Will E-Readers Change the Way We Work?

This morning NPR featured a news segment by Wendy Kaufman about Amazon’s reported sales of its Kindle e-reader and e-books.  The company announced that during the spring and early summer, it “sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, a gap that is widening quickly.”  In addition, sales of the Kindle tripled after Amazon reduced its price from $259 to $189 in order to compete with other e-readers on the market.

Changing the way we read

Although the Kindle and its siblings have been on the market for several years, until now it would’ve been an exaggeration to say that they indicated a coming seimic shift in our reading habits.  But something is happening.  These days, you might expect to see someone reading a Kindle on the subway.  When I floated a question about the merits of the Kindle on Facebook, I was surprised by the Kindle owners who came out of the woodworks to sing its praises.  (Yup, it helped to convince me to buy one.)

Recently, the Apple i-Pad splashed onto the market as a multi-faceted device that includes e-reader capabilities.  If you fly a lot, you’re likely to encounter several passengers (okay, mostly guys) fiddling with them in rapt attention.

But will they change the way we work?

Nevertheless, for the time being, I don’t think that e-readers are likely to change dramatically the way we work, even for people who regularly use written materials for their daily tasks.

For example, although the Kindle has search, notetaking, and tagging functions, it is not as easy as having various documents, reports, and books around you for easy access and reference.  Although I have become a fan of the Kindle for leisure reading (it’s especially convenient for frequent travelers), it is most useful when reading a book from cover-to-cover.  Its emerging competitor, the i-Pad, can do a lot more things, but it is more a computerized gadget than a full-fledged computer.

Of course, it is quite possible that the next generation of these devices will have a more transformative influence on the workplace.  I see a souped-up variation of the i-Pad as having that kind of potential, bridging the gap between standard desktop and laptop computers and the more limited-function e-readers.

Globalization and workers 101: A quick primer

Globalization is a term that understandably intimidates many of us.  Current events sections of well-stocked bookstores hold dozens of titles on globalization, and newspapers, news magazines, and public affairs journals regularly devote meaty articles to the topic.  It all sounds so, well, imposing.

But you don’t have to wade through academic tomes and hefty journal commentaries to understand how globalization affects the labor markets and everyday workers.  This aspect of globalization can be boiled down to three basic propositions:

1.  Globalization of markets is driven by the need to expand profits.

2.  One way to expand profits is to discover and develop new customer bases for goods and services.  Reducing the costs of producing goods and providing services — which, in turn, allows price cuts — is a favored approach.

3.  A prime route toward expanding profits and reducing prices for goods and services is to reduce labor costs.  This means finding the cheapest competent labor working in the least regulated countries.

From North to South to…China, perhaps?

In the U.S., we saw this dynamic play out during the latter part of the 20th century.  As labor unions helped workers negotiate better wages and working conditions in northeastern and midwestern manufacturing plants, many companies moved their plants to less union-friendly southern states where they could pay lower wages and not worry as much about governmental regulation.

But that wasn’t good enough.  Companies eventually realized that they could pay even lower wages — as in fractions of the American minimum wage — by closing their U.S. plants and transferring manufacturing operations to other countries, especially developing nations where workers were eager for work and governmental regulations were either nil or hardly enforced.  China, Mexico, and others became popular destinations for multinational corporations.

And now to Bangladesh!

It turns out that at least in China, the workers are getting too uppity.  Stirrings of an independent labor movement have now grown into a genuine force, and wages of Chinese workers are improving as a result.  In other words, they’re getting too expensive.

Vikas Bajaj, reporting for the New York Times, tells us that Bangladesh is now making incursions into the Chinese manufacturing sector:

As costs have risen in China, long the world’s shop floor, it is slowly losing work to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia — at least for cheaper, labor-intensive goods like casual clothes, toys and simple electronics that do not necessarily require literate workers and can tolerate unreliable transportation systems and electrical grids.

Race to the bottom

For many years, labor and human rights activists have invoked the phrase “race to the bottom” to describe the practice of companies opening and closing plants in a constant search for the lowest-paid workers.  This path of economic destruction has left devastated communities and impoverished lives in its wake, all in the name of higher stock values and inexpensive VCRs and t-shirts.

A better way?

Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reports on an American-owned garment factory in the Dominican Republic that pays its workers a living wage and doesn’t oppose unionization:

Industry experts say it is a pioneer in the developing world because it pays a “living wage” — in this case, three times the average pay of the country’s apparel workers — and allows workers to join a union without a fight.

The article goes on to question whether a doing-well-by-doing-good strategy can work:

“It’s a noble effort, but it is an experiment,” says Andrew Jassin, an industry consultant who says “fair labor” garments face a limited market unless deft promotion can snare consumers’ attention — and conscience.

It is a sad commentary that in today’s global economy, we cannot say for certain that paying a living wage to workers and financial viability are mutually compatible.  Stay tuned.

Opposing workplace bullying legislation: Are depression, PTSD, and suicide an “Emily Post problem”?

Sunday’s Parade Magazine is running a short feature on the legislative campaign for a workplace bullying law.  The online version includes a poll where you can vote to support or oppose legal protections against bullying at work.

An “Emily Post problem”

Of course, there are legitimate concerns that such a law could overreach and serve as a legal micro-manager of the workplace.  That’s why I have written the Healthy Workplace Bill — anti-bullying legislation that is the template for bills introduced across the country — in a way that balances the legitimate interests of workers and their employers.  Nevertheless, some insist on lobbing unfounded bombs against attempts to address abuse at work, as the Parade piece demonstrates:

“Making a federal or state case over the day-to-day management of any workforce is just plain nuts,” says Victoria Pynchon, an attorney-mediator in Los Angeles. “At best, it’s a jackhammer solution to an Emily Post problem. At worst, it’s a new scheme for extortion.”

She’s referring to the late American etiquette expert, Emily Post, in claiming that bullying is merely a problem of manners.

It’s about abuse, not etiquette

Perhaps Ms. Pynchon has never really sat down with someone who has suffered from depression or PTSD-type symptoms due to brutal, targeted, ongoing bullying at work.  Or maybe she is unfamiliar with the tragic phenomenon of bullied workers taking their own lives, as the stories of Jodie Zebell and Brodie Panlock illustrate.

It’s also possible that Ms. Pynchon is not familiar with the details of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which sets a very high threshold for recovery.  In order to prevail, an employee has to establish that the behavior was both malicious and harmful to mental or physical health.  The bill also includes numerous defenses and provisions to discourage frivolous and marginal claims.  In addition, it provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying, hopefully before behaviors become abusive and disabling.  In short, as I have written previously on this blog, it is both “HR-friendly” and anything but a “job killer.”

In any event, we need to stand up to those who dismiss the suffering inflicted by severe workplace bullying when they mischaracterize abuse as bad manners.

Graduating into a recession

Louis Uchitelle, reporting for the New York Times, penned a long news feature about the challenges and dilemmas facing younger folks who are trying to enter the workforce in the midst of this recession.  His overall assessment is a bracing one:

For young adults, the prospects in the workplace, even for the college-educated, have rarely been so bleak. Apart from the 14 percent who are unemployed and seeking work…, 23 percent are not even seeking a job, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total, 37 percent, is the highest in more than three decades and a rate reminiscent of the 1930s.

The college-educated among these young adults are better off. But nearly 17 percent are either unemployed or not seeking work, a record level (although some are in graduate school). The unemployment rate for college-educated young adults, 5.5 percent, is nearly double what it was on the eve of the Great Recession, in 2007, and the highest level — by almost two percentage points — since the bureau started to keep records in 1994 for those with at least four years of college.

Uchitelle’s article centers around a young college graduate who is searching for work and assessing his options.  It weaves into the story a look at the job prospects faced by his father and grandfather at similar stages in their lives, making for an interesting generational comparison.

Recession generations?

The sheer luck of one’s birth year may impact both short and longer term earnings.  Uchitelle cites a study by Yale economist Lisa B. Kahn, who found that:

those who graduated from college during the severe early ’80s recession earned up to 30 percent less in their first three years than new graduates who landed their first jobs in a strong economy. Even 15 years later, their annual pay was 8 to 10 percent less.

I remember that recession well.  I graduated from Valparaiso University in 1981, holder of a B.A. in political science, looking for work in the depressed northwest Indiana region where I grew up.  The area’s economy was especially hard hit by the decline of the steel mills, and jobs in all sectors were sparse.  I ended up taking work at the local drug store chain where I had spent college summers and doing some part-time reporting for a weekly newspaper, while living at home with my parents.

I would be among the fortunate ones.  It was my plan to go to law school. A year after graduating from college, I would pack my bags and head off to law school at New York University.  Three years later, with a law degree in hand and buoyed by a stronger job market, my employment prospects improved considerably.

Nonetheless, one of my enduring memories of that interim year is of working for the drug store chain, hearing stories from cashiers of spouses being laid off from the steel mills, and experiencing the indignity of having my own hours cut to the bone because business was bad. For northwest Indiana, it was a harbinger of things to come.  Those mill jobs disappeared permanently, and the lower paying retail positions in strip malls lining the region’s boulevards have not bridged the income gap.

This one is worse 

Comparisons between the current recession and that of the early 1980s are frequent, but this one is worse.  In terms of severity, the Great Recession lies somewhere between the 80s recession and the Great Depression of the 1930s. We appear to be looking at structural changes in the labor markets, with the term “jobless recovery” frequently invoked to suggest a sluggish comeback for the stock market with little or no corresponding improvement in the employment situation.

To make matters worse, younger workers are competing with, directly or indirectly, older workers who are staying in or reentering the labor force after their already meager retirement accounts took a battering during the stock market meltdown.  (Several months ago, I wrote a short piece about this looming generational conflict, which readers may access here.)

In addition, many of today’s college graduates are burdened by student loan debt unheard of in previous generations.  It’s one thing to wait out a recession, bohemian style, when not encumbered by heavy debt.  This comparative luxury is not available to those who leave school facing huge student loan payments every month.

No easy answers

If there were easy solutions, we’d be implementing them.  I believe that we need a jobs program that will put people back to work rebuilding America’s infrastructure, such as repairing our crumbling roads, bridges, and public buildings and creating a first-class rail system.  But that’s only part of it. We’re paying the price for a lot of sins and mistakes right now, and we cannot undo all that in a short period of time.

As unemployment benefits run dry, fear escalates

Nick Carey, reporting for Reuters,tells the story of Deborah Coleman of Cincinnati, whose unemployment benefits expired in April. Coleman is struggling to keep afloat, and she also fears for others without jobs if Congress does not vote to extend support payments to the unemployed:

“It’s too late for me now,” she said, fighting back tears at the Freestore Foodbank in the low-income Over-the-Rhine district near downtown Cincinnati. “But it will be terrible for the people who’ll lose their benefits if Congress does nothing.”

For nearly two years, Coleman says she has filed an average of 30 job applications a day, but remains jobless.

…Coleman, 58, a former manager at a telecommunications firm, said the only jobs she found were over the Ohio state line in Kentucky, but she cannot reach them because her car has been repossessed and there is no bus service to those areas.

…”I’ve lost everything and I don’t know what will happen to me,” she said.

Desperation, sadness, tragedy

These tragedies are playing out across the country — individual stories of careers, livelihoods, and lives derailed by the Great Recession. Most of the jobless are looking for work, while dearly hoping that Congress extends unemployment benefits. As the Boston Globe‘s Robert Gavin reports:

“The vast majority of unemployed are hard-pressed to find a job, and the risks of not passing the extensions are too great,’’ said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa. “It could reignite the foreclosure crisis, and if the economy swamps again, there is no response.’’

In the meantime, those who have lost benefits are clinging to the hope that they’ll find new jobs while wondering how they’ll pay mortgages, keep food on the table, or send children to college.

Indeed, the individual stories in the Globe piece capture one of the most bracing realities of the Great Recession: How folks who had every reason to believe that a willingness to work would pay the bills are now in desperate straits.

If you’re in D.C. on Friday…

This Friday, the Americans for Democratic Education Fund (on whose board I sit), will host a Congressional Briefing, “Women, Unemployment and the Great Recession,” at which representatives from the Women and Girls Foundation and Women’s Voices, Women Vote will present findings from recently released reports. U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee and newly-elected President of Americans for Democratic Action, will moderate the discussion. The event is free, and here’s the info:

Congressional Briefing: Women, Unemployment and the Great Recession

Date: Friday, July 16, 2010
Time: 11:00am – 12:00pm
Location: Rayburn House Office Building 2261

Please RSVP at (202)785-5980 or via email at megan@adaction.org or  hermin@adaction.org.

Why the Healthy Workplace Bill is “HR-Friendly”

As reported earlier, the Society for Human Resource Management — the nation’s leading association for HR professionals — has advised its members to oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill, which would create a legal claim for those who have been subjected to malicious, health-harming psychological abuse at work.

Another view

The sad irony is that the Healthy Workplace Bill is actually quite HR-friendly, and here’s why:

Currently there are no general legal protections against severe workplace bullying for American workers.  This huge gap in the law means that managers who bully workers can leverage HR’s assistance in targeting another employee for mistreatment. At organizations rife with bullying, HR often becomes complicit in the abuse. Too many HR professionals become accomplices in bullying situations by doing management’s dirty work, such as firing a bullied worker as the final step of abuse. 

Passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would help conscientious HR professionals oppose workplace bullying and refuse to take part in efforts to bully a target out of a job, promotion, or raise. The keys to this are two provisions of the bill that allow employers to sharply mitigate their liability exposure by acting preventively and responsively to bullying at work.

Acting preventively and responsively

The Healthy Workplace Bill holds employers strictly liable for bullying committed by any co-worker.  However, in situations where there has been no negative employment decision as part of the bullying (such as a termination, forced resignation, or demotion), an employer may escape liability if it can show that it acted preventively and responsively concerning the situation.

This gives HR ample ammunition to tell management to handle bullying situations fairly.  It also gives HR a shield against being dragged into assisting in the mistreatment.

Limited cap on damages

The Healthy Workplace Bill also has a provision that limits emotional distress damages to $25,000 in bullying situations where there has been no negative employment decision.  The reasoning behind this is that most severe bullying includes some sort of tangible job consequence. The cap on emotional distress damages — which form the “wild card” of many employment-related lawsuits — serves as an incentive to employers to address bullying situations before they become out of control and bullying targets lose their jobs.

The Healthy Workplace Bill empowers HR to refuse to engage in an illegal employment practice and to oppose bullying, on the ground that severe bullying accompanied by a negative employment decision can open up the employer to significant damages.  HR is put in a position to say stop this, unless you want to get hammered with a big lawsuit.

SHRM, time to rethink?

With that in mind, it appears that SHRM’s members are being ill-served when they are advised to oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill. SHRM members who abhor and oppose this destructive form of abuse may want to lobby their leadership to take a different position.

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page”

For many years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been urging us to seek those elusive states of flow in our lives, those experiences when “heart, will, and mind are on the same page.”  They may involve “singing in a choir, programming a computer, dancing, playing bridge, [or] reading a good book.”  In these moments, “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”

Ideally, we can achieve a state of flow through our work. What better combination than to be paid for work that brings us into such an engaged and harmonious place?

However, we know that work can be just that, a chore, a way to pay the bills. Even jobs with their flow-like elements may have considerable downsides, especially in organizations with unhealthy workplace cultures.

In the absence of that great job, where else can we pursue a state of flow? I have long championed the roles of meaningful, immersive avocations and hobbies. In good times, they can be the delicious icings on life’s cake. In hard times, they can be lifesavers, literally or figuratively.

So what brings that sense of flow into your life? In lieu of a flow chart (sorry), I’ll simply offer a few questions to ponder:

  • What activities bring you into that elusive mode of in-the-moment engagement?
  • When do you “lose yourself” in your work, avocations, or hobbies?
  • How can you create a greater state of flow in your life?

Most people may not spend much time pondering such things, but the answers may yield important directions for our lives and careers. I invite you to do so now.


Quoted materials in the first paragraph are from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997), pages 28-29.  (And by the way, his last name is pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high,” as the back cover of the book helpfully instructs.)


Related posts

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.


This post was revised in July 2017.

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