Monthly Archives: January 2012

There’s Gotta Be Something Better To Do*

The world of work has changed dramatically in this country during the past fifty years.  If we conjure “work” from the early 1960s, most of us will flash on some sort of variation on Mad Men.  Homogeneity in the workplace was de rigueur, and many retired from the very same company with which they began their work life.  Unskilled labor opportunities were somewhat divided between manufacturing and the service industry.  Labor was pretty well organized during this period and again it would not be unusual to retire from the same factory/department store where one began their work life.

While we still have a fair share of light manufacturing in this country, most would agree that the service industry makes up the majority of our unskilled labor industry today.  The funny thing about the service industry is that the world sees you working.  Most of us would have little cause to witness an administrative assistant at work, but we’ve all probably seen a home health aide or shop assistant.  And from where I’m standing, it would appear that we are the only people watching.

Recently I have observed a desire by (what we consider) unskilled workers to make their job as small as possible.  Some of this should be attributed to self-check out for customers, automated phone trees and the like.  But some of it is clearly a lack of training and professional development programs.  No doubt most of us had (or have) jobs at which the clock moves very very slowly.  It makes the day all the more endless to do less!  When the check-out woman at the (relatively gourmet) food store tells me to move my reusable shopping bags to exactly where she likes them, I have to wonder.  Her arms are fully engaged in checking her cell phone, so we know it’s not a mobility issue.  Her eyes do not need to scrutinize prices, as she only need sweep them in the general vicinity of the scanner.  She is not distracted by the register as I am checking myself out with a credit card.  There is no heavy lifting to speak of as gourmet tidbits rarely come in bulk.  So why would she want to make her job as robotic as possible?  No doubt she tires of waiting on people who might be paying a bit too much for that pound of coffee.  However, acting sullen and hostile is not always the most direct path to management.  Where exactly is her supervisor in this story?

The service industry can be a very rewarding career option.  Working in retail needn’t be the least bit mind numbing or dead end. The same is true for any number of service sector jobs.  The industry, by its very nature, often attracts those with the least amount of formal education.  All classes and cultures have a slightly different orientation towards work.  The great equalizer should be the workplace.  It is in the best interest of the employer and the economy, to train workers and illuminate their way towards a lifelong career.  It would not be realistic or sustainable to expect independent companies to have training and professional development guidelines in place.  But certainly any company or agency doing business with any branch of government need to demonstrate their commitment to their employees.  High schools could have a huge impact on workplace readiness, either with mandatory internships or classes.

Work has changed, industry has changed, higher education has changed and work readiness has definitely changed in the last fifty years.  When manufacturing was our largest (unskilled) employer, changes were made to the (once heralded) assembly line to address the needs of the worker.  Our economy is now sufficiently shifted to do the same for service workers.

*There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This – Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity (1966)

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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

There was a time when business establishments felt perfectly within their rights to set behavioral standards for their clientele.  These standards ranged from the sublime (jacket required) to the ridiculous (unescorted ladies forbidden.)  The hospitality was not the only public congregating business known to set behavioral standards.  Back in olden times, movie theater ushers policed the audience.  They wielded flashlights and a keen eye for misbehavior.  Paying patrons would be asked to leave if their behavior was deemed unacceptable.

Can you imagine that today?!  Well, why don’t we?

Why are we paying large amounts of money to dine out amidst loud cellphone chatting and wild child patrons?  Restaurant owners and maitre d’hotels are allowing it, because we have done nothing to erode their profits.  There are those of us diners who have asked to remove a screaming infant from a small restaurant (after 9:00 PM) to only then fear for our bodily safety.  We have exaggeratedly stared (a la Harpo Marx) at loud cellphone talkers only to be ignored.  (Of course we should have seen that coming, what with their obvious obliviousness.)  I have seen “no cellphone” signs on the doors of one or two shops.  But the request is made so that the shopkeeper need not be disturbed.  The customer (of any establishment) is left to fend for themselves.  There is absolutely no imperative for business owners to manage the ambiance, if we keep paying for abuse.

Far more grievous is the boorish behavior during performances.  Talking during the overture, rustling plastic bags, slurping from sippy cups, repeating dialogue, playing with cellphones, taking photos, and basically behaving as if one is in his or her living room watching television.  There is no acknowledgment of there being real live people performing, let alone other real live people in the audience.  The fact that theater managers and ushers seem to be hiding in the lobby while this behavior occurs is inexcusable.  Some of us have pointed out (illegal) photo taking to ushers only to be given the “oh you poor crazy woman” look.

I propose the radical step of printing on every ticket, ticket website, and Playbill the following message: “Any cellphones or cameras that are left on while inside the theater will be confiscated.”  Ushers, waiters, managers and the like must form the first line of defense.  Formalizing human behavior standards is sad, but it’s not new.  What do you think would happen if an audience member lit up a cigarette during a classical music concert?  We no longer tolerate this behavior, it is time to enforce what we once called common courtesy.


Posted by on January 13, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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A Higher Education Wake Up Call

There was a horrific fatal stampede this week for a chance to attend college, in South Africa.  A line over a mile long, waited at the gate for a coveted seat in the University of Johannesburg.  High school graduates (and some parents) crowded together, arms filled with blankets and other supplies, desperate for a chance for a better life.  One third of that country is unemployed and high education is only recently available to all.

This heartbreaking story needn’t suffer any disrespect to serve as an allegory for us.  We have reached a point, for better or worse, at which a four year degree has taken on mythic remedy.  A bachelor degree may not be the ticket to upward mobility it once was, but you’d be hard pressed to gain employment without one.  We need only to turn on an old movie to remember that high school degrees were once a coveted commodity.  Independent of the swelling middle class and higher education accessibility, I’m not sure a high school degree today bears any resemblance to that of pre-World War II.  However thanks to the G.I. Bill and the major shifts in American industry, a college education has become an increasingly normative expectation in the world of work.

Today we expect the vast majority of high school graduates to attend college.  We can probably agree that high school graduation standards are not what they once were.  Everyone is expected to graduate, and every measure is taken to ensure that will be the case.  Bluntly put, a high school diploma is not the proof of mastery it once was.  In addition to potentially ill-prepared students, we have the skyrocketing costs of college.  It is no secret that students (and their families) are incurring crippling debt with absolutely no guarantee on investment.  For every college graduate with a marketable degree there must be at least one who paid for five or six years of school, or has graduated with a degree in a traditionally non-income earning field (i.e., art, dance, etc.)

Now before we all start waxing poetic about the priceless nature of a liberal arts degree, and the beauty of learning for learning sake, let me just say; It’s over.  The only people who still have the luxury of pouring over great works of literature in gorgeous libraries (for enjoyment’s sake) and sitting on grassy quads discussing Plato, are those who know they will not be supporting themselves.  Higher education has become a means to employment.  Trust me, I am none too pleased either.

Aside from the romantic dream of a liberal arts degree withering in front of my eyes, it is the more practical matter of expecting all students to succeed in college, that worries me.  One size never fits all.  However we really do expect every high school graduate to either attend college or enlist in the military.  Yes, there are a few “trades” jobs in this country, but the unemployment rate would suggest that any available jobs would not be going to teenagers.  What we need is a viable alternative and lucky for us, we have one!  Americorps has existed for twenty years, yet it has not been integrated into our culture in the way the military has.  If business were under the same guidelines to hire Americorps veterans as military veterans, and high schools offered Americorps as an equal option to the military, people would see the experience as a viable path to employment.

I am not anti-higher education, far from it.  I am not, however comfortable with the tail wagging the dog, and colleges (and I use that term somewhat loosely) cropping up to service remedial learners and (for a hefty price) provide them with a degree.  We’ve already gone done this road with high school.  I am not comfortable with the crippling students loan debt and the national economic implications.  I am not comfortable with telling every high school student that they have such limited options.  Let’s take a step back and think of what our economy and our teenagers need.


Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Education


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Wired Act

The other day a tweet arrived asking followers how they cope with the stress of a wired world.  I believe that the word “stress” was suggesting negativity in this instance.  My reply suggested that my wires are not my strings.  I find my wired (or more accurately; my “wireless”) world to be quite liberating.  I can control my communications and information far more than I ever did or could in the past.

In olden times, if one wanted to exchange information or pleasantries with a friend (in real time) one had to place or receive a call while both people were at home and near a phone (phones were often stationary devices.)  Calls often went on for extended periods of time as call waiting was yet to be invented.  One could romanticize this phenomenon or point out how it eroded actual social experiences and rendered relationships to nothing more than disembodied voices squawking at each other.  The telephone heralded the end of social calls and meaningful discourse.  It was the Facebook of its time.

No doubt, print and newspapers heralded the end of the town square and civic discourse.  Fine.  Progress is change, and change is uncomfortable.  Do I bristle at having to learn yet another platform or version of what was working perfectly fine thank you very much?  Of course.  But suggesting that having more access to information and people is stressful?  Well, that’s just irritating.  We aren’t fitted with some sort of Woody Allen Sleeper helmet (yet.)  If it’s all too overwhelming, turn it off.  But to suggest that our (current) advances in technology are anything beside access to information or communication is just silly.  There is nothing to demonize here.  Facebook didn’t create bullies, nature created bullies.  Technology did not erode teenagers morality or their sense of self.  It just broadcasts it.

Are there one (or two) generations who have a radically different attention span than their elders?  Most definitely.  Imagine what the attention span was of a generation raised on horse and buggies?  Personally, I’m more concerned about a generation who ends every sentence with a question mark.

I credit the (current) state of technology with the connectivity I now enjoy with extended family.  Elementary school friends, I assumed I would never again see, are back in my orbit.  It is a very satisfying feeling this sense of the continuity of life.  In fact, it is the opposite of alienating.  Technology quenches my thirst for research (and by “research” I mostly mean; “where do I know that actor from?”)  While they will have to wrestle my actual newspaper from my cold (deceptively strong) hands, I love that I don’t have to wait until morning to know what is happening.  The curated news streaming on my twitter feed was once only available to diplomats and really wealthy people.

All of the (literal) bells and whistles are muted on my devices.  They exist to serve me.  They allow me to feel connected to the world.  And the torch wielding villagers are not going to convince me otherwise.

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Posted by on January 7, 2012 in Media/Marketing


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A Bully Plan

There is nothing good to say about bullying.  The very definition (picking on those weaker) is anathema to humanitarianism.  Exposing bad behavior is almost always a good thing.  However there is a fine line between discussing an issue responsibly and throwing a buzz word (in this case “bullying”) over everything.

Tossing buzz words around is irresponsible.  We saw this happen with the word “stress” about a decade or more ago.  Stress became synonymous with anxiety and is now only deemed as negative.  “I’m stressing” became an actual expression.  Between us, there is nothing negative about stress.  Positive excitement is stressful to the body and mind as well.  Is bullying ever good?  Certainly not to my mind.  But suggesting that an adolescent girl killed herself because of bullying…on Facebook, is absurd.  It diminishes her troubles and pain (whatever their genesis) and demonizes the abstract.  Suggesting that she was a victim of her computer and that her screen drove her to death is a wretched portrait to paint of a troubled teenager.  In fact, suggesting that anyone was driven to end their life due to bullying smacks of complacency.

No doubt, as adults we may not remember the turmoil of adolescence.  Everything was Very Important and permanent and fraught with drama.  Rarely were we our best selves.  Our identities only existed as they were reflected back to us by our cohort.  What an awful time it was.  Adolescents (particularly girls in the middle school years) can be pretty nasty as they claw their way to relevance. When we layer this anthropological phenomenon with the current social climate, things can get dire.

Most of us did not grow up in an age of digital cameras and instant (permanent) exposure.  We probably did not grow up in a world of celebrity (for no apparent reason) suggesting we should all live in the spotlight, behave badly, always be styled and airbrushed and party like it’s…you get the idea.  We probably didn’t grow up during a time when college was seen as a given, and the only path to income, yet was academically and financially unattainable to many.  Many of us did not grew up with parents simulating aircraft above our heads.  We were independent-ish and expected to manage our own social and even academic world.  (Note: personal responsibility is the key ingredient for self-esteem.)

Adolescence+increased external pressure+diminished internal resources can add up to a troubled teen.  Luckily, their world is populated by adults.  Teachers, nurses, administrators, coaches and guidance counselors see the good, the bad and the ugly.  Parents are in the best position to see the unhappiness in their child.  Many do and struggle with how best to care for their child.  Depression, either clinical or non-clinical sadness, is frightening in a population known for their lack of impulse control.  A teenager who has lost interest in pleasurable activities, and/or has changed his/her sleeping/eating patterns should be seen as in crisis.

Bullying can most certainly push a vulnerable teenager over the edge.  So can a bad grade or a romantic break-up.  However, when the media hauls out bullying experts our limited attention shifts to the external.  It is the at-risk adolescent that warrants the attention, not the behavior of others.  A healthy and supported teenager will not log on to Facebook if it brings unhappiness.  A healthy and supported adolescent, no matter how quirky, will not be driven to self-harm by the comments of others.  Bullying will always exist, empires were built on it.  Where we need to focus is on those adolescents who need support.

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Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Childhood, Media/Marketing


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