The Abstract Concept of “Work”

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

11 thoughts on “The Abstract Concept of “Work””

  1. Good post.

    “In my previous job, I used to sit at a desk in my own office,” (Abdullah) says. “I want the same standard of work.”

    Runaway credentialism in the US is leading to somewhat similar attitudes…kids have been told repeatedly that “a college degree” will lead to “a good job”, and I’m afraid too many have taken the sales pitch at face value and not thought in sufficient depth about the kind of work they would really like to do and be able to do.

    There really aren’t many good sources of realistic career information out there (except for the minority willing to do some serious digging)…TV/movie portrayals are usually silly, as you describe, guidance counselors don’t typically have much experience with the world of actual work, professors, even with the best will in the world, will tend to oversell their own subjects, books on career choices are usually simply compendiums of reformatted BLS statistics, etc etc.

  2. I would add, in reading this, that young people today eshew any work that involves manual labor – the trades….this country is crying for good welders, machinists….I have a good friend who is a plumber making all the money he wants. He avoids the short cuts, is conscientious about his work – won’t hire people because of our workman’s comp prices – just has a comfortable little business because of his reputation.

    I remember a quote I read from somewhere about a man coming of age during the Great Depression – and he said that the goal was to find work — didn’t matter what kind of work it was, just work. People were willing to do anything offered them.

    A good friend of mine came as an immigrant in the late 60s and typical of many immigrant stories, became very successful through education and hard work.

    To make a longer story shorter he was trying to help an old friend – long unemployed – find work – got him a job and the man quit after a few weeks, saying he’d rather get unemployment.

    Now the unemployment is running out and he is in real trouble.

    It is an interesting question – to imagine the workplace as Hollywood portrays it – or being a cop – doctor – I suspect the people would go nuts. The actual workplace – pick your job – I would suspect has a big element of monotony to it – much of life is just showing up and doing the best you can.

  3. @Bill – the trades are in serious trouble. I run an HVAC distribution business and my average customer’s age just gets older and older. On a normal day I would imagine the average age of most techs that I see is in the 50’s. There are a LOT of older guys doing just what you described. Running one man shops to avoid insurance, workers comp, unemployment and all the rest and just plodding along making a good living working on word of mouth.

    Any kid who wants to be a welder or HVAC mechanic or (insert trade here) and applies themselves out of high school would have a very promising career in the US indeed and they could live anywhere they wanted to.

  4. Your country is in a depression. No one likes to use that word but it is what is happening. there are few opportunities for young people and they understand the US is not doing well and the shining City on the Hill is a slum.

    About 15% of your population some 47 million people are on the food stamp program.

  5. Fortunately, my kids seem to be learning the right lessons. My youngest, who was considered an airhead by most of the family, is a full time stunt at U of Arizona and works full time at an upscale restaurant in Tucson (Firebird, if anybody is near Tucson). she works had and gets good tips (one weekend they were over $400). She seems to have a lot of fun and friends. It helps she is beautiful but she seems to have the ethic developed. All the other kids are doing well, too. I have a nephew in Chicago who has a degree and went through an elevator apprenticeship. He has a pretty good job but he would like to move his family to a warmer climate. There just aren’t enough elevators in warm climates. I was rendering about the oil boom in Texas. The article said truck drivers with commercial licenses can start at $80,000. I’m sure it would be very hard for him to make the jump with little kids.

    Interesting situation we have.

  6. @Dan – it is ironic – and the situation was created in no small part to Hollywood screenwriters looking down on characters with the trades.

    But if your car is broken, your house no longer cools (or heats), your sink overflows……who are you going to call? ;-)

    My friend the plumber had the right idea – when he turned 30 he had been floating around from min wage job to min wage job – decided that he had better learn something .

    Talked to a friend in the plumbing supply business and decided that whether the economy was good or bad – if your sink stops up – you aren’t going to defer getting it fixed!

    So he became an apprentice to a plumber for a few years.

    Just to show you what kind of plumber he is – years ago – in our office building, the urinal – when flushed was like Niagara Falls.

    I’m serious – flush that thing and stand back or you would have a lot of ‘spaining to do! (Is that an “inside” or “outside” job!?

    Well Bill looked at the valve and decided that all these years when “normal” plumbers were coming in periodically to “fix” the problem, they were replacing the wrong part with another wrong part.

    Nobody had stopped to consider what kind of valve it really needed.

    I think none other than Jay Leno – a car nut of the first order, was complaining about the difficulty in finding good machinists –

    Say you have a Duesenberg that needs a pinion gear in the differential – somebody has to make it – from scratch.

    Anything being designed – to produce a prototype needs a machinist – able to translate from blueprint to finished product.

    There is a glimmer of hope – I do a lot of work with my car club – scheduling drives, events. I go out to the local MB dealer and am always surprised at the demographics of the factory mechanics these days.

    In the old days your typical MB mechanic was named Hans or Dieter – and middle aged.

    Now they are named Allen or Joe – or Christina….and in their 20s-early 30s.

    They all go through a trade school learning the basics when the dealer hires them and sends them to factory schools.

    Those in the trades do not work in comfortable environments. My late company used to provide services to independent garages, and I still shudder thinking of the conditions the mechanics work in the midwest or east coast. You have a portable heater and keep the garage bay doors closed as much as you can.

    But its cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

    But I think – those guys in the MB dealership – make $60-$80K/year. And they are in their 20s early 30s.

  7. Some jobs are gone-my brother and I had morning paper routes in the fifties – the family that had the routes before us managed to produce a doctor, a teaching veterinarian, a musician and a pharmacist. Good training. But modern routes – large and quite early, etc. made that whole pattern impossible. And my brothers worked on farms -unpaid early, paid later. Again, farming has changed and our kids weren’t raised in that small town environment. But work – that work ethic makes so much else fall into place. My kids, my siblings’ children, their children – all work early. And it has been a source of more pleasure than pain as far as I can tell.

  8. The employers I have talked to, admittedly a small sample, say that drugs are a big problem and getting kids to show up for work 5 days a week and on time is the other. Pretty simple. My daughter has a good start. She wants to work and live in France and has a line on an internship with her uncle’s employer, a French aerospace company.

    Bad economic times may be a real incentive for kids to clean up their act.

    The typos in my comments are annoying me. I can’t tell if they are bad proofreading or the stroke I had last September. Sorry.

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