Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

So, Okay

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All right.  That’s not much of a post title, but I start a lot of sentences that way.

It’s Saturday, and I’ve been informed by a flurry of frantic e-mail that it’s been five days since I’ve posted to this blog, or maybe six.

And I don’t even have the standard excuses.  Usually, what happens is that it gets so cold that working in my office is excruciating.  I work in a sunroom, and I like it that way almost all the time.  I’ve got two walls of windows that let me look out on the back yard.  I can see turkeys and plot their murder.  I can see the neighborhood dogs and wonder why people let them wander around like that.  I can watch birds and squirrels.  Mostly, I can avoid that closed-in feeling that makes it so hard for me to work.

The downside, of course, is that two walls of windows are not much protection when the temperatures hit minus 7, no matter how high I put on the heat in the auxilliary heater.

But, like I said, nothing like that has been happening around here lately.  Mostly, I’ve just not been sleeping much.  I’ve got the new Gregor, whose deadline has been pushed up, so I’m doing almost twice as much editing as I ordinarily would to get the final draft in on time.   Then I’ve got the natural worries over Greg, whose first surgery is tentatively scheduled for the 17th of March. 

Then I’ve got school, but school has been less of a strain than it normally is.  I’ve got my schedule down to exactly one course that runs two days a week, in the early morning, so that by Wednesday I’m on a long week-end.  Other than that, I may pick up a night course for adults that runs only one night a week, and in the frame, too, so I’d still have the long week-end. 

At any rate, there’s not a lot of teaching to keep it on my mind.  But the double work load on the Gregor novel means my back aches a lot, which means I don’t want to sit at the computer, which means I don’t write a blog post. 

And, you know, with no sleep, I’m not sure how coherent I’d be anyway.

But I have been thinking about blog posts, mightily aided in that effort by the fact that Mike is also posting on FB, and what he’s posting is more doom, gloom, and AI is going to take everybody’s job away until we’re all lying in the street.

Which I still don’t agree with, but in my befuddled state over the last couple of days I actually tried to come up with something concrete to say about all this.

I therefore took a survey of exactly 92 people.  This is not a statistically significant sample, and it’s not a randomly chosen one.  The people were Bill’s cousins as far as I know them, plus their spouses, and my cousins on one side of my family (the other side is more difficult to get in touch with) and their spouses.  Beyond these 92, I also talked to all the adjuncts I know that I could get in touch with, which was another couple of dozen.

I want to report what I found in a second or two, but first I want to clear things up.

One of the problems with this entire discussion is that too many of the terms are vague.  What’s a “high paying job?”  Who counts as “middle class?”

For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to stipulate the following:

a) A middle class job is one in which the person working makes at least $45,000 a year and works in an office, or in sales, or in some other capacity that is not labor with ones hands, and which offers benefits, at least to the extent of health insurance.

b) An upper middle class job is one that satisfies all the requirements of the above but pays at least $100,000 a year.

c) A working class job is one that requires one to work with ones hands in some way, and that pays whatever it pays.

I deliberately left the question of the pay of working class jobs open, for reasons that will be plain a little further down.

But what I did not do is to define what makes a “well paying” job.  And I didn’t do that because I don’t know how to control for the situation on the ground.  If you make $60,000 a year and you live in Westport, you’re poor.  If you make that much and live in Fremont, Nebraska, you may very well be the richest person in town. 

For the purposes of “well paying,” we’ll say “gets your bills paid, including your mortgage, and gets you some of the things you want as well as all of the things you need.”

So, given these more or less loose definitions, how are my 92 doing?

Actually, pretty well.

Bill’s father and his father’s brothers, as well as some of the men on his mother’s side of the family,  worked in a local vacuum cleaner factory.  It was unionized.  It also packed up and moved to North Carolina back in the 1980s.

Of, their children, Bill’s cousins, all but one is working, and all of them are working full time.  And all their spouses are working full time who want to be.

The exceptions:  one member of the family just spent several years not working at all so that he could help his wife through terminal cancer.  He’s in bad health himself, and it’s unclear to me if he’s physically capable of going to work at all.  At any rate, he isn’t looking at the moment.

Two of the wives have small children and are working part time until those children are older.  I was informed, sometimes loudly, that this was their choice and I’d be an elitist bitch to assume otherwise.

So, you know, let’s let that one stand.

Every single person on that list working full time makes a middle class salary as defined above, and all of them have health insurance through their employers. 

Every single family has taken at least one “away” vacation in the last two years–and that means since the economic turn down.   The favorite choice was a week at DisneyWorld, and I’ve looked it up.  It’s not cheap.

Every single one of these families owns its own house and is current on its mortgage.  Most of them, to be fair, bought those houses before the 90s boom in prices. 

Only two people had been laid off since this turndown, and both of them worked for large organizations with layers and layers of middle managers.

And both were middle managers.  Both of them found jobs with comparable salaries within eight months of being laid off, and both of them found “middle class” jobs.  The jobs, however, were in much small organizations or institutions. 

Of course, these are the kinds of jobs Mike is afraid AI will replace, but they’re also the kinds of jobs I tend to think of as “largely useless.” 

I posted something about this ages and ages ago, but I’ll say it again.  We have a huge load of people in this country who are essentially doing no useful work.  They have jobs and titles and salaries and benefits, but they produce very little and nothing of substance.   The “work” they do is largely an artefact of the bureaucratization of business and the professions. 

Government offices can afford to do that kind of thing forever.  Private businesses cannot.  Those jobs were going to go whether AI was invented or not.

That said, the rest of the group is interesting.  The best paid among them, and the only ones who are financially in the upper middle class, are all working class on any other measure.   It turns out that plumbers make very good livings.  

The most impressive of the group were the two brothers who went into a plumbing business together a couple of decades ago, and in the meantime have managed to send 6 children through four year college courses without need a dime in loans to do it.

The least impressive of the group is the guy who works part time as a golf pro at a country club and full time as a PE teacher in the public schools in one of the less well-heeled towns of the state.  His children are still small, so I don’t know what college is going to amount to.  He was, however, one of the people who took his family to DisneyWorld for a week this year, and his wife stayed home full time until the kids entered school.  She now works part time in a dentist’s office.

Oh, and the other thing.

Every single one of these families (except the one with the wife who died of cancer recently) has a higher standard of living than their parents did.

It isn’t true that there are “no jobs” or even that there are no “well paying middle class jobs.”  And there are certainly many jobs that AI isn’t likely to snatch away from us (somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be a computer fixing my toilet).

What is true, however, is this, and that’s where the experience of the adjuncts came into play:

1) It is certainly true that certain kinds of jobs are disappearing, and those are not just manufacturing jobs but also the middle-management paper pushing gigs in large organizations.

The reason they’re not disappearing from smaller organizations is that smaller organizations almost never have the money to hire them in the first place.

But as difficult as it might be for the people who have these jobs to lose them and not be able to find another, the simple fact is that they were an illusion to begin with.   They’re the artefact of 60 years of demanding that everybody go to college and, when that ran into the wall that is reality, dumbing down the standards to the point where “college” became a euphemism for “junior high school level skills.”

And all of it delivered to kids with the message that those other jobs–plumber, electrician, machinist, you name it–were “bad” for a whole host of reasons. 

We have created a generation of workers who have never made any useful contribution to society and who have been miseducated in a way that makes it unlikely they ever will be able to.

But the second thing is more interesting yet, and that’s where the adjuncts come into play.

The adjuncts have, by and large, the kind of jobs Mike is talking about–part time, paying practically nothing, offering no benefits. 

Most of them are not unionized, but the ones that are are actually hurt by the unions they’re forced to join.  Those unions do not represent adjuncts directly, they represent “faculty,” in which is included full-time faculty.

The problem is that the interests of full time faculty and the interests of part time faculty are not necessarily in alignment.

The union has certainly gotten compensation-per-course levels raised to close to double what they were ten years ago, but at the same time it has negotiated contracts with the institution that include a limit on the number of courses an adjunct can teach in any one semester. 

The result is that adjuncts getting the new, higher salaries are actually making less money–by over a third–than they were at the original low salary when they had no restrictions on the number of courses they can teach.

And, since the contract stipulates that full time faculty must be provided extra courses to teach at adjunct salaries any time they want them, even if the only way to give it to them is to throw an adjunct out of the course she’s already been hired for–well, tough for the adjunct. 

And, of course, since such switches tend to come just days before the semester starts, there is no time for the adjunct to find another teaching job at another place.

Of course, the union also demands that the disrupted adjunct be offered another course in compensation, but it does not require that that course be on-site.  That means that an elderly adjunct who cannot drive at night can be offered a night course at a satellite campus forty miles away–and if she turns it down, oh, well.  That’s her choice.

Adjunct faculty positions are among the worst available out there for “middle class” people, but here’s the thing that really hit me.

In every single case, the difference between whether an adjunct managed to get out of the slave labor pool and into a full time job was easily predicted by age.

Almost all the full time people at my place had been adjuncts.  Every single one of them had applied for their full time positions when they were in their thirties. 

Every single adjunct I could find who first applied for a full time position after the age of 48 had failed to find one.

And yes, I know.  It’s against the law.  But it goes on anyway.

I’m willing to bet that this situation is general–that if you work at a standard white collar job and lose it, your chances of getting another one can be reliably predicted by age.

Some of this is rational.  It’s a pain in the butt to try to hire somebody new.  If I hire somebody who is 50 now, he’s likely to be gone in ten or fifteen years.  It’s expensive to provide health insurance for people over 50, so the younger my work force, the health care costs for the business go up. 

(Watch for a lot more age discrimination under the new insurance mandates.)

Part of it is a matter of existing set-in-stone bureaucratically derived pay scales:  person X with Y experience MUST BE paid more than person C with D experience.   Given a choice, they’ll take C. 

Which means that the longer you work and the better you are at what you do, the bigger a liability you become.

But I seem to have written a book here, and I’m really tired.

So maybe I’ll try to get back to all this later.

Written by janeh

February 26th, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'So, Okay'

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  1. Its good to have Jane back. I was getting worried!

    Its been a long time since I was job hunting. One problem I’m intimately familiar with is that HR doesn’t know how to judge qualifications. They are told “we need someone with skills A,B,C”. If you have A,B,D you are under qualified. If you have A,B,C,D you are over quualified. In either case, you can’t get past HR to have an interview with the person actually doing the hiring.


    26 Feb 11 at 7:02 pm

  2. “We have a huge load of people in this country who are essentially doing no useful work. They have jobs and titles and salaries and benefits, but they produce very little and nothing of substance”

    Maybe. But they get paid real money which they, not being ridiculously wealthy, actually spend on goods and services – thus keeping money circulating in the economy and other people employed providing those goods and services.

    More later. I just got back from 8 hours of class and really don’t want to sit at a computer any longer.


    26 Feb 11 at 7:54 pm

  3. Interesting. Dad (born 1926) would be, I think, roughly the generation of Bill’s father. NONE of his children (nine of us) or his nieces and nephews (another four) are doing as well as Dad and his brothers–but then Dad and his brothers did uncommonly well. We’re generally doing better than their parents, and the ones who aren’t working aren’t looking for work either. Your survey results would, I think, be true for all Sharon’s people. My various in-laws, nieces and nephews on that side are doing as well as, or better than, Sharon’s father.

    Worth noting: in relative terms, maybe none of us is doing as well as my mother’s father, who was about the number three man in a major shipyard before and during WWII. But the mark of his success is that he had the only car and the only telephone on the block. I don’t think any of his grandchildren or great-grandchildren have done so well relatively, but they’re almost all living better measured by size of home, technical goodies and time off.

    With very few exceptions the most successful members of the clan have been those who stayed in school longest, chose technical training over humanities, and persisted in looking for work and working.

    The age thing tracks. I had to find a fresh job at about 50. I did well enough in the end, but it was a cold, frustrating search, and for my next trick–moving back home and semi-retiring–I’m expecting a massive cut in pay, prestige and benefits. And I’m looking at small to miniscule firms with no HR department.

    The union situation you describe is a tragedy. The logical and usually legal recourse would be a separate adjuncts’ union, but I doubt they’d stand a realistic chance. As it is, you’re witnessing Franklin’s observation–“Democracy is four wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch.”


    26 Feb 11 at 9:20 pm

  4. Ah, the dangers of a small and biased sample! I suspect if I did a similar survey, I’d get different results. I’m handicapped by knowing very little of my generation on my father’s side of the family – I have a vague impression they’ve mostly attained middle class status – but on my mother’s side, although almost all are respectably employed and living at a standards similar to or better than that of their parents, there are exceptions. A lot of families I know seem to have a member or two who doesn’t achieve to the family standard, much less surpass the achievements of the previous generation.

    I also know a good few people – including me – who left or lost a good-paying job and were only able to find work after a considerable struggle that paid a lot less. Age has a lot to do with it – sometimes the middle-aged unemployed are unwilling to start again at the bottom, either because they rightly believe that this will make them look like hopeless cases if they apply for something better, or because they don’t quite believe that not everyone moves easily from a certain level in one company to the equivalent one at another. Sometimes the companies don’t want older workers because they think they are stuck in their ways, or perhaps have hidden failings and weren’t really merely laid off because of economic hard times.

    And don’t be too quick to conclude that white collar workers produce nothing. I know you want to emphasize the role of small businesses in the economy, but large businesses also contribute, and once you get beyond a very small and simple organization, you need bureaucracies and procedures to keep systems of production running.


    27 Feb 11 at 2:04 am

  5. You do need real bosses. And in a large enough organizaion, they need someone to make sure the orders are carried out, and make sure the boss is properly informed. But it’s easy to grow far more staff than that, and I strongly recommend C. Northcote Parkinson’s PARKINSON’S LAW AND OTHER STUDIES IN ADMINISTRATION.

    My own small portion of the Federal government maintains 35 charts and spreadsheets to keep track of what we’re doing or obliged to do. A whole range of new hires weren’t picked up for any analytical skill or prior knowledge at all–just for being good at the spreadsheets. Of any 12-person working group two are required full time to attend meetings, and even at the lowest organizational levels, there are roughly as many bosses and record-keepers as workers.

    This would be bad enough, but instead of just not producing, they drain workers’ time: eight different security briefings a year, four different log-ins in the morning, two different newsletter staffs with innumerable and interminable e-mails. The number of approvals required delays reports and reduces the contents to mush.

    Contrary to Paul Krugman–and to Michael, above–I see no economic gain in paying people to dig ditches and fill them in. But if we paid half our administrators to do just that, the organization would produce more. There would still be plenty of supervision, but the amount of interference would have gone down.

    And the situation is much worse elsewhere.

    I disagree with Jane on the source of the problem. I don’t think bad humanities degrees created the mess. But there’s no denying we’re in a real mess.


    27 Feb 11 at 8:04 am

  6. Oh, I’m entirely aware that bureaucracies can be over-staffed, although I admit I’ve never worked in or dealt with one quite as overstaffed as you describe. I can quite believe that given sufficient funds, they have been created. In my not terribly extensive experience, a certain amount is created by the demand for excessive documentation – that is, it’s not enough to require something to be done and assign the job, you also have to figure out some way to get the person who should be doing (or not doing) it to document on paper or online the action, provide a way for the target of the action to confirm/deny what happened and then of course hire someone other than the person who ordered the action in the first place to ensure everyone complies with the procedure.

    I certainly don’t see all this – including the position of the person deciding what needs to be done and delgating the work – as a way to employ university graduates, bad or good. The only reasons university graduates are often employed at this is that so many people want these jobs that the employer needs some way to cut down on the list of applicants, and a good number of people with degrees in education, nursing and, yes, arts, don’t want to or can’t get the opportunity to do whatever their education supposedly qualifies them to do.


    27 Feb 11 at 10:41 am

  7. Robert, I must have been lucky in my jobs – I’ve never seen anything as bad as you describe. Every job I’ve been in has required that managers (who are necessary, no matter what some people would like) also be individual contributors.

    I was surprised to find that this is true at 3M as well when my company was acquired by them last fall; but it’s probably got a lot to do with how successful they are as a company. You’re going to produce more operating income if you aren’t paying people a lot of money to do busy work.

    I’m still doing individual contributor work, though I’m also a manager and in what Jane would define as upper middle class, though thank God she hasn’t seen my house.


    27 Feb 11 at 1:11 pm

  8. I was kind of relieved to find that I don’t make it into Jane’s upper middle class. It’s bad enough being an east coast urban liberal academic….

    We have lost faculty positions and secretarial positions in the college in order to hire a director of student services and, under him, a director of graduate studies and a director of undergraduate studies. So now even more of my valuable faculty time (on top of the fact that we do our own secretarial work, which cannot be cost-effective) in meetings explaining to those folks why what they are proposing is 1) stupid and 2) impossible.



    27 Feb 11 at 2:20 pm

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