By: Chris Warren.
Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer and a ready excuse to fire up the barbeque grill, invite everyone over, and fill up with icy cold beer. There’s parades, street festivals, old car shows, and all sorts of celebrations. I spent the three day weekend on my childhood turf of Naperville, Illinois, a big town with a cheerful small town vibe where my parents still live in the same house I grew up in. Naper (rhymes with paper) ville is also the host city for the Last Fling, the appropriately-named finale of the summer where thousands turn out every Labor Day weekend for one last huge summer blast. Next stop: Thanksgiving.
Anyone who is even sort-of paying attention to the world around them is aware that for a whole lot of people, Labor Day weekend was seventy two hours of living with the depressing irony of being unemployed on a holiday that honors working men and women. Beyond them are many others who have jobs but are just barely squeaking by and having great difficulty meeting the bills every month. Those who are solidly employed and living comfortably still have family and friends they care about in one of the former categories. It seems no one is left untouched by weak job market.
Two people very close to me work as customer service reps at different companies. Talking to them would make you think they sit next to each other. The mismanagement, low pay, unattainable objectives that are constantly changing and no one fully understands, abusive customers, and rigid schedule expectations all cumulate into a sense of demoralization. It’s a bit of a joke between us that the only thing worse than working in a call center is working fast food, and even that’s debatable since at least fast food workers score a free burger once in a while. Both of these people are hard working, intelligent, and overqualified for their positions. They both want out very badly. Unfortunately there aren’t many options for them to get out.
How do you climb the ladder when the ladder is a step stool? The psychology is like a shark eating its own tail: A common belief among the un- and under- employed is that there is something wrong with them…being stuck in an unfulfilling low pay job is somehow their fault. They will notice when someone else is doing well and let that amplify their own failures, real or perceived. It’s hard for them to see that there are millions of others just like them, and very few are unmotivated slackers complacent with a dead end job.
My service-rep friends call me at least once a week and the conversation always turns to their jobs and their worry about the future. I get the sense that they don’t want to annoy me with their venting, but it’s ok. Really. Yapping with me for a few minutes seems to benefit them and if it helps them pull through another day of dread on the “cube farm,” then it’s not a big deal for me to indulge them.
I’m one of the lucky few who has a job that is enjoyable, stable, and pays well. It’s not the end of the rainbow. I still have my workplace gripes. Yet every morning when I walk through the door, I thank God for giving me such a sweet deal. The only way I can show my gratitude is to give the boss an honest eight and do what I can to help those who are not as blessed as me. Because to a degree I am insulated from the mental and financial stress of being trapped in a crappy low wage job, I am in a unique position to help others. Mostly they just want to talk. Sometimes I’ll buy them lunch or put a few gallons of gas in their car. I’m not powerful or well connected enough to set them up with something better, so it’s the least, and the most, I can do.
I do not believe any of the chatter about how things are improving. Most of the positive numbers are either cherry picked to cover up the bad news or outright fabrications. Back home in Naperville, my childhood town, there are entire malls that are nearly empty, upscale shops replaced by dollar stores, numerous vacant car dealerships, cash for gold swindlers, payday loan hucksters, and a noticeable increase of homeless people. Naperville is still a great community with uncountable positive attributes, yet it is unsettling to see so many red flags in a city that never had them before. Even in a relatively poverty-free town signs of the real economy are slowly creeping in.
What seems lost in the charts and statistics and political gesturing is the everyday people who are struggling with no visible path out of their situations. It’s a sad statement on the world when a motivated, well-qualified almost-fifty year old accepts a $12/hour job because it’s the only deal they can find. Or when a person who should be well into retirement is working a fast food drive through at nine o’clock on a Sunday night. How far does society have to crack before the system resets itself and opportunity makes a comeback? For many, Labor Day is like the anniversary of a loved one’s death, a reminder of something missing from their lives. These hurting souls find a way to do the best they can with what they have. The rest of us cannot restore their lost income, but we can and should help them keep their dignity.
Editor’s Note: Please check out my other blog articles related to this topic: