By Ellen Goodman
There was a New Yorker cartoon last spring picturing a nearly empty galley ship with only two slaves still pulling their oars under the grim eye of the master. In the caption, one of the slaves says to the other: “At this point, I’m just happy to still have a job.”
It turns out that this is the mantra of the new economy and its icon: the grateful worker. When I Googled “grateful to have a job”—this is how I quantify trends these days—I came up with 3.7 million hits. Gratitude is in.
I thought of this when reading the statistics boasting that productivity was up again, this time by 6.6 percent. This “good news” means that more work is being done in the same time.
But this doesn’t say anything about the people working harder and whether they are engaged in what economists call a “speed-up” with all of its Charlie Chaplin implications for our own “Modern Times.” Nor does it say how many workplaces have four people doing the work once done by six or eight.
The spotlight of the Great Recession has been properly on the nearly 10 percent of workers who are unemployed. But there has been far less said about the collateral damage on the 90 percent who “still have a job” but are looking at the empty seats. Fearfully. Gratefully.
In many workplaces, of course, fewer widgets—or cars or clothes—are being made, requiring fewer widget makers. But there are, after all, just as many cases to be managed by fewer social workers. There are just as many floors to be cleaned by fewer janitors. There is no less news to be covered by a smaller newsroom. And I don’t even want to think about regional airlines.
The government doesn’t track how many are doing the labor of their former co-workers. Nor does it quantify economic anxiety. The closest we get to numbering the grateful worker is in the figures showing that job-leavers—those who voluntarily quit—are at an all-time low. Trust me, they aren’t all staying because they suddenly love their bosses.
And while we’re on the subject, I’m willing to wager that many people on those unpaid furloughs are actually working at home. And a whole lot of stunningly productive workers aren’t putting in for overtime.
In what economist Heather Boushey calls the “gloves-off economy,” even those with jobs are feeling powerless, unable to say no. “This really puts employers in the driver’s seat,” says Boushey, “and the back-seat driver can’t even suggest putting on the brakes.”
The most immediate effect is on families. The dirty little secret is that workers with families—make that moms—are still seen as “less productive.” “Discrimination against mothers is still the strongest and most open form of discrimination,” says Joan Williams at UC-Hastings College of the Law. “When employers have to cut, they turn to the underperformers who may be readily confused with mothers. People who see them targeted are afraid. ”
It’s not a coincidence that the number of pregnancy discrimination complaints went up by 12 percent in 2008. For that matter, the number of workers calling the Hastings WorkLife hot line with stories of being targeted for caregiving has doubled. We have even seen a decline in births in California and Florida, where the housing crisis hit hardest.
The talk of work-life balance has fallen as fast as a 401(k). There is still a stigma attached to flextime, and only half of workers get a single paid sick day. As Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families says, worried workers are “less likely to ask for benefits and less likely to use them if they have them.” Indeed, if fear is more contagious than the swine flu, what’s going to happen when workers choose between putting their health on the line and their jobs?
After the dot-com bubble burst, we got a jobless recovery. Will the Great Recession and the grateful worker end up with a benefit-less recovery?
In Mel Brooks’ famous routine about the 2,000-year-old man, he’s asked what they used for transportation in the old days. His answer: “Mostly fear.” The fear that he was being chased by an animal.
Well, fear is what keeps a lot of people productive. Fear is what makes many of those still working become averse to change when we need it most. How will we know when the Great Recession starts to lighten up? Maybe when gratitude begins to grate.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group