I’ve been employed by essentially the same company for just shy of twenty-nine years. It was private up until 1997 or 1998 but the product is the same. The culture has changed significantly. And my management’s attitude towards me has changed in some pretty profound ways over the years.
I started out as a general office temporary employee. That’s right, a “Kelly Girl”. Filing papers, simple data entry on green screens, stuffing envelopes at month end. It was a job. More importantly, I wasn’t wielding a chainsaw or digging ditches anymore. I’ve never shied away from hard work but I saw my father’s worn out and overused body breaking down long before the heart attack he suffered at 48. I wasn’t going down that path.
I’d dropped out of college when the money ran out but I had stayed long enough to find a passion. On the cusp of the computer revolution, I had taken a couple of programming courses in addition to several engineering classes. I was fascinated by these new machines. I bought one as soon as I had enough credit to make the purchase. That passion gave me an edge in the job I took. Although, being a man in an office full of women undoubtedly gave me a leg up too. Offices full of women are usually managed by a man. Patriarchy in action, especially thirty years ago. I’m not so clueless as to believe it’s all personal ability that got me here.
Anyway, when personal computers came into the office, I was one of the very first to get one. No doubt a little favoritism there too, but I had already demonstrated abilities with these new machines. I started writing helpful macros for the accountants on staff and showed them new ways to manipulate reports that made them look good. My efforts were rewarded. Not excessively, mind you, but enough to keep me there. I was treated fairly well as long as I kept to myself and didn’t try to stand out too much.
Then there came a huge shake-up in the Information Technology department and I wound up officially on the team. Writing software for the AS400, personal computers and the interface between the two. Stretching myself in ways I had never considered. I was actually having fun at work! I was doing stuff nobody else knew how to do. Hell, I didn’t know how to do it either. But I sure enjoyed trying to figure it all out. One day my manager came to me and said “you have no fear of breaking things, do you? Not everyone has that kind of confidence in their abilities.” He gave me a huge office, lined with power strips and computers and basically told me I had free reign to think up novel solutions to whatever problems I saw in the business. I became a one-man research and development team in a business that didn’t do research or development.
Then the business was sold.
That same manager came to me and said “you should be happy you have a job. There aren’t any positions for managers of technology in the new org chart. I’m off looking for a new job when I thought I’d be here until I retired.”
You should be happy you have a job.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase. In fact, in every instance I had ever heard it, I kinda threw up in my mouth a little. Is that really what life is about? I should be happy I have a job? No! You fuckers should be happy I’m dumb enough and just self-conscious enough to believe that I’m not capable of challenging you in your assumptions. It’s people like me, and every other worker bee you’ve convinced should be happy they have a job, that keep you in your high dollar incomes.
A couple or three years later and I was a star on the way up again. One day I was at a meeting with my team members from all over the country. In the parking lot on the way out someone I barely knew, said to me “I hear you have some Linux experience?”
That conversation turned into two years developing and implementing a huge nationwide system to monitor field technology resources that we’re still using today. It was a time of growth and fun again at work. And it lasted until my wife was diagnosed with ALS in 2006. That event forced me to turn down two rather big opportunities and enter another period of you should be happy you have a job.
Like most people with any job since 2008, I kept my head down. The people at work did everything they could to help me through the period between my wife’s diagnosis, her death, and the years immediately afterward. I wasn’t really happy I had a job (I wasn’t happy about much of anything), but I was very grateful I had the people supporting me that came with working in that place. They are still some of the best people I know and I’ve never really thanked them enough. As if that could ever even be possible. All too often they tell me their work experience has also become one of hearing you should be happy you have a job.
A year ago last October I decided I would retire at 55. I won’t be in a completely secure financial position but I’ll have a basic income as a floor from which to spring into the next chapter of my life. With that decision, I dropped all pretense of being happy I have a job. It’s an enormously freeing feeling. Remarkably, it’s brought me back to a place where I kinda like what I’m doing. Not enough to stay, mind you, but enough that I no longer keep my head down and my mouth shut.
There have been times when I was respected as an employee. When my opinion has been heard and valued. Those are the times I’ve been happy to have my job. There have also been times when I wasn’t respected as an employee. Those have invariably been periods of time when someone has said to me “You should be happy you have a job.”
It’s never been about me. And it’s not about you when someone tells you that you should be happy you have a job. It’s about a culture that doesn’t value the people that make everything happen. A culture of selfish, entitled narcissists who take and take and take and somehow believe they did it all by themselves. This is the culture we need to change.
We don’t change this culture by leaving our jobs and taking better ones (although that is an option we might have to consider). If we really want to change it, we need to stop rewarding the people who tell us we should be happy to have a job. The CEOs who pull 36 million dollar pay packages when the average employee is lucky to get a three percent raise. It’s not about taxing the rich. It’s about standing up and telling the rich, entitled class that no they didn’t do it all by themselves. That they should be lucky to have a job! And then taking it away from them.
I’ll be exploring some of this in future pieces.
Thank you for reading.