Thursday, November 30, 2006
Work Will Intensify As Baby Boomers Retire
Eleven percent of the current workforce - most of them "baby boomers" - are expected to retire from American corporations in the next two years. According to Deloitte Consulting, just 51 percent of companies are aware of this impending labor shortage, and only 35 percent are taking actions to prepare for it. "The problem looks quite significant," says Deloitte's Tim Phoenix. "Companies understand the numbers of it, but the vast majority...haven't decided what to do about it." The labor shortage is expected to greatly intensify the work experience of those who remain on the job. Another Deloitte researcher asserts, "We need them to work harder than ever before, we need them to work faster than ever before, and we need them to work better together than ever before."
How far can American workers be pushed? The article at the link below reminds us that "white-collar workers in Asia are literally working themselves to death. Employees have been dying on the job of exhaustion, heart attacks and strokes after working sixteen-hour days." Can that happen here? I hope not.
HR professionals are concerned that increased work pressures could stifle productivity. One solution is to "bend up" the worker supply curve. This would entail more aggressive recruitment, better analysis of the deployment of "critical talent", and the willingness to move employees more readily from one job to another within the company so they'll be available wherever they are needed. Technological innovations may also soften the impact of the labor shortage.
Insisting that the coming labor shortage "will be bigger than any we've seen since World War II," the Deloitte researchers emphasize that work intensification is inevitable, and that companies must do what they can to reduce the pressure on their employees. Employers can reduce workplace stress by eliminating excess noise and interruptions, improving interpersonal communication, and giving their employees more flexibility - not just in terms of their work schedules, but also in terms of their potential for growth and mobility within the company.
Corporations should also strive to retain older employees, and to make the transfer of their knowledge to younger employees more gradual and mutually beneficial. One novel challenge that many companies will face is that of coordinating communication across a wider spectrum of age groups. Indeed, the corporations of the future may need to revert to the archetypal bond between the wise old shaman and the eager young acolyte that has been with us since we dwelt in caves. All things, it seems, eventually come full circle.
"Preparing for a skills shortage, work intensification" from Benefit News
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Getting A Rise Out Of The Man
Bludgeon-faced Barry Diller, America's highest paid CEO with $275 million in his yearly pay envelope, is a scary man to behold - much less listen to. But we're hearing from him nonetheless. Lately, he's been sputtering away at "the cottage industry of compensation consultants" who have looked askance at his quarter-billion-plus yearly income. He reserves his choicest disdain for The Corporate Library of Portland, Maine, which has recently awarded a grade of "D" to the governance of Diller's flagship, InterActiveCorp. (or IAC). Red as a beet, Diller fumed that the issue of corporate governance is "completely misunderstood, certainly by the birdbrains that write about it. I mean their reactions to everything are so dim, and I am talking about The Corporate Library and I'm talking about these people that analyze these things and haven't a clue." Some would take exception to that remark, even beyond the grammatical infelicity of using "birdbrains that" and "people that" instead of "birdbrains who" and "people who". But then, people of any stripe really are just objects to a CEO like Diller, aren't they?
"I'm sure he is bothered by the bad grades that we have given him," replies Corporate Library co-founder Nell Minow. "All of our governance metrics are based on the effect that governance has on strategy. I would be happy to explain it to him if he would like but clearly he doesn't understand what we do."
Diller insists that his company is run just fine, despite the incestuous network of mutual back-scratching on his board of directors. He claims that focusing on corporate governance is not the way to run a company, and "that it's really hurting American business." Clearly, Mr. Diller has no need for an objective opinion because - subjective as he may be about his own performance - he is still a genius and a demi-god and is incontestably always right. Anyone who raises an eyebrow at his $275 million compensation is simply, as he puts it, "loony".
Diller scoffed at The New York Times for implying that he was "the laziest man in America" because he needed to get paid $150,000 an hour just to do his job. "The whole issue of executive compensation and particularly the policy of The New York Times business section toward (it is) absolutely loony." Among the ignoramuses and imbeciles he so roundly mocks is reporter Gretchen Morgenson, a "trenchant and incisive" winner of the Pulitzer Prize whom her editor has called "one of the market's shrewdest and most fearless guides."
But The Emperor will have nothing of it. We are all fools, madmen and idiots, he thinks - and says. The irony is that his remarks don't help his case at all. They only confirm the heedless and egocentric arrogance that fueled his greed to begin with. The best thing about this whole fray is that at least we got his attention.
"Diller derides watchdog groups, NY Times" from MSNBC
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
An Eloquent Essay On Job Burnout
The term "burnout" was first used in the seventies to describe individuals in professions like nursing, teaching, social work and the clergy who had become disillusioned with their jobs, and found it difficult to continue caring for the people they were expected to help. It even gathered a sort of glamour around it. "Burning out" was something that happened to veterans of the "good fight", and was seen by many as a sign of nobility. Burnout has since expanded to plague individuals in all walks of life. It can now hit bankers, attorneys, software developers and many others. By now, it has become so prevalent that it has lost its glamorous specialness and is a threat to public health. Anyone who invests themselves fully in their work, whatever it is, can burn out if the rewards they achieve are unequal to the effort they expend. According to the article at the link below, "Work, after all, is a form of religion in a secular world. Burning out in it amounts to a crisis of faith."
Burnout expert Christina Maslach has identified six factors that can burn out workers:
1) Working too much.
2) Working in an unjust environment.
3) Working with little support.
4) Working with little control over one's circumstances.
5) Working for causes or individuals we despise.
6) Working for insufficient reward.
That sounds just like the plight of your typical white collar worker in today's business climate, but there's more. Burnout doesn't result from overwork alone - or even primarily. It comes from a feeling that whatever one does, no matter how hard and how long one works at it, it will have no positive effect. Another writer, Barry Farber, calls burnout "the gap between expectation and reward." Taken to its extreme, burnout becomes a species of hopelessness.
Little study has been done on burnout in a corporate environment. Those who have tried to conduct such studies have been almost universally rebuffed by corporations, and most researchers believe that this is because scientifically identifying burnout among employees would reflect poorly on the corporation, and might even provide forensic evidence for lawsuits. Burnout has, however, been studied among individuals in the "caring professions". A study in the Netherlands found that the average latency period for burnout among social workers was between one and five years, which is similar to the work-life expectancy of a New York public schoolteacher. And studies in Israel and elsewhere suggest that nurses in pediatric burn units exhibit the highest burnout level of all.
Other groups with a propensity for burnout are young professionals with unrealistically high expectations, depressives, angry or anxious people, unmarried people, and people who are continually interrupted or distracted during their jobs. Those with the lowest levels of burnout include seasoned professionals in midlife or older, happily married people, people with children, hobbies and other fulfillments outside of work, corporate employees with a special sense of vocation for what they do (even if their job would seem dull to others), and entrepreneurial types predisposed to switch their attention to something else if their current enterprise starts to fail.
Continual interruptions can affect anyone, regardless of age or temperament. Modern business technology with its constant stream of voicemails, emails and text messages not only maximizes interruptions at the workplace, but brings them into the home-life of an individual as well, creating a world of non-stop and unpredictable demands from which there is no escape. The interruptions also tend to break up time in a destructive manner such that their victims come to assume that they have less time available to them than they really do. This accentuates their "hurry sickness" and accelerates the pace of burnout. A study that administered IQ tests to three different groups - an uninterrupted control group, a group that was constantly interrupted during the test, and another group that took the test stoned - revealed surprising results. Not only did the interrupted group score 10 points less on average than the uninterrupted group - they also scored 6 points less on average than the group that was stoned. In that context, the time honored means of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out of the rat race doesn't seem so bad after all.
Read the article at the link below, and you may learn more than you ever wanted to know about "burnout". You might even burn out on it...
"Can't Get No Satisfaction" from New York Magazine
Monday, November 27, 2006
Globalization And Job Loss
My opinion is that globalization is an unstoppable juggernaut, and that free trade is here to stay. It sucks eggs regardless. The article at the link below is a sketchily informative overview of American attitudes toward globalization, and how the issue is rapidly changing the political scene. The author tells us, "The new congressional lineup raises the prospect of the most significant globalization debate since the 1992 presidential campaign's bitter exchanges over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)." Congressional offices and think tanks alike are hopping with activity over how to approach the touchy issue of free trade. One problem is that U.S. corporations are so deeply invested overseas, and vice versa, that protectionism would never be as beneficial as it might have been many decades ago. It might even hurt American companies more than foreign ones. Some of the exports on which we might levy tariffs are, in essence, the products of American corporations that have simply been manufactured overseas. "It's not 'them' exporting to 'us'," says Dartmouth trade historian Douglas Irwin. "It's multinationals' factories there exporting to us."
Washington economists are instead contemplating alternative approaches to helping American workers. These include revamping unemployment insurance to aid the longtime unemployed. Globalization has stimulated fear among American workers in all classes however, and even more must be done. Recent exit polls indicate that Americans who believe the next generation will have a lower standard of living outnumber those who think life will get better 4 to 3. 56 percent favor expanded trade, but only if more aid is given to American workers - and that's a big "if". One quarter oppose "trade liberalization" altogether because the social cost to Americans is too high.
The dramatic increase in globalization in the last twenty years owes as much to the end of the Cold War as it does to advances in IT and communications. It has boosted the American economy by $1 trillion, while incurring only $54 billion in job losses. Globalization does serve the American consumer by reducing the cost of many items, but the perception of its social destructiveness has been difficult to shake. Certainly, job losses in IT and engineering have been substantial and highly visible. Nearly 140,000 U.S. IT jobs - or one quarter of the total - were cut between 1999 and 2005. Even beyond the job losses is the deeper problem of escalating financial insecurity among those who are still employed. Middle class life has become more of a high-wire act than ever before. Middle class incomes have become so volatile that the typical family recovering from a job loss will lose 40 percent of its former income, while it lost only 27 percent of its income thirty years ago. Those who do become unemployed are out of work for two weeks longer on average than the 6.3 weeks that were typical during the 1970's. Coupled with these persistent recent trends is the fall in real estate values, which many Americans had been leveraging to stay out of debt.
Something clearly has to be done. Congressmen such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jim Webb of Virginia are among those seeking out ways to alter the impact of globalization. "We don't know exactly what the new road is," says Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch. "But we're going to hit the brakes on this road."
"Globalization debate will grow: Job loss in U.S. a big concern in free-trade discussion" from Florida Today
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Auto Execs Seek Out The Elusive Bush
Chief executive officers of the Big Three American auto manufacturers - i.e., GM, Ford and Chrysler - finally got to meet with President Bush on November 15th. This was conveniently after the elections, as has been much noted. Auto execs had been trying to meet with Bush since spring, but he had been putting them off. According to a UAW official in Kansas City, "The running joke around here was that the president had time to meet with the winner of 'American Idol', but he doesn't have the time to meet with GM's CEO."
The auto execs had some burning issues they wanted to discuss with Bush, such as trade and foreign currency - but also health care and "renewable fuels". Health care pensions for retired employees have been a major drag on the profitability of auto manufacturers. Auto execs and union officials implicitly agree that the ultimate solution is to replace private pensions with universal health care. "The automakers brought up their health-care costs, but that's a long-term problem that is connected to national policy," says auto industry research director George Magliano. "The industry can get behind trying to do something new with health care, but that's like turning an ocean liner around... it's going to take some time."
The auto industry's foreign competitors have national health care insurance, so why not the U.S.? According to auto industry expert Chris Kuehl, "Japan has a more comprehensive national health-care plan and pension system that allow... costs to be spread out and avoided by the employer." He adds, "That's true of the European players, too." UAW official John Melton asserts, "Health care is not a GM/UAW issue, it's the nation's problem. I think they'll start looking more at these things with the Democrats being elected last week. It seems like the foreign competitors have gotten all the breaks. Somehow, they've got to help U.S. companies, too."
With both workers and management clamoring for universal health care, the message is clear. The ball is in Bush's court, and if he has any common sense he knows what to do. It's not just the health of "the little people" that's at stake anymore - but the health of some of our largest industries. Unfortunately, the consensus is that Bush told the Big Three, "I feel your pain, but don't expect any cures." He apparently expects auto manufacturers to heedlessly slash all benefits as virtually all other industries have done to survive, but to their credit the Big Three would prefer to ensure the transfer of some of their responsibilities to the government rather than to relinquish them altogether.
"Big 3 auto execs meet with Bush" from Kansas City Star
Saturday, November 25, 2006
America's Corporate Highwaymen Riding For A Fall
According to the UK's Financial Times, corporate America should count its blessings. With the third quarter figures now in, earnings growth for the year is likely to approach 19 percent - far more than the 15.3 percent originally predicted. This is the 13th consecutive quarter in which earnings grew 10 percent or more. 13 quarters is three and a quarter years, for those of you whose eyes glaze at facts and figures. The Times argues whether or not this is sustainable. "Corporate America is growing much faster than the US economy. This partly because of globalisation but also because, put bluntly, capital is beating labour...Wages are not rising at anything like 10 per cent and investors have more reason to be thankful than salaried workers." Amen, I say.
However, American execs should wipe those smirks off their faces and take heed. Mutual funds maven John Hussman says that corporate profit's share of the American GDP is close to 10 percent - and that's a bad sign, he claims. For the last 44 years, whenever the profit share has exceeded 6 percent of the GDP, earnings growth over the next three years typically averaged only about 2.1 percent. Ouch!
Another reason for corporate America's luck this year has been the merciful paucity of natural disasters. With no Katrina to spoil anybody's party, insurance companies increased their earnings by more than 152 percent, accounting for 43 percent of total earnings growth overall. If insurers were not part of the picture, overall earnings growth would be only 13 percent. Such massive insurance profits just a year after America's worst natural catastrophe strikes me as almost unseemly too, like a widow giggling at the funeral. Who says insurance companies don't profit in the wake of disaster?
The Brits compare corporate America's providential good fortune with that of the Pilgrims. We at the White Collar Warrior, on the other hand, liken these dudes to another figure from centuries past - a highwayman making his getaway after robbing his victims blind. You can't run forever, my friends. The noose will catch up with you someday.
"America Must Count Its Blessings" from Financial Times
Friday, November 24, 2006
Keeping Workplace Stress At Bay
Workplace stress affects workers even in courtly and considerate Canada. In a survey conducted in 2001, 50 percent of Canadian workers cited the workplace as a major source of stress, up from 39 percent in 1997. Health Canada estimates the annual cost of stress to Canadian business at $10 billion in sick leave, a figure that may not even take into account the more serious longterm effects of stress on its victims.
The article below outlines the three stages of stress - the initial "fight or flight" reaction, then a continual feeling of anxiety, pressure and fatigue, leading finally to insomnia, depression and more serious disease. At the first stage, regular breaks for exercise and social interaction can relieve the symptoms, while by the third stage, vacation time, therapy and even anti-depressants may be required. The greatest difficulty is recognizing the onset of stress, which is felt differently by each of us.
According to the article at the link below, "the major stressors in the workplace are overwork, lack of control, lack of recognition and lack of information. Work overload is the No. 1 stressor..." Factors such as downsizing, interruptions, the complexities of a given job, and the demands of teamwork contribute to the problem. So do irregular work schedules and longer hours. "The average work week has stretched to 45 hours from 42 in the past 10 years," the author says. Half of Canadian workers take work home, and 65 percent of white collar workers check their voicemail outside of work. The author stresses that workers should learn to plan and prioritize more effectively, and keep work pressures at the office from spilling over into their home life. "Just because we can be in contact with the workplace 24 hours a day," she says, "doesn't mean we should be."
The best tools for warding off the effects of stress are regular exercise, a healthy diet, and getting a good night's sleep.
"Workplace stress can prove expensive hobby" from Business Edge
Thursday, November 23, 2006
How To Take All Those Leftovers To The Office
Once Turkey Day is done, you are stuck with all those leftovers. What to do? Take them to work with you. According to the article cum produce placement at the link below, "We all know packing lunch is healthier and cheaper than ordering out." I don't know about healthier - that's depends on what you bring in. But it's certainly cheaper. Munching away in your cube like a rat in its hole may also be the only mode of self-nurturance you have time for. So exploit what you've got, pack your Thanksgiving vittles into "Caribbean blue" Tupperware, and become the star attraction of the office microwave set. While you're at it, consider the irony of eating food meant to be shared with your loved ones in the cold gray heart of an institution that would declare you redundant yesterday if it could. Bon appetit!
"Brown Bagging It With A Sense Of Style" from The Miami Herald
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Willpower May Set You Free
The article at the link below discusses the problem of self-control in our modern society, in which tempations and distractions of all kinds are more plentiful than ever before. The author even suggests that our social hierarchy is organized by our differing capacities for self-control. At the top, he says, there is a "scary new self-control elite...who seem to excel at both self-restraint (the ability to resist) and its more vigorous cousin self-discipline (the ability to persist). Not only did these lords of self-discipline withstand all those boring texts in graduate school, but keep themselves thin by carefully regulating what they eat after flogging themselves off to the gym at the crack of dawn..." It's easy to see who's at the bottom of this hierarchy. Poor people are currently stereotyped as obese, lazy, sexually lax, drug-taking and beer-swilling slobs. Slothful, slatternly, slovenly and slow. That is not necessarily what they are, but it is how they are perceived. White collar workers, and others in the increasingly slighted and exploited middle class, have their own signature weaknesses. We are supposedly the ones with the paunches, the wishy-washy, willless "nice guys" who give in and quit with almost comical predictability. We inhabit TV commercials and sitcoms, prey to the slightest temptation and devoid of staying power. We have internalized this image of ourselves to the detriment of our social mobility.
At the same time, the corporations which employ us are themselves run by the "self-control elite", who impose their standards upon us. As the author says, "At the office we are expected to regulate our attire, our attitudes, and our outbursts, smile at customers, refrain from off-color remarks, remain awake despite every postprandial impulse to the contrary, and produce urine free of illegal narcotics whenever it might be demanded." The result of this excessive control upon our work lives is that, in resentment and rebellion, we turn away from the very self-control that could empower us, embracing a childish lack of restraint in our personal lives like a badge of freedom. Our refuge from the cubicle is not the workshop or the barricades, but the hammock and the couch. What we need to do instead is to create our own culture of self-control, not in compliance with our corporate masters, but in opposition to it - a sort of counter-regimentation that will give us the strength to win back control of our own destiny. The only way to prevent corporate power from doing with us whatever it wants is to resist, to fight, and that requires self-restraint and self-discipline. We can overturn the tyranny of the corporations only by becoming as tough and relentless as they are.
"Who's In Charge Here?" from The Wilson Quarterly
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Time To Ask For That Raise
Here is a quick little notice from an Ohio TV station (which sounds suspiciously reminiscent of the fictional 70's radio station WKRP) about how now is a good time to ask for a raise. Salaries have risen faster than the cost of living for the first time since 2001. This year, white collar salaries rose 3.6 percent, and next year they're projected to rise 3.7 percent. Happy days are here again. Supposedly...
The article lists four reasons why your boss would give you a raise. They are - once again with my own annotations - as follows:
1) Positive Attitude - The Happy Face reigns supreme in the world of the corporation - although, paradoxically, why would you want a raise unless you were less than fully content? Bosses surely prefer employees who are content with their lot to those who want more. But there are other manifestations of a "positive attitude". Eagerness to improve productivity would fit the bill here, and this aspiration meshes well with the eagerness to improve one's income. Get a raise by trying to get a raise, so to speak, for the entire company.
2) There is a valid business reason for giving you a raise - Make you want of this one. The important thing to remember here is that no boss will give you a raise just because you want to put your kids through college, take a trip to Paris, or buy a Mercedes. He or she has to be getting something in return. Mimicking indispensability is one tactic. Make your boss think your company cannot survive without you. On the other hand, that may sound a little too much like extortion and might actually backfire.
3) Timing - Ask for a raise when profits are high, business is growing and management is spending more on everything in general. You might have the luck to be swept up in a tsunami of increasing expenditure that is lifting all boats. In this case, you could find yourself getting a raise not because your performance has been special, but because you are just like everyone else - which defeats the ego satisfaction that can come from getting a raise in the first place. Nonetheless, good times may be times when, if you don't ask for a raise, you're being a little too passive for your own good.
4) You did your salary research - This tactic involves getting the facts on what your counterparts are being paid elsewhere, and then presenting those facts to The Man. It presupposes that your boss is rational and likes facts, which is a big if. It will also work only if you are being paid less than you would be elsewhere, which is another big if. Even then, this approach is borderline adversarial, as it involves confronting your boss with an argument, however logical - and it, too, could backfire.
"How To Get A Raise" from WKRC 12 Cincinnati
Monday, November 20, 2006
Some Job Hunting Myths Debunked
Here is a check list of various assumptions people make when they're looking for work, and why these assumptions are wrong - or at least need to be qualified. I include my own annotations.
1) Long resumes are impressive - Managers don't like to see long resumes. That is partly because their reading skills are rudimentary. But is also because they are busy, impatient and eager for any excuse to make a snap judgment. Make your resume like a news item or a short story - grab 'em from the git-go! (The reluctance of anyone to actually read resumes, incidentally, results in millions of wasted dollars. Many firms now rely on software that scans for key words. The consequence of this is that you get head hunters bombarding you with opportunities doing something you mentioned once in your resume, and in which you might have experience totaling only a month or two. Sad.)
2) The Internet is a good job source - I personally agree with this, as I have indeed gotten jobs - and many inquiries - from my postings with Career Builder, Monster.com and Dice. However, this article says that only a fraction of jobs are posted on the Internet. Other sources may be better. These folks suggest job fairs and career consultants, even though job fairs are paradoxically only for the already-employed (or the young) and career consultants are assholes who just want your money. (Read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait And Switch on this.) Getting jobs through professional associations, former teachers and internships is probably best. The bottom line is that you can't beat connections.
3) Entry level salaries will pay off your student loans - Yeah, right!
4) An MBA will take you up the ladder - An MBA is expensive, and not all business schools have enough of a rep to help you out. If you're the type that can succeed with an MBA, you're probably the type that can succeed without one. If not, you'll just be stuck with more student loans.
5) Don't look for work in the summer (or Christmas) - The article says hiring isn't seasonal. Maybe. I've found contracts in the summer. Weather's better in the summer, too, which makes it a pleasure to be outside, running from place to place. Holiday time may be another matter, because not only your prospective employer but yourself may be on vacation out of state. Last year, I got my notice two weeks after my father died (on Thanksgiving) and two weeks before Christmas. My former employers had such considerate timing! The impending loss of my livelihood ruined the week I spent with my in-laws down in Texas, and the delay in my interview schedule caused me to go on unemployment for a week (for the first time in twenty years!)
6) If you don't like your boss, you should quit - The article advises you to stay where you are and outlast your boss. If he's really bad, he'll be gone soon enough - or at least that's the argument here. Nonetheless, I've seen terrible bosses last forever, so you should take that one with a grain of salt. Consider a bad boss a kind of human obstacle course or some cubicle-bound Trial of Hercules. Endure it for the strength it gives you, but continue to hate the bastard anyway.
7) It's illegal to discriminate against job applicants for any reason - The article reminds us that prospective employers, like all human beings, are infinitely clever rationalizers who can readily discriminate against you in any way just by calling it something else.
"The truth about job-hunting myths" from Burlington Free Press
Sunday, November 19, 2006
The Hazards Of Personalizing Your Workspace
According to a recent survey conducted by the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, only 40 percent of companies encourage workers to personalize their work areas, down from 56 percent a decade ago. Only 59 percent of office workers decorate their cubicles whether they are encouraged or not, down from 85 percent in 1996. One reason is that many of those who once had offices now have cubicles, and those who've always had cubicles have to content themselves with cubicles that are even smaller than ever. Workers don't have the space they once had. Also, presumably due to increasing pressure from management, they avoid personalizing their workspace because it might be construed as unprofessional.
Some corporations actively limit or even discourage workspace decoration. The Hearst Corp. recently e-mailed their 2,000 employees in the new Hearst Tower explicit restrictions on the number of personal items, including non-corporate lighting fixtures and furniture, allowed in their cubicles and workspaces. In 2004, Calvin Klein forbade the display of photographs, toys, mementoes, plants and similar items in employee workspaces, replacing them with a mandatory minimal style featuring a lot of black. At another corporation, an employee who emblazoned his cubicle walls with Dilbert cartoons was ordered to take them down because they created a "negative and depressing atmosphere". At an Oregon accounting firm, a female employee was compelled to ration her display of family photographs to a single group portrait.
Corporations start to question a worker's professionalism once the display of personal items covers more than 20 percent of his or her workspace, according to Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a business school professor at the University of Michigan. He concludes that there is an "unwritten law" requiring workers to keep their personal and professional lives separate.
One the other hand, a cubicle graced with too few personal amenities might raise doubts about a worker's sense of commitment. "In a Denver insurance company, one exec did nothing to personalize his space at all," said one organizational psychologist. "It was completely sterile. His boss worried that he wasn't planning on staying."
"The Dos And Don'ts Of Personalizing Your Workspace" from Taipei Times
Friday, November 17, 2006
Science Proves That Money Makes You Selfish
Here is a bit of scientific research that questions the assumption that capitalism unbound is an unalloyed social good. Psychologists at the University of Minnesota conducted an experiment to determine what effect a preoccupation with "money" would have on human behavior. Using subliminal hints, both visual and verbal, they continuously bombarded an experimental group with thoughts of "money". They gratuitously embedded words like "salary" into sentences, utilized images of currency as screen savers, and so on. You wouldn't think that anything so subliminal would have any effect at all, but apparently it did. When the subjects were compared to the control group, they were less communicative and helpful, and far less socially interactive as a whole. When presented with a difficult puzzle, they were less likely to seek help from others in solving the puzzle. Then, when presented with opportunities to help others - such as a spilled pencil box that needs to be picked up - they were less likely to pitch in and do their bit for the commonweal. Despite the fact that capitalism in the real world engages more cooperation than it deters, this experiment demonstrates that greed actually suppresses our natural desire to cooperate or even to communicate with other people. So much for the glue that holds our society together.
"Mere Thought Of Money Makes People Selfish" from LiveScience
"Keeping Money in Mind Makes People Less Helpful" from Scientific American
Thursday, November 16, 2006
A Manifesto From The Tie-Breaker
Jim Webb helped give the Senate a Democratic majority by defeating George "Macaca" Allen in Virginia. A Vietnam veteran, a war novelist, and the author of a book about the Scots-Irish, Mr. Webb is no stranger to the concerns of the common man. So it comes as no surprise to see his editorial in The Wall Street Journal about "Class Struggle" in America. He, too, is aware of the mounting dominance of the rich and their separation from the rest of us. He cites those familiar figures - the top 1 percent own most of the stocks and earn 16 percent of the national income (twice their share from just 25 years ago), the average CEO earns more than 10 million a year, 400 times what the average worker makes and 1,000 times the income of a person on the miminum wage - and more. Depressingly familiar as these statistics may be, they will forever bear repeating. And Mr. Webb repeats them - which is always a good thing to hear from any politician these days.
He emphasizes that the ever increasing gap between rich and poor has not been sufficiently recognized by those in power. "A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind," he says. "A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation's most fortunate." Americans who are suffering economically are dismissed by their own leaders as unfit to compete in the arena of global capitalism. He reminds us that European observers have noted how much more harshly globalization has affected the United States than other Western nations, and fear that in time a protectionist backlash may result and possibly destroy globalization before it can be perfected.
Far more important than any threat to the future of globalization is the very real possibility of social unrest in America, if the forces of corporate greed are allowed to continue unchecked. Mr. Webb asserts that the Democratic victory this fall is a first step towards redressing the wrongs of the last few decades. As he puts it, "The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of 'God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag' while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet. But this election cycle showed an electorate that intends to hold government leaders accountable for allowing every American a fair opportunity to succeed."
Mr. Webb is clearly more than just a tie-breaker. Let's hope that the rest of his fellow Democratic freshmen share his beliefs.
"Class Struggle" from The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
I have spoken on this subject several times before on my blog, but here is yet another article about the, ahem, "office of the future". First of all, the article has enough perspective to touch upon recent disasters in workspace reform - namely the case of the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, whose CEO pioneered something called the "virtual office" back in 1993. News of this failure intrigued me, so I looked up the source article and have included a link to that one as well.
Apparently, the ad agency's employees were equipped with "portable phones and PowerBooks" and turned loose on the streets. The physical office itself was, in some sense, dismantled and its erstwhile cubicle rats had little choice but to jump ship to telecommuting. That was definitely encouraged. Unfortunately, we cubicle rats are creatures of habit and many of us structure our lives by coming into work. What remained at TBWA/Chiat/Day was very much lacking in the traditional office space amenities. Walls had been knocked down and cubicles had been pulled out. Employees were informed that, although they might continue to have "private space" (presumably meaning the space between one's ears), they would be afforded no "personal space". The office area was decked out with a random assortment of chairs, couches, table tops, even life-size toys - and everything everywhere was wired. Employees were invited to sit down any old place, plug themselves in, and start "creating". The problem was that no one was allowed to monopolize any of these ersatz work stations for more than a day. That interfered with the M.O. of the classic cubicle rat who, despite his or her intrinsic meekness in other respects, has a territorial streak a mile wide. Colleagues fought with one another to control work spaces, and many never got used to the distracting chaos of the "virtual office" at all. Morale crashed, productivity plummeted, and TBWA/Chiat/Day was eventually forced to declare the experiment a failure.
But hope springs eternal. The latest entrants in the brave new world of office innovation are Cisco and Google. The theme at Google appears to be "flexibility". Workers do get to keep their desks and chairs, but these are arranged around a central "atrium" (a big aisle by any other name), and are encouraged to "interact" - although coders are allowed some level of privacy. Kitchenettes, snack machines and even pool tables (!) are interspersed across the work area, and these are duly billed as places where employees might "interact". Judging from what I recall from having been a commuter at a college where one of the few places to study was the student lounge, the presence of a pool table may inspire a little too much "interaction" and deflect the "interacters" from doing any real work. Ah, well...
There are some hints of the free-wheeling furniture strategy of TBWA/Chiat/Day at the new Google facility with its talk of "collapsible conference rooms" (I picture pup tents here) and of electrical outlets built into a magnificent "Brazilian hardwood" staircase so that workers can camp out on the steps and plug in their (possibly flammable) Notebooks.
"Designing the 21st century cubicle" from CNN Money
"Lost In Space" from Wired
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Japanese Invention To Monitor Workers' Moods
Japanese researchers have developed a strange new device that will sense the mood of the individuals in a room. Called a "Symbiotic Hosting Online Jog Instrument", or SHOJI for short, the device transmits a colored light whose hue and brightness vary according to temperature, movement, humidity, infrared radiation, ultrasonic vibrations and other factors that may be affected by the human beings in its vicinity. Its inventors intend to market the device to corporations wishing to monitor the emotions of their employees, and it sells for about $3,000 a unit. What will they think of next? Lie detectors in conference rooms?
"SHOJI can tell (your boss) how you're feeling" from Sci Fi Tech
"SHOJI to detect the mood of a room for about $3,000" from engadget.com
Monday, November 13, 2006
Flu Season In Cubicle Land
Since only 57 percent of workers in the private sector get paid sick leave, the pressure is on to go to work whether you're healthy or not. If you are a temp worker or a contract worker, any day you miss is income lost, and you have even greater motivation to wobble your feverish buns back into the hot seat. As an IT consultant, I get paid on an hourly basis. Consequently, I have not taken a sick day in more than eleven years. I am scarcely alone in that stalwart mimicry of perfect health, and - I'll tell ya - my health has never been exactly perfect. Even in corporations where sick leave is available, you may not want to stay home from work because your colleagues depend on you. Downsizing has left the rank and file of many companies overworked and understaffed. If the flu is cutting its rheumy swath through your community, and you have not yet been stricken, filling in for your sick co-workers may lower your resistance through excessive stress and overwork, and you might end up sick anyway.
Corporate demands have made the workplace a greater source of contagion than ever. What can you do? Outside of following the usual precautions cited by your doctor or public service announcements, you should keep everything in your work area spotless. Clean up after yourself in the communal kitchen, and make certain not to share utensils for preparing food and beverages. For those who are sick, but must work nonetheless, telecommuting is the best option. Here is where dialing in your work duties is entirely appropriate and beneficial to everyone.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. Kudos go to those companies, like the Florida accounting firm Carter, Belcourt and Atkinson, that have the compassion and foresight to offer free flu vaccinations to their employees. Workers who get regular vaccinations take 43 percent fewer sick days and make 44 percent fewer visits to the doctor's office - and vaccination rates rise when shots are available at the workplace.
"It's the Season to Protect Yourself From Ill Co-workers" from The Ledger (Lakeland, Florida)
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Closed Doors Boost Productivity But Annoy Bosses
An office products company has invented a cubicle screen it believes will "open a huge portal (to) productivity". The screen will enable office workers to close their cubicles, thus eliminating interruptions. America's 40 million cubicle workers are interrupted 70 times a day - and "only 20 percent of the interruptions is worth the distraction". The problem is that your boss may demand the ability to look into your cubicle at all times. Here the classic dilemma of the modern corporate world rears its paradoxical head. Authority requires productivity at all cost, but its insistence on monitoring that productivity inhibits the very thing it is attempting to enhance. According to John Samo, head of the New Jersey Employers Association, workers would need to check with their bosses before "slapping a door on their cubicles." My guess is that the boss will say "No" in most cases. C'est la vie in the funhouse world of office tyranny.
"Workstation screens aim to shut down interruptions" from The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Pay Stub Precautions
Getting laid off or being relegated permanently to a station beneath your capacities is so common nowadays that it can be hard to remember that even when you do get paid decently you can face problems. Even our boys in Iraq have been jerked around on their paychecks. One wounded National Guardsmen had serious debt issues when the government accidentally overpaid his hardship pay. (Frankly, I don't think we can "overpay" these guys enough for all the sacrifices they're making.)
Here are some basic rules that will allow you to remain on top of the pay stub situation:
1) Pay attention to everything- In other words, make sure you're getting paid for the right number of hours, check to see if changes that would influence deductions before taxes (such as health care benefits, life insurance, 401(k) contributions, etc.) are correctly calculated, and so on.
2) Report payroll errors immediately - Let your employers know if they paid you too much, because they will find out eventually and they won't forget that you didn't tell them. Also let them know if you weren't paid enough. That's the kind of mistake that only you will really care to see corrected, so you ought to take care of it A.S.A.P.
3) Keep your pay information current - Update your W-4 information with the births, deaths or departures from the household of any dependents, or if you get married or divorced. These may be big events in your life or the lives of your loved ones, but as far as your relationship with the IRS is concerned, it all just means more red tape.
"Be vigilant: Payroll errors commonplace" from IndyStar.com (Indianapolis)
"Paycheck accuracy shouldn't be taken for granted" from The Montgomery Advertiser
"Double-check pay stub to make sure information's right" from The Modesto Bee
Friday, November 10, 2006
It's All In The Wrist
RSI, otherwise known as Repetitive Strain Injury, afflicts white collar workers the world over. It may first manifest itself as a tingling sensation in your arms, wrists or hands, escalate to persistent throbbing, and then finally explode into crippling pain that may affect your earning power as well as your happiness. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, the name for a severe variation of RSI, received a lot of ink some years ago when it occurred among people who spent hours manipulating computer mice. Like the author of the article at the link below, you can avoid - or at least delay the onset of - this injury by alternating between the mouse and the keyboard, and taking rests between bouts of computer work. Voice recognition software can help relieve the burden, if you can afford it. The most notorious graphomane of American fiction, William T. Vollmann, started using voice recognition software when he himself developed the condition. Exercise also helps. There is even a software package called WorkRave that will remind you to take work breaks at regular intervals. One wonders whether or not RSI sufferers are eligible for workmen's compensation, but most probably not. That is no doubt yet another disadvantage that non-unionized white collar workers have in comparison to their blue collar counterparts.
The main problem with taking rests, however, is that you risk decreasing your sacred "productivity". If you are afraid of having your boss catch you taking a rest, you can look busy by shuffling papers about your desk, reading manuals or making copious handwritten notes (or doodles). Anything to vary the pattern of your motor activity will help ward off RSI even if it doesn't exactly involve rest. Those workers whose companies use software to monitor their keystrokes may be out of luck. The Man demands that you be clicking away through one mode or the other, or you will be stigmatized as a slacker. Unless, of course, you can find some way to continue generating keystrokes of some sort while you are resting your hands. You don't want to use your feet to do this - that might look like you're "kicking back", and you don't want that. You might want to position an inanimate object just so, so that it will produce a steady if sporadic stream of keystrokes in very much the same fashion as the Coke bottle tapped out Morse code all by its lonesome in that 1960's nuclear apocalypse movie On The Beach.
If worse comes to worst, and you develop RSI despite your best efforts to resist it, you can always go to India to be treated by a certain Dr. Deepak Sharan. With all the outsourcing to India in recent years, it looks like RSI has become a problem there as well.
"Tackling That Tingling" from The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, November 09, 2006
A Discussion Of "Social Anger"
The article at the link below reflects on social anger in America, and whether or not it is a good thing. The article is neither pro nor con, and cunningly sidesteps value judgments. It classifies the forms of social anger as follows:
1) Economic-Populist Anger - This began on the prairie in the 19th century, and now manifests itself in workers' rage against the outsourcing of labor - both blue collar and white collar - to countries abroad where costs are cheaper. The author suggests that this anger is often anti-progressive, akin to the Luddite rebellion in Britain 200 years ago. Economic innovations that are hurtful in the short term may result in increased productivity and a higher standard of living in the long term. (Or maybe not.) He nonetheless admits that this form of workers' anger can play a role in curbing real abuses, both here and abroad.
2) Liberal Anger - The author remarks that this form of anger is greater now than at any point in the last forty years. It is directed against greed, intolerance and other incontestable evils. Its approach is sometimes too sarcastic and cynical to be constructive however, and the author urges angry liberals to embrace a more full-blooded Dickensian indignation. We must love the victims of social injustice, he says, at least as much as we hate its perpetrators.
3) Traditional-Values Anger - This type of anger has been the hallmark of the religious right, the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration specifically. When it originates from Christianity, it reflects the patriarchal extremism of the Old Testament, not the forgiving inclusiveness of the New. Its fiercest exponents descend predictably into racism, homophobia and character assassination.
The author is very cagey indeed about where he stands on social anger. He suggests that some of it is the whining of a "spoiled-brat society". But complacency is also a trait of the pampered, and he seems to prefer anger to that. Ultimately, he believes that social anger should be directed toward the accomplishment of specific goals. The article is superficial in many respects - certainly in regard to workers' anger, which has many more provocations than simply the issue of outsourcing. Growing income inequality and social insecurity in the United States is not entirely due to the phenomenon of more money ending up in the tattered pockets of deserving Third World workers. Executives who heedlessly sacrifice their employees' welfare to engorge themselves with more wealth than ever are far more an expression of a "spoiled-brat society" than the average Americans who are just trying to keep their families fed.
"The Angry American" from The Atlantic Online
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Let Them (Not) Eat Cake
Concerned observers of the white collar world are taking aim on cake in the office, of all things. According to the article at the link below, 74 percent of office workers report that cakes and other goodies are often served at special occasions such as birthdays, baby showers, promotions, departures and the like. Goodies are more likely to appear in the kitchen nooks of large and mid-size companies than in those of smaller firms, so this is primarily a corporate custom. Yet, at the same time, 53 percent of corporations promote healthful eating through one means or another. That is enough to induce cognitive dissonance in the millions of office workers in handy reach of vending machines that offer little more than candy bars, pretzels and potato chips. Nonetheless, as the article notes, the alternative is scarcely appetizing. Presenting a buffet of raw carrots at an office party is unlikely to generate enthusiasm.
I am not so great a spoilsport that I would begrudge cakes and cookies at office functions. Pizza, even. Only not for me. What I have observed - and have privately objected to - is the tendency of managers presiding at such functions to expect everyone to take a piece of cake, and to look askance at those who don't indulge. I suspect there are even some managers out there who have contributed to the obesity of their subordinates by imposing "party spirit" on the gathered as though it were an edict. I recall reading in an ancient book on American psychology - Gail Sheehy's Passages from the 70's - that corporate managers were expected to put on weight around the middle if they wanted to rise within the company. Considering the even greater prevalence of obesity nowadays, that may still be the case. I believe that corporations should have no control over what you eat and should not penalize you if you prefer fitness over stuffing your face. No matter what is offered at office parties, you should have the option to decline it.
"Taking The Cake Out Of The Office" from Monterey County Herald
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Grand Theft Corpo
TrainingPort Strategies, in conjunction with parent company BreakAway, is developing "video gaming simulations for the corporate market". The purpose of the gaming tools is to train new hires for their jobs and to transition veteran workers into new assignments. The gaming tools will "range from board games to fully customized, highly visual fidelity simulations." (Board games? Hmm... Sounds like there might still be a little room left over for Monopoly.)
A recent study has estimated that corporate employees will have played 10,000 video games by the time they enter the workforce - although they will have spent less than 5,000 hours reading books. This suggests to me that corporations and business schools would do well to make even business models, annual reports and yield curve analysis texts interactive in the future, so that MBAs-in-training can understand them.
According to TrainingPort's spokesman, corporate gaming tools are bound to be popular. Baby Boomers, downsized or otherwise, might contribute their "plethora of institutional knowledge and expertise" to the development of the games - but presumably these techno-challenged codgers won't be allowed near the actual coding. The prime target audience will be, of course, the entry level folks. "This new generation of corporate workers is part of a learning shift that has moved from a linear learning style to a hypermedia learning style."
I shudder to think what corporate video games would be like - or could become like - when you consider that the video game medium can be so mindless and violent. "Sexual Harassment Sisters" and "Workplace Violence Central" are two mutations that come to mind. I can just picture them right now, can't you? Methinks that some of the folks training on the inevitably bland actual "corporate video games" will be concocting far less innocuous versions in their heads the whole damn while. Especially if they've had a bad day with their supervisor...
On the other hand, a corporate video game on the order of "Hand Out The Pink Slip!" might actually satisfy the Pacman rapacity at the core of every gamer's being while at the same time proving quite, shall we say, "instructional".
I anticipate the inception of an underground parallel industry specializing in anti-corporate video games that will quickly outclass the straight and dreary originals that inspired them.
"Video Games To Invade The Corporate World" from QJ.net
"TrainingPort Plays Video Games With BreakAway" from Gamasutra
Monday, November 06, 2006
Count Dracula And The Art Of Business
I am posting this after having watched a program on the National Geographic Channel about vampires. It occurs to me that, of all the many anthropomorphic demons who beset us on Halloween, vampires are the ones whose behavior most readily embodies The New Economy. Their principle is this. Suck the financial lifeblood out of your customers and your employees. Both will suffer horribly from the initial infection of debt, and then will go forth to suck the lifeblood out of everyone who must buy anything from them. You charge me outrageous fees for what I do, I pass on the jacked-up prices to my customers as well, and so on ad infinitum. All of us are trapped in a macabre circle dance of reciprocal exploitation. The problem is that, because the vast majority of us carry around the black onus of debt no matter how active we might be in extracting money from others, we are never truly solvent, much less wealthy. We are not quite poor either. It is more that we are "unpoor", in the sense that the undead are "undead" - we need constantly to feed our vampirical addiction to more cash to keep ourselves from plummeting into the abyss of bankruptcy.
The big houses in your neighborhood that your kids visit on Halloween are themselves the fangs that drain the blood out of the "unpoor" and spectral middle class that inhabit them. As soon as real estate values fall, shafts of light shall strike down across us as we lie in our coffins and the "unpoor" will finally be impoverished.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
The Growing Social Irrelevance Of "Profit"
That creature known as "profit" is fast becoming a rara avis for most Americans. It used to be that if a company showed a tremendous profit, everyone would see it. Workers would see it in their paychecks, vendors would see it in an avalanche of new orders, the R&D people would see it into their expanded budget. Shareholders would see fat dividends, too. That hasn't changed, but it seems that everything else has. Now, when a corporation posts a profit, its effects are all but invisible. Nobody gets a raise (except for the big boss and his henchmen). There is no sudden growth in innovation or company property. More often than not, in fact, the company actually appears to shrink. The posting of a profit is like the sighting of a black hole that passes close enough to unleash residual effects. You can see it only if you wear those special infrafinancial glasses known as stock ownership. But, considering that nearly 60 percent of all stocks are owned by one percent of the population, no one you know is likely to see the elusive monster humping its money-legged way across the landscape. There might be a handful of folks in your town who own a share or two of company X. They'll get a check for a couple of bucks in the mail, or the notice of a stock split, and they will parade about, thumbing the suspenders of their fiduciary pride, declaiming with wild eyes and clownish certainty as though they had just caught a glimpse of Bigfoot. No one else sees the creature whose presence had been trumpeted so loudly.
That begs the question. If a company posts a profit, and the public never catches sight of it, was there - in the truer sense - any "profit" at all? And, if so, for whom?
It is the trend now among American corporations to skimp on the reinvestment of profit. Some of it goes to the shareholders, much of it goes into the pockets of the corporation's top dogs - but what happens to the rest? Where does it go? If profit continues to have an impact on the lives of fewer and fewer people, how many of us should be expected to care? Why should we even need to hear about it? Shouldn't it stop being news? Or at least perhaps what news there is should be relegated to the back pages of the paper - alongside marriage announcements for debutantes, restaurant reviews of the latest caviar & escargot eateries, or the portion of the Times classified where ads are placed for yachts and multi-million dollar homes.
If "profit" has no effect whatsoever upon the world beyond the enrichment of a few, it will automatically forfeit its social relevance. If the rest of us cannot share it, in time we will simply ignore it. Regardless of how magnificent an accomplishment the creation of that "profit" might be, it will become about as popular as Beethoven on a teenager's iPod. Once we start to care less about "profit", it'll get harder and harder for corporations to convince us to commit our careers to its creation. And the creature will make its appearance no longer.
A note to Big Business. If you want to continue to see "profit" in the future, you have to let us start seeing it, too.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
The Uses And The Dangers Of Disrespect
Corporations are shafting the American people, but how can you attack the executives who run them? Is "attack" even the right thing we want to do? Maybe we can get somewhere with polite criticism of corporate mores, in the hope that CEOs and Congressmen will heed our suggestions and clean up their act accordingly. Do you think so? I don't. I think we still need to put every corporate malfeasance, legal or illegal, under the spotlight. If we do that effectively enough, it might shame the perpetrators - but shaming them is entirely secondary to changing how the public sees them. We want the public to lose confidence in these Business Week demi-gods. The best way to accomplish this may not be to either demonize their behavior in the abstract or to revile them as individuals, but simply to make them and their actions look ridiculous. To accomplish that, we may have to give them a human face of some sort, a rich identity whose foibles we can point to and laugh at. And therein lies the danger. The problem is that corporate criminals and other such villains have faces that resemble our own, and any attack against them might be construed as an attack on everyone who resembles them. Those who share their ethnic identity, their religion or even their personal traits and physical afflictions might rise up in arms and become their allies overnight.
This tactic of demonization has been used in the past, and it failed utterly. Some have said the Democratic party and the influence of the liberal intelligentsia began to wane as early as Richard Nixon's appeal to the "moral majority" in 1968, but that event - and everything followed in the years of Reagan and Bush - was more a reaction than an action. The liberals and their friends on the left had already started to push away Middle America when they began criticizing "The Establishment". The problem was that "The Establishment" was an abstraction. It needed a human face to become a proper target, so it soon became "The WASP Establishment" - but it did not stop there. An unrestrained social vindictiveness took over among both the liberals and the left, and the attack on "The WASP Establishment" was quickly broadened to include WASPs as a whole. WASP - or "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" - became a prejorative term almost as soon as it was coined in 1965. Finally, here was a handy classification that could be stretched to encompass both the racist rednecks of Mississippi and the gentleman anti-Semites of Wall Street, and all the others in between - the bland, colorless, native-born American middle class that passively stood by as their ethnic compatriots at both ends of the social spectrum wrought their havoc on the nation.
Throughout the 70's and well into the 80's, a knowing disdain for all things White And Protestant became the ethnic prejudice du jour for all right-thinking people. WASPs were held responsible for racism and slavery, for poverty and bias, for the betrayal of Native Americans and the destruction of the environment, for sexual repression and sexism and Ivy League quotas - they became the scapegoats for all that was wrong in America and which the revolution of the 60's had tried to abolish. Some wrongs were righted, and many changes were made, but the blame persisted as a cultural commonplace for decades. Blond villains abounded in Hollywood movies and in popular novels. The almost offensively intensified WASPiness of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman only made him more despicable. A blond scion of the Astors, a downtown "artist" of questionable conviction, published an article in New York magazine outting his fellow WASPs as bigoted, bubble-headed and sexually inept. In Richard Ford's Independence Day, blue eyes, all by themselves, became a semiotic shorthand for anti-Semitism. Norman Mailer trained his own Hitlerian blue-eyed stare on us as well, and opined about the WASP character on The Dick Cavett Show as if they were a species of robot. Protestant Christianity was mocked as the refuge of either hypocrites or buffoons. A prominent Vietnam vet declared in an interview twenty years after the fact that "there were no WASPs in Vietnam". That would come as a surprise to the thousands of Scots-Irish Americans from the South, the Midwest and elsewhere who fought and died in Southeast Asia, who had been a mainstay of the American military since the Revolution, and who are overwhelmingly Protestant and British in origin. Here was an officer who should have been fragged. Political correctness took hold on American campuses and drove the hated WASP from their ivy-covered halls. Even high schools caught the bug. As a student in the 70's, I can recall a chemistry teacher dismissing WASPs as "obtuse conservatives", a biology teacher who belittled them as the agents of sexual ignorance, and a Quaker history teacher who reviled the British bombing of Dresden with more fervor than he denounced the Nazis. Even the blue-eyed sons of men who fought the Nazis were equated with Nazis now. It wasn't just name-calling either. Not by any means. Reverse discrimination was applied to WASPs both middle class and poor to strip them of their "advantages".
You're not likely to remember this arrow storm of slights unless it was directed against your people. If you do remember it, you remember it with a snicker of schadenfreude and mutter to yourself, "The bastards deserved it." Fine. As a kid growing up during that period, all I knew was that my grandparents had been working class immigrants - even if they were Protestants from the British Isles. Ours was a family of teachers, and we were raised to help and accept others regardless of how they worshipped God or where their ancestors came from. We had no connection to Chad and Buffy with their debutante balls in the Hamptons, or with the sinister anti-Semites of Park Avenue. We were punished nonetheless. Although I was naturally sympathetic to the goals of the Democrats, the liberals and even the left at large, I could never bring myself to trust them. Self-preservation prevented me from doing so. Demonization of the WASPs - all WASPs - may have been mere "collateral damage" in the struggle for Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights, Multiculturalism and Diversity, but if you are the target of that "collateral damage", you have no choice but to stand aside or run and hide. It would be suicide for you to take part. You may assume that I am speaking out about this out of revenge. I am not. If I wanted revenge, I would have voted Republican.
But that's exactly what untold millions of other White Protestants all over the nation elected to do. Liberal intellectuals like Thomas Frank shake their heads at the stupidity of heartland Americans for voting for the Republicans - the party of the rich - when the Democrats truly support their interests. But how can they vote for a party whose supporters insulted for decades everything they stood for? Would you? If the Democrats and their supporters decry the tyranny of intolerant conservatives and greedy corporations, they have only themselves to blame. They made a strategic mistake of unparalleled stupidity. They allowed their opposition to an elite they wished to overthrow to explode into a wrathful crusade against the values of a vast plurality of the American people. What in God's name were they thinking? Protestant values have resurged stronger than ever - perhaps indeed with a "vengeance" in more ways than one.
The greatest irony is that Chad and Buffy in the Hamptons, and their Yankee uncles in Wall Street, never suffered - even if they may have been the original targets of the purge. The rich never suffer. They have too much money and too many connections. Chad and Buffy simply transformed their Hamptons estate into a multicultural zoo for their own amusement, while their Wall Street uncles hired more Jews and Asians but kept their grip on the gold nonetheless. The old rich have survived by chameleonizing themselves, but I doubt they have the same sense of noblesse oblige that they used to have. Their values have become more like those of the new rich.
The new rich set the tone for everyone else, and they are ruthless and without guilt. One of the unfortunate effects of blaming a specific ethnic group for the sins of a social class is that, once other ethnic groups join that class, they will not identify with it and will take no responsibility for its past. Today's billionaires and corporate elite are a more diverse bunch than ever - not quite as diverse as the rest of America, at least not yet, but much more so than they used to be. That is in itself a good thing. But their lack of identification with the old rich deludes them about the nature of their new status. Even as they acquire 100 room mansions, 500 foot yachts and fleets of private jets, they are constantly telling themselves, "I came up from nowhere. I'm no Old Money WASP. My dad, granddad, great-granddad was a barkeep, hod-carrier, rag-picker, bookkeeper, migrant worker... I had to fight tooth and nail for everything I got. Who are you to say I've gotta care about the other guy? I am the other guy! It's dog-eat-dog, and everyman for himself."
So there you have it then. The stage was set by the tactical mistakes of the 60's and the 70's. Let us hope that we do not make those mistakes again.
Whatever tactics we choose to shame the powerful and loosen their grip on the admiration of the powerless, we cannot afford to attack them on the basis of their ancestry, their religion, their genders or their afflictions. Even as we humanize them, we can strike at them only as abusers of power - and not as the representatives of a multitude of innocents.
Friday, November 03, 2006
What Is The White Collar Identity?
What is the white collar identity? Does it have any substance? Is there anything compelling about it? When I think of an occupational identity that I would like to have, two criteria come to mind. It must be centered around an activity that is so specific that you can visualize it. This activity must also be practiced by a group of people who are proud of what they are doing, and among whom there exists an intense and exclusive camaraderie. The professions can be like this - you would find both of these criteria among lawyers or doctors or college professors. Small businessmen have it, too. The professionals and small businessmen in any given suburb may share a camaraderie despite the differences among their occupations - think of the local elites where you grew up, the Rotarians, the Elks, the country club alpha males. Artists have it as well - actors, painters, writers, gathering in salons or pubs or art colonies. Get away from the world of professionals and businessmen and artists, and enter the world of action, and you will find the same thing. Athletes will definitely share both the powerful sense of vocation and the bracing camaraderie that I am alluding to. But so will policemen, firemen or soldiers. Some even become policemen or firemen for these reasons alone, regardless of the risk and the mediocre pay.
Can it ever be the same for white collar workers? Sometimes. Salesmen have their own society, that fierce little fraternity of competition in which they are all gunning for Salesman Of The Year. So even do computer programmers - at least in Silicon Valley, and in startups across America, where the clever young Java Jocks code each other into the ground on the way to millions. But if you are a salesman in the cubicled wilderness of a large corporation, you may find your identity diluted into pale versions itself, with unresonant job titles like "marketing assistant" or "customer service representative", while programmers become "analysts". Is there any job title on planet Earth less meaningful - or, indeed, defies analysis more - than that of "analyst"? The natural competitiveness of both occupations is reined in by the dictates of "teamwork". If their practitioners are good - especially if they are good - their energies will be suppressed as they are forced to content themselves with only a fraction of the challenges they can handle. If you are capable of doing too much, you run the risk of becoming irreplaceable, which will prevent the organization from letting you go at its own convenience. It is not about your vocation after all, much less you. It is always about the organization.
That is the crucial disadvantage of being a white collar worker. You belong to an organization whose members do many things, so many things that your own sense of craft is inevitably muddled and diminished. It is only the organization itself that matters. What you do is subordinated to where you stand in the hierarchy, and for virtually all of us that place is very low. The very inevitability of your low status deflates your ambitions, and discourages you from trying your hardest. As it is the hierarchy itself that matters, the only persons within it who themselves matter are those who maintain the hierarchy - the managers, the executives, and the CEO. Rank, not craft, expertise or vocation, is the sole criterion of importance in the hierarchy - and those that have it are esteemed irrespective of what they actually do.
Hierarchies can control occupations where the camaraderie is very strong, like the priesthood or the Marines - to give two very different examples - but hierarchy in the guise of "command" is wedded to the nature of what those organizations were created to do. Even if a Marine answers to a general, he is still a warrior. Even if a priest answers to an archbishop, he is still a priest, and answers ultimately to God. In a large corporation, the purpose of the organization is often so nebulous and abstract - so divorced from what it actually manufactures or the services it performs - that the hierarchy exists for its own sake, in a vacuum. Those of us not at the top are denied the intense redemptive power of identifying with any craft or calling, and are left instead only with what the hierachy provides - that sense of being a cog in the wheel.
The only appeal of sacrificing our most vigorous instincts to employment by a corporation is the hope that it will reward us for our compliance. That it will continue to keep us safe in its cages, and allow us to raise our families in peace and security. Even though the authoritarian demands of corporations remain stronger than ever, they are no longer keeping up their end of the bargain. They downsize us as much out of whim, as out of necessity. When we are cut loose, we know not what to do or how to act. This is because we allowed ourselves to be gelded of our capacity for independence as a condition of our employment. It is time for us to pull off our white collars to work for ourselves - or at least for each other. Our identities will be so much richer once they are no longer being sucked out of us by the vampires of management.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Empathizing With The Emperor
This is a frustrating time for anyone who distrusts corporate power. In years past, the workers may have been faceless, but so were the tycoons and the executives. We had a few images of the very rich - a wizened Rockefeller handing out dimes, a gawky Henry Ford lurching spasmodically across the silver screen. Enough, perhaps, to render them as either icons or caricatures, but not enough to make them fully rounded and sympathetic. Even if we were faceless, our enemies had no faces either - at least not human ones - and it was easier to oppose them. Nowadays, tycoons and executives become superstars. They are photographed, they are interviewed, they even have their own TV series. We observe them smiling and speaking softly and behaving courteously with others. We learn about their families, their hobbies, and the names of their pets. They confide to us the hurdles they had to surmount, the afflictions they had to bear, the tragedies in their lives. They are realer to us than our own neighbors and colleagues. In short, they have become more human than ourselves. We identify with them - at least some of us do. And with identification comes empathy. We feel as though they are our friends - or at least our champions. They may not have fought for us to get where they are, but they won the contest anyway, and that makes them the champions of...something.
We assume this is what they've always wanted. Admiration, an audience for their opinions and even public adulation. That is what all that striving was for, wasn't it? To become our heroes?
You may worship them and empathize with them, but I don't - and I'll tell you why. I never had any interest in becoming a chief executive, or in making billions. My interests and ambitions lay totally elsewhere - so it's not like they pulled off something I'd always wanted to, but couldn't. I could care less what they did. It's how they did it that bothers me. What everyone who worships billionaires should remember is that the wealth of all these men and women has been vastly increased - in some cases, entirely created - by a single pivotal change in corporate thinking. That change was the conscious decision to stop viewing their employees as hard-working people capable of growth and loyalty, but as a mere cost of doing business - human overhead that could be expunged from the ledger at any time without regard for their welfare or any sense of moral responsibility whatsoever. That ruthless tendency has existed in the business world since the dawn of time, but only in the last fifteen or twenty years has it become so programmatic and absolute. Corporate leaders no longer even pretend to care about the people who work for them, and are proud that they do not. The "achievement" that brings these "leaders" into the public eye and enables them to broadcast their "humanity" across the globe arose directly from their willingness to empathize with no one else.
I don't care if you believe I am stupid, that my writing is illiterate, or that my spirit is immoderate and insensitive. I know that what I am trying to say is the truth, and the truth will out. Go ahead and fawn over those distant gods whose good fortune is founded on their inability to care whether you live or die. You will see the light eventually.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Corporate Jargon Invades The Home
Today's article is either more comic relief or a serious discussion of a problem that "impacts" more and more American households. It all depends on your point of view. The two professions that made the profoundest dent in my father's psyche were those of college professor and Army lieutenant. Jargon from both venues probably invaded our home, but it was the military lingo that stays with me. He was always telling me to "G2 the situation" - which meant to "research your options", in business-speak. "G2" was a term from military intelligence. He also used the phrase "snafu" quite liberally - less often in reference to me, I charitably recall, than in regard to the behavior of local politicians. Anyone who's seen Saving Private Ryan requires no explanation of the meaning of "snafu". Quite honestly, I enjoyed the jargon. Its echoes of World War Two spiced things up - at least for a boy who ran around the house wearing a green plastic Army helmet.
Corporate managers who banter about "bandwidth" and "skill sets" and "leveraging" in the privacy of their homes may be another story altogether. White collar jargon is, almost by definition, evasive, colorless and devoid of any Romantic connotations. That is primarily why no one likes it. It is no more or less obfuscatory than any other jargon. It is merely sterile - or, worse yet, depressing - in the images it evokes.
The article at the link below is more critical than I would be. "Business jargon is infiltrating our homes, as unwelcome as water damage," the author says. He continues, "Those fluent in the corporate argot use it as easy shorthand. It's also a handy way to appear to know what you're talking about when you don't." It is bad enough to have teenagers speak in their slang, as teenagers inevitably will - but to have their parents babble away in their own little Cubicle Creole only worsens the situation. Sometimes parents revert to business-speak out of habit, but other times they may use it because they know full well that it masks the truth. Telling a teenager, "You need to broaden you skill set to achieve your goals" may be less hurtful than blurting out, "No car for you if you can't pass math." Whether or not it gets the point across, it is less likely to result in tears and confrontation.
One of the more amusing and paradoxical effects that experts on business-speak have noticed is that, while corporate managers may bring home business-speak to self-protectively muffle the meaning of their communications with spouses and children, they can get all touchy-feely at the workplace, referring incessantly to the "needs" and "feelings" of their co-workers and subordinates. Corporate sensitivity training has resulted in a new form of jargon, akin to California psycho-babble. Ironically, if managers brought this particular jargon home with them, they might actually appear to communicate appropriately with their "loved ones", even if it is still just jargon.
Whether or not a manager uses business-speak or touchy-feely sensitivity jargon with their families, the best effect is that it may soften the harshness of sentiments that would sound cruel if expressed plainly. The worst effect, perhaps, is that children will learn business-speak in the home and forever live their lives immersed in euphemism.
"CUBICLE CULTURE: A paradigm shift to seek buy-in for new skill sets" from The Kansas City Star