25 Stories About Work – Days Gone By

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

The USA, early 1990s to early 2000s

For over ten years I traveled mostly five days a week.  Back then we flew out on Sunday night so that we could be on site Monday morning at 8am, and we left the job site on Friday after 5pm which meant that typically I’d get home in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, since often we had to drive for hours to get to the airport before we could even fly home.

Those years are a blur.  I joined the work force during a recession in 1990 and everyone was happy to have a job; no one was complaining.  Right as the dot-com boom ended in about 2001 we had changed our ways and most of the team was flying out Monday morning and leaving on Thursday and “worked from home” on Fridays.  This was viewed as “the good life”.

However, for most of those years, life was a blur of travel, packing, unpacking, and working.  It would likely be impossible to motivate staff to work and travel like that nowadays; back then no one thought anything of it and we really didn’t even complain as people got divorced and their personal lives crumbled into dust.

Going into the workplace in 1990 there were three things that you could count on:

  1. You were going to work all the time, very hard
  2. You were likely going to work for a bad boss who would drive you with a whip
  3. Often times everyone would go out and have some drinks and a good time
With these expectations, it was hard to be disappointed.  We worked all the time and then we went out for dinner and drinks and then got up the next day and did it over and over again.  From our perspective, this was the way it always had been and the way that it always would be.  These sorts of expectations are built into the name of our blog “Life in the Great Midwest” and it sums up the world view and baseline of our careers.

Certainly people washed out from this insane grind.  It was mostly a male-dominated profession, although there were a few women consultants and auditors who mostly found roles where they were able to minimize their travel.  This was a zero sum game, however – since they took the roles that didn’t involve much traveling, often you had to travel that much more.  Someone had to service all of the clients and many of them were located in cities with few local staff, and those local staff often didn’t have the skills that the client needed.  Thus the same road warriors showed up and did the work, and every year a few more of them fell off the team due to family reasons (or they just “wised up”) but were always replaced by new fresh faced kids eager to earn what seemed to be top dollar or a wizened ex-corporate type needing to make more money.  The kids often worked out but the older ones didn’t; it was difficult to adjust to a life of heavy travel midway through your career.

The consulting firms went public – the biggest one was Accenture, but all the big names (with a few exceptions like McKinsey and BCG) eventually monetized and to some extent it was like the Silicon Valley of that era.  Many got rich and I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of the smaller ones but ended up taking the choice that didn’t lead to my own riches; but that’s my own (bad) luck.

Consulting and auditing pale in comparison to investment banking; I never have seen people that put in more hours than investment bankers.  I have no idea how they do it; a couple of years ago I went out for dinner and a couple drinks with a good friend of mine who is an investment banker in his 40s, and afterwards he went back to his hotel room and worked for a few more hours on a “pitch deck” for a client meeting the next day.  Whether it is practical work or not isn’t for me to judge; but as a long term “road warrior” I can tip my hat to them as being completely off their rocker in terms of how much time they are willing to invest in a client.

Perhaps the new “road warriors” are the Silicon Valley start up people.  I have been at a few of their companies and I can see the drive and stamina oozing from their pores as they stare at their computer screens, working to make their riches.  They are a bunch of young men as I was once right out of college as an auditor and they are hurling themselves into their careers and trying to make the immense riches of stock options and to be part of something great.  I’m sure that there are many women in there but the vast majority of the staff are men and they are attacking these opportunities like we used to as consultants.

Cross posted at LITGM

12 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Days Gone By”

  1. “back then no one thought anything of it and we really didn’t even complain as people got divorced and their personal lives crumbled into dust.”

    I started surgery practice with my old chief talking about how we jumped 6 foot hurdles while most surgeons (trained in smaller settings) jumped 3 foot hurdles.

    We worked long hours and got well paid but we did a lot for free because we could afford to. I never asked a patient about insurance.

    Now, students like mine are burdening themselves with huge loans and are facing a world of salaried employees of people (hospital administrators) who hate doctors.

    I enjoyed it but got divorced twice, once because my first wife could not handle the fact that I worked even harder after the residency training than I did during it.

    The second time was more an issue of teenaged kids and blended families, plus my insane schedule. I started the trauma center the year we got married. My wife, who had been an ICU nurse, could not believe how many times the phone rang at night when I was on call. She had been on the other end but she did not realize how many times people called me.

    One night, not long after we were married, I was ill with a bad cold. The ICU called on a patient and, after giving appropriate orders, I told the nurse to get the patient a “California environmental license plate.”

    I hung up and then turned to look at my horrified wife and said, “Did I just say that ?”

    We are back together after 25 years divorced. Both in our 70s now. Much mellowed.

  2. In the early years of our marriage, my wife was actually a road warrior internationally. It was insane and when she got home she worked just as hard and couldn’t leave work at work. If not for the coming of our first child and her dropping out of the work force, we would surely have been divorced.

  3. “… a wizened ex-corporate type needing to make more money.” They always washed out. Not surprising. Surprised they were hired in the first place. They would not be today.

    “… they are hurling themselves into their careers and trying to make the immense riches of stock options and to be part of something great.” I wish them well. It rarely happens, but it is like buying a lottery ticket, you have zero chance of winning if you do not play.

  4. “… they are hurling themselves into their careers and trying to make the immense riches of stock options and to be part of something great.” I wish them well. It rarely happens, but it is like buying a lottery ticket, you have zero chance of winning if you do not play.

    Tournament economics.

    Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have offered the parable of a fishing village compared to a gold-rush camp. Among fishermen, everybody lives a pretty good, but not great, life. Hard work gets you a little ahead. Good luck may get you a little ahead. Skill matters. But even with amazing work and great luck and tremendous skill the best fisherman in the best boat still only brings in a bit more each year than a typical worker with typical skill and bad luck. On the other hand, in a gold-rush area with land claims offices assigning exclusive rights to patches of mountain — everybody works amazingly hard and all (believe they have) tremendous skill, but only the truly exceptionally lucky strike gold. They become millionaires, and the rest of the prospectors starve, and die.

    This is supposed to argue for a reformation of society, such that, in the example, all would-be-miners share ownership of the entire mountain, and all work patches or sites in rotation, and all share in the luck, good and bad alike, and at the end of the year all have — like the fishing village — a living income but nobody starves, or dies.

    Lost in the parable is the proposition that nobody would work that hard for, merely, a living income. The prospectors are willing to die for a chance to become millionaires — but the kind of worker who is willing to put in a fair-day’s-work for a fair wage; goes fishing instead of prospecting.

    To get to “something great”, to be the inventor or sponsor or partner in the mother lode, next-big-thing, the market-revolution — there are people who will work in preference to family, or learning, or church, or life itself. (I’m not such a person. Obviously, neither is Krugman.)

    I think it is unwise for a society of wise leaders and central planners to so regulate the opportunities among the gold-camps, the internet, the pharmaceutical laboratories, the rocket-launchers, and so on, that nobody will die and nobody will (greatly) succeed. I would wish that some of the people now killing themselves to succeed in investment banking and financial instrument arbitrage would instead have focused on, say, nuclear energy or undersea mineral mining. But the taking of risks and the reaping of great rewards is a life to be encouraged, not scorned.

  5. If the so-and-sos weren’t trying to get filthy rich, just imagine the mischief they’d get up to. Wars, insurrections, rape and pillage …. better that they be more-or-less harmlessly engaged in their careers.

  6. “If the so-and-sos weren’t trying to get filthy rich,”

    My partner used to joke that “He hoped they never found out that he would do this for free.” We also used to joke that what we were doing was so much fun, that the money was only for keeping score.

    The students and young doctors now mostly believe they will never be as well compensated (although some do find niches that pay a lot) and they work about as hard as someone who does not expect to be well paid. We had fun because it was so free and independent. Now, medicine has got to be the most regulated profession in existence. Every doctor every day, unless they drop out like a lot are doing, is faced with threats like huge penalties for violating rules that have little or nothing to do with good practice.

    I was once fined by an HMO $500 for sending a patient to the “wrong” lab for a $16 culture of a wound. I told the HMO that I would no longer see their patients in my branch office.

    I would estimate (Not just a blind guess) that doctors are about 25% less efficient now than 50 years ago. Women doctors work on average 25% less than male doctors and male doctors work about 25% fewer hours than we did. The medical profession has hugely expanded but the perceived shortage is about the same and worse in some specialties like general surgery. I get solicited for pretty well paying general surgery jobs every day.

  7. I used to know a university astronomer who said he’d do his job free; in fact he’d pay to be allowed to do it. The best put-down that I heard delivered to him was “Easy for you to say that; your wife’s a doctor.”

  8. “We had fun because it was so free and independent.” That’s easily believed because it’s happened in so many professional occupations: loss of autonomy.

  9. Ted Kennedy complained that medicine was “a cottage industry.” The Obamacare people are turning it into the modern equivalent of a Midlands cotton mill.

  10. Yes, and cotton quickly became a commodity and medicine is doing the same.

    I predict that people will be happier with commodity cotton fabric than they are with commodity medicine.

    The NHS is there to see for all wondering about the future.

    Like this

    More than a dozen hospitals across Great Britain declared “major incidents” this past week, with non-emergency operations cancelled and extra staff called in to cope with overcrowded emergency rooms. Still, the backlog in waiting rooms keeps growing.

    The horror stories just keep coming in: long lines outside emergency departments — just to get into the waiting room — and of hospitals locking their doors to keep new arrivals away.

    In Portsmouth in southern England, patient David Cunningham watched the scene outside his hospital’s accident and emergency department, or “A&E.”

    “There had been ambulances parked outside for five hours with their patients inside, who were being treated by paramedics,” Cunningham said. “They couldn’t even get in the A&E department.”

    I will leave to your imagination what the rest of the stories are like.

    The French system, which is actually quite good and would be a model for us, is overwhelmed with British expatriates who refuse to go back to Britain for care.

    Instructions here for expats.

    France has consistently emerged better than Britain – and always near the top – of attempts to rate national health agencies for customer satisfaction and value for money.
    Overall life expectancy at birth in France is 81.7 years (UK 80.05 years) with comparable male longevity either side of the Channel. But French women live more than two years longer than their UK counterparts.
    Advances have not been achieved without a decent health budget. That budget has been under strain for several years. Economies came in in 2007 and have since been significantly reinforced.

    Read the rest, as they say.

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