A powerful piece from the Washington Post about why being “productive” is such a punitive way to measure our human value:
I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.
It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.
There are several cultural expectations in the U.S., even after living here for decades after leaving Canada, I’ll never agree with or adhere to.
One is the notion, an outgrowth of a nation with shockingly little government regulation or oversight of the workplace, no paid maternal leave, no mandated vacation days, that work is the single most important way for all of us to spend all of our time.
Every day, in every way, we are exhorted to workworkworkworkworkwork fasterfastefasterfaster and the hell with a personal life that includes family, friends, self-care, volunteer work, meditation, travel.
Why, all that time you want to spend binge-watching Netflix or patting your puppy or making pancakes with your kids? That doesn’t boost the GDP! How dare you?
Of course, a thin and fragile social safety net — hello, cause and effect! — makes working your ass off a necessity for all but the wealthy. The single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills; we now pay (yes, really) $1,500 a month for our health insurance, meaning we have to earn at least $18,000 after-tax dollars before any other cost.
For two full-time freelancers in a struggling industry, that’s enough to make me go back to bed.
One reason I’ve stayed freelance is the ability to control the use of my time, when and where and how often and for how long I work. I started work the other day at 8:10 a.m. (early for me) and had already written and filed a story by 10:30 a.m. I took the afternoon off to enjoy a day in Manhattan.
Some people need to work 1o or more hours a day — they have multiple children to support and/or a non-working spouse and/or earn low wages and/or live in a high-cost area. But beyond basic economic need, tethering your life to the profit-making demands of others rarely produces much joy for those of us expected to answer them.
Americans love to mock Europeans – those five weeks of vacation! That free health care! Those subsidized university educations! – as though the endless toil and debt required to earn the money to pay for all of that were somehow so much more virtuous.
When it’s really just exhausting.
Having lived in Canada, France, Mexico and England gave me a perspective many Americans lack.
Time off recharges and restores us to full mental, physical and emotional health.
You can work hard — and play hard.
It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.
Working freelance means we’re choosing a life with less financial security but all the pressures faced while collecting a salary.
The major difference is our ability to say no.
To not leap to answer an email at 11:00 pm or 1:00 a.m. or on a Sunday morning when we’re getting ready to attend church.
Yes, it might cost us some lost income.
But it gives us a life we deeply value.
Do you feel — or succumb to — this kind of pressure to be productive?
Jobs paying $15 per hour are not the concern, though. Those are routinely seen as good jobs now. The concern is those jobs paying at or around the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or only $1160 per month for a
full-time job. About 1.6 million workers in the U.S. are paid at that level, and a surprising 2 million are actually paid less than that under various exemptions. If you are an employer paying the minimum wage or close to it, the Government has determined that your employees need help to pay for food, housing, and healthcare even if they have no family and no one to look after but themselves. As we’ve been reminded this season, many of those workers also need help from families and coworkers to get by.
No doubt the reason low-wage companies continue to pay low wages is because there are plenty of workers willing to take jobs at those wages, and the need to pay more to avoid the risk of being unionized is
largely gone. But “can” and “ought” are not the same thing. Nothing about the minimum wage implies that it is morally ok as long as you pay at least that much. It simply says that the government will prosecute you if try to pay less than that level.
A longstanding principle in all developed countries including the U.S. is that labor is not like a commodity where taking advantage of the market to squeeze down prices is a fact of life. Employees have human rights that do not disappear when they enter the workplace. Even in business law, principles like the “mechanic’s lien” say that employees should be paid before other creditors because they are more vulnerable than businesses and do not get profits to compensate them for risks.
We’re at an inflection point in the U.S., where some low-wage workers, unprecedented in decades, have actually begun to stage walk-outs, strikes and protests in recent weeks.
No matter how insanely productive we were — one of us sold $16,000 worth of merch one holiday Saturday — we never got more hours or serious raise (mine was 30 cents/hour) or a boost into a low-management position with a (barely) liveable salary.
The endless argument in favor paying crap is that low-wage workers are all teens, seniors and/or have no skills.
False! A recent survey of 436 New York City retail workers found that two-thirds of them are supporting another family member on their wages. Their average age? 24.
I also pay my assistants $15/hour, albeit part-time, about 10 hours a month. This year I paid out $1,5000 in wages to one worker, a significant amount for a one-person shop — me — and a healthy sum to a person new to my line of work, in effect, someone essentially entry-level I was training and paying.
I am appalled, disgusted and fed up with corporate greed, corporate welfare and the right-wing outrage that all low-wage jobs are low-skilled. They’re not.
Every single job adds profit to an employer’s bottom line or — in union-free America — it’s swiftly cut, with no severance or warning.
Walmart and MacDonalds workers suck up my tax dollars in Medicaid and food stamps because their greedhead CEOs think this is moral, equitable and justifiable way to treat workers.
It’s been an interesting exchange here this week. Said one commenter:
The questions to ask aren’t why are you applying for a job with me when you didn’t go to/finish college, ( under the assumption ( as you put it ) that they never had any desire ) but why didn’t you, and why do
you you believe you can do this job without the degree?
It’s all perception based. Your perception ( likely based on experience ) is that one without a degree can’t process high volume data or intake complex scenarios and send them back out in some semblance of order. But it’s a flawed one, just as the pay grade issue is. But it is what you’ve come to expect. Just as people without degrees have come to expect to take low paying jobs.
It’s the system as it stands.
If you — as many Broadside readers are — are a current college student, graduate or undergraduate, or someone teaching them — what’s up with that? Why did you choose to attend college? Not this or that one.
Any one at all.
I attended the University of Toronto, Canada’s most competitive and highest-ranked. I needed good grades to get in and I had to produce at a high level to keep my grades high enough to stay. It was not a place to dick around, skip class, show up hungover or say stupid things in front of smart, ambitious peers.
I liked that. I wanted to be honed and sharpened. It never occurred to me (lack of imagination?) not to attend a competitive and demanding university.
Maybe because no one in my family had a college degree.
Not my mother, who worked as a national magazine journalist and television talk-show host and film-maker. Not my father, an award-winning film-maker, nor my stepmother who made a very good living writing for television. Several — long loud laugh! — have vastly out-earned me, with my fancy schmancy B.A in English.
Do I regret my four years on campus? No.
Did they prepare me for a career in journalism? Not really.
Clearly, there are many professions that will simply never credential anyone without a college degree, let alone specialized study: engineers, accountants, physicians, dentists, nurses, architects and lawyers among them.
But all those young ‘uns finding themselves — at an annual cost of $15,00 to $50,000 a year for an American college degree? Would their time be better spent elsewhere?
For how long?
For some, a vocation — carpentry, HVAC, hairdressing, animal care — is the better choice, for a variety of reasons.
I don’t care what someone does to prepare for employment as long as they can clearly and persusasively explain their choice.
If you have hiring authority, and an applicant has no college education at all — and no desire to acquire one — would you interview them?
Would their decision affect how you view them as a potential employee?
LAST CHANCE TO SIGN UP FOR ‘BETTER BLOGGING’, MY WEBINAR SUNDAY NOV. 10 AT 4:00 P.M. ET; REGISTRATION CLOSES 4:00 NOV. 8. SIGN UP HERE.
Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.
Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.
SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.
But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.
“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.
The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.
Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.
I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.
I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.
And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.
You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.
When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.
And all of its dignity.
In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”
I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.
That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.
When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.
Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.
That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.
The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.
They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.
Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:
— Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)
— Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs
— Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them
— Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs
— Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods
— Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom
— Ringing up purchases
— Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting
Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.
Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits
Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.
A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.
The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:
Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.
The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”
What say you?
Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?
If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?
Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewelry stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches,
and sold in sporting-goods stores.
Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. In
Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — each player gets one, while around a third get two. Nationally, A.Y.S.O. local
branches typically spend as much as 12 percent of their yearly budgets
It adds up: trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada. Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.
The story had attracted 282 comments within a few hours of its publication…here’s part of one, from a male reader in New York City:
We want fame. We want adoration. We never want to break the from adolescence, no, from infancy, when we were center of the universe and a whimper could get our diaper changed.
And this admission, from a young woman in Chicago:
I’m 24 and a college graduate, and my peers and I were constantly praised from kindergarten through college. Like in the article, we all got trophies and certificates of achievement in grade and middle school, high grades in high school (partially so we could get into good colleges) and good grades for just showing up to class in college.
Competitive skills are not inherently developed; they are learned. What we have now is a group of young people coming out of college and high school who are just discovering that it takes more than showing up to succeed in life, and it is in no small part due to the “everybody is special” culture that we were steeped in as adolescents.
I think there’s a fine line between wanting non-stop attention and false adulation — “Great job!” I hear parents coo when some small child does…anything…these days — and genuine encouragement to persist in the face of disappointment and rejection.
We all went back to our busy lives and personal challenges, and we’re all still here, all still in the game. We didn’t curl up in the fetal position, sucking our thumbs and whining to one another about it.
Ever. At all. You lose, pick yourself up and get on with it.
I applied last year again, as one of 278 applicants, and became one of 14 finalists.
I lost again.
I’d planned to re-apply this year but I decided to take a break. Will I apply yet again? Probably.
Losing is dis-spiriting, indeed, but I think “winning” every time you compete for something is crazy.
Life is too difficult!
You’ll never win every date/job/fellowship/grant/award/book contract/raise/promotion you want. No one does. (And if you do, I wonder how far you’re stretching and growing…)
But in a culture that usually only cheers and celebrates heroes and the wealthy, those whose visible proof of success wins them lots of attention and praise and high-fives, (all pleasant, certainly), it’s a challenge to remember — and to teach children — that failure is normal, to be expected and builds tenacity and resilience.
And those are the true building blocks of solid, lasting self-confidence.
For all but the most highly educated and affluent Americans, incomes have stagnated, or worse, for more than a decade. The census report found that median household income, adjusted for inflation, was $51,017 in 2012, down about 9 percent from an inflation-adjusted peak of $56,080 in 1999, mostly as a result of the longest and most damaging recession since the Depression. Most people have had no gains since the economy hit bottom in 2009.
The government’s authoritative annual report on incomes, poverty and health insurance, released Tuesday, underscores that the economic recovery has largely failed to reach the poor and the middle class, even as the unemployment rate continues to sink and growth has returned.
Government programs remain a lifeline for millions. Unemployment insurance, whose eligibility the federal government expanded in response to the downturn, kept 1.7 million people out of poverty last year. Food stamps, if counted as income, would have kept out four million.
Since the recession ended in 2009, income gains have accrued almost entirely to the top earners, the Census Bureau found. The top 5 percent of earners — households making more than about $191,000 a year — have recovered their losses and earned about as much in 2012 as they did before the recession. But those in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution are generally making considerably less than they had been,hit by high rates of unemployment and nonexistent wage growth.
More than one out of four families in shelters, 28 percent, include at least one employed adult, city figures show, and 16 percent of single adults in shelters hold jobs.
Mostly female, they are engaged in a variety of low-wage jobs as security guards, bank tellers, sales clerks, computer instructors, home health aides and office support staff members. At work they present an image of adult responsibility, while in the shelter they must obey curfews and show evidence that they are actively looking for housing and saving part of their paycheck.
Advocates of affordable housing say that the employed homeless are proof of the widening gap between wages and rents — which rose in the city even during the latest recession — and, given the shortage of subsidized housing, of just how difficult it is to escape the shelter system, even for people with jobs.
In 2011, I was asked to testify to New York’s City Council.
I’d never before been part of the political process, except for voting, as some news journalists are required by their employers to avoid any such signs of partiality.
I assure you that $10/hr, even full-time, is no living — but mere survival in a city where it’s virtually impossible to find any apartment costing less than $1,000 a month.
It was an eye-opening and depressing day as I waited six hours to give my allotted two minutes of testimony. The only people left, wearily waiting, were the councilors listening to us — and the impassioned black pastors of low-income-area churches, fighting hard for social justice in the form of economic redress.
I saw there, firsthand, the frustration of selling a $600 ski jacket to a banker whisking his family off to Aspen, (whose firm had likely helped to wreck the economy in 2008), while we were earning, at most, $11/hour with no commission. As members of the 99 percent serving the 1 percent, we were just another servant class.
It was chillingly instructive.
I also saw my coworkers, several with multiple young children, desperate to flee.
The living wage bill did pass here.
But for millions of workers, still, a hard-earned income — or several — doesn’t provide a life of any ease or comfort.
From the Times:
“The good news from today’s 2012 income and poverty results is that for the first year since the Great Recession hit, things aren’t getting worse,” Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a former Obama economics official and a contributor to The New York Times’s Economix blog, wrote in his analysis of the numbers. “The bad news is that three years into an economic recovery, they’re not getting
Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They’re increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.
As their wages and benefits shrink, though, they see corporate executives and Wall Street bankers doing far better than ever before. And they are keenly aware of bailouts and special subsidies for agribusinesses, pharma, oil and gas, military contractors, finance and every other well-connected industry.
Alice in Wonderland eventually awoke from her visions. It was just, all of it — the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum — a very odd dream.
Not for the rest of us.
How are you doing economically these days?
Better? Worse? The same?
Do you feel hopeful that things will improve for you — or others?
The radio plays Aaron Copland’s breathtaking “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
The front page of The New York Times carries this incredibly depressing-but-important story about how clothing factories overseas — the ones that probably made the T-shirt I’m wearing as I write this post — are lying, cheating and faking their “safe” inspected factories:
As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.
An extensive examination by The New York Times reveals how the inspection system intended to protect workers and ensure manufacturing quality is riddled with flaws. The inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes. And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.
Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”
Still, major companies including Walmart, Apple, Gap and Nike turn to monitoring not just to check that production is on time and of adequate quality, but also to project a corporate image that aims to assure consumers that they do not use Dickensian sweatshops. Moreover, Western companies now depend on inspectors to uncover hazardous work conditions, like faulty electrical wiring or blocked stairways, that have exposed some corporations to charges of irresponsibility and exploitation after factory disasters that killed hundreds of workers.
I wrote about the horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the enormous Chinese company whose workers make Apple products (yup, writing on one right now) and who flung themselves out of windows in despair.
I have several Chinese-speaking friends who have offered to compare the translation to my original — to see if that bit was censored.
It’s a crappy day here in New York — gray, cloudy, hot and humid. It’s an official holiday. Time to relax, recharge, reflect on our role as “human capital” the new euphemism for the old euphemism for human beings toiling for pay — “labor.”
But we are both working, albeit from home.
Jose, whose full-time job as a photo editor for the Times keeps him busy enough, spent all day yesterday on an income-producing side project.
I spent the day with a friend, deep in conversation. Turns out, even with a decade+ age difference between us, despite living on opposite coats, we both spend much of our time figuring out how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.
I grew up in a freelance family. No one had a paycheck, pension or guaranteed income, working in print, film and television. No one taught on the side. It was balls-to-the-wall, full-on creative entrepreneurship, for years, decades.
I took my first staff job, the job (then and now) of my dreams, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, when I was 26. “This is the best job you’ll ever have,” a friend working there warned me. I laughed, assuming a lifetime of up-and-onward, in title, status and income.
She was right.
I hope to stop working full-time within the next decade.
I want to travel to the many places I still know very little of: Africa, Latin America, Asia. They require $1,500+, 12-16-hour flights. They are not places I want to cram into a week or ten days “vacation.”
I hope to keep writing books, teaching, keeping my hand in. But not tethered to the hamster wheel of non-stop production.
I fell in love in September 1986 when I opened my downtown Montreal apartment door to a tall, bearded, blue-eyed medical student from New Jersey, whose name, (which I won’t reveal) is shared with a cocktail. (No, not Tom Collins!)
But the week before we met, and we were soon seriously discussing marriage — a first, for me — he had accepted a four-year residency position in New Hampshire, a 3.5 drive south.
Oh, and in another country.
I was extremely lucky. As the unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to get a green card quickly and easily and move to the United States legally to join him. Even more unlikely, I found a three-month, well-paid journalism job in the same small town as his program.
But after it ended, reality hit. Hard.
I had no friends, family, income, history or job prospects. He was rarely home, and when he was home was exhausted and grouchy. The huge gang of lovely friends he’d made in Montreal? Gone and not replaced with anyone new.
Instead, homesick and bored, I commuted those 3.5 hours north every Monday for three months to teach journalism back in Montreal.
After 18 months of miserable, lonely, broke, isolated and career-threatening rural life, we moved to suburban New York.
We married three years later — and he walked out two years after that.
Anyone who moves to a foreign country for love takes an incredible leap into the unknown.
I know that several Broadside readers have, or are about to, done this. I also know it’s worked out well for two of them, and I have my fingers tightly crossed for Ashana.
But good Lord it’s scary!
Maybe not for other people.
It was for me. I remember, as if it was yesterday, feeling like a raindrop falling into the ocean. At 30, I was leaving a country in which I’d built a good national reputation as a journalist. I was leaving behind dear friends, a culture I knew intimately and liberal social and political values I mostly shared.
I was leaving behind a country whose entire population is that of New York State, barely 10 percent of the United States. How could I ever re-establish an identity or a career?
Before I married the first time, (worried on several counts), I consulted a local lawyer — $350/hour in 1992 — to ask what, if anything, I would get in alimony or support if we divorced. Zip! Nada! Rien!
Wow. Since I was very far from home and wasn’t working and didn’t have a place to run back to in case…
Good thing I asked, and demanded a pre-nuptial agreement that allowed me to stay in my home and re-establish myself financially after two years of not working.
Had I not made that scary cross-border leap, I would not have published two books on complex national American issues, written 100+ stories for The New York Times, met my lovely second husband or enjoyed my river-view apartment.
But…it’s been quite a bumpy ride. I’m lucky I still have dear friends back in Toronto and other parts of Canada I’m in close touch with, and visit a few times a year. I am rarely homesick, but I do miss some cultural touchstones and a shared history.
I also still struggle mightily with the power here of the religious right, their relentless assault on women’s reproductive freedoms and laissez-faire American capitalism, which enriches so many so effectively — and buries millions more in low-wage jobs and medical fear and debt.
Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs,
about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally
checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the
halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of
workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.
At first glance, this sad survey is further proof of two truisms. One,
the timeless line from Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of
quiet desperation.” The other, less known, came from Homer Simpson by
way of fatherly advice, after being asked about a labor dispute by his
daughter Lisa. “If you don’t like your job,” he said, “you don’t strike,
you just go in there every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the
The American way, indeed. Gallup’s current survey,
covering two years, is a follow-up to an earlier poll that found much
the same level of passive discontent from 2008 to 2010. Even in an
improving economy, people are adrift at work, complaining about a lack
of praise, with no sense of mission, and feeling little loyalty to
Not surprisingly, the primary reason that people hate their jobs is their boss — who ignores them, bullies them, or undermines them. Sad, considering how many of us spend most of our time at work.
I was very lucky, in my first newspaper job at the Globe and Mail, to have the best boss ever. None has ever matched his rare combination of high standards, praise when warranted, low-key style and, best of all, someone who kept offering me terrifyingly difficult and unfamiliar assignments — which always ended up on the front page of that national paper.
New York journalism? Not so much, sorry to say.
A few of my tormentors bosses here:
— The woman editor-in-chief at a medical trade magazine who shouted curses at everyone, even across our large open-plan office space. She stood Tokyo-subway-rush-hour close to me, her pupils strangely dilated — (heavy anti-psychotic medication? need of same?) — and shouted at me. One day I closed a phone interview with a brief chat, while she shrieked, (and he could hear every word): “I told you never to have personal conversations at work!” I finally asked a co-worker how she put up with it all. Her secret? Anti-depressants.
— The male editor-in-chief of another trade magazine who came into my small, narrow office to verbally hammer me with his disappointment in my work. I told him truthfully, as calmly and politely as possible, I was doing the best I knew how. He’d hired me into a senior job for which I simply did not have the skills, as my resume made clear. “Define best!” he snarled.
— The male editor who, when I asked him to have lunch to discuss how I was doing in my new job, about six months in, sneered: “I don’t take lunch. When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know.” (I was then 48.)
If you want to scare the shit out of almost any American — those who don’t have a defined-benefit pension guaranteed to them — which knocks out most workers, ask them how much money they have saved for their retirement.
The median figure, among those aged 55 to 64, (i.e. an age group, traditionally, potentially planning/hoping to retire within a decade or less), is a mere $63,100.
The median among all Americans is a staggeringly low $10,890, (minus the value of a home and/or vehicle.)
My math works like this — if, when (if) you graduate from college at 22 and start working immediately, you begin saving $5.09 every day, some $36.00 every week, or $144 every month, every year without a break — and with no accrued or compound interest from investing that money — you’d end up with the $63,100 median figure.
Surely we can do better?
For some people, right now, saving $5.09 every day, all seven days of every week, is impossible. Their living costs cannot be trimmed in any way, and/or their wages are too low.
Many fresh graduates, and older workers, are unable to find paid work in this economy. They are stalled, frustrated, broke, angry. Some carry enormous debt burdens of homes underwater or student loans they cannot discharge through bankruptcy. Some people are very ill, or have very ill family members for whom they must add the cost of care and the time it takes — i.e. unpaid labor — to do this as well.
But…for the rest of you, snap that wallet shut!
The culture that most Americans live in is one that continues to glorify and fetishize spending lots of cash, (or credit, mostly), acquiring tons of shit that’s new and shiny and cooler than everyone else’s — whether an Ipad or Ipod, phone, car, house, vacation, clothing, whatever. You can blow easily thousands of dollars on a freaking baby stroller, if that somehow seems essential to you.
Television and social media and the internet bring very rich peoples’ lives into our own. We can press our greasy little noses against the impenetrable glass wall of their luxuries and whine: “Why not me?”
You can go broke even trying to keep up.
I’ve been lucky. I grew up in Canada, a nation that still chooses — with much higher rates of taxation — to heavily subsidize college education. My annual tuition, from 1975 to 1979, (yes, really) was $660 a year. I was able to put myself through university and graduate debt-free.
I’ve also been able, since my second year of university, to sell my writing, photography, editing and translating skills to others — and had the developed skills, delivered on or before deadline every time, to make them want more of my work.
I’ve been fortunate, since the age of 22, to be able to share housing on four occasions, which helped cut my living costs in two expensive places — suburban New York and Toronto.
I’ve been grateful for good health, so I have never lost months or years to debilitating illness(es) and treatments that would have prevented me from working.
But that’s one side of the ledger — the getting side.
I’m also cheap as hell, when necessary, and it was necessary for years on end, especially when single paying $500 a month for health insurance, and facing three recessions in my industry.
I’ve chosen to stay in a one-bedroom apartment for 25 years. Would I prefer a second or third bedroom or bathroom? A backyard and fireplace and verandah? Hell, yes. But did I want to assume a much larger mortgage payment and longer repayment term? No. Nor the stress of fearing potential homelessness. Ever.
I’ve been saving 15 to 25 percent of my income every single year for years.
Our ironing board recently broke. I paid $4.30 at our local thrift shop for another one. Score!
When my income bottomed out to a terrifying degree in 2007 to 2009, I took a part-time retail job ($11/hour no commission) and bought my clothes and shoes from consignment shops.
Until my ex-husband moved in, I had no television. Until my second husband moved in — when I was in my early 40s — I did not have cable or a cellphone ($200/month saved right there.) I drove a used, paid-for car, as we still do.
A friend of mine runs her own company, an investment fund, literally managing millions of other people’s money. She drives a Mini Cooper, not a Mercedes or Lexus or Range Rover, the vehicle people expect.
“That’s how I got a million dollars,” she says, with a knowing smile.
We plan to be mortgage-free by 65. We have no children. We will have multiple income streams, one of which is our savings. Adding to them is a non-negotiable part of our life, as automatic, necessary (and boring!) as brushing our teeth.