On the rhetoric of change: I’ll take “evolution” and “transformation” over “revolution” and “creative destruction,” thank you

Seeking the light (photo: DY)

This may sound a little abstract, but I’ve been paying attention lately to the rhetoric associated with perceived needs for dramatic change. Among other things, some political activists call for “revolution,” while certain business innovators call for “creative destruction.”

Perhaps I’m getting soft, but I’ve come around to favoring dramatic change in the forms of “evolution” and “transformation.” You might consider this a matter of mere semantics — the kind of distinctions a geeky professor (i.e., me) might make — but I believe the connotations accompanying these terms play out tangibly in terms of actions.

Whether it’s political “revolution” or capitalistic “creative destruction,” the inevitable human casualties that accompany such sudden transitions are too often treated as acceptable collateral damage. After all, “blowing up stuff” (hopefully figuratively) often means that people are going to get hurt.

OK, I confess, as far as pathways to change go, I’m not a revolutionary or a creative destruction guy. I believe in a mixed economy with strong private, public, and non-profit sectors, offering opportunities for enterprise, efficient public services, humane social safety nets, and protections in the form of checks & balances. My politics are that of an old-fashioned liberal, holding that government can and should serve the common good. My views on law and public policy are critically informed by the school of therapeutic jurisprudence, which calls upon us to view our laws and legal institutions through a lens of human dignity and societal well-being.

That said, I do believe that our world needs some dramatic changes. Indeed, for over a decade, I’ve used this blog and other platforms to urge that our workplace laws and policies should advance human dignity. Our obsessions with short-term profits and excesses of managerial power have led to a lot of innocent people paying the price. More broadly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted serious, pre-existing fault lines in our health care and economic systems. Global climate change is an existential threat to humanity.

Some folks are benefiting mightily under these conditions. Even during this pandemic, news accounts have documented how powerful billionaires have built wealth, while countless millions of others have lost their jobs.

Needed evolution and transformation can occur, but it won’t be easy. Here in the U.S., for example, the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

Coronavirus didn’t create the holes and divisions in the U.S. economy, but it surely has widened them

The U.S. Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report for April provides a jarring look at the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the state of employment. The Washington Post‘s Tracy Jan summarizes (link here):

As the unemployment rate soared in April to its highest levels since the Great Depression, with 14.7 percent of workers without jobs, the coronavirus shutdown fell unequally on Americans according to age, gender, educational attainment as well as race.

Women became unemployed at higher rates than men. Hispanics and blacks were hit harder than whites and Asians. Those without high school diplomas fared the worst. As did teenagers, of whom nearly a third are now out of work.

Jan’s full story takes a deeper look at the labor market implications from these numbers. Suffice it to say that while the pandemic is now affecting people in virtually all demographic groupings except for the super wealthy, it is delivering especially painful blows on those who had already fallen behind.

***

Back in early-to-mid March (which now seems like another era ago), I anticipated a severe, coronavirus-induced recession (here) and the need for a significant economic bail-out of Main Street and its residents (here). I based my assessments on (1) the low cash reserves of most small and medium-sized businesses and non-profits; and (2) the millions of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

However, if anything, I underestimated how rapidly these economic realities would manifest themselves. Recently I recalled the results of a Federal Reserve survey covering personal finances of Americans. As Soo Youn reported for ABC News last year (link here):

Almost 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off, a Federal Reserve survey finds.

About 27% of those surveyed would need to borrow the money or sell something to come up with the $400 and an additional 12% would not be able to cover it at all, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2018 report on the economic well-being of U.S. households released on Thursday.

These survey findings basically tell us most of what we need to know about our financial readiness for a crisis.

***

As I wrote in early March, “(a)t least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.”

This was America’s shaky foundation as the pandemic appeared.

Thus, the already gaping holes and divisions in the U.S. economy and its social safety net simply awaited another seismic event to widen them. For now, at least, the pandemic has given us what appears to be a terrible choice: Re-open the economy while infection rates are steady or even increasing vs. remain in a quarantine state in order to squelch the spread of the virus.

A more equitable economic structure, stronger safety net protections, and/or more effective early public health responses would’ve made these choices less dire, but such is the cost of repeatedly bad policies, practices, and leadership. I hope that we learn these lessons for next time.

We bailed out Wall Street during the Great Recession, so let’s bail out Main Street and everyday people during the coronavirus crisis

(image courtesy Clipart Panda)

When the stock market crashed in 2008 and the world of high finance took a tremendous hit, the U.S. federal government came along and gave huge bailouts to Wall Street and its siblings. Most experts agrees that these dramatic moves were necessary in order to save the nation’s financial infrastructure.

Today, small businesses, non-profits, and individual employees are among those taking the hardest hit, as the economy essentially goes into quarantine due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. A lot of folks are understandably fearful about what their companies, organizations, and personal finances will look like during the weeks and months to come.

I’m not a public health expert, but drawing upon the mountain of information and commentary available, it appears that we’re at least a year away from widespread availability of a vaccine. In the meantime, a lot of very smart people are trying out different treatment approaches, but there’s no magic bullet for now. As I see it, this uncertainty is very likely to continue into next year.

All of which suggests that our elected and appointed officials, and other leaders in the business and non-profit sectors, must lead with a commitment to create a stronger social safety net and support for rebuilding businesses and organizations — while our medical and scientific communities work on treatments and vaccines that I’m confident we’ll eventually have to blunt this virus. It would help a lot if those promises — however unsupported by details at this moment — were made now, in order to soothe some of the anxiety and sadness that we’re already seeing.

How strong (and fair) is the U.S. economy?

The next time someone tells you that the U.S. economy is going great — regardless of their political affiliations — you might suggest that they dig beneath the misleading surface of a low unemployment rate and (at least pre-coronavirus) a bubbling stock market. In reality, there are two economies at play in modern America, one for a narrow slice of the very well-to-do, and another for the rest of the populace.

In a piece for the New York Times (link here) Nelson D. Schwartz calls it the “velvet rope economy,” borrowing from the title of his new book, The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business (2020).

Whatever the arena — health care, education, work, leisure — on one side of the velvet rope is a friction-free existence. Red tape is cut, appointments are secured, doors are opened. On the other side, friction is practically the defining characteristic, with middle- and working-class Americans facing an increasingly zero-sum fight for a decent seat on the plane, a college scholarship, even a doctor’s appointment.

There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle.

A tiered system, to borrow from Schwartz, implies at least some ability to move up. A caste system, however, suggests being stuck in place. But maybe there’s more room for movement in the U.S. system than we think. The problem is, these days it’s very likely to be downward.

For evidence of that, check out the facts, figures, and stories behind those workers who lost jobs and careers in the wreckage of the Great Recession and never found work at their previous income levels. For example, Elizabeth White’s important book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019), which I discussed last year (link here), chronicles that dynamic and provides advice and support for those dealing with these circumstances.

Earnings gap

Much has been written about the widening U.S. earnings and wealth gap. For a snapshot view, take a look at the Social Security Administration’s aggregate wage data, based on taxable wages for 2018 (link here) — the most recent year available:

  • Roughly half of American workers are earning $30,000 a year or less;
  • Those earning a modest $50,000 or so are paid more than 70 percent of the workforce;
  • A salary of $100,000 puts someone in the top 10 percent of earners.

And as this 2018 Business Insider piece by Hillary Hoffower shows (link here), even in cities where the median income is higher, typical middle-class living expenses far exceed those averages.

Retirement funding crisis

America faces a significant retirement funding crisis. I’ve been beating this drum for over 10 years on this blog, in concert with many others. Things are not getting appreciably better.

Labor economist Theresa Ghilarducci (New School for Social Research) is one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement funding and policy. She wrote in 2019 (link here):

The bottom line is that Americans do not have enough retirement savings. This is not because we drink too many lattes, as financial writer Helaine Olen has argued for many years, but because employers and workers are not required to contribute to retirement savings plans above and beyond Social Security. Many low-income workers once had some retirement security; janitors and ladies garment workers weren’t rich, but they had pension plans at work. Some gig workers, like job-to-job carpenters, also had pensions when they were in a union. What we need today is a portable universal pension system that supplements Social Security.

Some may still deny there is a problem. But the number of poor or near-poor people over the age of 62 is set to increase by 25% between 2018 and 2045, from 17.5 million to 21.8 million. If we do nothing in the next 12 years, 40% of middle-class older workers will be poor and near poor elders.  That is a problem.

One big event

As last week’s stock market drop precipitated by fears of a coronavirus global public health crisis illustrated, all it takes is one big scare to drive down values fast. Unfortunately, the trickle-down effects could reach even those who do not have much money, if at all, invested in stocks. Earlier this week, I was quoted by the Law & Crime site in a piece by Colin Kalmbacher on the potential employment implications of the coronavirus situation (link here). Among other things, I projected some of the long-term impacts if there are severe outbreaks in the U.S.:

“But in terms of how this affects the typical at-will employee, so much depends on how serious this turns out to be regarding both public health and economic impacts. Obviously if huge swaths of the workforce are infected with the virus, it will affect staffing and productivity wherever there’s a serious outbreak. Furthermore, if this reaches pandemic levels that trigger a 2008-style recession, then we could see layoffs in business sectors that are hardest hit. This would later trickle down to public sector and non-profit employment, as we saw with the Great Recession.”

In sum: At least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.

Ultimately, this understanding should translate into decisions we make at the ballot box. I hope folks keep these trends in mind during a 2020 election season that already looks to be short on facts and long on spin & lies. Hopefully there will be no velvet rope line when we show up to vote.

MTW Newsstand: October 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Eric Kuelker, “How Psychological Injuries Cause Physical Illness — And How Therapy Can Heal It,” Mad in America (2019) (link here) — “You and your loved ones now have a new future. Whether the psychological injury was early in your life or recent, whether your boss bullied you, or your business partner stole from you, whatever the nature of your emotional wound, a healthy new future is possible. Torn DNA can be woven together again, blood pressure can drop, gray matter in the brain can grow, and you can greatly reduce the risk of 7 of the 10 leading causes of early death.”

Michelle R. Smith, “Why many employees feel devalued even in booming job market,” AP News (2019) (link here) — “Economic research, government data and interviews with workers sketch a picture of lagging wages, eroding benefits and demands for employees to do more without more pay. The loyalty and security that many say they once felt from their employers have diminished, and with it some measure of their satisfaction.”

A. Pawlowski, “Why older women will rule the world: The future is female, MIT expert says,” NBC News (2019) (link here) — “Older women can sometimes feel like they’re invisible to workplaces and businesses, but they’re actually the trailblazers others should be watching, says Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the new book, “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.” As people get older, the future is female, he argues, with women better prepared for life after middle age than their male peers.”

Karen Weese, “America’s fastest growing jobs don’t pay a living wage,” The Week (2019) (link here) — Over the next 10 years, the occupations with the most job growth in America will not be the techy jobs that most of us think of as the jobs of the future, like, say, solar-panel technicians or software engineers. Instead, they’ll be the jobs held by the women in Hyde-Miller’s community center neighborhood: home health aide and personal care aide. More than one million new aides will be needed over the next decade, in addition to the 3.2 million already in the field, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday. What’s more, six of the 10 occupations providing the most new jobs over the next decade will pay less than $27,000 a year. That’s more than 15 million people, working hard at jobs that simply don’t pay the bills.”

Sherri Gordon, “6 Reasons Why People Are Bullied at Work,” verywellmind (2019) (link here) — “If you have experienced workplace bullying, you may be asking yourself “why me?” And you are not alone: workplace bullying impacts 54 million Americans every year. Here are some common reasons why people are targeted by workplace bullies.”

Bill Chappell, “U.S. Income Inequality Worsens, Widening To A New Gap,” NPR (2019) (link here) — “The gap between the richest and the poorest U.S. households is now the largest it’s been in the past 50 years — despite the median U.S. income hitting a new record in 2018, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. . . . While many states didn’t see a change in income inequality last year, the income gap grew wider in nine states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia.”

MTW Revisions: August 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

HR, workplace bullying, and the abandoned target (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) — “For me this was the latest example of a bullying target who was looking for a lifeline, but instead was tossed under the bus, with HR supporting their demise.”

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Indeed, I’m simply making connections grounded in years of immersion in this realm: Among those who bully and abuse others at work, the expert planners often rank in the vanguard.”

On creating organizational cultures: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Regardless of how they got there, bosses who practice benign neglect when it comes to organizational culture create a giant void for others to fill.”

Witnessing the “split-screen American nightmare” (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) — “By the time I left Indiana for the New York City in 1982, the region’s steel industry was gasping for its life. As we fast forward to today, Hammond and many surrounding towns and cities continue to exist in the aftermath of the deterioration of the region’s industrial economic base.”

Shawn Ginwright: From “trauma informed care” to “healing centered engagement”

Today I’m happy to share the work of Dr. Shawn Ginwright, a San Francisco State University professor who devotes himself to challenges facing young people in urban areas. Dr. Ginwright asserts that rather than focusing on “trauma informed care,” we should embrace a framework of “healing centered engagement.” Although he is a practitioner of trauma informed care, he sees some limitations in the concept. Here’s a snippet of what he wrote last year in Medium (link here):

More recently, practitioners and policy stakeholders have recognized the impact of trauma on learning, and healthy development. In efforts to support young people who experience trauma, the term “trauma informed care” has gained traction among schools, juvenile justice departments, mental health programs and youth development agencies around the country.

…While trauma informed care offers an important lens to support young people who have been harmed and emotionally injured, it also has its limitations. I first became aware of the limitations of the term “trauma informed care” during a healing circle I was leading with a group of African American young men. All of them had experienced some form of trauma ranging from sexual abuse, violence, homelessness, abandonment or all of the above. During one of our sessions, I explained the impact of stress and trauma on brain development and how trauma can influence emotional health. As I was explaining, one of the young men in the group named Marcus abruptly stopped me and said, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma”. I was puzzled at first, but it didn’t take me long to really contemplate what he was saying.

The term “trauma informed care” didn’t encompass the totality of his experience and focused only on his harm, injury and trauma.

Toward healing centered engagement

Ginwright goes on to suggest that we should look at healing from trauma in a more holistic way:

What is needed is an approach that allows practitioners to approach trauma with a fresh lens which promotes a holistic view of healing from traumatic experiences and environments. One approach is called healing centered, as opposed to trauma informed. A healing centered approach is holistic involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing. A healing centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively. The term healing centered engagement expands how we think about responses to trauma and offers more holistic approach to fostering well-being.

A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.

Although I have written about the importance of understanding psychological trauma, I agree with Ginwright’s preferred framework. Being trauma informed is very important, but it’s just part of the process of healing centered engagement. Furthermore, we might also consider that healing centered engagement naturally incorporates the idea of post-traumatic growth, another important concept that I wrote about last year (go here for link).

Ginwright’s focus also reinforces what I’ve tried to communicate many times here, namely, that social problems must be scrutinized at both the individual and systematic levels. This includes examining the political, social, and economic cultures that create and enable abusive mistreatment of others. 

Applied to workplace bullying and mobbing

This is very relevant to workplace bullying, mobbing, and other forms of worker mistreatment. Severe work abuse can wreak havoc on an individual’s mental and physical health. It can significantly undermine one’s ability to pursue a livelihood and a career. These behaviors rarely occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are typically enabled by the organization and its leadership.

In other words, the actors in work abuse situations and their impacts are often multifaceted — or, to add a twist, negatively holistic. In response, then, we should look at preventing and responding to bullying and mobbing in a more positive holistic, systemic way.

Finally, healing centered engagement helps to focus us away from trauma or victimization as a defining status, without ignoring the underlying mistreatment, its effects, and frequent lack of accountability that come with it. As the young man in Dr. Ginwright’s youth group told him, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma.” 

Applied to law and public policy

Healing centered engagement carries a lot of significance for practitioners of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal thought that supports psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings and the creation of laws that advance individual and societal well being.

Among other things, how can lawyers, judges, and other practitioners support laws and policies that support healing centered engagement? How can our systems of justice and dispute resolution do the same? Healing from trauma is relevant to many, many aspects of the design and application of our laws and legal systems.

***

As I’ve written here before, I sometimes use this blog to share “pondering in progress.” I’m doing that here. I’ve got more thinking to do about this concept of healing centered engagement, but it resonates with me on many levels. I hope it prompts some useful thinking for you, too.

***

Additional notes

  • Dr. Ginwright later revised his Medium piece and added references for an Occasional Paper published by an Australian social services agency, Kinship Carers Victoria. You may freely access it here. For a YouTube video including Ginwright’s 2018 conference presentation, go here.
  • I serve on the boards of two organizations relevant to the commentary above, and I invite readers to learn more about them. First is Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global network of scholars, writers, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. Go here for the HumanDHS website. Second is the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a new non-profit organization dedicated to the mainstreaming of therapeutic jurisprudence perspectives in our laws and legal systems. Go here for the ISTJ website

***

If you’re on Facebook, please “like” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m adding content that doesn’t appear in blog posts. Go here to sign up.

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

The Great Recession: Are we looking at a repeat?

Ten years ago…

A decade ago, the world economy crashed. Fellow news junkies have no doubt noticed the surfeit of news articles reflecting back on the brutal unfolding of the Great Recession. For me, the Great Recession is such a defining chapter in my generation’s story that these pieces prompt vivid “where were you when…” remembrances of September 2008.

Watching from afar

I was in Hawaii at the time, and it was surreal.

I had been awarded a research sabbatical for that fall term. But before digging into my sabbatical work, I visited Maui for two weeks to help out and support a dear cousin who had lost her husband to cancer.

As we sorted through the many details that follow the passing of a loved one, regular TV programming was constantly interrupted by news coverage of the rapid economic collapse. It quickly became clear that this was no ordinary downturn, and that the world’s economic and financial structures were at risk of breaking apart.

To watch this unfold from one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a six-hour time difference between the East Coast and Hawaii, made for a disconnected and strange experience. You step outside into sunlight and palm trees and locals going about their business. You then watch the television news, with a lot of normally cool characters looking visibly shaken and fearful.

Today’s reality

So here we are, a decade later, looking back at the Great Recession and all the human and financial carnage it exacted. It would be nice to assume that we’ve learned from the massive debt bubbles and casino-style investing that helped to bring down the economy in 2008, and that somehow we’ve managed to reclaim those losses.

But there are two stark realities facing us today: First, although a booming stock market, record profits, and executive raises have fueled the net worths of the wealthy and upper middle class, a lot of middle-class, working-class, and poor people have never recovered from the last recession. As Alana Semuels wrote in “The Never-Ending Foreclosure,” a December 2017 piece in The Atlantic:

In the big picture, the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, which officially began a decade ago, in December of 2007. The current unemployment rate of 4.4 percent is lower than it was before the recession started, and there are more jobs in the economy than there were then (though the population is also bigger). But for some, the recession and its consequences are neverending, felt most strongly by families . . . who lost jobs and homes. Understanding what these families have experienced, and why recovery has been so evasive, is key to assessing the economic risks the nation faces. Despite ever-sunnier economic conditions overall, the Great Recession is still rattling American families. When the next economic crisis hits, the losses could be even more profound.

Secondly, a lot of knowledgeable people are saying that we are once again on the brink of a significant economic downturn. I won’t even attempt to link to the array of opinion pieces and analyses making this point. Just search “next recession,” and you’ll see what I mean. These assessments are coming from liberal, moderate, and conservative economists alike. Their biggest question is how bad will it be. It’s safe to say, however, that especially for the millions of people who never recovered from the last recession, the added punch will be extremely hard.

I know I’m sounding like a doomsayer, but I think we’re in for another rough go of it. My biggest question is whether we’ll come out of the next recession with a genuine civic and political commitment toward building an economy that works for everyone, not just for the wealthy and well-to-do.

…on-the-ground realities today

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

%d bloggers like this: