Once I was having a conversation with a friend after a few drinks and he said
What would the business world be like if it really was the way it appeared on soap operas?
On soap operas business is a clandestine, cloak and dagger operation. You are forever opening drawers for obscure documents while the other guy isn’t there, thinking about conspiracies, and flirting / sleeping with one another. People have large offices, secretaries, and complex relationships with everyone they encounter.
And very little actual work seems to get done.
When I was growing up everyone I knew had a job of some sort. You started out mowing lawns and shoveling snow, and girls babysat. Some people in rural areas (we weren’t near fields) de-tasseled corn, which could be a brutal job out in the hot sun. When you were 16 you graduated into a new type of job, a more formal job with an actual boss on a payroll and with a paycheck, in retail or at a fast food restaurant or something like that. You worked during the school year, and then you worked a lot during the summer, and you worked during spring break (if you could). When you were back from college in the summer you worked too, or stayed on campus and found some sort of job there, instead.
Now kids don’t get jobs at nearly the same rate for a variety of reasons – they have a lot more homework than we did, and parents want them to focus on school as the highest priority. Plus the minimum wage is higher now, and the retail and fast food jobs are often going to full-grown adults that need the work in this economy. For whatever reason, I see a lot less kids (16-20) that seem to be potential full-time college student candidates doing actual work when I am out shopping or elsewhere in the type of jobs I used to work.
But instead there are many more TV programs that appear to show work. The most prominent is “The Office”, which actually has many more truthful elements of actual work than the traditional soap operas. The divide between management and staff is more obvious, and the staffers reflect their stereotypical personas (the semi-autistic or boring accountant, the pretty secretary, the beaten-down HR worker, the semi-optimistic sales staff, and those hangers on that have somehow survived rounds of layoffs but you can’t quite figure out what they do), while the actual workers are in the basement, moving paper with a forklift and having a culture of their own.
The general spirit of the office is the absolute minimum level of competence and business skills to keep the organization afloat, with a chimerical camaraderie of forced meetings and boring encounters. There is a continuous focus on the head office and corporate, which is certainly realistic, since change do derive from the top often with little knowledge of what is happening “on the ground”.
Since many kids don’t have jobs or actual contact with formal managers, shows like “The Office” do in fact color their view of the traditional workplace. While many kids can understand what is obviously real and what is obviously fake, the “accoutrements” of power (secretary, an enclosed office, a conference call relationship with corporate) seem relevant. Certainly living in the “cube farm” is not a good fate, sitting at a communal table or small beige cube adjacent to obnoxious, dopey or deranged co-workers is to be escaped at all costs.
An abstract concept of “work” and “management” unhinged from “actual work” or “actual management” appears to be at its highest in the (wealthy) Arab world. This excellent article in Bloomberg describes the job situation for young adults in Saudi Arabia.
Today, all three still live at home, get pocket money from their parents and are jobless in Riyadh, capital of the world’s largest crude oil exporter. When the three Saudi men met each other in school 11 years ago, they dreamed that by the time they had reached their mid-20s, each would have a well-paid job, a house, a new car and maybe a wife
Most of the work in Saudi Arabia is actually done by guest workers or expatriates. The “dirty” work of construction, domestics, etc… is done by fellow Arabs from countries that aren’t sparsely populated and endowed with natural resources, and the “thinking” work of managing and running businesses is done by expatriates from around the world.
The article goes on to explain how young adult Saudis don’t want to work in supermarkets, construction, or as cashiers. They want the jobs that they see on TV – the managerial jobs, sitting behind a desk, in a climate controlled and first class office building.
“In my previous job, I used to sit at a desk in my own office,” he says. “I want the same standard of work.” Abdullah, who has a high school diploma, says he has been offered “bad” jobs: as a waiter, security guard and cashier.
The interesting part of this is that the Saudis want those jobs without any sort of skills that would make them relevant in the wider, competitive world. They have a concept of what “work” means and this abstract concept is completely unhinged from any sort of skill building or “work your way up from the bottom” mentality that could support it on a larger scale.
This is the ultimate abstraction of work; routine, office tasks with demanded accoutrements that have no bearing on the underlying economy or added value of goods or services.
Cross posted at LITGM