LIVIN' THE DREAM

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.

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34 Responses to “LIVIN' THE DREAM”

  1. HoosierPoli Says:

    This is why U6 is such a useful indicator; "underemployment" can be almost as bad as unemployment.

  2. The Man, The Myth Says:

    It is what it is. Some in the service sector are well paid… computer programmers, web designers, doctors, good carpenters, plumbers, electricians, (are lawyers in the service sector…?). But these are at least areas which require some training/education. Not to sound like an idiot, but I still don't understand the new economy – just what does anyone do anymore that deserves money? Where is the value added product? Anyone read Post-Cowboy Economics? Its on my "reading list" but its all about today's economy.

  3. Mike Says:

    I wonder what percent of those hires are the results of making jobs have higher turnovers, or being more churn-able. If tenure at a job drops from 6 months to 3 months you've doubled your job openings. The quits at McDonalds are so high that those 50,000 "new" jobs could just be "we are squeezing our employees more, more are quitting, so that means more job openings!"

    There's a school of economic thought that argues increasing the minimum wage increases efficiency simply by reducing the turnover among minimum wage service work like McDonalds.

  4. ts46064 Says:

    Anytime the news or politicians talk about new service sector jobs and former industrial towns changing into service sector towns I always think of the Shoe Event Horizon from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Places_in_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy#Shoe_Event_Horizon

  5. cromartie Says:

    When the Bush Administration tried to add fast food jobs to manufacturing jobs, it was incredibly cynical but, sadly, they were on to something. As we began to send manufacturing jobs overseas, these are the jobs that replaced them. We can't outsource the on demand "manufacture" of food for each other and, made to order restaurants of various stripes and varying qualities began to fill the void.

    It's part of the reason we're so fat. All we do now is manufacture food products for each other. It's a self destructive cycle where labor, like all capitalist labor, is constantly in search of it's lowest affordable level, Chipotle not withstanding.

  6. RandyH Says:

    Anybody remember when Bush came in to office in 2001? One of the very first things his Labor Department tried to do was to re-classify fast-food restaurant work as "manufacturing" because, you know, they are "manufacturing" sandwiches and other crap food in a high-productivity environment. Of course they also knew that this was the only high-job-growth field that they could foresee in the near future, considering their plans for the country. This is where they knew all the outsourced workers would wind up, if employed at all.

    Of course the other thing they tried to do was get rid of the concept of "overtime pay" by "allowing" workers in these new "manufacturing" and other jobs to build up large amounts of unpaid minimum-wage "comp time" which they could schedule to take off with base-pay at some time in the future if their employer ever allows them to do so. Plus as a BONUS, the employer could require workers to work unlimited amounts of unscheduled overtime (comp-time) under this new plan and also be able to send anyone home (unpaid and ineligible for their comp-time, which must be scheduled and approved well in advance) when management discovers that they have scheduled too many people for the minimal workload that no decent MBA could ever possibly predict. Good luck planning for the daycare and stuff, kids. I've heard of "Flex Time" but this was a few steps beyond…

    Thankfully they failed at both, despite their carefully crafted Heritage Foundation PR campaign to "sell" it to America's workforce as a new "benefit," with our active lifestyles and all – but it was clear where we were headed when the oligarchs bought that election.

  7. Warmbowski Says:

    Anytime Tea Party politics rears it's crazy head, I always think of the space ship full of the most uselessly employed habitants of the planet Golgafrincham that crash-land on Earth, take dominion of it, and start a new society by proclaiming leaves as currency. Then they go about an extensive defoliation campaign to increase the value of their currency. (And eventually become the ancestors of modern humans).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Places_in_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy#Golgafrincham

    God love that prescient Mr. Adams. May he RIP.

  8. wetcasements Says:

    Yeah, mixed feelings. A job is better than no job. And McDonald's has pretty much wrecked the health of lots of Americans, not to mention family farms vs. agri-business.

    I disagree with this though:

    "few if any useful skills gained through experience"

    The service industry taught me to show up on time and to do what needed to be done to solve a problem. Somebody shat all over the bathroom? Well, somebody has to clean it up. (This was a frozen yogurt joint, of all places). And more existentially, service jobs taught me I really wanted to do well in my professional life so I never had to work a service job ever again.

    At 16, these were learned skills. They seem obvious now but they weren't then. I mean, I knew in the abstract these things were important but for teenagers I think they can be very useful skills gained through experience.

    Now, for an educated adult who gets laid off and has to take a crappy service job? I agree that's a problem, and in the larger picture US companies are simply upping the productivity of remaining workers (i.e., more hours less pay) rather than hiring new ones. That fucking sucks, but I wouldn't dismiss all entry-level service jobs out of hand.

    Granted, at this rate we'll all be drunk on Brawndo and flipping burgers at Buttfucker's in about 20 years.

  9. RMGHicks Says:

    Underemployment morphs into malemployment. Of course this has been going on for years in my former field. I used to be a scientist – but now I sell real estate. Another form of malemployment. Of course the bar is getting lower all the time. I used to say you could find many a good scientist, programmer or engineer at the local Starbucks as a barista or the checkout line at Trader Joe's. Now we've devolved to the level of McDonalds. If we are in a race to the bottom – the bottom keeps finding new lows. Exactly where is the next stop once they don't need us at McDonalds? On the other hand – I probably don't want to know…..

  10. ladiesbane Says:

    Was "Calvin Got a Job" the original ad?

  11. Andy Brown Says:

    I looked at the article you link to. Does anyone else get the nagging feeling that this article has the feel of a Soviet or Communist happy-talk press release. The People's Resplendent Belt Buckle collective has hired 27 new workers – demonstrating again how the Wealth and Activity of the People continue to increase toward our Good, Productive and Disciplined future.

  12. acer Says:

    @Andy:
    I've long postulated that the only logical end for Reaganism was an ironically Soviet-style kleptocracy with a shinier PR apparatus. I don't see much difference between a state that tells you what to do and one that gradually eliminates all your options.

    But anyone can make it here! Look at Snooki!

  13. Pococurante Says:

    Right on Ed!

    So, what's your plan to action?

  14. Arslan Amirkhanov Says:

    McDonalds would be far more merciful if it were to offer free barbituates and a fifth of vodka with every value meal.

  15. Misterben Says:

    Part of the problem with this trend is that a lot of the "service industry" jobs are predicated on, and dependent on, the existence of a large and healthy middle class (healthy in the sense of flush with disposable income). The massive build-out of retail (big box and fast food) in the late '90s/early '00s was enabled by the simulataneous proliferation of credit cards and cash-out-refinances: the middle class suddenly found itself more able to spend than it had been in a long time, and we went on a big shopping spree. But without these very special (and quite unique, and quite unsustainable) economic conditions, the "service industry" will fail. McDonalds burgers and the like are actually luxury items: we indulge ourselves by spending money on something incredibly unhealthy. They aren't staples; they are foodtertainment. The more we make these jobs the ONLY jobs, the more that trend will accelerate, and when at some point the middle class collapses altogether, the "service industry" will go along with it. Then what? Good question.

  16. DWhite Says:

    Are not most McD's franchise operations that are owned by independent business people? Do they make their own decisions on work force level or does corporate mandate a certain level?

  17. Bitter Scribe Says:

    McDonald's got really pissed when the OED added "McJob." Don't know if they succeeded in getting it pulled.

    A few years ago, IIRC, McD's ran commercials where some architect or lawyer or some other successful professional reminisces about how they learned work habits etc. as kids at their McJobs. Looks like they were trying to be a little more realistic about exactly what those jobs offer: The eventual prospect of never working at McD's again.

  18. acer Says:

    @DWhite:

    Fast-food franchises like Mickey's are notoriously automatized. Their management varies only in competence – all the decisions come straight from the top. And your particular burger joint is forever in hock to the company store. Fast Food Nation is probably well read by G&Ters, but if you haven't read it, read it.

  19. Jason Fossella Says:

    There is a book by a British economist whose named I absolutely cannot remember at the moment that lays out what he called "the omega scenario." (The name is less over-the-top than it seems- he had an alpha scenario, beta, etc.) In the omega scenario, the agricultural and manufacturing sectors are fully automated, and society is divided into an upper 10% with great wealth and freedom, and a lower 90% who basically serve each other burgers and watch tv all day. The escape from that scenario was to take ownership of the means of production away from corporations and put it in worker collectives, so that the wealth could be distributed- pure paleo-Marxist communism.

    When we're boasting about 50,000 new McJobs, I think we're well on our way to the omega scenario.

  20. evrenseven Says:

    Except that their area of expertise is now being done in India for 1/10 of the cost of hiring that person to do the same thing in the US.

  21. Southern Beale Says:

    OMG I remember those ads. Yes, the "soft bigotry of low expectations" personified.

  22. mojidoji Says:

    @acer

    I think you're referring to this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_monopoly_capitalism

    Reaganism just approaches it from a different side.

  23. Southern Beale Says:

    Let me add, this is just another way our consumer culture devalues people. Something I wrote about exactly one year ago.

    The signs are all around us. We don't value people, humans are an expendable "resource" just like we throw away everything else. It of course would come to this. Is anyone surprised that the Republicans have an economic plan which basically treats senior citizens like used toilet paper? No Social Security or Medicare for you, off to an ice floe, Gramps! You have no value to society, with your fixed income and lack of worker productivity! This is the moral failing of American culture: not that Adam and Steve are getting it on, maybe even want to get married. No: that we don't value people of any kind, in any community.

    I'm trying to think when this started, maybe in the 80s or maybe before that. But something radical is going to have to happen to change this.

  24. MM Says:

    @ Southern Beale

    What is the value of a human life?

  25. ladiesbane Says:

    MM: it's not that human life does or does not have a quantifiable value ($3.00 a pound, what?), it's that many don't find human lives intrinsically worth caring for or preserving. Like the word "respect", it has multiple meanings with shared nuances.

    Southern Beale, I'm afraid this is nothing new, and not only tied to the Republicans who would rather keep the few dollars per year/per person that would support elder care, Head Start, or other common welfare programs. But you'd think that we might have learned better. Especially since so many seniors are voting for the right wingers who are putting them out on the ice floes.

  26. KDP Says:

    Although I agree that the news of 50k McJobs is not a wonderful thing for the many new hires who may have been desperate for employment; however, I also disagree that McDonald's provides no useful or marketable skills. I have a friend who took a McD's job when she was in her mid-20s because she needed work badly. She worked hard, showed initiative, and moved into store management after attending McDonald's University. A year later, she took her management experience to a local bank where she worked her way up to VP before being bought out. She's now living as an ex-pat in New Zealand and deep into an MBA program there.

    My personal experience was not with McD's but working on an assembly line through Kelly Services after 7 years of unemployment. Ten years later, my salary in software consulting was in mid-70s. Hard work, initiative, and a willingness to learn can and do have positive benefits in any workplace.

    Still, 50k McJobs is not great.

  27. Bobby Says:

    The only exception I take to any of these comments is that McDonald's makes people fat. Ignorance and/or laziness on the part of the adults patronizing McDonald's for a stupid amount of their and their families' meals is what makes people fat. Along with a whole lot of other contributing factors.

    It's an absolute myth that it's cheaper to eat crap food than to eat decent food. You can buy a serving of fruit, a vegetable, a meat/pasta dish (even if it's a can of soup) for each family member, for the price of a Happy Meal or a Quarter Pounder. However, it might take a whole 10 or 20 minutes of planning and prep time – not to mention actually exiting your vehicle, which is apparently more time and effort than some people are willing to invest. Can't blame McDonald's (as much as they suck) for that.

  28. wetcasements Says:

    "You can buy a serving of fruit, a vegetable, a meat/pasta dish"

    True, but you also need to know how to make and stick to a monthly food budget. You can eat much better and healthier if you buy in bulk but yes, it takes time to prep, and also you need to know the basics of household management.

    I thought my home ec. classes in middle school were a joke but these days, there really are a lot of Americans who don't know the basic basics. McDonalds makes billions of dollars of of this ignorance, but yeah, you can't blame them. Or maybe you can, but it's not their fault.

  29. ladiesbane Says:

    When I was still in Oregon, the state reps were challenged to live on a food stamp budget for a month and still eat healthily. At least one managed it easily, since (like me) he had been broke in college and lived on bulk legumes, eggs, cheaper vegetables such as cabbage, etc. The single parent whose budget he borrowed had never heard of lentils and had no idea how to prepare them. Both sides of the investigation were startled by the results, but no one was prompted to to promote home ec — more's the pity.

  30. Cerberus79 Says:

    This is just a test.

    You mean I can actually contribute without having to "register" and copy some drivel to prove I'm not a bot? How sweet!

    I'll be back.

  31. darms Says:

    Turns out Mickey D's has budgeted $518M to pay those 50K new hires which turns out to be a a 'whopping' $10,360.00 per employee. Gosh, that's almost enough to pay rent on an apartment here… Market Watch

  32. g Says:

    It's an absolute myth that it's cheaper to eat crap food than to eat decent food.

    Here's the problem, Bobby. If you live in a poor part of town, and you depend on public transportation, there are not very many supermarkets you can go to. And if you depend on public transportation, you have to carry everything you buy – so buying in bulk, which is more cost-effective – is a non-starter. Try carrying a 5 pound bag of flour and 4 or 5 14 oz cans of tomatoes, a 5 pound whole chicken, and a 5 pound bag of potatoes home at the end of your 8 hour workday. And that's walking a couple blocks from the supermarket to the bus stop.

    And that's if there's a supermarket in your neighborhood at all, instead of a convenience store or a liquor store without fresh meat and produce.

    Then, don't forget, once you get your shopping home to your crappy rental apartment with the malfunctioning oven, you're cooking that chicken in a cheap foil pan, not a Calphalon anodized aluminum roasting pan. You have a shitty little refrigerator that needs defrosting, and as for leftovers, there aren't any Tupperware parties in your neighborhood.

    Add in the fact that if you're second-generation poor, you may not every have learned how to cook food from scratch.

    I'm not saying it's impossible, but on a day to day basis, with $3 in their pocket, it probably seems a lot easier for poor folks to go in and get some chicken McNuggets for dinner.

  33. Jared Lessl Says:

    > If you live in a poor part of town, and you depend on public transportation, there are not very many supermarkets you can go to

    This scenario is called a food desert (my wife specializes in urban anthropology, and she has a particular interest in this). I'm getting a lesson in it myself; we volunteer at a community garden, and the nearest grocery store is 2 miles away. There is, however, a convenience store right there.

  34. Arslan Amirkhanov Says:

    Convenience stores charge much higher prices than supermarkets. The best supermarkets are warehouse clubs which usually have some kind of membership fee, and are typically located outside the city center. So no, that's not a solution.

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