Willy Loman, defining success, and the Great Recession

In a thoughtful piece for Newsweek, columnist Julia Baird examines American attitudes toward success and failure against the backdrop of the Great Recession, using the life of Willy Loman — Arthur Miller’s lead character in Death of a Salesman — as a mirror for our times:

Willy is, perhaps, America’s consummate loser, a failure to his family. But if you can bear with me for one moment, imagine he lived in current times, not amid the postwar prosperity of 1949. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house—he had just made the last mortgage payment—and had a wife and two children. Today he’d be a survivor.

Baird goes on to link unemployment with our evolving attitudes toward success and failure, noting that the latter was not always “associated with individual identity.”

Finding ourselves, accepting plateaus

In fact, adversity and failure sometimes can force us to dig deep and find our true selves. Baird cites a Harvard commencement speech by J.K. Rowling, who told the graduates that bottoming-out as a financially-strapped single mom prodded her to finish the manuscript that led to the Harry Potter series. Rowling smartly added: “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

But Baird also implicitly recognizes that adversity won’t turn us all into bestselling authors. Hopefully the recession also teaches us “we can accept plateaus, understand that a life has troughs we can climb out of, and that a long view is the wisest one.”

“I coulda been a contender”

This maddening, perhaps uniquely American mix of boundless possibilities and harsh limitations can be hard to process. Journalist Abby Ellin, in a piece titled “I Coulda Been a Contender” for Psychology Today, examines her own life and career against the crush of personal and external expectations:

We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up. Universal though it is, the negative comparison habit may be amplified by America’s striving spirit: Here, everyone can, and therefore should, make it to the top–or so we think. Those of us who’ve had more opportunities may wind up feeling that much worse.

Reading the rest of Ellin’s article, you sense the author is struggling to accept the lurking wisdom behind her own words. Her advice leads us to no other conclusion:

Every night, write down three to five things you feel proud about from that day. Recording your accomplishments keeps them front and center in your mind, an exercise that helps crowd out negative rumination.

…But back to real struggle

Ellin’s angst is readily identifiable to anyone who understands America’s culture of success — and if you don’t, just hang around a high-prestige college, law school, or business school for a few weeks and you’ll know what I mean.  In any event, this is not really what the psychological costs of the Great Recession are all about. The stakes run much deeper.

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Uchitelle did his research several years before the meltdown. Today, these personal setbacks are hitting people in virtually every job sector, and cutting across socioeconomic groups. The poor, of course, pay the highest costs. Unemployment and poverty levels are at their highest rates in years.


Julia Baird invites us to recast Willy Loman as a survivor, not a failure. I tip my hat to her for questioning how Americans are wired to think about success.

But maybe there is an even more meaningful narrative playing out across the country, one that stands as a rebuke to the borrow-and-bust mentality that led us into this mess. As the destructive power of this recession continues, millions of people are struggling to pay the bills, raise their families, and keep a roof over their heads. The stories of these lives are those of everyday heroes, not mere survivors.

On Phoebe Prince: Divergent accounts of a tragedy

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Massachusetts high school student, has attracted national attention.  Six high school students stand indicted for alleged offenses related to her death.  For all of us interested in the harm caused by bullying behaviors in any context, this has been an unfolding story of interest. Especially with recent accounts of suicides tied to workplace bullying, our attention is ever more drawn to how abusive behaviors may lead to ultimate tragedies.

As we might expect, initial news reports about the death of Phoebe Prince did not delve into the background behind this tragedy. Standard accounts — this blog included — described the situation as one of a group of mean-spirited high school kids who ganged up on her until she couldn’t take it any more.

Since then, however, investigative writers have been digging into what happened, and the stories they are telling are not necessarily in sync with the prevailing narrative. Here are two worth reading:

Salon — Emily Bazelon

It was predictable that we’d see the “historical corrective” piece that contests the standard news story about bullying leading to Phoebe’s death. An investigative series by Emily Bazelon for Slate magazine (pdf version here) tells a different story of life at South Hadley High, both in general and for Phoebe Prince. That story includes some critical aspects of Phoebe’s own behavior, which included self-cutting and other attempts to harm herself.

Bazelon places great stock in claims by kids at Phoebe’s high school that accounts of bullying were exaggerated.  There was no organized campaign of bullying, she suggests.  She portrays Phoebe as a sort of young femme fatale who was able to swoop in on the popular boyfriends of older girls, suggesting that Phoebe, not the other kids, held the real power in the context of the school culture.

Blaming the victim?

Bazelon has been criticized as blaming the victim, and I found myself reacting along those lines at times.  In examining the very messy and messed up social milieu that one finds at many an American high school, she implicitly appears to be siding with the in-crowd. She paints Phoebe as the disturbed Other, which has the effect of distancing us from understanding how it may have felt to be in Phoebe’s shoes.

Is prosecution appropriate?

More persuasive is Bazelon’s suggestion that the District Attorney in the case may have rushed to judgment in the face of national publicity.  She makes a good case that the kids who bullied Phoebe likely had no idea that their actions could have such dire consequences.

Bazelon’s more forgiving attitude toward the students who tormented Prince isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  She reminds us that we’re talking about teenagers here, and that it’s easy to become the mob we claim to abhor.

Boston Magazine — Alyssa Giacobbe

While Bazelon’s article has its merits, I find more insightful a thorough investigative piece by Alyssa Giacobbe for Boston Magazine.  Giacobbe places the Prince tragedy in the context of the school’s overall culture, which includes previous instances of bullying at South Hadley High School that are underplayed in Bazelon’s account.

Pack behavior sans marching orders

By simply laying out the facts, Giacobbe demonstrates how pack behaviors can occur without explicit marching orders from a titular leader.  These kids — connected by existing relationships — bullied Phoebe, perhaps in the absence of an orchestrated campaign to do so.  (Recently an anthropologist friend, in an unrelated conversation, recalled philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of a strategy without a strategist, and the Phoebe Prince situation immediately came to mind.)

Bazelon and Giacobbe may agree that Phoebe Prince wasn’t subjected to a coordinated, orchestrated, organized effort to destroy her.  But Giacobbe, much more than Bazelon, appears to understand the group behavior dynamic by zeroing in on the frequency and intensity of the harassment directed at Phoebe by a group of kids with strong social connections.

Like a lot of teens

Was Phoebe Prince a carefree, All-American teenager living a storybook life before a group of bullies came around?  That would make for an easy story, but that’s not the case, and — if we’re being honest with ourselves — we know that a lot of children at the typical American high school do not fit that description. Instead, her story is grittier and more complex — that of a kid with some real issues who should be alive today.

The role of the law

The prosecution of the teenagers connected to Phoebe Prince’s suicide calls into question the appropriateness of using the criminal justice system to address bullying situations, whether in school or the workplace.  Obviously in cases involving physical harm, criminal laws may be implicated.  But they should be applied carefully.

For the most part, existing school bullying laws and proposed workplace bullying laws involve civil, not criminal, sanctions.  This is how it should be.  For reasons ranging from the complexities of many alleged bullying situations, to the realities of expecting already overburdened prosecutors to investigate such allegations, it would be undesirable to turn most claims of bullying into criminal matters. Personally, I would like to know more before deciding whether the criminal charges in the Phoebe Prince case were merited.

In the meantime, I feel some comfort in the fact that the issue of school bullying prodded the Massachusetts legislature to enact a law that some have praised as a potential model. Historically speaking, Massachusetts is known for its firsts, but this isn’t one of them. It has lagged behind the nation in recognizing school bullying as a threat to the health and safety of kids. But hopefully it now is addressing this problem in the right way.

Labor Day 2010: Is the Healthy Workplace Bill liberal, moderate, or conservative legislation?

On this Labor Day weekend of 2010, I’d like to consider the political implications of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), the anti-bullying legislation I’ve drafted that has been the template for bills introduced across the country.

Briefly, the HWB provides workers with a legal claim for damages if they can establish that they were subjected to malicious, health-harming workplace bullying.  It also provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively, as well as provisions that discourage frivolous lawsuits.

Although many of the bill’s supporters are liberal in their political beliefs, people from across spectrum — save perhaps the far, far right — have endorsed it. This has led me to ponder the political leanings of the HWB, and here are some of my thoughts on that:

It’s liberal!

Okay, no surprises here: The Healthy Workplace Bill is protective legislation that benefits workers who have been treated abusively on the job. It enjoys a lot more support from liberals (especially) and moderates than from conservatives. More Democrats than Republicans have sponsored it in various state legislatures across the country. Labor unions and civil rights groups are getting behind it, while management and employers organizations are lining up to oppose it.

For example, as reported here in 2009, a major public employee union has been one of the key supporters of the HWB in Massachusetts. Earlier this year, the board of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (whose executive committee I chair), voted to support the HWB. In opposition are groups like the Society for Human Resource Management.

So, this is a no-brainer, right? The Healthy Workplace Bill is your standard pro-worker, liberal legislation.

But wait a minute…

It’s moderate!

Winning a claim under the HWB will not be easy. It will require establishing that the bullying behavior was malicious in nature, a high standard of intent under the law. It also will require showing tangible physical or psychological harm. Weaker claims may be subject to a cap on emotional distress damages, a category that is the scariest litigation “wild card” for employers.

While providing compensation to severely bullied workers is a primary objective of the HWB, even more important is the goal of prevention. Toward that end, the HWB attempts to balance interests by allowing employers to sharply reduce their liability exposure by engaging in effective training, prevention, and response concerning bullying.

One prominent political writer has attached the label of “radical middle” to characterize the underlying politics of workplace bullying legislation. Mark Satin, whose Radical Middle newsletter and book (Mark Satin, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now, Westview/Perseus, 2004) have attracted wide readership, has written approvingly of our efforts to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill (here and here). 

It’s (sneakily) conservative!

The HWB does not single out any group or category of persons for special protections or preferential treatment. Instead, it proclaims that everyone should have a right to be free from malicious abuse at work. In essence, it borrows from our friends in New Hampshire and says, Don’t Tread On Me, just let me do my job without enduring disabling and demoralizing abuse.

True, maybe there’s nothing conservative about allowing legal intervention and liability to encroach upon management rights and the free market, but the underlying goals of the HWB are completely consistent with promoting productive workplaces and high-performance employees.

Perhaps that’s why when the New York State Senate voted to approve the Healthy Workplace Bill earlier this year, it did so with strong Republican support, including a GOP lead sponsor.

Bottom line: It’s about promoting worker health, dignity, and productivity

When I first started researching the legal implications of workplace bullying, I assumed that existing employment laws provided sufficient protections and legal relief for bullied employees. Only after discovering this was not the case (by a longshot) did I draft the Healthy Workplace Bill.

For now, maliciously subjecting an employee to psychological abuse is largely legal in this country, and even those who are bullied out of jobs and careers often find themselves without recourse under the law. In the meantime, productivity suffers and morale sags when bullying is left unchecked. Workplace bullying is a phenomenon where just about everyone loses.

Whether deemed liberal, moderate, or conservative in nature, the Healthy Workplace Bill promotes worker health and productivity. It’s not perfect — there is no such thing when it comes to drafting legislation — but it fills a massive gap in the law. On this Labor Day, I include it on my wish list for America’s workers, so that all may have a baseline right to dignity on the job.


Addendum: In the newly-released 2010 public opinion survey on workplace bullying conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters, some 64% of respondents supported anti-bullying legislation that tracks the language of the Healthy Workplace Bill. In terms of political self-identification, this included 90% of liberal respondents, 78% of moderate respondents, and 47% of conservative respondents. It is especially notable that there is fairly strong support even among conservatives. 


For more information

Healthy Workplace Bill Legislative Campaign

If you’d like to become active in the national campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, click here.

Scholarly articles about workplace bullying and the law

My longer scholarly articles about the legal implications of workplace bullying can be downloaded without charge from my page on the Social Science Research Network, linked here. This includes Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment, which will be published later this year and can be accessed in a pre-publication draft form here.

Shorter presentations and commentaries about workplace bullying

Many of my shorter pieces on workplace bullying, as well as a copy of the HWB introduced during the 2009-10 session of the Massachusetts legislature, can be downloaded without charge from my page on Academia.edu, linked here.

On animal labor: Chicken cages as sweatshops

Readers, I’m going to ask you to give me a little room on this one. I’m not quite sure this will sound right, but it’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks…

Battery cages

Two Sundays ago, the New York Times devoted a nearly a full page to a photo story about changing factory farm conditions for egg-laying hens.   The piece, “A Hen’s Space to Roost” by Bill Marsh, broke my heart a little.  It included a big color photograph of a “battery cage,” the tiny cages in which the hens live out their lives in spaces of about 7 by 7 inches per bird. Some 97% percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. are from birds confined in these cages.

They go insane

Not mentioned in the Times article is the fact that these caged hens often go insane.  Many of us who enjoy eggs and poultry have rationalized our habits by assuming that chickens are next to brainless.  But that’s not the case.  As animal researchers, animal rights advocates, and folks who simply observe animals will attest, chickens have personalities and form bonds with one another.  When they are warehoused in cages that allow them hardly any movement, they can lose their minds.

Slightly better

As the Times reports, even the hens housed in “cage-free” conditions (representing 2 percent of eggs produced in the U.S.) aren’t exactly living it up. They are kept in huge barns that allot them an average of 12 by 12 inches per bird.

Only the “free-range” hens enjoy anything resembling the kind of idyllic farm life we might imagine.

It’s about the money

According to the Times article, here are average store prices for a dozen eggs: Hens in battery cages, less than a dollar, white or brown; cage-free hens, $2.37 (white) and $3.33 (brown); free-range hens, $3.66 brown organic.

Public health impacts

In his column today, Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff added public health to the list of concerns associated with battery cages:

Inspections of Iowa poultry farms linked to the salmonella outbreak have prompted headlines about infestations with maggots and rodents. But the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.

Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry, acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”

At the store, choices and dilemmas

So..are battery cages the equivalent of sweatshops for animals, or even worse? Are the public health concerns associated with them the animal equivalent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the turn of the last century?

Sweatshops, after all, are about the exploitation of labor to make money. And these animals are being horribly exploited for our benefit.

I’m not claiming that chickens should be elevated to human status in terms of how we treat them. (While I’ve managed to cut down on my consumption of meat and poultry considerably, I have been unable to make the full transition to vegetarianism.) Also, I get the virtues of thrift, especially now, with millions struggling to put food on their tables.

That said, we should not forget that animals live and labor in harsh, at times intolerable conditions so that we can pay less money at the cash register. As we strive to create a more humane and sustainable society, we should keep these concerns in mind.

The meaning of Steven Slater

Talk about instant celebrity!  JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has become a folk hero among workers who lived vicariously through his actions.  As the Toast of the Internet this week, he surely is experiencing his 15 minutes of fame, and then some.

But some disagree

Of course, not everyone is singing his praises.  One of the most thoughtful responses to the contrary comes from veteran airline pilot Chris Manno, whose blog JetHead shares another perspective on life in the skies.  Here’s a snippet of his post on the Slater situation:

On the day he snapped, cursing a passenger on the P.A., blowing an escape slide, grabbing a couple beers and sliding off the jet, Slater negated the day’s work of his peers….

Because on that same day, thousands of flight attendants were treated rudely by thoughtless, boorish passengers.

But they didn’t snap. They didn’t blow a slide. And though many likely wanted to, they didn’t curse their passengers, at least not out loud.

Duty vs. Take this Job and Shove It

Okay folks, we’ve got something of a culture gap here.  Those who identify with stressed out, mistreated service workers are cheering the guy.  Captain Manno gets that too:

Don’t get me wrong; I know thousands of flight attendants nationwide cheered the actions of Slater. But in the fantasy sense of wow, what a great gesture. The public is too often rude, surly, inconsiderate and they get away with it.

But I’m wondering if his objections to Slater’s folk hero status are more reflective of the worldview of an airline captain and (from what I can gather) former military pilot who places a lot of importance on a sense of duty.  Something tells me that captain Manno and flight attendant Slater would not be hanging out together even if they worked for the same airline.

That said, I disagree with Manno when he suggests that Slater’s actions somehow dissed the often hard and stressful work of his co-workers.  No one in their right mind is thinking that Slater has inspired scores of flight attendants to use the PA system to call out a jerky passenger and then activate the emergency slide.

If anything, Slater’s actions called attention to the daily work experience of flight attendants and others who toil in an industry under considerable stress. As I wrote a couple of days ago, that work has changed dramatically since 9/11, in terms of both compensation and working conditions.  My guess is that more passengers have been sensitized to these realities as we fly around in these crowded tin cans.

And then there was “Jenny”

On the heels of the Slater incident came the Internet-fueled story of “Jenny,” who supposedly used a dry erase board to announce in a series of messages that she was quitting her job, photos of which she sent via e-mail to her co-workers.  Among other things, she excoriated her boss for treating her like dirt and exposed that he’s using his office computer to spend many hours a week playing the Facebook Farmville game.

The Internet went crazy for the story.  Here was yet another creative job departure, this one speaking to cubicle dwellers across the nation.  I blogged about the story but quickly took down the post when it became clear this might be a prank, which it was.

How about some labor activism instead of acting out?

Steve and “Jenny” aren’t resonating with the public for nothing.  There’s a lot of pent up stress, frustration, and anger out there among workers who are dealing with difficult work situations.  Many don’t have the option of saying take this job and shove it, but they’re getting a vicarious thrill from those who do.

If I had my druthers, some of these folks would gather together and form the good unions we need to give workers a collective voice in bargaining for better working conditions. In any event, this real and contrived street theatre may be inspiring others to be more forthright about raising legitimate concerns at work, hopefully in more constructive ways.  If that is the case, then Steve Slater, Jenny, and their compatriots will have given us much more than a needed laugh.

Will our avocations save us?


Maybe you’ve got a novel in you? (image courtesy Clipart Panda)

I am beginning to believe that our avocations can save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.” That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

For example…

In 2008 I wrote about professional storm chasers who lead groups of weather enthusiasts around America’s heartland in search of tornadoes and other severe storms. Tour guests are the beneficiaries of this shared expertise, exploring places and experiencing vistas that would be hard to discover on their own.

Recently I wrote about two long-time friends who have nurtured their creative passions for writing and music. Their work not only provides personal artistic rewards, but also enriches those who are enjoying the fruits of their labors.

For many years I have taken a weekly singing class at a local adult education center. The instructor is a Juilliard-trained vocalist who created the class for adult students who wanted to learn how to sing better, regardless of previous music experience. Her “day job” is working in a university library.

Civic activism is a very satisfying way to contribute to the well being of our communities.  The causes fueling that activism are often grounded in personal experience. For example, many of the folks who are advocating for legal protections against workplace bullying found this cause after personally dealing with abusive treatment on the job.

More than a hobby…

Hobbies are great. They allow us to engage in an enjoyable pastime that captures our attention.

But avocations can be even better. Like hobbies, they are satisfying and engaging, but often they also provide a deeper sense of accomplishment and contribution.

After all, there’s a difference between writing poetry solely for one’s personal journals and, say, sharing that work by publishing it and participating in readings. The latter gives us a chance to interact with others and enrich the culture of our communities.

Compared to work…

In the best of worlds, our jobs would provide us with the best qualities of our avocations, topped off with a livable income. Indeed, one of the goals of this blog is to explore how we can create better work and workplaces that move us closer toward that ideal.

But transforming the experience of work is a long, hard slog. For many, work is largely a means to an end. Especially in the midst of this recession, higher aspirations for work may have to go on the shelf, at least temporarily.

Likewise, the work of raising a family or caring for loved ones is demanding and sometimes thankless in the short term, even if the underlying devotions are the stuff of strong bonds a long-term meaning. In the meantime, many other forms of personal expression may be sacrificed to the demands of caregiving.

Avocations, however, free us from some of those inherent limitations and obligations. They can be remarkably liberating, a chance to pursue dreams and passions even within the inevitable confines of everyday life.

Let’s stoke this idea…

So why don’t avocations get more attention in our society? Why aren’t we thinking more creatively about that third place between work and leisure?

No answers here. For example, I went to the Amazon website and did a search for “avocation.” I was surprised by how the topic has been so neglected by observers of the human condition.

Nevertheless, we don’t need scholarly studies to teach us how avocations can make a difference in our lives and those of others. In seeking to discover and create meaning in our lives, we can take it upon ourselves to put the idea of avocation high on our lists.

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.

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.

Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy?

Is your workplace a beacon of psychological health, or do employees experience the Sunday night dreads over the coming week? Is there a sense that it is run with integrity and transparency, or are folks waiting for (maybe hoping for) some investigation or even indictment?

I periodically post questions that help us determine the psychological well-being and ethical culture of a given workplace, often drawing upon experts in employment relations, organizational behavior, and psychology. I’ve collected some of them here, with links to the original posts.  Read ’em and cheer…or weep:

1.  The New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path” toward a psychologically healthy workplace:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

2.  From the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, how does your workplace stack up based on these criteria?

Every year, the APA recognizes North American employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

3.  From psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, what kind of workplace culture do you have?

Hartling and Sparks note that a healthy “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, they identify three types of “non-relational” cultures that hurt morale and productivity:

(1) “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
(2) “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
(3) brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

4.  From Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer, questions about willingness to mistreat employees:

  • Does your company employ leaders and/or employees who lack that strong inner conscience to resist  shocking behavior?
  • Do you think your coworkers are capable of inhumane treatment?
  • Do psychologically abused employees find themselves stranded and secluded from their coworkers?
  • What do you do if you see an employee being psychologically abused by a supervisor?

5.  From business ethics & law professor Marianne Jennings, does your workplace exhibit any of the “seven signs of ethical collapse”?

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others

6.  From writer and organizational consultant Art Kleiner, who are the core groups in your workplace?

If you want to understand how an organization includes or excludes, identifying the core group is a vital first step.  Examine the core group members in terms of demographics.  Look at the inclusionary or exclusionary practices of those within the core group.  You’ll get a lot of answers about the culture of a particular workplace or institution, along with some insights about what is required to achieve positive change.

The good vacation and why it matters

What makes for a terrific vacation?  How can we maximize our use of precious vacation time?  Are long sojourns better than short trips?

Many of us have personal responses to those questions, likely based on our own experiences.  One especially memorable vacation (good or bad) can fix our opinion about the ideal break. And if money and/or time happen to be in short supply, any vacation may look like paradise.

Researchers weigh in

Drake Bennett, writing for the Boston Globe, assembled advice from psychologists and economists about what makes for a good vacation:

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before.

Anticipation and memory

For many, the best parts of a vacation may be in anticipating and remembering it, while the vacation itself poses frustrations and glitches.  Bennett reported on a study of vacationers who were asked to record “emotional inventories” of their trips:

…(T)he respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

Americans and vacations

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously?  At least for Americans, the answer is yes.  We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world.  In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right.  Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided.  It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done.  Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

Recession effects

The Great Recession has only made things worse.  Obviously for those who have lost their jobs, “free” time may be in greater supply, but accompanied by the stress of unemployment and much less disposable cash.  For those fortunate to have jobs, the pressures to do more with less and to demonstrate one’s value to the organization are making it harder to get away.  (For a related observation, see my post, “The Masochism Tango” at Work.)

Bigger picture

Overall, Americans are not too good at the work-life balance thing.  Economist Juliet Schor’s seminal work, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) documented and analyzed how Americans are spending a lot of time at work. It triggered a wave of research and commentary that continues to this day.

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