#9 What We Are Paid For (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

After 30 years of what many people would call "full employment," I finally figured out one more aspect of corporate life. Just call me "slower than a California environmental cleanup."

Twenty five years ago, I noticed a nasty connection between unpleasant, high-paying jobs and a self-destructive, self-reward system that closes off the worker's escape options. When I was young and much smarter, I vowed to avoid falling into that trap. But, either the trap has been reset much more cleverly in recent years or I've grown a lot dumber in my dotage.

Back when I was a newly educated, struggling to survive on slightly above minimum wage, electronics technician, I was often tempted to give up the struggle and become a meat cutter in a packing plant. As "skilled" beige collar labor, I was earning about $2.00 an hour. As an unskilled, unionized, packing plant employee, I would have made $8 to $11 an hour. $4,000/year vs. $22,000/year (before overtime). Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it?

It wasn't that clean a decision then and it isn't now, believe it or not. There was a lot of economic turmoil in the 1970's. Jobs were hard to find and easy to lose. A big section of the country was in a killer recession-depression and there seemed to be no way to predict when it would end. It was tough to imagine it might ever end.

I had no trouble imagining the collapse of unions and union jobs, though. I'd done some work, installing automated manufacturing systems, in a packing plant and had experienced, first hand, how desperate those people were to hang onto their over-paid, unskilled jobs. I also knew men and women who worked in packing plants. I saw the piles of expensive toys, big houses, and new cars they bought (on credit) to reward themselves for suffering their miserable days at work. The more they rewarded themselves, the deeper in debt they went, and the more locked into their awful jobs they became.

So I stuck out my attempt to find a trade (electronics engineer) and become skilled (and mobile) labor. For the most part, I stayed on that track and was happy about the attempt, until I stumbled into the medical device business in 1992. I think, at that moment, I moved into the 1990's "knowledge worker" category. I'm pretty sure that "knowledge worker" is the term that Management uses for "idiot who sold his/her soul for a mindless, repetitive, skill-less, pointless, overpaid clerical position." The meat-packing job of the 90's.

I think the "overpaid" and the "skill-less" parts are most important. I'm pretty sure I can teach a monkey to use a Mac or a Win95 PC. I'm also sure I'd have to give a monkey a lot of peanuts to get him to stick with it. Just like a "knowledge worker."

Here we are, finally, at the point.

As Cubicleville "knowledge workers," we are mostly paid to tolerate boredom and repetition. In exchange for a little extra cash, we often give up practical, employable skills, and the freedom of knowing that we can easily find similar, equal paying work anywhere in the country. We exchange owning a trade and a secure future for a few extra dollars, today, and the insecurity of knowing that we'll be starting over from scratch if we ever change jobs. Because one thing is forever true: any skill or knowledge that you have and don't use, you'll lose. So think about this, when you take a crummy, mindless job for a little extra cash, you're going to need that money later when you're starting over in an unskilled, entry-level job. The "knowledge" you are working with is not worth knowing.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

February 1998

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