Trouble in paradise

Dec. 21, 2004
If the economy is better than ever, why is everybody still complaining?

We were talking in the neighborhood about the hectic pace of business these days -- global competition, the information explosion, yadda yadda yadda -- when a friend walked home and returned with the following words. Ostensibly concerning the decline of an exclusive downtown businessmans club to which my friend belongs, the words make a broader statement about the pace of modern corporate life even as they explain why the clubs members no longer have time to participate in its theatrical productions:

a. The increased tempo of business which curtails the spare time of members over what they enjoyed 40 years ago.

b. The increase in outside recreational divertissements which claims much more spare time compared with conditions existing 40 years ago.

c. The public is now surfeited with a great variety of continuous entertainment thru [sic] the medium of movie houses, [as well as] television, night clubs, theatres, sports, all of which fill an area in city life today which was once a void 40 years ago.

The catch, of course -- for those readers not already tipped off by the use of such wonderful, stately words as "divertissements" and "surfeited" -- is that the passage was published in 1954, well before voice mail, e-mail, and fax machines. The golden age to which the phrase "40 years ago" refers was pre-World War I -- the last time, at least according to this author, that executives and captains of industry werent harried by the inconvenient pressures of competition and changing markets.

I suppose each generation is entitled to its own dose of self-pity. And there is probably something perversely comforting in the constancy of human behavior, even if it sometimes consists largely of whining about how hard it is to make a living.

Still, the level of complaint I hear these days from employees and managers alike makes me wonder whats wrong in a time when so many have it so good. After all, when my friends club historian wrote about the increasingly frenzied pace of business in 1954, he and his audience had fresh memories of not one, but two World Wars. The Cold War, 40 years before its final thaw, had just gone nuclear, with fully a third of the world resolved to bury the capitalist system. If ever a generation of people had reason to worry about their economic futures, our parents surely did.

By contrast, we have more of almost everything than ever -- peace, salaries, standard of living, flexibility in work arrangements, empowerment to do our jobs in our own way. This is not, of course, to say that we live in a perfect economic world, or anything close to it: There is far too much poverty and inequality of opportunity for that. And the death of employer-employee loyalty, no matter how fleeting a mid-20th century notion it was -- did turn-of-the century industrial tycoons, with their Pinkertons and lockouts, worry about employee loyalty? -- is a blow from which many workers never recovered. What Im talking about instead are the haves -- those unhappy souls we all know who, despite stock options and 401(k) plans and the latest Saab or Mercedes or BMW, complain about how the pace of work has become unbearable, how stress levels have gone through the roof. Yet with the Dow Jones, corporate profits, and employee choice -- as well as employee portfolios -- at all-time highs, what will it take to satisfy these souls?

My sometimes dismal view of human nature suggests that nothing will. But Id like to hear what you think the whining is all about. E-mail your explanations to [email protected], or fax me at 216/696-7670. Unless, of course, the increased tempo of business has curtailed your spare time too much for that.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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