“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.”
Image: Modern Toss, New Scientist
Those of us who served time in the corporate working world are all too familiar with the often-loathsome office party – the annual end-of-the-year gathering where coworkers pretend they’ve loved spending so much of their time throughout the year with one another. One good thing about working freelance is that I’ve been able to avoid such mundane bacchanalias. But 2020 has allowed many in the workforce to evade the antics of business life.
At the end of 1999, executives at the bank in Dallas where I worked conjured up the bright idea of staging quarterly workplace assemblages to encourage team building. This was also when the idiotic concept of multi-tasking had become forcibly fashionable. In January of 2000, we were to gather at a restaurant / gaming house to have dinner and then engage in some kind of laser tag amusement. Since it took place after work, I informed my manager and constituents I could not make it; that it would cut into my free time, which would only serve to aggravate me and not make me love them any more than I already didn’t. I wasn’t the only one with the same sentiment. In April we took off in the middle of the day to patronize…a bowling alley. I absolutely HATE bowling. Like golf, I don’t consider anything near a sport. Any activity where people dress up in ugly slacks or short pants and consume alcohol at the same time isn’t a sport! But, as Gloria Gaynor once bellowed, I survived.
In July, we gathered after work for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Afterwards, we were to stroll to a local movie theatre and watch “The Perfect Storm”, which had just been released. I had already read the book of the same name written by Sebastian Junger. I would have liked to see the movie, but not right then, seated alongside my coworkers. Besides, dinner and a movie doesn’t sound like a team-building exercise; it sounds more like a date. Again I expressed myself and didn’t go to the movie, even though the bank was paying for it.
The following month all hell seemed to break loose, when the bank underwent a major management rearrangement and several mid-level managers (including mine) had their jobs eliminated. So much for team-building!
Photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager obviously comprehends the uncomfortable nature of the dreaded office party and has captured its mendacity in a new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Farewell, Work Holiday Parties” pays homage to the drudgery of the working world and the demands it often imposes upon its minions who often spend more time at work than at home. The exhibit features about a dozen sculptures that look eerily like real people when photographed. They’re bizarre moments of debauchery and stupidity perpetrated under the guise of workplace camaraderie. It’s a little bit of “The Poseidon Adventure” (a New Year’s party wrecked by a rogue wave) mixed with “Die Hard” (an office Christmas party ravaged by well-dressed terrorists).
Regardless, the images are certain to bring tears and/or smiles to many and a general sense of, “Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that shit anymore!”
“No one should have to choose between staying home and really now being at higher risk with the situation with the coronavirus or having to decide to go to work sick.”
Texas alone has more than 10 million people age 18 and above involved in the workforce. About 40% of them lack paid sick leave; the majority of them female and/or non-White. Texas is notably more pro-business than pro-worker, and state officials have fought various municipalities that want to implement mandatory paid sick leave by filing lawsuits and proposing legislation to undermine those efforts.
Now, with the COVID-19 scourge in full crisis mode, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a state of emergency.
A few years ago – about a year after I got laid off from an engineering company and while I struggled to find even a temporary job while trying to launch my freelance writing career – I told a close friend of mine via email that, when the economy improves, people will start switching jobs without giving much, if any, notice to their employers.
“True,” he replied.
It’s starting to happen. The recent economic crisis – the worst in this nation’s history since the Great Depression – almost completely destroyed our financial stability. Multiple factors were responsible for it: broad-based tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations; further deregulation of banking and housing; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Between December 2007 (when the recession officially commenced) and June 2009 (when it officially ended), the U.S. economy shed roughly 8.7 million jobs. Employers began to add jobs in 2010. Only recently, however, have we regained all those lost jobs.
There’s no real cause for celebration. The after effects of such a prolonged economic debacle are as varied as the causes. People lost accumulated personal wealth; state and local economies suffered decreased tax revenue; and home values dropped. Wages, however, remain stagnant, despite increased productivity. People have always worked too damn hard for their money. Of course, everyone feels they’re overworked and underpaid. But now, we have statistical proof. But, according to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, the “Great Recession” actually was worse than the Great Depression. In a statement filed on August 22 with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, as part of a response to a lawsuit over the 2008 bailout of insurance giant American International Group (AIG), Bernanke said:
“September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” Of the 13 “most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two.”
When asked why he thought it was critical for the U.S. government to rescue AIG, Bernanke replied:
“AIG’s demise would be a catastrophe” and “could have resulted in a 1930s-style global financial and economic meltdown, with catastrophic implications for production, income, and jobs.”
Obviously, too-big-to-fail truly has become too big to fail! The Great Depression was exacerbated by the fact the Federal Reserve System didn’t take command of the banks. Billionaire financier Andrew Mellon was the U.S. Treasury Secretary during the Hoover Administration and – like a typical conservative Republican – believed the nation’s banks had gotten themselves into trouble and needed to get themselves out of it, even if that meant they failed and took their customers’ money with them. Which they did, of course, in very large numbers. At the time, though, we didn’t have a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to safeguard people’s financial assets. The federal government’s lackadaisical attitude at the onset of the Great Depression forced Republicans to lose both houses of Congress during the 1930 midterm elections and shoved Hoover out of the White House two years later. That same kind of ineptitude is probably what caused them to lose both houses of Congress in 2006.
Yet, as the economy continues to recover and employers continue adding jobs, I see my aforementioned prediction materializing. During sluggish markets, employers can afford to be picky on who they hire and can freeze wages and salaries at will. It’s almost cruel and inhumane the way some can behave. And, what’s the average worker to do? With children, mortgages, car payments and other debts, they’re often stuck. They have little power.
But, from January to June of this year, more than 14 million people quit their jobs. I would like to think they left for better jobs. And, I’d like to believe they gave little notice to their employers. After all, companies don’t have to give employees any real notice when they plan to let someone go; albeit, quite often, people can feel it. In 2009, there were approximately seven people for every job opening. As of June 2014, the ratio had dropped to 2-to-1. Overall, the number of unemployed has dropped by 5 million, while the number of new jobs has grown by 2.5 million. Now, there’s talk of a problem we haven’t seen in a while: labor shortage. Companies are starting to feel one of the adverse effects of an improving economy; there aren’t enough people, or at least not enough qualified people, to fill certain positions. Thus, it’s employees and jobseekers who can be picky.
And, that’s a good thing. It’s really the way it should be. Only once in my life have I had the pleasure of quitting a job I hate; in January 1989, I left a retail position, which I’d held for nearly three years. I just walked into the place and gave my immediate supervisor a typewritten note announcing my resignation. But, I’ve known a few people who, in recent years, essentially gave their boss the middle finger and walked out of a company. They recounted their experiences with glee. We spend a great deal of time at work; often more than with our own families. Work gives people personal value and a sense of accomplishment, and everyone who makes an effort to complete a job should be respected. Whether that person answers the phones in a call center; digs ditches for sewer lines; programs a voice mail system; or rings up items at a cash register, they should be considered important. They pay taxes and insurance and they put the rest of their money back into the economy as consumers.
Last week, an executive in the company where I’m working as a contract technical writer staged an impromptu meeting to announce a major organizational change. After presenting a variety of business details, he said something that I’d never heard from someone at his level: “Family is more important than work.” He emphasized that everyone needs to place greater value on their loved ones than on their careers; noting that he hadn’t done that and almost paid the price for it. I’ve heard some executives tell people on an individual basis the same thing – but never in such a large setting. He’s right. A company won’t collapse because you can’t make it to a business conference. You won’t necessarily recall that training seminar. But, you most likely will remember a child’s sports event. And, you’ll cherish it forever.
Today, the Chief begins the next phase of his increasingly curious life – another job. It’s a contract technical writing position – the third one in the past year. The last two were pulled out from beneath me without much warning. So, we’ll see how this one goes. I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm. A close friend of mine told me not to be so pessimistic; that people can sense a negative attitude and eventually steer away from it. I almost told him to go to hell, but he’s such a good friend, and I don’t have too many friends. Such is the plight of the writer. We observe and write about human nature, but just don’t like to get too close to those human types. Admittedly, it’s tough to be optimistic after enduring unemployment for the better part of the past two years. Getting laid off from that engineering company was a mixed blessing. The stress throughout that last year had become almost unbearable.
So, why would I put myself back into that maelstrom? Well, there are these minor inconveniences called bills. They’re like zits to a teenager. You eliminate one, and another pops up. They just don’t go away. My student loan zits have become especially annoying. They really just won’t go away! They impact another little inconvenience called credit reports. I suppose I could pack up and move far away to some isolated coastal community like a lot of writers and concoct a new identity to eschew those little pests. But, I’m too tied to this community.
Thus, I reenter the corporate world once again; pushing my creative writing career just a tad further back. But, I need and want this technical writing experience. I love it almost as much as I do fiction writing. I trained for it anyway; my English degree specializes in professional writing. I have to make that pay off. Besides, I reflect on my years in the standard business world and found all the crap I’ve seen and done makes for some great stories! That’s the writer in me: always finding a way to humiliate the people around me without them realizing it.
Today is Labor Day in the United States. Thanks to all the hard-working people here and across the globe who try to make their communities a better place. This is an especially poignant and troublesome time in the U.S., due to the ongoing economic crisis and the relentless political wrangling. Nevertheless, people work hard – often too hard – for too little money and even less appreciation. Believe me! I feel your pain. For those working today here in the U.S. and all over the world, congratulate yourselves anyway for giving it your best. You deserve it!
As I enter my first full month at my new contract technical writing job, I can’t help but reflect on the way things used to be in the work place. As I fast approach 50, I find that a common occurrence. Now, I know why my parents and former coworkers were so bitter all those years ago. You give your life to a company and often have little to show for it – although through no fault of your own. People in the 50 and over category have had the toughest time in this dismal economy. Thanks to Bush’s trickle-down economics on steroids and two unplanned, unfunded wars, we’re still mired in the worst financial crises in almost 90 years. Somehow the clowns in both houses of Congress don’t really get it. President Obama inherited this mess and has had a rough time straightening it out. But, he’s just one person; he can’t do it alone. Yet, while our elected officials try to upstage one another, real Americans continue struggling.
When I landed this job last month, the recruiter was kind of surprised I didn’t react with more glee. “I’ll believe it when I start,” I told him jokingly – but, deep down inside, not at all joking. Last summer I landed a 90-day contract technical writing job that the client pulled after only three weeks because their vendor wasn’t producing the work as anticipated. And, I never heard from the recruiter again. So, I went back on unemployment and revamped my resume to make it look as good as it can with all these gaps. Explaining those three-weeks-on-90-days mess was especially challenging. Fortunately, most people seemed to understand, given the current economic climate. Or, at least they give that impression.
I kept in contact with that recruiter; emailing him weekly letting him know, ‘Hey, I’m still here! I’m still available! I’m free! No plans yet!’ And, I never heard from him again. He must have set my email address to spam. He was young, probably no more than 30. I hope he has erectile dysfunction for the rest of his life.
I also did the obligatory 5 contacts per week to maintain my unemployment benefits. Each time I filed a claim, I wondered when Congress would start proceedings to find out how the big banks and other financial monstrosities were able to destroy our economy in less than a decade. Seriously! Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon would be impressed. But, Congress was more concerned about what professional baseball players were using steroids. Kind of like how the Southern Baptist Convention is more concerned about gay marriage than real problems such as poverty and child malnutrition.
Occasionally, my parents still have bad dreams about their working days. I don’t want to imitate that part of their lives. I’ve only had a handful of dreams about work. I can recall two in the months after I lost my job at an engineering company in October 2010. In the first one, I was at corporate headquarters in San Diego with the project manager who had hired me in 2002. The building sat right along the coast, and the entire area was on edge because a tsunami was approaching. We only had a few more minutes before we had to evacuate to the upper levels, or try to flee inland. But, because we had so much work to do, that project manager told me we had to remain in the building. Besides, he said in his usual dull, nonchalant tone of voice, he would stay with me. Then, as the sirens went off and people began marching up the stairs, he disappeared. I looked around the suddenly vacant offices, but he was gone. ‘Fuck him!’ I said aloud and headed up a stairwell alone. I didn’t need his help.
In the second dream, I was back in downtown Dallas, at the regional headquarters of the federal agency where I’d worked for the better part of my career with the engineering company; laboring on a government contract. We had a meeting with some federal officials. I got caught up on a task and left late for the meeting. But, I couldn’t find where everyone was. I wondered all over the damn building, it seemed, before I ended up in the break room – tired and butt naked! Yes, naked. Somehow, my clothes had fallen off. I know a lot of married people say that, when they get caught screwing around. But, there I was – butt- ass naked in a break room with a bunch of equally tired government employees. And, no one seemed to care.
I could get all philosophical about those two dreams and reveal exactly what I think they mean. But, I know the inherent theme is that, in today’s business world, you’re pretty much on your own. Human resources isn’t your friend; your boss isn’t your friend; your coworkers aren’t your friends; and your elected officials aren’t your friends. You’re like a wild dog; just left to your own devices.
No worries. I can handle that. Twenty-plus years ago, people were still going to work for a company and staying there with decent pay and benefits. That’s about the time things started to change – for better or worse is up to personal opinions. Now, people work contract and buy their own insurance. They move from job to job. They take care of and keep to themselves. It’s ironic in that it’s how this country was built – people minding their own business and not expecting others to care for them.
No worries. I can handle that, too. And, run from a tsunami just as well!
After my second day on the new job – my first full day of work – I’m tired beyond belief. My head is starting to hurt from looking at the tiny screen on the laptop they gave me because they ran out of desk tops. My hands are numbing from working on said laptop. And, I’m happy about it.
It’s such a strange feeling though – going back to work like this. It’s a contract job that I hope will metamorphose into a permanent position. But, in the current business environment, hardly anyone is full-time, permanent with benefits and stock options. Those were the glory days of – oh – circa 2000.
Still, I’m satisfied thus far. I’m doing the type of work I’ve always wanted to do – full-time technical writing and editing. I sit in a large cubicle all by myself. My supervisor is on another floor, handed me a platter full of documentation to scrutinize yesterday and has pretty much left me alone since. She’s already learned that I can be brutally honest; something I emphasized in my interview. But, she seems to appreciate that. The other associates have been friendly; periodically introducing themselves. There’s a huge break room, and I park my truck in a garage. It takes me 15 minutes to get to the office.
So yes, I’m starting to like it there. But, I won’t push my luck, or let myself get too comfortable. I’ve always been the cautious type anyway. Whenever I’ve taken things for granted, I’ve gotten sideswiped. I guess you could say I don’t trust happiness too much.
In the meantime, I’ll deal once more with crawling out of bed at 5:30 A.M.; wearing business casual attire; trying to stay awake all day; and seeing the joy in my dog’s mocha brown eyes when I return to the house. Now, if I could keep my own eyes from reacting to these damn pollens, I’ll be happy enough have an orgasm!
Today I return to work for the first time in almost 11 months. It’s a strange feeling. I’m once again entering the corporate underworld that apparently keeps spitting me back out. But, I don’t play the lottery, and my gold bullion investment hasn’t paid off yet. I’ve been laid off three times from major companies within the past 23 years – two banks and an engineering corporation. I guess that’s a pretty good track record. I don’t jump from job to job. As creative as my mind is, I do like some semblance of order and stability. I definitely want my fiction writing career to be as successful as my dreams think it is. But, in the meantime, there are these awful creatures called bills and an especially evil entity known as a student loan debt. This particular job is a contract technical writing position that should take me into the first of the year – provided the Mayan calendar doesn’t prove to be truthfully apocalyptic. Besides, I enjoy technical writing as much as I do creative writing. Sometimes, the boundary between the two is as clear as a fog bank.
One good thing about working in corporate America is the slew of operatic real-life stories I’ve gathered for equally juicy stories. I’ve met some incredible people and endured some traumatic ordeals. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Well, except for a lump sum payoff from that gold bullion and a million-dollar book contract.