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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Great Recession: Working for a Living

I've been taking frequent walks down memory lane, lately, back to an exciting time in my working life called the late 1990s. Maybe you remember them, too. Those were the days of video arcade machines in the break room, late-night pizza parties sponsored by your super-cool, jeans-wearing 20-something boss. These were the workplaces of the future, where job titles became less a description of what you do, and more a mission statement for who you wanted to be. There was no such thing as "overtime", because work was a precious, creative thing to be treasured and enjoyed, not a thing to be completed by 5pm and then picked back up again at 9am the next day. Work and play merged into this confused man-child, subsisting on a diet of lattes, sugar-free sodas, and Yoo-Hoo!

This was a workplace culture imported from Silicon Valley and its outposts of coolness - Seattle and Portland. You couldn't pick up a Business Week or a Wall Street Journal without reading about this new, collaborative way of doing business. Employers reacted, using an a la carte approach to add a few modest touches to recreate the young Internet start-up vibe - relaxed dress codes, flexible work hours, pet-friendly office space, and opportunities to work from home. But then it all stopped. First came the dot-com bust, and then an American tragedy that brought terrorism to our shores. Americans gained perspective and tried to find time for work and family. Work-life balance became the new buzzword and, aided by new gadgets, like our Palm Pilots and some new-fangled thing called a Blackberry, we were creating a movement where moms and dads could answer a pressing question from their boss while attending their child's little league game.

And then came the current financial meltdown. For those of us still fortunate enough to have a full-time job, the workplace is just that - a place where work is done. Lofty aspirations have been pushed to the fringes while we fight to make sure we have coverage by the company's health plan. Phrases such as "the end of the day" gained traction because the bottom line supersedes all else. We are stuck in jobs that may simply end, or, worse, may go on forever in a soul-sucking slow-motion.  We are, in fact, working for a living.

For some of us, this all comes as a great shock to our systems. Our liberal college educations prepared us for a world where classes on the impact of Walt Disney on the feminizing of girls, or the role of romance novels in the courtship rituals of the western industrialized world would be valued. We attacked the math and science majors as lacking in imagination, when, in fact, they were developing actual skills with a market value. We assumed that the jobs of our dreams would be out there, waiting for us, and we found them, or we created them.

But for a lot of us, work has never been anything more than a means by which to put food on the table, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head. The hagiography of the 1990s work place was, to them, merely a grand delusion and a bit of corporate smoke and mirrors. The new reality of working life isn't so new to them. Maybe we'll never get back to those Halcyon days of your pet pooch in the cubicle, or 3:00am chats around stale cups of Starbucks in your conference room. Maybe there'll never be flannel shirts and flip-flops worn in an office again, but heck, that wouldn't be so bad now, would it? I mean, an office that smells like feet isn't likely to be missed! I'm just saying:)

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