About deteriorating conditions in the workplace, which almost nobody protests about.
In Praise of Botticelli
By Raanan Geberer
Back in 1985, I started working as an editor at an energy-conservation trade magazine. Sure, it was a place of work and there were deadlines, no question about that. But we often took long lunches and often went out together as a group. Sometimes, during a lull in the work, we’d play a word game called “Botticelli,” whose rules I can’t remember for the life of me, but everybody seemed to enjoy.
I left that job in 1992. What a difference! We were putting out the same magazine with half the staff, we were busy almost every minute (one new worker observed that “everybody seems maxed out”), we were spending longer hours there, and as for lunch, half the time we just ate hurried meals at our desks. No Botticelli now!
After years of reading about the changing American workplace, and thinking about my own experiences, I decided to ask some other people in my own age group and older, meaning poeple who’ve been working 20 or more years, about their experiences, about whether they’d seen similar changes in their own fields. Not only had they had experienced similar changes, but in many cases, they came even earlier. Here’s a sample:
* Rhea L., former computer programmer: “When I started working as a programmer for a large life insurance company in 1972, people had more time. By the time I stopped in 1986, there was more multi-tasking, people doing several tasks at once. Also, there was more stress on ‘report cards.’ More people were being put on probation. Originally, almost everyone got at least a minimal raise, but now, even people who were doing adequately weren’t getting a raise at all, because they weren’t `excelling.’”
* Anne S., former book editor: “When I started working in 1965, at an encyclopedia, people would take long lunch hours, people would drink during lunch, people could spend half an hour talking at someone else’s desk with no fear. I’ll never forget my first work evaluation: `Anne is a pleasant person and a good worker.’
“At my last job, at a group of journals put out by a nonprofit, things became worse after the recession of the early ‘’80s. There were a lot of layoffs, and work evaluations became more stringent, with an entire system of performance-based raises. Workers were expected to set higher and higher goals for themselves. By the time I stopped working, in 1996, people were working longer hours just to keep up.”
* Linda L, legal secretary: “Being a legal secretary has always been a high-pressure job, with a not-very-friendly atmosphere. But one thing that has changed is the hours–now, they want you to work around the clock. Also, they’re hiring fewer legal secretaries, because they’re making the associates [beginning lawyers] do all their own typing, Xeroxing and mailing.”
The worst thing is that now, these conditions are so ingrained in the American psyche that many people can’t even imagine that things were once different. There’s a whole coterie of young corporate-heads who prattle off proudly that they’re adept at multi-tasking, that they enjoy challenges, they thrive on working under pressure, that they want to “raise the bar,” etc.
We’re told that corporations (and, increasingly, nonprofits and government agencies) must adopt these practices to be competitive, to be efficient. But you can’t tell me that American corporations weren’t competitive in the ‘60s, the ‘70s and the early ‘80s – they were, they made profits, and they didn’t feel the need to squeeze their employees to do so. Maybe the real problem is that nowadays, you have these huge mega-investors who expect whatever they’re investing in to yield a 20 percent return every year. OK, but don’t the rest of us deserve to be heard from as well?
The fact is that I like to work in a relaxed atmosphere, and I bet there are quite a few others like me. My friend Gary used to say that he believes in “a day’s work for a day’s pay,” and I agree. Let’s bring back the civilized American workplace the way it was when I started working for that trade publication. And maybe someday we’ll even get to play Botticelli again.