LIVIN' THE DREAM

Posted in Rants on April 20th, 2011 by Ed

It is more trouble than it's worth to find and post either of the following clips (which would doubtlessly require linking some sketchy video site that bills itself in Cyrillic as "the YouTube of Kyrgyzstan") so you rely on my descriptions and I'll rely on your memories.

Throughout most of the 1980s McDonald's ran a popular commercial emphasizing the positive role its restaurants played in the local economy, particularly by offering entry-level job opportunities. A black teenager in a McDonald's uniform walked home from work through an inner city neighborhood with a sense of pride on payday. His neighbors all smiled at him, the implication being that they were proud of him for working hard. The commercial was unbelievably corny and actually pretty offensive, combining paternalistic sentiments (more than a few "White Man's Burden" vibes here) and the insulting implication that everyone in town would be thrilled that the kid was flipping burgers instead of, you know, slinging crack or one of the other pastimes black people were allowed to have on TV in the 1980s. Dave Chappelle, bless his crazy heart, made this point and followed with an excellent parody of the ad; in the Chappelle version the young man is dumped by his girlfriend because he "smells like fries", mocked by the neighborhood for having a crappy job and wearing the lame uniform, and chased by thugs who applaud his employment because his regular paychecks give them an attractive target to rob.

The ribbing is well deserved; sure, it's great that McDonald's is a source of employment, especially for high school kids (who end up working way too many hours while in school, but that's another story) and in areas without a lot of economic opportunities. Nonetheless we must bear in mind that a job at McDonald's is a job at McDonald's: minimum wage, no benefits, lousy work, and few if any useful skills gained through experience. In its effort to pat itself on the back and burnish its public image Mickey D's exposed itself to the universal truth that no one really wants to work there. It's just a thing you do when you're too young to be employed outside of food service or on hard times as an adult and badly in need of income. I would never look down on someone for working there, but…it's not the sort of thing one gets excited about or celebrates, you know?

Maybe that is what is so heartbreaking about this blaring headline on CNN: "McDonald's Hiring 50,000 Workers Today." This is supposed to make us feel good, but I do not feel anything positive about the prospect of 50,000 adults, many of whom were gainfully employed until recently, obtaining jobs originally designed to be given to 16 year old boys with no particular skills. Don't get me wrong, the individuals interviewed in that story along with all of the other 50,000 hires will be materially better off with the job than without it, and the reduced burden on underfunded social services always helps too. Yet I can't get around the underlying issue – McDonald's? Seriously, this is what we're doing now? The article semi-hopefully (I think) announces that "food service jobs have been one of the fastest growing segments of the job market, accounting for 63,500 jobs added, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics."

So we are directing unemployed adults, many of whom have education and skills that could more productively be used in their areas of expertise, queuing up for jobs dunking fries and mopping bathrooms at fast food joints. I applaud their work ethic as much as I worry about what this spectacle says about the state of our society. Good to know that when the middle class has been completely outsourced the service industry will be there to give us a job manning the drive-thru window.