One hundred and fifty years ago, in a wilderness cabin, three miles from the outskirts of his home town, a town that hosted his substantial house, Henry David Thoreau wrote that most of us were living lives of quiet desperation.
It’s an elitist who creates pseudo isolation to carry out deep thought. Thoreau was such a man – a deep thinking, poignant and insightful elitist. He’s a wonderful example of the duality of society. In Walden he gets back to nature by artificially creating a life cut off from the rest of his privileged world – so he can ruminate on that world and the life he has cut himself off from.
There is no comparison between a person slumming it for a period of time of their choosing and being trapped in that state with no means to rise above it.
The modern world survives because of this duality of society. If those on the bottom rung ever fully understood what the rest have – the revolution would begin tomorrow. And that’s how revolutions do start. Society ambles on until the ‘haves’ become so out of touch they allow the ‘nots’ to see what they are missing out on and then anarchy ensues.
Am I talking about the one percent - the mega rich who rule us? Of course. But it’s such a misnomer to allow the far larger affluent portion of society to level all the blame towards so few in an effort to avoid any blame. Someone supported the system that allowed the corporations of the one percent to evolve.
Anyone who truly believes the mega rich are the only reason that inequality exists on such a massive scale are living in denial. There is no traditional middle class anymore, but it’s wrong to assume there’s no middle class. They simply can’t be defined as one single group anymore, because the ‘old’ middle class has hemorrhaged into at least three sub classes.
The working class can still largely be defined by those who get paid by the hour or exist with a degree of direct government assistance to meet the basic requirements of life. This group can and does exist below the poverty line.
But who are the new splintered middle class? There is the subsistence wage earner who works for a low wage at the level of, or just above a country’s minimum wage. A yearly dollar figure that is akin to the sharecropper – a form of economic slavery that demands any level of work in terms of hours, a total commitment to the job, always being on call, but with little or no benefits or rewards for extra work and extra commitment. It is a job that demands a lot and gives back very little.
This new class allows the guiltless upper middle class or corporate level middle class to get rich by paying a minimal percentage of the profits to the over worked, dedicated to the company, wage earner. They are guiltless because they remain far below the true wealth of the one percent so they pass the blame, while actually being the ones who enact and enforce the policies that make the one percent the one percent. They are the gatekeepers to the one percent; the jailers to the lower classes.
Then there are the small business owners who work even harder for far less than they pay some of their hourly waged employees. These people are tangled in the red tape and paper work that makes their likelihood of success even slimmer and all for the hope, that if they commit 100% to their business, it may, eventually, rise above a constant struggle and become profitable. These are the people who should be allowed to employ an ultra flexible workforce, but who are denied the benefit because to do so now requires complicated accounting and legal procedures that only the larger corporations have resources to fund – giving those larger corporations the advantages that should only be afforded a new business trying to gain a foothold.
These small business owners do have the advantage of working for themselves and not having to answer to a corporate HR department that requires arbitrary targets and who micro manage every aspect of their business using terminology stolen from the slickest pony tailed advertising executive from the nineties.
The down side of the small startup business is that after giving it your life and soul for any number of years and virtually sacrificing your quality of life to try and help it survive and flourish – you may be repaid with foreclosure and a mountain of debt.
But some still make it past the early start-up years and create a sustainable and successful small business. Maybe they hit on the right formula early, or, after putting in the hard grind they built up to a profitable business so they can reap the rewards of less hours and more income.
Now it is their turn to access the advantages of an unjust system that offers benefits to established businesses who can increase their owners take home pay by hiring hourly waged employees and paying them as little as is legally possible. That is the management model du jour – the ethos of the modern business/management executive. It may not be the most ethical way to increase profits - but it satisfies the legal criteria - and that's the new benchmark.
The final and most prolific group of the newly fragmented middle class are those who manage to climb the corporate wage ladder to a position where comfortable and adequate compensation is actually given or exceeded – let’s say the $120,000 plus bracket of wage earners.
Only above these new categories of middle class do we reach those who are genuinely rich. But even here there are levels of ‘rich’ and most don’t qualify, nor do they consider themselves to be part of the reviled one percent.
Beginning with the CEO’s and top-level executives who earn 2 to 5 hundred thousand to a million a year; the partners in law, accounting, advertising and similar consultant based firms who earn a similar amount. Even the top ranking non partners in these firms should be included and the many in the financial sector who, even after a few years service in a stock brokerage firm, a hedge fund or merchant bank, can take home a bonus of many times the minimum wage in a good year. These people are all part of the new elite. They cannot be excluded from the responsibility for the financial inequalities in our society. For them to point the finger of blame entirely at the 1% is trying to spin and deflect the focus away from their own very comfortable existence.
But it’s not these individuals who created the problem – it’s all of us. It’s a corporate attitude that has been learned and taught over years. We have all slowly been schooled and indoctrinated into accepting this inequality. It’s not anyone’s fault individually. It’s all of our faults collectively.
Of course the mega wealthy have the most skin in the game. They alone have the means, the power and the control of their corporations to change the system from the top. BUT – it is a rare and extraordinary leader that dares to dismantle the throne they sit on while they are still seated. So even to the 1% we need to concede an understanding of how they arrived so far above and why they feel no need to change a system that has evolved over centuries.
It is said a despot rules by fear, a monarch rules through honor and a republic through virtue - which is why the spin and hoodwinking of how society assigns great wealth is so very well hidden. We now live in a corporate republic where corporations have been legally declared as people. Just as corporations as people make poor citizens, they return a virtue-less society.
When the corporate skirt is lifted to reveal the economic whore underneath, anarchy and revolution will follow. It may be a modern quiet, lengthy revolution that is likely to come about through peaceful means, but eventually it will arrive. How - I’m not sure – but the next big thing in revolutionary forces – the next Twitter empowering vehicle that allows the masses to work collectively, allowing a mass of individual voices to once again wield real power, may emerge from no-where overnight and make the difference. Who knows what form it may take – but the certainty is, when the inequality reaches a tipping point between what is being lost and what people have left to lose – change will come.
The seeds are being sown right now for change. There is a slowly growing awareness and concern with our current system’s continued justification of the injustice leveled at the minimum wage earners; the worker who is paid by the hour; the person who is at the forefront of the business, the person who must endure the horrific onslaught of abuse from disgruntled customers and clients. Clients who are entrapped by the bright lights and promises of signing on or being loyal customers, only to be relegated to the back of the queue and neglected once they have bought into a binding, non negotiable and fixed contract.
These workers, many via a phone line, are now the public face or voice of an organization. They are the people who deal with our complaints, needs, payments and wishes at the shop front. They are the people who serve at customer desks or checkouts and they are also the people rostered to a minimum number of hours to save a single dollar at the expense of service and quality to the customer.
The same workers are then told lies to cajole them into giving the company even more. These lies have become standard management processes; “You’ll have to work short staffed because we have two members who called in sick today.” “We need you to working an extra hour because we’ve been hit by a rush.” - No - the truth is you, the supervisor or manager, tried to get away with rostering on the minimum staff possible and now must convince those staff you have working to work harder to make up for that decision.
There’s a subtle pressure on the worker to show company spirit and commitment by working those extra hours or an extra shift and it’s all a calculated corporate policy to squeeze the most productivity out of the least number of people. And what choice does a powerless worker have when jobs are so few and a queue has formed, of eager replacements to take any vacant job? Say no to overtime or working in stressful under staffed conditions and a new name tagged John or Jane will be in your smock before you can say, “Next please.”
These minimum wage workers are never offered full time positions with any of the corresponding full time benefits and are continually told slightly less than the truth by their managers to extort the most from them. Slowly, over time, even the most trusting employee becomes aware such practices are standard and not, as stated, a one off anomaly that couldn’t be helped. It becomes obvious they are working for a management who either lie or continually make poor management decisions.
The truth is these little white lies are the result of the modern post graduate business school principles of good management techniques that try to minimize wages and maximize profits by making decisions based on quantifiable methods and not on a flexible policy and common sense. The result of micro management from distant HR departments that formulate models and assessment criteria for every aspect of the business creates the need for floor supervisors to create the white lies to explain poor decisions to staff. It’s the only way to stave off a disgruntled workforce asked to work harder for no more.
The poor decision was made by an executive in a distant office who set the staff level for a trading period based on historical comparable data. We did X dollars in business last year on this day so we should roster on Y number of staff for today. And when the data lies it is the on floor manager who must explain the poor decision to staff in a way that stops them being disgruntled - hence the convenient white lie.
Those working harder and longer as a result are the minimum wage earners. They are the workers the public deal with on a daily basis; the single teller in a bank or post office; the retail salesperson, the checkout cashier or company phone consultant, the nurses and aged care workers in privatized care facilities. These are the workers left to explain all the corporate decisions as if they stand by and agree with them. They are the ones explaining to customers why so few staff are working within such a large store, or why a product has been reduced in size but not in price, or why a product bought for years is no longer stocked, but has been replaced by the vastly inferior home brand, or why someone’s elderly parent who is a palliative care patient has no air conditioning turned on despite the very hot day.
And it is these poor minimum wage workers who must deal with the barrage of anger and frustration coming from a community who is being poked and prodded by corporate profit into ever increasing lives of quiet desperation.
Today, the lower your wage, the more likely you are to be pushed out front to deal with the customer. The minimum wage requires you take maximum responsibility.
It’s okay for Rupert and James Murdoch to swear they were uniformed, didn’t know or couldn’t recall vital decisions or critical business practices in the multi-billion dollar company they run. It’s fine for a litany of CEO’s to front enquiries during the fallout from the GFC and claim they couldn’t recall, were unaware, ill-informed or not briefed about the practices of the companies they run. But should a twelve dollar an hour employee not know the weekly specials or the required customer protocols – they will be disciplined, sent for retraining and if it persists – fired. That’s the duality of our modern society – that’s the cutting edge of the modern inequality.
In days gone by, shaving a penny or selling bread below its stated weight was illegal – in fact the term ‘baker’s dozen’ comes from a time where selling underweight bread brought the seller a fine, so they threw an extra roll into the deal to ensure your dozen rolls came up to weight. Today's companies cut and shave things just as fine - but would never dream of offering more to ensure they deliver on their promises.
Instead today's companies put young entry level employees in the complaints window, because most of us have the sense to know the multibillion dollar company’s chiseling and price gauging decisions – decisions that are certainly morally unethical, are not being made by the young face we’re expected to vent to.
Many business people defend themselves by stating they are doing everything required of them within the law. But shouldn’t we be demanding our business leaders and our leading businesses work to a higher social standard than just scraping past what is strictly legal?
Every person who complains about the attitude of Gen X or Gen Y or the new Millen-Gen needs to consider how those young people formed their attitudes. We, our companies, our society has parented these generations and created their attitudes and views of the world we now ask them to be part of. How else should they act, but to be schooled and motivated by the way they have been treated?
“Do as I say, not as I do” – has never sounded so hollow. It is the disparity between what is preached in company induction seminars and the reality of work place practices. If you treat a worker poorly, steal their breaks, ask them for extra time, effort and care – while chiseling cents from their already meager pay, if you sack them for taking a stale piece of cake that was destined for the bin, while allowing managers to indulge in junkets and large corporate expense accounts, if you show them a principle of making money by hoodwinking customers, spinning half truths into full truths, exaggerate the attributes and uses of products, and hide information that a newer, better product exists or is about to exist – those workers will learn those ethics and apply them equally to the rest of life.
This is not the world that is espoused in the multitude of corporate training videos, in the endless HR lectures and induction seminars about being a good corporate citizen. These young workers have seen the other side of the coin – the reality of how things really work and they will know the corporate ethos pounded into new employees during induction classes are just things corporations are legally required to cover in order to get you onto their floors to do their bidding.
Of course there is a chain of Chinese whispers that perverts these best desired practices, chipping away at their edges so the reality is far different when the lowest employee actually makes the sale – and this is the Billionaire buffer – the system of distancing executives from the coalface practices that allows the powerful to reap all of the benefits of a corporation while accepting none of the responsibility.
“Be innovative, be forward thinking, never disobey or break company policy, rules or directives, go that extra mile and at every opportunity make the customer happy and want to return and shop with us again. But be prepared to be sacked if you don’t meet your sales quotas, your customer served quota, your speed at the register quota or deliver efficient end of day register, cash, sales and invoice reporting – and make sure that critical reporting is done in less than five minutes after closing off to avoid additional overtime payments, or be prepared not to be paid for that extra time.
Also – one last thing, we’re making you a casual employee regardless of the hours you work. That means we can give you zero hours a week if it suits us, or 50 hours every week, we can sack you without notice, give you no benefits, no retirement fund contributions, no sick leave of any kind and you will have a changing weekly roster issued one week at a time – but you will be required to give us all the considerations that would go with being a full time employee. The alternative is – we give your position to someone else.”
There is a revolution coming and it’s not going to come from where anyone is looking. It won’t come from workers who are trapped in their quiet desperation. It won’t come from local business and suppliers who are being squeezed out of business by the huge corporate juggernauts.
It will come from the parents of the children trying to forge lives in an increasingly hostile work environment, an environment being ruled and guided by the same companies that are making retirement funds swell.
Eventually, the profits being added to the retirement accounts of the parents of the next generation will not be enough to stop them taking action to change a system that is denying and robbing their children of an honest reward for effort.
Yes – the new, infuriating and increasingly over involved generation of helicopter parents will lead the coming revolution.
Ask a teacher or a sports coach how powerful these people are? Ask them if they think anyone can outlast them in a war of attrition?
Family unlocks Thoreau’s quiet desperation. It unlocks that frustration. Frustration about work, about dreams lost or feeling powerless. If you can watch your child grow healthy and strong, become educated and capable and settle into a life that screams of a positive future – life loses much, if not all of its desperation.
And the modern parent has never been more certain their child deserves a fair go.
Twenty years ago when a parent/teacher conference went badly the child would be in trouble the moment that parent got home. “Why are you so disruptive in class? Why aren’t you concentrating? Why aren’t you doing your homework?” And no excuse would be good enough. A new start and greater commitment would be required from the child – end of story.
Not any more – today parents know exactly who is at fault.
“Why can’t you control your class? Why aren’t you teaching in a way that holds their attention? Why are you setting homework without adequate instruction?”
You cannot tell today’s parent their little Johnny is a halfwit. Even if he’s the sort of child who will hurl a brick up a tree to knock a tennis ball from a branch and then watch the same brick descend to knock him unconscious, you have to concede he’s a genius. It’s no longer politically correct to criticize someone’s child.
Every child is golden and if you disagree – you haven’t searched hard enough for the gold.
Today’s children are Einstein in mathematics, Mozart in music, Shakespeare with the pen and Leonardo in the sciences – just ask their parents. And let’s not forget sport, because they are better than Beckham and faster than Federer. Anyone who doesn’t make them the star of their team isn’t fit to coach.
But someday very soon, these same helicopter parents will stop long enough to notice the corporate structures they’ve allowed to evolve are treating their children as less than ordinary.
When this awareness reaches a critical mass there will be a backlash against the legally compliant, but ethically and morally corrupt corporate world. Demands will be made for companies and governments to become accountable on not simply a legally compliant level – but a moral, ethical and socially responsible level as well.
When mum and dad watch their golden Jane or John, with a graduate and postgraduate degree, celebrate a job that comes with a smock, a nametag and no benefits, they will come for the heads of those in charge and demand the ethics of corporations change.
Let’s hope it isn't far away, because it is an unsustainable society that pays those who manage our wealth many times the minimum wage and then fights and complains about paying less than the minimum wage to all the rest, including those who teach and care for our children, our elderly and our sick.
Somewhere we have lost our perspective about what is truly important in our advanced, civilized society. We have allowed our quiet desperation to become too desperate.