Sunday, June 18, 2006

Give me a break
My second least favorite business story is the lost productivity story. You know the one, sometimes you see it on the business page, sometimes on the lifestyles page, or, on slow news days, it might even make page one. It goes like this: "America loses X billion dollars every year due to this bad habit." For example:
Cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke cost $92 billion in productivity losses annually, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Smokers, on average, miss 6.16 days of work per year due to sickness (including smoking related acute and chronic conditions), compared to nonsmokers, who miss 3.86 days of work per year.

Employees that smoke had about two times more lost production time (LPT) per week than workers who never smoked, a cost of $27 billion to employers.

Smoking is the most common boogie man in this narrative, but booze, drugs, overeating, lack of exercise, and not paying sufficient attention to the health of your colon have all had their moment in the sun as productivity killers.

There are many things to hate about this story. Most obvious is the whole idea of calculating the dollar value of a bad habit. Of all the things that happen in our lives and deduct from our mythical perfect productivity, how do you really assign responsibility to one and only one? Most smokers have to walk a half block or so every time they have a smoke. They take longer breaks than non-smokers, but they get more exercise. Most smokers are able to successfully reduce their level of stress through their filthy habit while the rest of us stand around the coffee maker raging about what we would like to do to the selfish idiot who took the last cup and didn't start a new pot. Is all this taken into consideration when they assign a dollar value to smoking versus non-smoking? I didn't think so.

What I hate most about this story is the way it blames workers for not achieving their mythical perfect level of productivity. When the story frames it as "America loses X billion dollars" rather than "American employers lose X billion dollars" it sounds like it's unpatriotic to have any bad habits at all. An increasing number of employers use this kind of calculation to invade their employees' privacy and undermine the wall separating the time that the employer pays for and the time that unambiguously belongs to the employee. If our employers can tell us whether or not we can smoke on our own time, how soon before they can tell us whether or not we can drink, eat meat, or stay up to watch Jon Stewart? It's the ugliest sort of slippery slope. The hidden message is that we should dedicate our every moment to toning our bodies and minds into machines of perfect productivity. Anything less is robbing your boss and betraying your country.

The story also has a large and nasty element of class hostility in it. These stories inevitably focus on the personal habits of employees. They rarely focus on management. Although we often see stories about ridiculous pay packages for senior executives, when was the last time someone conducted a major research project to calculate how much America is hurt by over-generous compensation to under-productive leaders? How often are their daily habits analyzed for unproductive behavior? How wasteful is it for someone who makes a thousand dollars an hour to write their own letters or even go to the bathroom? How much does America lose from bad decisions made by clueless middle management?

A year ago this week, I became aware of a new bad habit that employees should feel guilty over. John Tierney, who had just taken over Bill Safire's spot on the New York Times op-ed page, told us we should feel guilty about retiring.
Men in their 70's raced on bikes for 40 kilometers in this month's National Senior Games in Pittsburgh. A 68-year-old woman threw the discus 85 feet, and a 69-year-old man hurled the javelin nearly half the length of a football field.

Is it possible that people this age are still physically capable of putting in a full day's work at the office?


If the elderly were willing to work longer, there would be lower taxes on everyone and fewer struggling young families. There would be more national wealth and tax revenue available to help the needy, including people no longer able to work as well as the many elderly below the poverty line because they get so little Social Security.

At this point in his NYT career, I thought Tierney was pretty uninspiring. He repeated the day's Republican talking points and bashed the official liberal strawmen. In this op-ed he made the current Party point's that Social Security was doomed, AARP was evil, and Chile was heaven on earth for retirees, but his attack on the selfishness of retirees was a new one to me. While others, fretting about the sustainability of Social Security, had brought up the idea of raising the retirement age, Tierney was the first opinion maker that I was aware of who had accused retirees of being selfish and unpatriotic for retiring before the corporate world had wrung the last drop of productivity out of them. How else can you read his opening? How dare these retirees expend energy on their own pursuits when they still have some energy that their employers might use for profit?

Notice the false choice that Tierney makes: old people can do something productive for America or only play games. Later in this column he even mentions golf, the great stereotype of goof-off grown-ups.

The June 12 U.S. News and World Report has a big red Seagram's "7" on the cover with the headline "Seven Reasons Not To Retire." This brings me to my number one least favorite business story: this is the story in which the author demonstrates his hopeless detachment from real working people.
Admit it. Golf doesn't really hold that much allure. Soaking up the sun day after day in Florida? Nah. What gets you going each morning is your work. Sure, it would be nice not to have such a long commute. Maybe a couple of extra days off a week would be cool, too, to catch up on chores or take in a matinee. Well, guess what? You're not alone. More and more present and future retirees are finding that the traditional idea of retirement is passé. What's more, there's plenty of evidence that keeping your hand in the game, or even finding a new calling, will yield a longer, healthier, and happier latter stage of your life.

Golf and goofing off, that's what retirement is all about. Once upon a time, I read that men of the World War Two generation, my father's generation, lived an average of six months after retirement. As more than half of them were still alive when I read that, I'm not sure how they calculated that average. This is the kind of statistic that U.S. News and Tierney seem to base their arguments on.

The seven points of the U. S. News story are: 1) Work pays more than non-work; 2) The economy needs qualified workers; 3) Work keeps you healthy and sharp; 4) Retired married people make each other crazy; 5) You'll get lonely at home; 6) You can use this time of your life for a whole new beginning; and 7) Work gives life meaning.

Before I fly off the handle over these points, let me tell you something about my personal work history. I've been working for almost thirty-five years. For my entire adult life, I have been trying to get a job that gave my life meaning and provided me with a modest middle-class living. At best, I have been presented with an either-or choice, meaning or money. More often, I have had a neither-nor choice. Now, you might look at this and say I'm just whining about my own crappy working life. I respond by saying, of course I'm whining about my own crappy working life, but I believe I'm also speaking for most workers.

In the first part of this essay, I mentioned the class insensitivity of the writers of the lost productivity story. U.S. News and Tierney are far more guilty of the same class insensitivity. Allow me to take on the U.S. News points:

1) Work pays more than non-work I can't argue with that. This point is only relevant if you believe Social Security will not support the people who have paid into it, and therefore will need additional income, or are so so greedy that they will not settle for what they can get. Golf course fees can be expensive.

2) The economy needs qualified workers This is one of the points I find most offensive. In my work life, I have generally been treated like an easily replaceable cog. The very best job I ever had assured me that the employees were their very most valuable resource just before laying off seventy percent of the company. I'm not convinced that the corporate world will suddenly want me right after I turn sixty-four, when they have been indifferent to contemptuous towards me and my skills for the last thirty-five years.

3) Work keeps you healthy and sharp Activity keeps us healthy and sharp. My Mom and Dad, as long as he lived, were active and energetic and I'm sure it kept them alive. They did not depend on some corporation to provide them with excuses to keep active.

4) Retired married people make each other crazy My Dad had an unexpected medical retirement long before he and Mom expected it. Mom and Dad had a few years of difficult adjustment, but they worked it out and had twenty great years together after that. I married my best friend. We know how to live together.

5) You'll get lonely at home If you change jobs frequently, you're lonely at work. Lack of social connections is a major problem in our society, but one of the key elements of that problem is that jobs don't provide the connections that they did when they lasted longer.

6) You can use this time of your life for a whole new beginning You can do that in or out of the workplace.

7) Work gives life meaning I'll let U. S. News explain what they mean by this.
In a Chronicle of Philanthropy essay last fall, two nonprofit activists noted that current advertising campaigns by the financial services industry, focusing on retirement years as a time to contribute to society, were based on extensive marketing research on the "deep yearning for work that not only is personally meaningful but also means something beyond the self."

I absolutely agree with them on this, but wonder why they think we can only get this meaning from working for someone else. My parents spent much of their retirement raising money for the Shriners' Hospitals. No one paid them to do that.

Behind the whole U. S. News narrative is a huge disconnect between the writers and most working people. The writers at U. S. News and John Tierney are people at the top of an interesting and rewarding field. They don't want to retire before they drop, so they can't conceive of any one else wanting to retire before they drop, except for the lazy and selfish. Most workers are closer to my condition that they are to theirs. Moreover, U. S. News and Tierney are perfectly happy to cry "class warfare" when the poor complain about the rich, but here they bash the poor for the hideous crime of wanting some time off while they are still able to enjoy it. They should be ashamed, but we should know better than to expect them to know shame.

When I was growing up, I had certain expectations about what the adult working world would hold for me. Those expectations might have been misunderstandings on my part, but I'm not sure I was alone in holding them. First, was the idea that if I went to college and played by the rules, I would get a good job. That was a misunderstanding. Going to college and playing by the rules might have helped, but they didn't guarantee anything. Second, when my folks told me it didn't matter if I made money as long as I liked what I was doing, I believed that those two things were an either-or choice. As I mentioned above, I didn't realize that hating what I did and not making any money was also a possibility.

I take full responsibility for misunderstanding both of those. Neither one was an iron-clad guarantee. Social Security was something else. That was a guarentee. The reward for putting in an honest working life was supposed to be a time of rest. The reward for giving most of my productive hours to someone else for forty nine-years was supposed to be that I owned the rest of my hours to use as I please, even to play golf.

If these writers were simply naive and clueless, I might forgive them. However, I see a more sinister message behind their narrative. As John Tierney was calling retirees who want to quit work at the age they were promised lazy and selfish, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was introducing legislation to raise the retirement age to 68. A year later, U.S. News and World Report is telling us that retirement is bad for us and no fun. The combined message seems to me to be we shouldn't want that bad old retirement anyway. And if they tell us we don't want it often enough, maybe we won't complain too much when we don't get it. People who have jobs they might not want to quit, might not feel too bad telling everyone else that they don't get to quit their jobs.

Meanwhile, I think I should be allowed to have a few hours at the end of my life to enjoy my bad habits. If I want to volunteer for something that doesn't pay, that's my business. If I want to annoy my wife at home, that's our business--if, indeed, she stays home. If I want to lock myself in a room and write about mammoths, that's my business. And if I want to play golf...

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