BATTERED WORKER SYNDROME

When anthropologists reconstruct the sociology of post-industrial, post-regulation, post-globalization American labor, its defining characteristic will be fundamental disinterest. Famously the subject of 90s cultural icons like Dilbert comic strips or Office Space, the overwhelming ambivalence with which employees and employers regard one another in the contemporary economy is hard to overstate. If the employee-employer relationship of our parents’ post-War generation was a marriage, ours is a drunken hand job behind a bar.

The richest source of material for workplace satires are the omnipresent efforts of employers to make employees give a shit – “team building” exercises, retreats, do-your-best motivational talks, inoculation with a sense of belonging to the corporate family (feel free to share your own hilarious experiences with these) – while simultaneously making it unmistakable that they consider the employees utterly expendable. The pep-rally-meets-at-will atmosphere encourages employees to be subservient, powerless, disposable, fanatically devoted to the Cause, and happy about all of it. Of course the success of “the team” offers employees no benefit beyond maintaining the status quo. In other words, bust your ass and mortgage your life to do whatever the company says and (maybe) they will let you keep busting your ass and mortgaging your life to do whatever the company says.

It did not used to be so. Post-War industrial America let people without education (because we recognized that not everyone’s cut out for going to college and becoming a doctor) make a commitment to a company and receive one in return; bust your ass for us and we will treat you like a human being. We’ll expect you to work late sometimes or make sacrifices for the company, and in return we’ll give you a decent wage. Insurance. Time off to take Billy to the dentist. Sick days. Vacation. You know, things we can read about in history books.

When the nation’s top 5% decided that we would all like to live in a post-industrial economy (circa 1994) and return to 1890s patterns of income distribution, everything changed. Your employer doesn’t give a shit about you. They’ll ship your job to Mexico or Indonesia or California State Prisons at the drop of a hat. Your job is not for life. It’s not even for tomorrow. At-will, no-benefit employment is the norm and workers respond, logically, by not giving much of a shit about their jobs, which of course merely accelerates the cycle of devaluing and outsourcing employees. I wonder why we are less productive than the Japanese.

What the post-industrial economy demands, in essence, is that American workers develop some variation of Battered Woman Syndrome – the series of physiological symptoms displayed by women in abusive relationships. When the company cuts benefits, downsizes, and makes everyone work more for less, the desired response is more sacrifice, unending gratitude, and beaming smiles. Just as battered and abused women sometimes remain in abusive relationships and vigorously defend those who mistreat them, some people react as the economy desires. These are the folks who lead the anti-union campaigns, fawningly suck up to the hierarchy until (and occasionally after) the moment at which they are declared redundant, warn against “troublemakers” who might upset this sweet fuckin’ deal we have going, and steer hard right on economic issues because the rich are our betters, merely getting what they rightly deserve.

The entire corporate culture industry and its successorized nonsense inspire the appropriate response in most of us – none whatsoever. Relationships, as your dad explained when you were 15, are not a one-way street. Fifteen years of economic and political rhetoric have emphasized the fact that you are expendable and the company owes you nothing. So, quite logically, you mail it in. You waste time on the internet (hi!), you look for any reason to show up late or leave early, and you generally avoid doing anything you aren’t forced to do. That’s how human relationships work; when one partner sends out “This is casual and unimportant to me” signals, the other is supposed to respond in kind. Instead, we’re expected to remain slavishly devoted while the other person runs around the world looking for our replacement.

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24 Responses to “BATTERED WORKER SYNDROME”

  1. Heqit Says:

    Now you're just fuckin' depressing me. Not saying you're wrong, mind you; I think you're right. Right and depressing.

    Where do you see this situation leading, both for the national economy and for our lives as workers?

  2. Kreggg Says:

    Goddamn it Ed you hit it square on the head. I have to keep telling this to my coworkers. They have the battered wife syndrome. Take what you can, throw a wrench into the works every time someone isn't looking. Sign up your boss for as many spam emails as you can.

  3. Misterben Says:

    Right on, Ed.
    The latter third of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st, has been about breaking the social contract that was so painstakingly built in this country over the preceding 200 years.
    One could also point to the role of Wall Street, encouraging more and more firms to become publicly traded, thereby putting their management decisions in the hands of investors – in other words, in the hands of those who care nothing for the company itself, but only for their return on investment. Of course, now we are seeing the result of this ideology in practice: the American economy and way of life collapsing like a giant flan.
    "The free market will regulate itself", eh, economic conservatives? Apparently that was a miscalculation.

  4. Chris Says:

    "America touts itself as the land of the free, but the number one freedom that you and I have is the freedom to enter into a subservient role in the workplace. Once you exercise this freedom you've lost all control over what you do, what is produced, and how it is produced. And in the end, the product doesn't belong to you. The only way you can avoid bosses and jobs is if you don't care about making a living. Which leads to the second freedom: the freedom to starve." -Tom Morello

    So, after people get to make the wonderful choice between working or starving and basically make themselves a slave, then they get to enjoy the fruits of the role of a battered-wife. I think you are right on: the work environment of today isn't very kind or rewarding, and it is kind of hard to muster up motivation or care for a job when you are treated this way.
    I agree that there need to be jobs for the Average Joe, and these jobs should give people a living wage and a sense of dignity. Most people are your Average Joe.

    One of my favorite part on Office Space is when Lumburgh tells everybody not to forget about Hawaiian Shirt Day. Man, I'm sure that exercise built some amazing levels of camaraderie and made people forget that their cubicle was the exact opposite of a tropical paradise.

  5. Nan Says:

    You nailed it. I'm always moderately astonished by the number of people I meet who still care about doing a good job and/or take some pride in their work when corporate America has been doing its damnedest for the past 50 years to turn us all into slackers.

  6. BK Says:

    C'mon folks. I agree with a lot of "down with the man" but at some point we need to start talking about the lack of personal responsibility and self respect a lot of folks exhibit…

    There is no doubt that a lot of CEOs, Presidents and other high level managers and executives usually pay the most attention to the fiscal bottom line of whatever agency/corporation/business they run. I argue this is a fairly good thing – neglegence, oversight or other fuck-ups in these areas mean a lot of people lose their jobs, their incomes, their houses, their retirements, etc… (see Enron).

    An unfortunate side effect of this – especially in large companies with hundreds or thousands of employers – is that all aspects of a workplace are presented to the decisions makers in terms of numbers in two colors- red ones and black ones.

    There is a reason why work is called work – and not 'fun' or 'games' or 'happy place.' It's not supposed to be. Work is what people do to provide life sustaining goods – the fact the average American is a greedy, materialistic, immediate-pleasure seeker who is typically in thousands of dollars of debt, but still owns three tv's and no books is not the fault of 'the man.'

    I sincerely doubt cro-magnon men and women spent a lot of time complaining about how tedious the hunting was, about how it didn't make them feel good and happy – and how about the big bad chief was making them hunt in a way they didn't like.

    Let's be hones about America right now:
    Generation X'ers have the attention spans of the common fruit fly. Many people voluntarily switch careers and employers several times during their lifetimes. Why do we expect our employers to treat us any differently.

    This whole notion that we are all special and deserve to be treated like the wonderful individuals we all are is fine for kindegarten, but in a lot of instances it doesn't cut it. If you need this affirmation find it from someone other than the person who you work for…

    At some level people get what they deserve – whether it's their government or their careers. There is a lot of information about both out there. Making an informed choice is a responsibility people shirk in a lot of different areas – including chosing to go work for huge conglomerate employers…

  7. Liz Says:

    "Work is what people do to provide life sustaining goods – the fact the average American is a greedy, materialistic, immediate-pleasure seeker who is typically in thousands of dollars of debt, but still owns three tv’s and no books is not the fault of ‘the man.’"

    BK, I know you're going to be shocked to learn this, but there is a metric fuckton of people in this country and elsewhere that work their asses off but do not receive anything– a living wage, health insurance, enough time off to avoid psychological problems– that might be described as "life-sustaining" for their efforts.

    I have a job that I really like, one that challenges me and that I would consider doing for the rest of my life if it paid well or provided any benefits whatsoever. I have the opposite of the Bobs and Lumbergh for a boss, but I still might as well be working part time at Wendy's.

    Also, while my respect for evolutionary psychology might be described as minimal at best, Cro-Magnon man hunted to survive or died. If he followed a leader, it was because that leader was good at hunting and shared what was killed. We can work our asses off in the hunt and at the end of the day, our leader (who already owned the bison) throws us the offal and tells us to chow down or fuck off.

  8. mike Says:

    BK that's brutal. Are you really under the impression Enron went under due to being too generous to their employees? I'm pretty sure they fired traders on the spot for having a bad day all the time – hence all kinds of incentives to rip others off. You'd look significantly more informed if you went with GM as your example, and talk about the unions.

    Hunter-gatherers were far more egalitarian than we were, and probably had a higher-quality of life than we did until the 1700s. Check out this neat thing from J Diamond, who did "Guns Germs Steel":
    http://www.environnement.ens.fr/perso/claessen/agriculture/mistake_jared_diamond.pdf

    I'm under the impression that Americans have never been more productive, and the (large) productivity gains post-late-90s haven't been captured by median income gains. What sources do you have on this fruit fly attention span? I think American's are changing jobs more often as a reaction to the phenonemon Ed describes, not as a driver.

  9. mike Says:

    ==
    This whole notion that we are all special and deserve to be treated like the wonderful individuals we all are is fine for kindegarten, but in a lot of instances it doesn’t cut it. If you need this affirmation find it from someone other than the person who you work for…
    ==

    Actually after I hit submit I realized this was the thing that bugged me. Do you really think wage increases (for productivity increases), job security and benefits, and perhaps more generally a job that isn't a complete piece of shit is akin to some sort of New Age bullshit? Cause I take it as granted that those are things worth fighting for, and I don't believe anyone is all that special. Life sounds rather nasty, short and brutish otherwise.

    You seem in tension between that this is a good world you and Ed describe (managers who care about the bottom line are necessary to make sure we get by!), and that it is a world we are being punished with because we are wicked (greedy! stupid! too much TV!). Which is it?

  10. vghoul Says:

    I wonder if BK thought "Candide" was just bullshit or what?

  11. matthew Says:

    "You cannot eat an orange and throw away the peel! A man is not of a piece of fruit!"

    Quotes from Death of a Salesman aside, I think BK's got it right. The executives of corporate America really want to give their employees vacation time, health insurance, and ultimately retirement benefits, but unfortunately, their employees are just too damned lazy and lacking in personal responsibility to deserve those benefits! It certainly isn't the other way around.

  12. BK Says:

    Everyone seems to have missed my point, so I believe I communicated it poorly.

    I am all too well aware that people have to work shitty jobs in horrible conditions. I worked in a Menards distribution center to put myself through college. It was dangerous, backbreaking work. There were no benefits. There was no paid vacation. It wasn't mentally, socially or in any other than physically demanding. I honestly feel bad for the people who still work there.

    What I am tired of is Gen Xers in cube farms complaining about how the man keeps him or her down. This I deserve mentality is ludicrous. The mentaliity that work needs to be a fun, happy place where I get to do lovely stuff all day long is messed up and is something I see in my friends and former colleagues alltogether too frequently.

  13. David Recine Says:

    Looks like I'll be leaving the last post as a Johnny-come-late (again), but I can't resist adding my two cents' worth:

    Immediately after graduating college I worked for two American fortune 500 companies in succession. In both cases, I worked at the national headquarters. Both of them treated hard working employees the way the companies of byegone eras did— those of us who cared about our jobs were given as much support and advice as we needed, and groomed for promotion or transfer to a more desirable position. Both of these companies rank in the top 20% in most employee satisfaction surveys.

    I loved both of these jobs. In both of these jobs I was told I was was potential management material. In both of these jobs I left as soon as I found something better. Why? Because even in those rare cases where you get a square deal, all it takes is one merger or takeover to send everyone up shit creek. Failing that, all it takes is some major financial hit (usually do to incompetent directors), and everyone at the top will decide to cut your pay and start treating you like shit, because heaven forbid they lost any of their own massive salaries when their stock plummets.

    In fact, I've since heard that company number 2 (a Big Bank), has stopped treating their employees like human beings (and slashed the previously cushy benefits and bonuses) since the home mortgage crisis.

    To quote the CEO of Company number 1 (a Major Entertainment Conglomerate): "If you ever get an idea to start your own business leave with my blessing. NEVER tell yourself you're safer at a big company. Have you watched the news lately?"

    The employer I currently work for (The Government) also treats me well, and I've just agreed to sign to a second one-year contract. But I've already told them I'm leaving them for someone better after this next year (would go this year, but haven't quite completed my latest certification). In this day and age, you can't wait for a giving boss to promote you. You have to promote YOURSELF by grabbing a better opportunity when you see it.

  14. Adam Says:

    You sound like me when I'm ranting about my job. I remember explaining to someone who couldn't understand why I have a degree in political science and still ended up working in manufacturing, that there seems to be an inverse relationship between being emotionally committed to your work (i.e., engaging in meaningful activities aimed at bettering the lives of your fellow men and women) and wage rates. The more you care the less you are paid. The less you care (and not coincidentally, the more people you screw) the more you're paid. So, having a daughter to feed and college loans to pay, I took the low road and started working 60 hours a week for a company I don't really respect and don't trust.

    Sadly, the tired adage that all the horrible things done to the world and its inhabitants are done by people just trying to pay a mortgage stick in my brain more and more. I just want to have a way to pay for me and my family to live comfortably, but to do so, I feel like I'm selling out. That's the horror of the economic system we live in. You either sell out or go hungry. Class warfare at its finest and most brutal.

    As for BK's arguments:

    You're confusing complaints about real problems (like depressed wages, union busting, corporate corruption, etc.) with complaints from slackers. Sure, we all hate laziness, especially when it comes in the guise of a political argument, but bitching about unfair corporate behavior is one of the few things citizens can use to fight the oppression placed upon them by their corporate masters short of suing for damages in a class action suit (and sometime soon I think they'll restrict those so badly that they won't even be worth the effort any more).

    You say people are bitching for the wrong reasons. I say, so what? At least they're doing something. I think we aren't bitching enough. Nothing changes until everyone starts to bitch a LOT anyway. I you ask me, I say we've gone along with one too many b.s. supply-side economic juntas with nary a fart from the underclasses. If you're working for some soul-dead, moral monstrosity, be as lazy as you can get away with. Bitch as much as possible.

  15. nervous Says:

    this is all these union busters are about.unions are under contract so wage and bennies are good.Ive never had an easy job.if you have you haven't worked it hard enough.I'm one of those retards who buy in to all the feelgood bullshit and am so thankful for my wage Ive never not set records on any job or machine ive ran.i push my brain @ body everyday just to hear what was the problem if my numbers aren't high enough one day out of the month.I guarantee no one they have is capable of the amount of work I do.they love to fuck you over on hours.take away your life.you better be able and available at all times,while there less seniority buddies get first shift.that really fires up those lazy union fucks.its like working for someone that hates you.lazy union fucks bitch about you in new jobs wile your setting records over 30 yr. men.of course you cant please everyone your doing three jobs at once.i got no training but there buddies get all the time they need cause they cry all day.finally the main critic bitch bumps me off.they get out the diapers @ cut the volume in half and give him two more people.i bitch cause the criteria changes so much and that guy almost killed himself that week.i made it a year.that's not the first pool of blood spilled in there.I'm talking about taking your ideas implement them and not even acknowledge your existence.or butcher them so you have too work harder.or have kids right out of high school w/ fat plugs in his ears telling you what to do for things you've done for 10 years.I'm talking about hiring for the jobs you've worked so hard for, their buddies off the street.use the new guys to fill first shift.or have someone real fat & worthless do it, just to show you they can.then shitcan them for fun.how about blowing dust in your face when your too busy to leave.Yes they actually sweep w/leaf blowers inside.They did a test to make sure it was safe.It looked like a real party day they went through and barley touched the clean spots the day after they clean real well.how about taking away the tools you need making you walk further or jump through hoops to use them.how about an hours worth of inspections your allowed 30 minutes to do.you can come in and start on your time or a machine might not be safe you singed on.your forced to pick things not needing fixed cause your not allowed time to fix anything.how about not ordering supplies needed so you have to scrounge up used supplies.then give you a right up for lack of performance.or a right up for not putting your tool back.its brought up how stupid this is but they claim its needed cause of cost.the day after making sure you see them throw a whole box away.you want to talk battered worker syndrome lets talk.everyone dogging out the work force probably has never had to do a thing for themselves.I would to get them a job.

  16. WyldPirate Says:

    Goddamn, nervous, that shit was painful to read. I'm not normally a grammar Nazi, but a double space between your run-on sentences and denoting the start of a new sentence with capitalization would be nice.

  17. Wendi Says:

    You are so awesome! I do not think I have
    read through something like that before. So great to discover someone
    with some original thoughts on this topic.
    Seriously.. thank you for starting this up.

    This web site is one thing that is required on the web, someone with a little originality!

  18. katrina Says:

    Tell me if you could do anything about it would you? How much would you support the thing someone else did about it? This sentiment is echoed constantly and the laws that are supposed to limit, minimize or damage the offending corporations are diminishing, and or terrified of the corporations they are supposed to be holding court to stop.

  19. katrina Says:

    I agree

  20. celeste Says:

    Tell me if you could do anything about it would you? How much would you support the

    thing someone else did about it? This sentiment is echoed constantly and the laws that are

    supposed to limit, minimize or damage the offending corporations are diminishing, and

    or terrified of the corporations they are supposed to be holding court to stop.