Sunday, May 01, 2016

Employment and vacation

We who were born in the 1950s and '60s grew up with widely accepted concepts that included retirement and vacation. They seem to persist even now, but the time must be near when we realize they are as unnatural as so many of our other civilized assumptions.

At the start of the industrial age, workers were expected to put in 16-hour days, six days a week, having only a sabbath on which to pay the proper respect to the deity of their choice -- provided the deity's schedule fit the factory's schedule. Anyone who wanted to escape from that grind had to figure out how to maintain sufficient income to survive, and possibly prosper, outside of the rigors of the productive system imposed by the owners and their accountants.

Small business owners learned that they could catch more customers if they spread the net as wide as possible, to the limits of their endurance, or their ability to conscript their spouses and children to serve as cheap labor.

Only the wealthy vacationed.

Fast forward through the rise of the labor movement, the imposition of a more humane official work week, and the spreading of such benefits as paid time off. At the height of the golden age of American employment, the bread winner might in good conscience and with full legal justification take two weeks with pay to spend time with the family, visiting national parks, or renting a beach house. Someone below the top ranks might actually be spared from the vital processes of the company for that long. Someone in the top ranks could manage to break away for longer. It was the age of democratized leisure.

The Revenge of the Bean Counters started to kick in during the 1980s. Becoming wealthy replaced having a good life as the focus of everyone's efforts. The perception that businesses existed to make money, and that the actual product was merely incidental went in tandem with this. And if a business exists only to make money, not to make lives better, the first thing we need to do is cut down the work force so that only essential personnel remain. Work 'em hard, bleed 'em dry and hire new ones, because there's no shortage of eager beavers coming out of school with shiny new educations and no street smarts.

I'm not sure when the 40-hour work week became a joke, because I was actually trying to have a good life for my early working life. The idea that people were expected to put in 50-80 hours a week as a matter of routine never occurred to me.

I'm still trying to have a good life, now at a more acknowledged cost of decreased life expectancy.

Legally, an employee can still claim paid vacation from many employers. As a result, one must ask whether the bean counters have managed to complete their program and excise all surplus employees from the payroll, or are the remaining workers stressed all the more to cover the lack of necessary hands.

When I left work for 11 days to go to a funeral, the remaining worker on our payroll had to give up all his days off to cover my shifts. Now he's about to head off to Japan for an actual vacation trip. I may be called upon to torch my personal time to meet the needs of the business from which we derive our sustenance. That funeral trip was almost the farthest thing from a battery-recharging pleasure cruise. But in the reality of survival, the business must go on. Whatever my hopes, dreams, and needs for personal experiences, I have a job to do.

A small business is like a lifeboat. Everybody has to row. Everybody has to bail. Hopefully, someone knows how to navigate, to keep you pointed toward some theoretical island, or cross the shipping lanes and be rescued. But in all likelihood you just row until the boat sinks and then swim to another one or drown in the attempt.

We're older and tireder. The fact that the business no longer draws as many customers as it used to makes the fact that we close one day a week both possible and necessary. The owners can't pay for coverage for a full seven days. With the middle class becoming the working poor, fewer people anywhere seem to be able to afford to play tourist, or even to recreate more or less locally. Down, down, in a lazy spiral goes the economy and the aging population.

An energetic generation waits to take over after the die-off frees up land, and a philosophical shift brings about the sustainable society I hoped we would start working on 40 years ago. I wish I could feel happier for them, but I'm afraid I still resent the greedy assholes of my generation who turned their backs on all that hippie shit in the mid 1970s and chased the dollars instead.

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