career.
Chapter 29: The Labor Movement
Unions are down, but by no means out. Not just yet, anyway. Those who insist that the labor movement is dead need to attend the annual Labor Notes conference. Rather than doom and gloom, this gathering of union members and supporters is positive and joyful - heartening indeed to those who have essentially given up the fight.
Thousands of volumes have been written about the early years of the union movement, as well as the modern, downsized and disrespected version. Rather than try to add to the massive supply of words on labor, this chapter focuses on where unions stand today in the wake of the Wisconsin battle for 2011, Chicago’s teachers’ strike in September 2012, and growing animosity toward organized workers. We also consider the trend toward non-union factories in the southern states, led by the auto industry.
Chapter 30: Is this all there is?
Surely, we weren’t put on earth to sit endlessly in an office staring at a screen, or to operate a machine all day, simply making money for some huge corporation. Or were we? As most religions suggest, one way or another, we may indeed be here at least in part fo expend effort in a quest for goodness, salvation, perhaps eternal life. But does that translate to spending your entire adult life at tasks that add nothing of consequence to the world, and yield no personal pleasure either? Shouldn't work occupy a more integral, proportionate part of one's daily life than it does in the modern world?
Chapter 31: Independence – Is it Valhalla or an Illusion?
For those who just can't make it in a conventional job environment, independence is the only reasonable alternative. That was my own solution, undertaken partly by necessity and partly by choice. In this chapter, we see that the future simply has to be largely one of independent workers, like it or not, because there will no longer be jobs for everyone. Not that there ever were, but despite protestations of politicians seeking high office, even the pretense of trying for full employment will be gone. We must be aware that all organizations (private and public) will continue to tighten their belts, most likely indefinitely.
Therefore, the chance of achieving an occupational goal–or just getting that first foot in the door–grows slimmer by the day. So, don't depend on anyone else to open a door for you, recommend a path, or grease the way. Rely on yourself, and you have a chance. We also take a quick look at those who really want to be performers, sports figures, artists, and the like, and how they might survive in the coming world of work.
On the other hand, this chapter concludes by asking: Is anyone truly independent, anymore? Aren’t we all taking orders, one way or another?
Chapter 32: Life Without Work
Is work really bad for you? For some, yes it is. For others, shunning regular work gives time (and in a better, ideal world, modest funds) to do what’s really important to you. Shouldn’t that be the principal purpose of one’s worklife? And life in general? Is paid-for work the only way to attain a level of status, and a sense of achievement? One young fellow, for example, earns money the hard way, as a part-time furniture mover; but that leaves him time to coach sports and to enjoy his favorite pastime: fishing,
We also look at voluntary versus paid work in terms of rewards, monetary and otherwise. Is the presence of a paycheck all that counts? Why is there still a stigma in many quarters to unpaid work?
One book, aptly titled Why Work?, has long occupied a prominent spot on my personal bookshelf. It’s a British volume, and Brits often have more tolerant views on such matters as idleness. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, idleness might not stand next to godliness; but as we shall see, it does have its benefits. In conclusion, we take a brief look at simpler living, which can minimize a person’s reliance upon the workaday world.
EPILOGUE: What To Do?
Speaking personally, I should have been a professor. In fact, a lot of people I've met have assumed that I was one. That wasn't possible, for a series of reasons. Still, I've known all along that what I'm best at is thinking: coming up with ideas and plans. Instead, I spent my worklife engaged in pursuits that I believe were without value to the world, and only minimally rewarding to myself. Why? Because that's all that was available, or all I could imagine being hired to do.
So, a critic might scoff, "What did you expect? That somebody should pay you for sitting around and thinking all day?"
Well, actually, yes. Definitely. We need more people to ease back from the ordinary world of competitive business, and devote their full attention to pursuits they know about and care about, and which might make some small difference in the world. Some of us were meant to be thinkers; others, doers. Some were intended to lead; others to follow. And on and on. Yet, too many of us have spent the bulk of our lives in the wrong place; or worse, struggling to acquire and maintain that unwanted mismatch.
Simply put, rather than encourage young people to follow career paths like their parents, their peers, or anyone else, we should be telling them to strike out their own way, striving toward something of real importance. Maybe they'll never get there. Perhaps none of their contributions will matter at all to the benefit of the world. But it's a sure thing that a lifetime doing inconsequential, unrewarding work, mainly for money, isn't the sane, sensible way to live.
AFTERWORD: Strictly Personal
Just as this discussion of the indignities of work began with a rundown of the author's personal work history, it concludes with some personal observations. Was his early dismay about prospects for a future worklife warranted? Was his life "wasted" as a result of worklife issues, as the subtitle to this book suggests? How does an ardent critic of the way we work foresee the economic future: both for up-and-coming young careerists, and for the less-successful strivers (and slackers) among us.