You Got Served

We were sitting at the kitchen table on Day Two of the “My-Wife-Can’t-Breathe-Because-Humidity-And-Heat-Kill-Asthmatics” Festival, when she broke into a cussing, coughing fit.

“That asshole! What a fucking dick!”

It takes a lot for her to get to that level, as opposed to me, who you could easily see yelling, “Hurry the fuck up! It’s fucking cold out here!” during a eulogy.

The asshole-dick in question was a coworker of hers at the local nursing/retirement home. The fellow CNA/RA had called in sick four minutes before his shift, sending the rest of the crew into understaffed crisis mode. Making this worse, he wasn’t really entirely sick, as he was in Milwaukee with some friends and didn’t know until four minutes before his shift that he couldn’t really make it back on time.

For some perspective, it’s a 100-mile drive. Unless he had Cliff Secord’s backpack or Montgomery Scott’s ability for trans-warp beaming, there was no way he was coming in and he knew it.

This is the same douchewad who called in sick last year, forcing overtime on all the rest of the people who were left to play catch up. In between answering call lights, handing out medication and rushing through laundry, someone got an alert on their phone that he had posted a photo.

There he was, right in the middle of Country USA, bragging about the concert he was seeing.

I don’t think that I’m reaching too far in noting that this guy is not an anomaly. In fact, people acting like assholes has become such a common part of American culture, the Choose Life campaign put out this fantastic ad for organ donation, hitting exactly the proper nerve.

Service itself can be both a noble thing and a degrading thing. We talk about people who give themselves to a “life of service” as being noble and benevolent. Conversely, we talk about “servers” sometimes like something befell them that ranks between crabs and whatever the hell came flying out of the Holy Grail in this Indiana Jones flick. Even more, nobody seems to be hiding their disdain anymore for working in an industry of service.

I had to take The Midget to the mall to buy a birthday gift for one of her friends. We are now at that imperceivable pivot in life where gifts have gone from Target or Toys ‘R’ Us to Justice and Wet Seal and any other store that plays boyband music and looks like an army of bedazzlers threw up on its content.

And yes, in case you were wondering, it is killing me…

We picked out a few items and headed to the front of the store, which had all of about six people in it. No one was there to check anyone out.

After five minutes, a young lady (figure 18-20 years old) walks out of the back, sees us and then turns around and goes back into the back. I figure she’s going to get the check out person.

Five more minutes, no one. Five more minutes and my kid loudly notes:

“Maybe they’d do better if they had a bell up here we could ring.”

Just about the time I’m ready to walk out of the store, another young lady sees us from the other side of the store, exhales a big sigh and walks over to ring us up. She doesn’t look at us and then mutters something that I think was the total.

“Slide or chip for the card?” I ask.

She looks up at me with that look that teens give adults in hopes of inspiring homicidal tendencies, complete with the eyeroll and the incongruous shoulder shrug.

“Whatever, I guess.”

Come on, kid. Give giving a shit a shot. Even in the horrifically shitty movie “Waiting,” we got at least the false face of happiness before a secreted backroom allowed for full-on Chuckie Mode.

We paid and left at which point my daughter takes my hand and says, “You were very patient.” I love my child.

A bit later I swung by a video-game store and picked out a used game for her and one for me. At the counter is the guy checking people out talking with a couple of older guys (read: 45 or just looking like that due to spending way too much time in mom’s basement eating Hot Pockets) about how “totally mod-able” a game is. Neither of the guys is buying anything.

We’re waiting at the check out register and he sees us and goes back to talking. The Midget, sensing danger, puts her game back and says, “We can go.”

Uh. No. We’re getting these games.

I did the math and figure out how much they were including tax and I put the money on the counter in hopes of drawing him in, much in the way Wile E. Coyote would pour roadrunner seed under a rope-hung anvil. He sees the money, could stop for six second shooting the shit with these guys and literally move three feet to his left to complete the transaction.

Nope.

Finally after about seven minutes (we started a timer after the first blow-off), we just picked up our money and took off, leaving the game cases on the counter where he could see them. What’s more, he didn’t even break stride in his conversation as we walked out right in front of him.

Not every experience I had with food or folks or fun has been a case of shitty attitudes and generally poor work outcomes, but when I mentioned it to a few friends, I found that I’m not alone in noticing this.

My brother-in-law used to tell me stories of how the people he would hire to work at the shoe store he managed would hide in the warehouse part to avoid dealing with customers. Others would always say, “I’m not doing that! That’s not my job!” to almost anything, ranging from stocking shoes to running a register.

My wife regaled me with stories about her coworkers at various call centers who would put themselves “on a call” so they couldn’t be bothered and then play games on their phones. They would also loudly announce, “It’s MY TURN for lunch!” ignoring the fact that a) it wasn’t and b) they just got back from a bathroom break and a smoke break.

A friend told me that while ordering at a “casual eating” restaurant, a counter worker asked, “Do you really need that?” about an order item because the person didn’t know how to ring it up and didn’t want to ask for help.

To quote everyone who now seems determined to quote Vince Lombardi: What the hell is going on?

The United States has seen a serious shift in its economic base from manufacturing and agriculture to service-based jobs. In most cases, we aren’t making things any more. We’re serving those things to other people.

According to federal statistics, somewhere around 40 percent of those service-based jobs are in retail, leisure/hospitality and healthcare/social assistance. In short, those are things where you actually have to SERVE other people’s needs, as opposed to things like financial activities or federal government jobs where your contact with other bipeds is variable at best.

I get that not every job is a dream job and that not every 20-year-old has a passion for politely explaining rampaging anger-moms why it is that all the Elsa dresses are sold out, even though her kid really, really wants one. We have always had people who were shitty to others, didn’t like work or just thought the world was soooo harrrrddddd… However, this crop seems to be a bumper one and it’s not exactly clear as to why.

The easy explanation: Damned Millennials and their iPhones.
Generation Gaps emerge when you least expect them, as it’s not the old “Depression Era” grandparents against the “Gen X” slackers any more. It’s actually more like siblings separated by a couple years: “When I was your age, Mom never let me do that!” The younger managers are now saddled with being responsible and all of those “silly rules” that kept customers happy and upset them as rank-and-file employees now make total sense. As they now serve as “enforcers,” they see even less-interested people in this “me, me, me” generation that has been given everything and allowed to do whatever as being a collection of shitheads for not playing by the rules.

The answer is probably half right and half wrong. Researchers and journalists have made some good hay turning this idea of millennial slacker vs. millennial brilliance over and over again. In many ways, it reminds me of the oat-bran studies of the 1990s, where every five minutes, you learned that oat bran was either going to make you healthy as a horse or dead as horsemeat.

Sure, people do better in many cases when they have skin in the game (to quote one article) and people who LIKE what they are doing tend to do better at it. This isn’t a revelation of this new generation but rather common sense. However, it’s also worth noting that not every millennial has “critical thinking skills” as noted in this article, but rather just that sense of being right, no matter what.

The more complicated explanation: Consolidation and corporate ownership.
I worked a few “Joe Jobs” in my earlier years and two of them were for what I would call “small-business owners.” One guy had a hotdog-selling business at a number of local fairs around the area and another guy owned a gas station with a garage attached to it. Truth be told, neither of them was my favorite manager of people, but they both got a lot of stuff done and it was pretty clear why.

Every dollar that came in was furthering their own needs. Every lost sale was an actual cost to them.

That’s why we had rules on how many hotdogs we had to have on hand at any given time and how we couldn’t waste certain amounts of stuff. If lines got too long, people walked away and that was money out of his pocket.

That’s also why we had a full-service pump, where the elderly ladies of the area (and the local big-wig bar owner who drove a 1979 Lincoln Towncar the size of the USS Wisconsin) would frequent. Whatever we were doing in the garage, we had to drop and run out to the pump and fill their tank, wash their windows, top off their oil and check their tires. When we were all too backed up to do any of this, my boss would actually go out there and do it himself. The reason? The gas at that pump came at a $.50-per-gallon premium. Same fuel, more money.

Sure, it’s also why one year we had to use brake cleaner to remove a yellow tint off of Christmas lights so they were white. The boss bought the yellow ones because they were a dime a string cheaper and he could expense the brake cleaner more easily than Christmas lights. It’s also why we always had a list of jobs that we had to complete when we weren’t engulfed in hotdog-seeking masses of humanity. He was actually paying us so he wanted work from us.

Still, there was that sense of “I’m paying you to work, not slack” and that ran through the whole organization. We weren’t always thrilled, but when the guy said “I’m paying you” it was true. His wife (or in one case his girlfriend) did the books and cut the checks. It wasn’t some nebulous corporate office and I wasn’t being managed by some random schmoe who showed up six months before I did.

The possibly awkward answer: Fear and Desperation.
When I graduated from college, my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t have a job and I’d have to move back in with my parents. Now, this is so common, it has become its own thing: The Boomerang Generation.

(SIDE NOTE: Of all the things in this article, the one that got me was this line:

Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) of these 25- to 34-year-olds say they don’t currently have enough money to lead the kind of life they want…”

Yeah? No shit?)

Maybe it was working for those “owner-operator bosses” that made me fearful of getting fired. Maybe I was one of the few who bought into the line about being a bad employee or bad student ending up “on your permanent record.” (Mine, of course, now is about 1.2 million pounds, I’m sure) Maybe it was what my mother-in-law told me when I was fussing over some minor thing I was trying to fix on the car:

“You don’t know how to not care about doing a good job.”

Part of that, I’m sure, is pride in my work, but the other part was fear and desperation. I was hardwired into a world of afterschool specials and VH1’s Behind the Music: You have a chance to succeed, you’re doing well, you fuck up just thiiiiiiss much and BAM, you’re fucked forever. A tragic tale of wasted youth.

You think I’m kidding? Check out these things I was forced to watch as a kid:

And those are just the ones I can remember…

Fear and desperation means saying “Yes sir” a lot more than “Fuck you.”

Today, I think we have a dichotomous split between the Boomerangs and Martin Seligman’s Dogs which pretty much minimizes that sense of fear and desperation

For the Boomerangers, there is no fear and desperation. They can go home, eat out of mom’s fridge and join dad’s cell-phone plan. You think you can scare them into fear over losing an $8.50-an-hour job at Wiener Hut? I have a relative who is 35 and lives in his mom’s basement because he can. He has a truck, a Camaro and a Harley. Plus, he gets all the best seats for all the best concerts. I think he’d be more afraid of leaving that situation than getting into it.

On the other hand, fear and desperation can make you totally numb to it. In “Hand to Mouth,” Linda Tirado explains in grimacing detail how it is that people in “Bootstrap America” can just flat-line and not give a fuck about anything, even when they are the most desperate people out there. Her explanations are a perfect parallel to Seligman’s experiments on dogs that helped found the theory of Learned Helplessness. In the experiments, the dogs were given random shocks from the floor of a cage. In one case, the dog could push a button and escape the shocks, while in the other case, the dog just had to sit there and take it. Then, both dogs were put into cages with escape options. The dog who had learned to push the button immediately did so and escaped. The all-shocks dog just laid down and took it until the shocking was over. It didn’t even try to escape.

I have no idea if any of these answers are even remotely close and I think all this writing has done is make things as clear as mud for me in psycho-analyzing the Counter Help Generation.

However, a few things ARE clear: We’re not making stuff any more, we are serving stuff a lot and we need to be really good at it if we want to survive as individuals and as a culture.

One thought on “You Got Served

  1. kaleberg says:

    There are two things going on.

    1) The jobs have gotten worse than ever. The minimum wage has eroded horribly, and it is immediately obvious that there is no prospect of advancement. It’s lousy, and it is not going to get better. Even college graduates are getting stuck in these base wage jobs.

    2) Housing costs have soared. There actually was a time when you could get a minimum wage job and be able to afford a basic room and to eat. Immigrant stories from the 19th century are full of this. Dig ditches by day, live in a boarding house at night. This is no longer possible.

    Desperation doesn’t help with these jobs. The jobs already don’t provide enough money to live on. Even if the wages are high enough, there is no way to get the hours needed or even a proper schedule. There is no way to do overtime. There is no way to take a second job. On the plus side, if you lose one such crappy job, there is always another one waiting. (Unless you were pushing for a union and got blacklisted.) If you get a promotion to “manager”, you get an extra few dollars a week and permission to work all the hours they tell you for no additional pay. Then you’ve topped out.

    There used to be a link between low end wages and the cost of living. Modern employers and toxic politics have broken that link. They assume that there are food stamps, shelters, housing vouchers, soup kitchens and so on and factor this into their wage and hour setting practices. Big companies do this because it “creates shareholder value”. Little outfits do this because it means more money for the owners personally. For a lot of kids, as Laurie Anderson pointed out, there is always mom.

    Living at home was the rule in the 1930s. In fact, young people who were working, but were not yet married, usually lived at home in the 19th century and well into the 20th. The working age and marriage age were lower, but when times were bad, a couple simply couldn’t afford to get married. That’s how they said it, and they weren’t talking about the bridezilla gown. This was the rule during the Great Depression, but the problem was mitigated by the introduction of the latex condom and access to automobiles. Unmarried kids could move out in the 1960s, but that was during an unprecedented economic boom and much greater government involvement in housing creation.

    I’m a baby boomer, so I had it easy. I feel incredibly sorry for kids these days. They have been truly and royally shafted. They know it too. It’s like the traditional English working class. They know their place, and they don’t like it. I can’t blame them. Though, to be honest, I’m often surprised at the high level of service I get at stores, restaurants and so on given how poorly those assisting me are being paid and treated. I usually attribute it to the exuberance of youth, though I am aware that this has its limits.

    Like

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