LA GRANDE ILLUSION

Posted in Quick Hits on December 22nd, 2015 by Ed

Many, many years ago, before even beginning the long road into academia in graduate school, I worked at a collection agency. Collection agencies pay well and I needed money after graduating from college with a mountain of credit card debt, not to mention the student loans. Collection agencies pay well because they are terrible places to work. It helped somewhat that I was in a semi-managerial position, which is to say that when the people who owned the place and were properly "in charge" were absent, which was often, I was their stand-in.

As is the case with most wealthy white male businessmen, they did not believe in paid holidays. If memory serves, Christmas was a paid holiday (Jewish employees swapped out another day in December and worked Christmas) but we always worked on the 24th and the 26th. This struck, and strikes, me as ludicrous and uniquely American. Since the principals took nearly the entire month of December off – as Job Creators this was their god-given right, of course – I was inevitably "in charge" during the holiday season. One year I spoke with the owner on the 24th and requested permission to let everyone go at noon. Nobody was working anyway. It was December 24. With Dickensian fortitude, he declined the request and insisted on keeping everyone there all day. With boldness bordering on heroism, by about 2:30 I announced that This is Ridiculous and everybody should just go home.

It was ridiculous. We go through this bizarre American charade of showing up to work and doing next to nothing because to close and to give the workforce actual time off would be, I don't know, slothful? Insufficiently Puritan? It was just ludicrous. Most of a collection agency's activity in our particular niche (hospitals) involves being on the phone with insurance companies and hospital business offices. Since those places tended not to be open (or to be as, uh, relaxed toward working as our office) during the last few weeks of December, nothing was getting done. Why we could not all just admit, "Hey, nobody's doing any work anyway, why don't we all just go home?" was beyond me. It still is.

How much work are you doing today? How much work will you be doing all week? My guesses are "not much" and "very little." Yet just to make sure you understand your place, you have to show up anyway. The boss(es) won't be in attendance, of course. They're in Vail or the Caribbean or one of the other places populated with the deserving few during this time of year. If you're in, say, retail or restaurants it makes sense for you to be at work right now, at least economically, because you're actually working. You might even be busy. But my guess is that a lot of you are sitting around an office checking Facebook every 90 seconds and having long, frequent conversations with your coworkers that serve mostly to fill time.

It's idiotic. Go home. Or at least go to the bar. Tip well.