Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Nothing's New

     I remember a fellow named Charlie, back when I was working, who was a lovable old curmudgeon. He took a dim view of practically everything . . . especially anything that hinted ever so slightly of progress or something new. He would criticize top management, look down his nose at them as if they didn't know what they were doing. "This is the way we've always done it," he'd say. "Why do they want to change things? Won't be as good."
     He was my boss for a while, early in my career. I recall one assignment I did for him, and his response was: "Well, it's not the worst job I've ever seen." Which, from him, was high praise.

     Despite his irascible personality, a lot of people liked Charlie because he was the company skeptic and wasn't afraid to speak his mind. And, to some extent, he knew he was playing a role -- he always issued his pronouncements with a knowing smile or even a laugh. You knew he had a soft spot, and deep down he was a nice guy. He was a good old-fashioned family man who's been married for many years with two grown kids and he went to church on Sundays.

     But he got sidetracked in the organization and never, as long as I knew him, got a promotion. Because while everyone liked him (except for top management) you can't run an organization with cynics; and eventually he became kind of a sideshow at the company.

     I remember, when I was new to the company along with a "class" of about half a dozen other recruits, we'd be coming up with new ideas, new ways to do things, new products, new attitudes. Mostly, we were ignored. But Charlie was always the first to shoot down an idea. "We tried that ten years ago," was his standard response. "Didn't work then; won't work now." And then he'd remind us, yet again, that there's nothing new under the sun.

     Why this long, meandering introduction about Charlie? Because now, with the wisdom of the ages, I'm here to tell you:  There's nothing new under the sun. And if there is, it probably won't be as good.

     What brought this to mind was two articles I read in the Sunday New York Times. One was called "Why You Hate Work" authored by a business consultant and a college professor. They did a survey which -- surprise! surprise! -- discovered that most people are "not very excited to get to the office in the morning." They pointed out that a lot of employees don't feel appreciated; they feel overworked; they often think that they're putting out fires rather than focusing on their most important work.

     I could swear, this is exactly what Charlie was complaining about 30 years ago!

     I also remember going to business school in the 1970s. We'd read articles by academics, saying how engaged and committed workers perform better than disengaged employees, so employers should make sure that workers have ample time to rest and recuperate, should derive meaning from their work, should feel that they're valued as employees. And we all wondered if these academics had ever held a real job, because most of us were also working, and we knew that while all this sounded very reasonable, when you got to business on the ground, nobody was getting time to recuperate, or getting much meaning from their work, or felt particularly valued as an employee. Everyone was too busy. There wasn't time for that stuff.

     Nothing new under the sun.

     The other article, called "Big Mac, Thin Wallet" by another academic, reviewed a number of studies on fast-food eateries. The author concluded  that people who consume fast foods have a greater than average need for instant gratification. Then -- hold onto your hats! -- he goes on to find that there is a link between fast-food restaurants and obesity.

     The author also posits that there's a link between the spread of fast-food restaurants and our growing need as a society for instant gratification. We see the line-up of fast-food emporiums out on the strip; then we decide we can't possibly wait to save up for the down payment on a house, we need to get a liar loan right now. We can't take money out of our paycheck to deposit into out 401K plan, we need to spend that money now. We can't wait until full retirement age to take our Social Security benefits; we need that money now . . . all served up with a Big Mac.

     I recall when I first went to work for my company, way back when, everybody kept telling me about the great retirement plan it offered. "What do I care about the retirement plan?" I scoffed. "I'm 30 years old. Show me the money now."

     Well, the company didn't just give me the money. It held the money in my retirement account. Then, 20-some years later, I got laid off. I received my retirement money, but by then the plan had been changed, and I got a fraction of what I'd been promised.

     Last weekend I played golf with two of my buddies, and we picked up a fourth at the course -- a "drifter" playing by himself who hooked up with us. We got talking. Turned out he was a former IBMer. He got laid off at age 55 in the 1990s. "I got a great retirement package," the man allowed by the time we'd arrived at the 12th tee. "They don't get anything close to that anymore."

     And now I hear about Detroit, and all the other places that are "rewriting" their rules for retirement benefits. And I can't help but wonder . . .

     Maybe Charlie was right after all.


Anonymous said...

It's too bad that so many retirees are struggling financially. As I said in my blog, I dislike being frugal. But, don't we all?

As for job satisfaction, let me just say that it helps to love what you are doing, because if you do, it doesn't seem like work, it's fun.

DJan said...

I wonder where Eeyore -- I mean Charlie -- is now? And I wonder what he would think of the systematic dismantling of the safety net...

Sheryl Kraft said...

"You're a cynic," my husband sometimes says to me. "I'm just old enough to know better," is my reply.
But I don't want to get so cynical that I sound like...Charlie.

Anonymous said...

Of course Charlie was right! I hate change. I think that's natural. Change equals danger. Interesting that the Chinese chapter gorgeous danger is the chapter for opportunity. Some people see opportunity where others see danger. Not me. I had too much change over the course of my life.

Re pensions. Five years After the big Bell breakup, I took an early out with reduced pension and buyout. The company was very generous. I left to work for the government where I earned another pension. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing, but when I see how badly companies treat employees these days...unless they are CEOs, I think I did the right thing.

Thanks for the nice essay today. Although your print is small and it's hell leaving a comment, I keep coming back.

Meryl Baer said...

Change is good. Change is bad. Control is the key - especially when it comes to one's future. Promised pensions are not insured and, as too many found out in the past few years, not guaranteed. Yet we want to trust our employer - whether public(government, schools, etc.) or corporate/private. Great post.

Stephen Hayes said...

I think we've all known a Charlie. I always liked bosses who told me what the goal was and then stood back to let me come up with my own method of achieving it. I had serious problems when told HOW to achieve that goal.

Douglas said...

Keeping employees "engaged" is a bit like keeping them fooled. Charlie was right and Charlie knew he would never move much higher than where he was at. But I suspect he knew that and felt it was better to stick to principle than go along.

I, too, took early retirement with a buyout. It was a good deal... especially since I saw the changes coming that would ruin my retirement.

Anonymous said...

My husband of 40 years got really tired of the second guessing and out and out lying with the union and management in a retail grocery store, when they stole his new Columbia Jacket our only bought for him that was it for him working, the youngsters thought it oky doky, well the union and management did not do much but he did get reimbursement after two admitted to thievery from the store, surprise surprise I bought 3 Columbia jackets new from a big thrift store in Seattle for my husband he is stocked up for life and still had enough money for a nice dinner there at the wharf with the owners of a seafood place our daughter dined in for almost 4 years she lived in Seattle..wow whee..I think most management doesn't give a crap about their employees preferring to only caring about their own butts..I have a union pension from the feds. and I still work a little for food places which is a big deal here, no one has money for food after paying their bills, gasoline the highest in the nation at $4.29 a gallon forcing poor people to choose between gas and food...I say retire early and enjoy some of the many years a person has to work!!!!!!!!!!!!!