There’s a myth in the US, fanned by agents of the super wealthy, that if you just work hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, you’ll be rewarded with riches. It’s an easy sell all the way around. Regular people want to believe it, and it fluffs the tender feelings of those who are rich. Work hard and you’ll succeed, everyone wins! Good luck, you’ll need it. There are more powerball lottery winners in the US than people who started in the middle class and became billionaires. But even for more moderate winners it’s just not true. I know this for a fact, I’m one of the moderate winners.
Ten years ago I retired at age 39, a helluva boom in the stock market, no kids or big financial commitments, and stellar performance by my 401-K had made it barely possible. Like millions of other Americans I moved to Florida with my wife and planned to spend the rest of my life in sandals and a robe. But there were two miscalculations: 1) I got bored, fast (Which is how I started writing btw). I didn’t have enough to live well, just enough to scrape by and that’s no fun. 2) Health insurance, I didn’t have any and could not afford a decent private policy to last until Medicare age. Between the two it was necessary to get a job, any job, the easier the better. All I had to do was make minimum wage and get employer sponsored group health insurance rates.
I got a job at a local call center. How bad could it be? Worst case scenario I stayed there long enough to get on the insurance plan, get myself fired, and at least Cobra would keep me covered for six months at a somewhat reasonable cost. The center I worked at was a third-party contractor, they did everything from answering phones for doctors and lawyers to outbound telemarketing. The team I was assigned to handled inbound calls for an electric utility, specifically billing and new service. The pay was terrible, the lowest since my part-time jobs in college. I used to look at my paychecks and laugh.
This was before BushCo crashed the economy, so just by virtue of showing up on time wearing a shirt and not calling in sick every other week I stood out. After I got the job wired, which took all of two weeks, it turned out those years of working on the phone managing customers’ investments and running trades made me particularly good at the gig. Besides the competition wasn’t exactly tough, most of the other agents were kids or retirees who didn’t give a shit and didn’t stick around. But one of the 20 something year-old kids sitting nearby was halfway intelligent, he was an engineering major at a local university. We’ll call him Matt.
One day the energy client our team worked for happened to be visiting, (Why are so many third-party call centers in Florida? Could one reason be client-executives now have a justification for visiting the Sunshine State and the links nearby in the middle of winter on the company dime?) one of them struck up a conversation with me, and it turned out we both used to work in the investment field. Tada! They liked me. That’s all it took for my hobby job to take off. Within a month I was promoted to junior supervisor, a few months later full supe. Then senior supe, then assistant floor manager, etc. The pay was still terrible, at the apogee of this ad hoc career it worked out to about $15/hour.
Stop and think for a moment of an entire economy built on this corporate ecology. Temp agencies, fast food restaurants, or call centers, where the large majority of workers get few if any benefits, work for entry-level wages and are going nowhere. In my center 90% of the employees were phone agents making $9.00 an hour and barely half of them were full time and/or had graduated from temp status. Out of 500 people there were maybe 20 who made more than 36 grand a year and three who made more than 50k (Sales manager, center director, and IT manager). That broad of a pyramid will never support a middle class or sustain a first-rate nation. And yet if anything the usual suspects and toadies are drooling at the thought of cutting worker pay and benefits even more, anyway they can.
I was soon in the position of needing supes below me and I didn’t want to risk promoting someone who would screw up. The pickings were slim. Matt was the only guy I really knew in the place, he had a good head on his shoulders, so as my career blossomed so did his. Matt wasn’t getting promoted because he worked hard, he was promoted because he was competent and had once sat next to me. There may have been other people who would have done better, FSM knows I tried to find them, but I had no way to know anyone else the way I knew Matt. I never got to listen to them all day in unscripted moments. What it boils down to is Matt’s career took off because my career took off and I liked him.
Within two years of getting the original shitty job a competitor recruited me. The main reason for leaving was that new employer was two miles from my house as opposed to thirty. Matt lasted a few months after that at the old place, but during a minor shake up when a big account walked he was selected as the fall guy. The new lucky ducky who replaced him happened to be the room-mate lover of one of the other assistant managers. I assume she was chosen because the promoting manager liked her.
This is how it really works in corporate America. There’s a minimum standard upwardly mobile workers have to meet, they have to show up on time and perform competently … beyond that it boils down to luck, especially in unskilled labor, in the beginning, where anyone who can fog a mirror and bothers to show up on time is as qualified as the next person. Who they sat next to, who they know, who liked them. Look at any career of any senior executive today and odds are, beginning early on, a friend or mentor or family buddy got promoted or was in a position to help them, and they came along for the ride. For people who move from the frontline to the most lofty positions, odds are this happens more than once, i.e., they are unusually lucky.
Here’s one more poorly kept secret in corporate America, in my experience the higher up you get and the more you make the easier your job gets (Assuming you’re up to the task anyway). As a utility agent in a cube I had to show up on time, no excuses, five mins late was an official demerit or whatever dumbass term used. Three absences in six months was a counseling session where a supe with a ninth grade education would show sympathy for whatever was causing the problem — while secretly trying to uncover and document any perceived character flaws in preparation for firing you should anymore work be missed. The pay was horrible, poverty level, and a minor sore throat or routine ear infection would turn every phone shift into a painful reminder of how little power you had over your own life. Breaks, days off, everything was scripted and measured and metricized right down to bathroom visits. God forbid you would dare go on the Internet!
As a supe this all eased off. As an assistant manager it disappeared. Those halcyon days started with a morning meeting where We the Elite would all shoot the shit drinking coffee and eating donuts, then we’d review past numbers, finish up talking about the issues ahead, and adjourn. That would kill two hours. Then I’d wander off to my little office where I’d fill out reports and do other easy work, between surfing the Internet and IMing coworkers with pictures of kittens wearing hats, the main idea being to kill time until lunch. Every now and then I might have to put in a 12 hour day or fire someone, but that was more than offset by double the pay, company paid lunches and other perks, three-day weekends every few weeks, coming in late or leaving early all the time, weeks of vacation every year, and going to bathroom whenever I fucking felt like it.
I did simple things my bosses thought were Rainman brilliant, like a deal where the top producing agent in some category would get to leave an hour early on Friday and I would sit in their cube and do their job. This had the advantage of killing time, for me, keeping me current on what my agents faced, and showed them I could walk their walk. The latter is something way too many mid level and senior managers shy away from and trust me, the subordinates know it. But it wasn’t brilliant, it was just basic management 101: establishing goals and finding ways to motivate your employees to reach them.
On top of all that the job was way, way more fun and paid more, which makes for an easier job. I got to come up with strategies, comp plans, big picture ideas, implement them and watch the results. The poor slob back on the phones was getting yelled at by a hillbilly sitting in the dark after spending all their power bill money on crack, or enjoying the privilege of informing a single mother with a cancer stricken kid that her credit was too shitty for our client to accept her as an energy consumer, or yelled at by a supe for not following approved workflow procedures with the crackhead hillbilly and cancer mom.
Hard work does not equate to promotion and success, it just doesn’t; everyone is working hard in this economy anyway or they’re not working at all. The number of people who work hard and get nowhere is legion. It’s not brains alone that make it, the number of stupid people in high positions I’ve met in my half century on earth boggles the mind, and the chiefs that gave us Enron were definitely some smart guys. Once an employee crosses the threshold of showing up on time, basic education and proficiency with office tools like computers or spreadsheets or whatever the company uses, it’s just luck, pure unadulterated luck, that makes the difference between becoming a boss or remaining a peon. It’s what country and industry you happen to be in, what company in that industry you happen to work for, how healthy you are, the state of the economy, or who you sit next to.
And that’s something the lucky winners in this national lottery, who happen to have more influence over everything despite their much smaller numbers, would very much like to pretend isn’t true.