"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The mixed bag we feel holding a job

John F. Kennedy was once making his campaign rounds at a blue collar bastion - let's say it was a mine - and stuck out his hand to greet the common folk. Kennedy was a Democrat so this was his element. But he also carried with him a reputation of being aristocratic. He was from a "blue blood" family.
There was a memorable exchange where a miner seemed initially standoffish.
"I heard that you've never worked a day in your life," the miner said to JFK.
The politician paused for a moment and then said "you know, I suppose that's right."
Whereupon the miner smiled, stuck out his hand and said "well, you're not missing anything."
There is a growing feeling in America that work is a miserable proposition. We can ponder the old famous quote: "The majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
As a working person you stay quiet because you don't want to be a whiner. Your pride might prevent you from venting around friends or family.
People will say "I love my job" but they would quit in a heartbeat if they won the lottery.
I once read where lottery winners begin to get an odd feeling of social isolation which can actually bring sadness. Sad? When you're set for life? The problem is that most people have to work in order to make money to live. When you win the lottery you're not like them anymore.
Many lottery winners have had working class friends all their lives. They don't mix well with blue bloods. But if given the choice, we'd take the lottery.
Friendships in the workplace can themselves seem odd. Back when the Gannett (newspaper) company was laying off lots of people, where was a blog where people could vent, and I came across a typical lament: "My former co-workers aren't my friends anymore. I thought they were my friends." (I paraphrase.)
I'm reminded of 1960s baseball pitcher Jim Bouton writing about when he was cut from the roster of a team. I don't have to paraphrase here because the quote is vivid: "I felt a wall, invisible but real, forming around me."
I have been unemployed for just over four years and have felt my own share of isolation. Occasionally I get a pleasant surprise when someone with whom I associated (through work) befriends me.
I'm not talking about co-workers, with whom there's an unavoidable curtain, but members of the general public. Like a car salesman with whom I once dealt on a weekly basis.
I was walking home along Columbia Avenue one day, on the north end of Morris, when he pulled up beside me. Car salesmen are perhaps the most perceptive and intuitive of people. It's a natural inclination for people who seek top dollar in sales.
As a custom, you (the prospective customer) have to try to hold your own.
But my basic feeling about car salesmen is favorable. I admire their unfailing insights about human nature.
And this was no ordinary car salesman. It was Tony O'Keefe, who is no longer with us. This fleeting encounter with Mr. O'Keefe was the last I ever had with him. I'm so thankful it happened.
We engaged in the usual friendly talk and through the course of it, he asked about my employment status if any. Projecting a feeling of guilt - car salesmen don't miss anything - I said no, I wasn't working. Tony in effect shrugged. He said "well, do you have to work?"
I said "well, at this stage of my life, no." He smiled and said "well, don't," showing candor just like that miner did with JFK. "You don't work unless you have to."
It struck like a thud when I heard that Tony passed away. I couldn't imagine anyone else at his desk at Morris Auto Plaza.
There was such a huge crowd around Pedersen Funeral Home for the visitation, I couldn't get in. But it really didn't matter because, as my cousin Tom Williams, who has clergy credentials, would say: "Tony is gone. This is just a body."
I knew I'd see other family members in due course and keep up my friendship with them. Such as Tony's father Mike, who can be found along the counter at DeToy's Restaurant very early in the morning when the darkness is thick outside.
Mike was a stalwart car salesman for Arvid Beyer and then for the company that succeeded Arvid. When Mike departed from the latter, I'm not convinced he was fully prepared to do so. Many of us move on from jobs through a kind of gray area. Maybe we should attribute it all to sheer fate.
Yes, the world of work is truly a mixed bag. We try to like it. We say we like it. We act like we're friends with co-workers. But is it all just a charade? We work because we have to, as Tony pointed out using his inborn sage nature. (Car salesmen are born and not made?)
The huge leaps in technology have made the working world tougher. This is because so much of the tedium that was once associated with work has been eliminated.
So what's left? What's left is the work that requires judgment, analysis and education. A lot of people at the margins of society are being left behind.
At age 55 I'm just too old to make a lot of the adjustments. So I'm not sure what lies ahead. But I'm hardly alone. White males in their 50s have been hit hard by the recession.
Women who complain about historically being paid less should be thankful. By accepting lower pay they have a greater likelihood of keeping their jobs.
I normally abhor Bill O'Reilly of Fox News but he was right on, when saying "gone are the days when you could get a job by just showing up."
Work today requires specific skills. Again I'm concerned about people at the margins of society.
Here I must credit another deceased individual who was well-known in Stevens County: Erland Charles. Charles was known as a perceptive and articulate person and was once a delegate to a national political convention. We were sitting at the now-defunct Hardee's Restaurant one morning.
Everything I just wrote about the troubles coming for the so-called "marginal people" was basically just a paraphrase of what Erland told me. He acknowledged that technology has its obvious upside. Why do you think we develop it?
But. . . "You have to manage it," Erland said, "and a lot of people aren't going to be able to cut it. Look around this restaurant (at people who might face that difficulty)."
People up in years with limited education or obsolete skills, are going to face a tough road. I'm riding the same freight car as them.
When I was a kid we'd joke about how being a "carry out boy" was a last-resort type of job. We might call them "flunky" jobs. Let's retire that term because today, any job has demands that had better get your attention.
And besides, grocery stores are taking a hard look at whether they should even continue carry-out. They have to compete with Wal-Mart.
So you'd better be darn thankful for a job like that. And even those "checkout gals" in grocery stores had better watch their backs. Because tech could wipe out their positions eventually. Reportedly this is already starting to happen.
Are all these people going to be able to land on their feet doing something else? This is precisely what Mr. Charles was worried about.
All of these developments are chipping away at the storied "middle class" in America, that wonderful institution put in place in the years following WWII - a world of manageable and generally easy-to-comprehend job requirements.
Today it's a frenetic world that causes people like Steven Slater (the flight attendant) to become unhinged. The Slater incident should be a wakeup call to the issues I'm presenting in this blog post.
What kind of world, truly, are we headed into?
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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