Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Employer vs Employee

I've specifically titled this post using the versus connector between employer and employee as it seems that this important relationship is stuck in this adversarial position, and that my belief is that America will never be "great" again, if that is truly a goal based in reality and not just rhetoric, until the dynamics of employment changes.

Obviously, there has always been friction between employers and employees.  Employers seek the most production possible while paying the least possible compensation, while employees invariably feel underpaid and underappreciated.  In addition, the unfortunate boom and bust cycles of our economy create times when one side has the upper hand over the other.  When the economy is in recession, employers can reduce benefits and/or eliminate wage increases with the veiled threat that an employee can be easily replaced by someone unemployed, someone willing to take almost anything rather than be without work.  Conversely, when the economy is booming, employees are more easily able to find better pay, working conditions and opportunity, putting pressure on the employer to pay, at times, more than the production might be worth.

In both situations, phrases such as disloyalty and profit over people emanate as readily as humidity in the tropics.

Of course, for much of recorded history, men and women worked to live, literally.  From the moment they awoke, to the moment they fell asleep, mankind spent their time searching for food for themselves and those of their group, seeking shelter or improving the condition of said shelter, and avoiding the multitude of dangers that existed, and from which there was scant protection.

As the eons progressed and our ancestors moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle, a new relationship began to emerge.  Creating permanent settlements also meant protecting these settlements from those unwelcome, which also inspired the concept of owning the land.  While it was easy to claim new lands in the name of one's home country, as if the land didn't exist before being "discovered", especially since the native inhabitants had a completely different relationship with the land, it became much harder to dismiss inhabitants when they looked and sounded the same as oneself.  Fortunately, those with money and power were able to create concepts like birth rights, aristocracy, divine laws, and other such artificially created distinctions that, along with bigger swords and hired thugs, enabled land barons to own great swaths of territory.  Still, those who worked the land did so mostly for sustenance.

Over time, as settlements evolved into people living together as individuals as opposed to chattel, bartering among the tradesmen and businesses and customers became more formalized, and values were placed on goods, services, and ultimately, the labor needed to create or provide those goods and services.  Now, rather than hunting and scavenging for food, people could "buy" their food from someone who specialized in growing it, or perhaps from someone who purchased the goods from many different suppliers then brought it to the customers, in the form of carts, and then centralized the location of the products in stores located where the people lived.  

Those of you who know more history than I, might also know when the terms employee and employer first were coined.  I only spent a few minutes searching and found information suggesting they are from French words originating in the 1820's.  If reasonably accurate, that means that this dynamic relationship which is the basis of the vast majority of work in the "modern" world, is still in its infancy.

To be more specific, if we use 10,000 years as the approximate time when humans began to practice sedentary agriculture, the employee/employer relationship represents 2-5% of that time.  And, if we use 200,000 years as the beginning point of when homo sapiens emerged in Africa, the relationship has been around for .1-.25% of that time.  That is decimal (.1) percent folks.  Or, using an hour as the time since homo sapiens emerged, the relationship is about half a second old.

So, what is my point?

Perhaps that we are still trying figure out this relatively new concept.  We know that we do not want to return to the days when calling out sick might get you fired.  The days of forced child labor, 12, 16 even 18 hours shifts in poorly ventilated sweat shops.  But we also know that businesses can not function with an unreliable work force.  Rules and standards are required on both sides.  A power of balance needs to be established, which, while it might create temporary swings in favor of one or the other, leave room for a return to an even footing as quickly as possible.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to state that the balance of power from the recent recession has not returned to an even keel.  In fact, one might even suggest that the balance of power towards the employer side of the equation has been with us since the 1980's.  Certainly, stagnating middle class wages coupled by the flow of more wealth in the hands of a smaller percentage of people could be interpreted as a consequence of this imbalance.

But that is macroeconomics, the stuff of classroom debates and never ending partisan politics.

What about the everyday relationship that exists in the majority of businesses, big and small.  So often we hear complaints from the business community that there aren't enough qualified people to fill job openings, and that too many of those employed do not work hard enough while expecting more benefits, and more money.  I receive multiple job alerts everyday from Indeed, based on the many different profiles I have created.  Clearly, there are many open jobs out there, and not just $12 per hour and less, jobs.  One of my profiles sets a minimum salary of $50K per year; it produces new jobs everyday.

This seems to verify the employer complaints, while also signalling that our education system is not preparing our youth for today's more specialized job market.  Of course, employers who expect a perfect match for their job requirements, some of which feature so encompassing a list of attributes, that the "perfect" candidate may not exist, or would not consider the job based on the compensation package being offered, sometimes ask for more than they will ever get.  Obviously, all employers expect to engage in some training of a new employee, but perhaps, rather than paper rejecting an applicant because all the boxes aren't checked, employers might evaluate the person as much as the paper.  Is there room in the employee/employer dynamic to value a person's ability to analyze problems, evaluate situations, and prioritize actions?  Perhaps that is a part of the problem as well.  All kinds of jobs, all kinds of applicants, but never the twain shall meet as more and more employers turn to automated searches to sift through the candidates while more and more job seekers blast out resumes.

Also, do employers want YES men who do what they are told, or thinkers who can differentiate between guidelines and rules, and choose the correct course of action even when it differs from an established protocol?  Assuming employers want some from each category, are there conscious choices being made to nurture those who fall into the latter group, or are those people suppressed at every turn while still being counted on to find a new solution to an old problem?  Have we not all seen an employee who ingratiates themselves to their bosses in order to gain a promotion or salary increase while an employee who works to improve the daily processes, is passed over due to a lack of self promotion, or perhaps even a disregard for diplomacy?  When employees feel that merit is not the primary reason for advancement, it leaves personal pride as the drive to continue to do a better job.  When that begins to fade or is crushed, what is left?  Atlas Shrugged?

There are countless millions of Americans who work hard each and every day yet still feel that they exist one mistake at work, one health crisis, one unexpected accident away from financial ruin. Clearly, this angst was one of the forces behind the unexpected result of last November's election.
Only time will tell if a continued transfer of wealth to the top and a reduction in the safety nets will increase the concern of the working class American, or add to his/her dilemma.    

In the meantime, loyalty is a two way street.  Employees who expect job security must work every day to earn their salary.  Employers who expect daily hard work, must treat their employees as people, not just labor costs that can be slashed without considering all other options.

As I said earlier, the employer/employee relationship is relative new.  Yet, at the same time, it is undergoing tremendous change!  We can work remotely from home.  Soon we make even work from space!  If this dynamic is going to work, there must be a trust created from each side.  That is the challenge I see moving forward.  And, frankly, it is a challenge that neither side seems to recognize or value.  Trust that a job is a privilege, not an entitlement.  And trust that without the employee, there is no good or service to be provided.          

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Accumulative Power of Useless Information

I am about half way through the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Discovery.  I have left myself a number of bookmarks so I can review and comment on some of the works that have made an impression on me.  This morning however, I read an excerpt from "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" by Abraham Flexner.  As is true of the Lapham's magazines in general, I am amazed that I have not encountered Flexner before; how I can have lived upwards of 75% of my life, have read so many hundreds of books, and not been familiar with Flexner's brilliant perspective.

Flexner was a prominent education reformer who, after conducting a study of American medical schools for the Carnegie Foundation in 1910, crafted a report which proposed new regulations which helped to revamp all American (and Canadian) medical colleges, addressing problems in curriculum, structure, admission standards, and overall quality of the education being received, and the doctor's being graduated.

In 1929, when asked by a group of philanthropists to help them decide which medical schools to fund, Flexner convinced them instead to support an Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which opened the following year under his leadership.

For those of you who might research Flexner, be advised that held a number of opinions that are not admirable.  He believed that blacks and women were inferior, and advocated that black doctors only treat black patients.  His prejudiced opinions, while certainly a reflection of the time, are still inexcusable to me, considering the philosophy which he so eloquently describes and should, by its universal nature, apply to the work and efforts of all people, with no differentiation for gender or race.

Anyway, the point of the essay was that great discoveries are often the result, not of an eureka moment, but through the incremental work by many unknown researchers and those more curious than most.  That, at times, the accumulation of what might be useless knowledge at the time, useless being defined as not producing information that leads directly to solving a current problem, or producing a useful tool or product, often leads to a future use that effectively provides a solution, or leads to a new tool to fix an enduring problem.  In other words, he believed in research for its own sake, and in the value of being curious, and allowing the curious the time and resources to discover answers.

It is summed up best by this quote.

"..over a period of one of two hundred years, the contribution of professional schools to respective activities will probably be found to lie not so much in the training of men who may tomorrow become practical engineers, or practical lawyers, or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims, an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there comes discoveries that may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishments of the useful ends for which the schools were founded."

When applied to other areas of education, especially how we educate our young people, his viewpoint makes me stop and think if we are encouraging curiosity or stifling it.  Encouraging the freedom to pursue an idea as far as possible, or encouraging the pursuit only of ideas that lead to conformity.  Or, even more simply, elevating the idea that knowledge should not be judged by how it agrees with our religious beliefs or economic fortunes, but should be encouraged, and that the pursuit of knowledge should be nurtured at every level, useful and useless.

And, when applied to other areas of life, especially when we debate how to allocate the resources of America, we might want to rethink our decisions to invest in war and walls rather than compassion and inclusion.  And ultimately, find that the conclusion that those with less deserve their fate, and those with more deserve even more, might lead to the suppression of the accumulation of useless information, and therefore the reduction of innovation and positive discovery.  



Wednesday, May 10, 2017


"When people are unhappy with the present and fear the future, they embrace the past".

In a spirited conversation my wife and I had recently, (which is really an ongoing series of discussions we have, and for which I am very grateful; thanks Nora), I said the above words, or something to that effect.  We both stopped talking for an instant, a bit surprised at what sounded pretty profound.

Today I typed this phrase into a Google search to see if I had heard or read it before and had just repeated it, not actually made it up in the course of our discussion.   The Google returns I received were chock full of phrases and advice for seeking and finding happiness, but I did not find a phrase similar to the above.  However, I did find an amazing article written by James Feifer on November 30, 2016 for Slate.  A link to it is below.

Feifer's article, written a few weeks after Trump's historic presidential victory, attempts to dissect the popularity of Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan, by asking Trump supporters when they think America was last great, then scanning the news reports and social commentaries of that time to see if those who lived during this perceived time of greatness actually believed in the greatness of the time.

To start, Feifer looked to the 1950's which accounted for about half of the responses to the question, when was America last great.  Unfortunately, Feifer found as much anxiety and unhappiness during that time as today.  And, when theses post WW2 war people were queried about their last perceived time of American greatness, the 1920's were often cited.  But again, evidence taken from comments made during the 20's painted a much more anxious mindset of the people living then than what was believed 30 years later.  In a nutshell, what Feifer found was that "I went looking for the good ole' days.  It took me back 5,000 years".

My belief is that there is a clear connection between a person's age and their fondest memories.  It should be no surprise to any adult who, while perhaps mostly happy with their lives, deals with the multitude of stresses and anxieties that we encounter, and so, in the majority of cases, remembers their childhood and/or young adulthood as a time with little or no stress.  Call it an unconscious realization that with each passing year we are one step closer to our mortal end, call it a longing for the energy and pure joyfulness of youth, or call it the little bit of jealousy that makes each aging generation look down their collective noses as the generation which follows, but it seems obvious, even natural, that advancing age might make one engage in "nostalgic narratives", as Feifer calls them.

A detailed analysis of which demographics led President Trump's advantage over the two previous GOP candidates, and ultimately, his victory over his democratic rival, and it is easy to conclude that white males, especially those with less education, contributed mightily to his victory, and indeed might find a call to past times an attractive narrative.  Certainly, those who cited the 1950's as America's last great time might only remember the clear superiority of the white male in terms of accomplishments, power and wealth.  The fact that this dominance was as much a result of prejudice, both racial and gender, social norms, and actual legal obstacles to those not white or male, is of no concern to those who recall a time when they were the only game in town.

What is more revealing to me, and more concerning, is that one might also conclude that America as a whole is adopting a mindset similar to one who is aging, who faces their imminent death, and so is nostalgic for a time when they were young, energetic and, perhaps, without understanding it fully, oblivious to the stresses of the times around them.  Because, isn't that really the crux of it.  We endeavor to shield our children from the problems of life, if only for a little while.  So, while one's early memories are filled with good times and pleasantness, it is not because there was no bad times and unpleasantness.

America is aging.  Since 1970, the average age of an American has increased a couple of years every ten.  In another few decades, as the baby boomers continue to reach retirement age, our country will be as "old" as it has ever been.  And that includes the influx of immigrants, which tend to be younger.
Are we experiencing, on a national level, the same inclinations that lead to reminiscences around the coffee table by those among us of maturing age?  Does it explain some of our anxiety about the changing demographics of our country, and the call for a return to a past that exists mostly in the memories of those who were shielded by the adults of the time from the problems of the day?

There is no way that life will ever be like it was in 1950, or 1920, or 1880, or in the Garden of Eden, or whatever time you might wistfully long for.  First, because time moves forward, and with it, mankind's understanding of life.  Certainly, it might be exciting to be catapulted back to 1776 when America gained our independence from England, but not if you are a women or a person of color because you were, for the most part, not a part of the excitement of that time.
But more important, the future is the only time frame that we can control.  The past is defined, the present only a fleeting moment, then it is a part of the past.  It is only in the future that we can create the best possible outcomes of our decisions, provide the best possible situations for our children, and enable those who live in those years, adults as well as children to, perhaps, actually believe that they lived in a remarkable time.