Work

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

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“Job Creators”

I have always hated the expression “job creators.” I hate the way it implies that there is a class of people who, almost as a form of charity, bestow employment (for which we should be extremely thankful) on us, the needy workers. It is just as true to say that employees are “business creators” (although no one ever does) because without their labor, the owner could not achieve his goals and run a successful enterprise. Employers are not little gods giving the gift of jobs, they hire people because those people have skills and talents that they need. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

I also hate a certain imprecision in the “job” part of the expression. All jobs are not created equal. One of the big shifts in our economy, and indeed one that is most often cited as the cause of the anger and frustration of the people who elected Donald Trump, has been from manufacturing to service jobs. The factory makes the goods is in China now, but Wal Mart is hiring greeters. Because our culture has deemed service jobs less valuable than manufacturing jobs, the standard of living for workers has stagnated as the “job creators” continue to see gains. They can boast about the number of jobs they created and are rarely asked, “Do these jobs come with living wages?”

Beyond that, “jobs” it seems, are only created in the private sector and in certain parts of the private sector. Jobs related to the arts are not really jobs. You have to argue for arts by saying that having a theater in your city will drive business to nearby restaurants and hotels. (Real businesses) And you have to argue that arts education will make children good a mathematics so they can one day be computer programmers and engineers (Real jobs).

I was struck this morning when watching Fox News as a Trump voter talked about how excited he is that Trump is keeping his promise to create jobs in America. He cited the end of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the fact that Trump met with labor unions. When we talk about “jobs” we think of assembly lines, making things, real man’s work. Those kinds of jobs are indisputably “jobs.” And they are disappearing. According to Five Thirty Eight:

Here’s the problem: Whether or not those manufacturing jobs could have been saved, they aren’t coming back, at least not most of them. How do we know? Because in recent years, factories have been coming back, but the jobs haven’t. Because of rising wages in China, the need for shorter supply chains and other factors, a small but growing group of companies are shifting production back to the U.S. But the factories they build here are heavily automated, employing a small fraction of the workers they would have a generation ago.

Yet while he was discussing the potential future creation of U.S. manufacturing jobs, Trump was actively working to slash existing jobs. We tend not to frame them as jobs, rather as “spending” but government jobs are jobs. Trump apparently would like to see a 20% cut in federal workers. Meanwhile, he has instituted a hiring freeze and the House voted to make it easier to cut goverment employees’ salaries.

This is the opposite of “job creation” it is “job elimination.” We don’t really call it that. We call it, as Donald Trump did, “reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy.”Interestingly, none of the articles I found on the topic of the proposed 20% workforce cuts mentioned how many people would be unemployed by such a move. Can you imagine business reporters writing about the proposed closure of a factory and omitting how many jobs would be lost? And yet when the nation’s largest employer is talking about cutting its workforce by 20% the actual number of jobs is nowhere. It seems that the government employs 2.8 million people. (If you include the military it is about 4.4 million people) But as Trump has vowed not to include the military (those are real jobs) we’ll stick with the 2.8 million figure. That is 560,000 people who would be joining the unemployment lines if this plan actually became a reality.

It doesn’t seem as though putting that many people out of work would do a lot to give the administration good employment results, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts people who are working whether in “real jobs” or “fake jobs” in the arts and the public sector. That is assuming they continue to gather and report on employment.

On a personal level, I hope that the “federal bureaucracy” is not reduced to the point that you can’t get anyone on the phone to answer a question about processing a visa, or filing your claim with the VA.

“What You Are Worth”

An article in Work in Progress, the blog of the American Sociological Association today asks “Are you paid what you are worth?”

It uses the example of London dog walkers, who make substantially more than the national average income, to argue that “…the relationship between jobs and pay is now governed by a new principle. The old days in which your pay was linked to the number of hours you clocked up, the skill required and the societal worth of the job are long over. Other factors play a bigger role in determining how much you are rewarded today. This is why we live in a world where the task of walking a millionaire’s dog through Hyde Park is considered more valuable than an NHS nurse…”

I wonder, however, when this golden era was supposed to be when income was a direct measure of the societal value we placed on an occupation. Does the fact that we pay sports stars more than firefighters really mean we “value” them more?

That people who serve the needs of the rich make more money than those who serve the rest of us– who are not rich– is hardly surprising. They have more money to throw around. Rather than being a new development, it seems as though it is a return to a very old tradition when the world was made up mostly of peasants and a few lucky souls survived quite well by serving the royalty. In the Downton Abbey era a lady’s maid or valet, by helping the elite dress themselves, could earn about what a village teacher would each year.

The mid-century experiment with a strong middle class could be the aberration. This is not a particularly comforting thought for the non-wealthy among us, of course.

Work, Debt and Identity

There is an interview today on The Atlantic with Allison J. Pugh, author of The Tumbleweed Society.  Pugh has written about the toll job insecurity takes on a person’s relationships and sense of identity.

“The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society,” Pugh said. “What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income.. it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, ‘I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.'”

One of the main themes in the novel Identity Theft, and one that has not been commented on much in reviews, is the central character’s struggle with identity as she faces the loss of her career. Maybe it does not come up much because when a character is female we’re primed to think her central conflict is related to romantic love and the main question the novel will try to solve is whether or not she will find love or a sense of her own attractiveness by the end.

Candi’s main struggle, though, is her sense that she is not valuable. That her particular skills, being a good, reliable worker, do not mean anything. This is tied more to her financial problems than body image issues. When people experience poverty they usually feel ashamed, and a natural result of this is that they tend to retreat from friendships.

As Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, wrote in his book The Shame of Poverty:

With economic development and growing individualization, social status has increasingly come to be associated with achievement, rather than with ascribed characteristics such as age, birth right, and gender. Most recently, wealth, expenditure and consumption have emerged as the predominant measures of personal success…Psychologists demonstrate that people experiencing shame not only feel small and humiliated, they are likely to experience social isolation which is either forced up on them, a form of exile, or chosen by them so as to avoid the possibility of public shaming. They are also prone to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide.

…the sense of shame is likely also to be prolonged because most people in poverty will generally already be doing as much as they can to escape from poverty…People in poverty lack the resources necessary to reciprocate, to support wives and husbands, to bring up children or even, adopting the language of stigma, to be fully human. Moreover, should they fail to appreciate the degree of their inadequacy and the depth of their degradation, society takes it upon itself to shame them into changing their ways or, with similar intent, to stigmatize them, thereby reinforcing the social divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and often actively discriminating against them, ‘the poor.’

…Respondents in all seven national settings sought to avoid the possibilities of shaming by stopping going out with friends or inviting people home to eat…. The change was usually justified as a measure to reduce cost, but it also meant that they were less likely to be placed in a position in which they would subsequently need to reciprocate in ways that they could not afford…Avoiding social life meant avoiding shame, but also resulted in a decline in the number of people that would be available to assist in the event of a crisis, thereby adding to the vulnerability of life in poverty.

One of the fascinating things in the interview with Pugh is that she found that when people lose a job through downsizing or layoffs, they tend to blame themselves. Apparently we are so invested in the mythos that we live in a world where hard work and merit are rewarded, we would rather blame ourselves than give up on that notion.

“But it’s like they’ve given up on this other huge thing,” Pugh said, “which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That’s not a conversation that we have anymore.”

In Identity Theft, it is only at the end, when Candi has been laid low by the events of the story, that she thinks to pose this very question. (Albeit in different words.)

Is society entirely impersonal? Do we owe nothing to one another?

It is the constantly re-enforced shame that comes in the form of calls from creditors and her social isolation that makes Candi vulnerable to Ethan’s game. Because her social world has contracted to posts on Facebook, the only relationship she is going to find is one that comes right to her. And the one that happens to fall in her lap is so magical it has the power to soothe all of her feelings of being useless and not a full member of society. Being courted by a rock star is the only thing, really, with the power to overcome all of her vulnerability and insecurity. So it becomes central to her sense of self.

I recommend The Atlantic article. I think it is important for the narrative about insecure employment, debt and wage stagnation to be broadened to include all of its impacts on relationships, culture and society.

“It’s Not Personal.”

Often when something upsetting happens people will try to cheer you up by explaining that “it’s not personal.” Being laid off from a job is not like being dumped by a boyfriend, the thinking goes. It’s not because there is something wrong with you, it is simply a business decision.

This idea is something that figures into my novel “Identity Theft.” Candi, the central character, works in an office that is downsizing and the management is doing everything it can to try to fire people without bruising their self-esteem too much, or at least to fire them without having to feel too guilty about bruising their self-esteem.

The thing is, I’ve never really understood why “it’s not personal” was supposed to make you feel better.

Of course, the downsizing is not being done to Candi, but it is certainly happening to her. Why is it supposed to be soothing for her to know that from the perspective of the institution she’s not relevant enough to be considered personally?

Often when an “it’s not personal” argument is invoked that is precisely what is painful about the situation. It hurts because you are given a big kick in the pants that says “you are not all that important.”

When people say it’s just a business decision, what they really mean to say, I suppose, is “you are valuable, just not to them.” There is some comfort in that, but it is something that comes later, after the initial sting has worn off. It says that you have to make your own meaning– force life to mean on your own terms. That is a process, and not a quick or easy one.

People do not only work for a paycheck. We work to feel that we are doing something that matters. That it is not personal to the world at large, when it is so personal to us individually, is a source of a lot of melancholy if not outright emotional anguish.

Dealing with “it’s not personal” is the hard part, not what makes it easier.

“I support them and give them food…”

Now that the Donald Sterling tape story has died down a bit, I am ready to chime in with an observation because that is the kind of cutting edge journalism I dispense around here.

There is one quote from the Sterling tape that has been playing on my mind. Because it was recorded in the middle of a diatribe against being seen with black people, its outrageous nature is readily apparent. Yet tamer versions of the same sentiment are voiced by respectable people every day. It is the notion that the person at the top of an organization– an owner, a CEO– creates jobs as if it were a form of philanthropy.

“I support (the players) and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them?” Sterling asked in his agitated state.  “Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have — Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”

Sterling’s comments are transparently dehumanizing and that is why they have been roundly and almost universally condemned.

The idea that the NBA could exist as an organization of owners, but not players, is ridiculous on its face.

So why should it be any more difficult to understand that GM is dependent on those who make its cars and Papa John’s owes as much of its existence to the guys who deliver the pizza as it does to the Papa?

But let me be clear, it is not a contest. It is not a matter of labor vs.owners. One is not more vital than the other. They are dependent on one another for the survival of the business, it is a mutually beneficial relationship.

When anyone speaks about people who work for a living as if they were given the unmerited gift of employment it diminishes everyone who works. And that is most of us. Most of us are not the owners. These ideas minimize the value we crate, diminish our contributions, and devalue us as citizens.

No, jobs are not created by magical millionaires. We are in this together.