A good friend got laid off from his job the other day. (How many times have we all heard that one over the past five years?) He will be fine; he knows it. His wife works, things are fine with his kids, the family doesn’t have any medical problems or other crushing debt. He didn’t do anything wrong; rather, his company got into legal and financial problems related to projects my friend never touched.
And yet he admits to a sizable ego bruise. Why? We are in our early 50s now. When we were growing up, the dads we knew worked hard, steadily, and only very rarely with interruptions. They provided; it was their key function. It was our baseline of Dad-dom.
Of course, a great deal has changed. A great many of the men of our generation have recognized that providing for the family can and should involve both partners (where there are two), and I know of very few men these days who are bothered if their wives make more money than them. Still, the visceral taproot of our idea of a father’s job cannot be pried out of our personal ground, no matter how we may prune the tree the world sees. Some combination of duty and cultural stubbornness preserves it.
And my buddy will even be fine with this part eventually. He knows that too. But his experience got me thinking: wasn’t it supposed to be easier by now? Wasn’t this business of making a living scripted to have arrived at the third act, a denouement sloping to a happy ending, by the time we reached our fifties?
Oh, I understand the world owes us exactly nothing, and that fairness in the business world is vain to seek. But it seemed different for my parents’ generation. Work in an office, climb the ladder rung by rung, do your part and the company will do theirs…right?
“Oh, I don’t know,” my wife said when I asked her. “My Dad had a hard time in his later years. Problems at the plant, union issues. He had to work a lot harder to keep his job. He started coming home with busted fingers and things.” (My late father-in-law was a machinist and maintenance worker in a plant that made vending machines and similar equipment.) No question, there were experiences like this. My Dad’s was steadier; he was a specialty steel plant manager and VP by the time he was into his mid-50s.
But things we never heard were, “Company’s had a bad quarter. Gotta chop 10,000 jobs.” “Well, we can’t fund that pension plan. We know you were counting on it, and paid into it for years…but we’re broke. Sorry.” Men in their later years didn’t get cut loose into a market where they had little or no hope of getting a new job, a world where someone younger was willing and able to do twice as much work for half as much pay.
Was it my imagination…or did companies and their employees ride out storms together? Do without bonuses and keep on working? I couldn’t have made that up…could I? Companies knew each person they employed was likely feeding at least two or three others.
I guess they know that today. They just don’t care.
You could argue that dollars have always mattered more than people. But it didn’t always seem so. Lifetime employment is a thing of the past, even in Japan, where the concept rose to its zenith. Still, I don’t understand the complete trouncing of loyalty in the modern economy. How sustainable is fear as a motivator? You can light fires under as many asses as you want, but keeping them burning is a harder job. Sure, people will work hard to keep from getting fired. But unless they feel like you’re a partner, someone who will look out for them, they won’t innovate or go any extra miles. Not for long, anyway.
Instead, the goal has become the exception. In an interview I did for Golf Channel about 10 years ago, a high-ranking executive at Ping, the golf club company, described an episode in which he was worrying about employment costs and the bottom line. This exec was one of the first employees to rise this high in the company without being part of the family of Karsten Solheim, the brilliant Norwegian engineer who founded Ping. Walking the production floor with Mr. Solheim, the exec voiced his concerns about staffing and needing to run lean and save costs and do this and do that and…
Mr. Solheim stopped him. “Don’t you see,” Mr. Solheim said, waving his hand broadly to take in the big room, “this isn’t about golf clubs. It’s about giving people jobs. It’s about honest work. And families. And children. And their children.” He took in the busy vista and smiled, then walked off. That was the end of the discussion. Anyone who understood Mr Solheim’s deep religious faith would say it made perfect sense.
The executive who told me the story said he never worried again. And we both knew, as the tape rolled in the camera and I moved on to my next question, that the mere notability of that story, while heartwarming, was also chilling.
Head up, face the future, and if you’re an employer — remember.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr