Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Snapshot of Work in Contemporary the USA

I had a rare opportunity at work the other day -- one of my jobs, a Costco sales employee -- to talk about things a little more meaningful than a more detailed discussion of the specs on the latest LED LCD Full-Array Vizio HD television we carry. The man, as it happened, was fairly well-traveled. He'd grown up in an Eastern bloc country, although I wasn't able to discern which exactly.

First, he talked about his visit to the Dead Sea and its immediate and literally corrosive effects. It's quite a vista, he added, noting especially its depth below sea level. He spoke of the Cold War, too, and the nature of U.S. - USSR power-play dynamics during that period. He also made an offhand remark regarding the nature of employment at a place like Costco, which, honestly, I was not offended by, but nevertheless, it immediately struck a chord with me. He said a job at Costco is fine for younger people, i.e. college aged, (there was a slight language barrier; his English was good but not entirely fluent) but that if an older person (i.e. above college-aged), an older man in specific, worked at Costco. then you knew something was, to paraphrase, wrong with that individual.

I didn't debate the matter with him, nor would I now with the benefit of hindsight, nor do I think he meant to insult me specifically (since technically I'm at about college age, or could reasonably be confused as college aged). I feel I understand his perspective, which is a common one, and is a stigma worn by people working in retail in general, not just at Costco. But what the man I spoke with failed to realize, and what the great many people who think in the same terms fail to realize, is that we've created an infrastructure, via cultural norms etc., in which this is the only alternative for many, many people, even college educated people, who for a pantheon of reasons do not work in more "respectable" fields. It's like everyone acknowledges we need companies like Costco., Wal-Mart and McDonald's, but nobody acknowledges that someone has to draw the short end of the stick and actually work there. These are the new factory jobs, people. Worse than that few of them are allowed to unionize where there was at least a time when that option existed for factory workers (still do for those who remain in the vastly diminished US manufacturing industry).

Look at this advertisement (later parodied by Dave Chappelle on his agonizingly short-lived "Chappelle Show"). It depicts a young black man who's bettered himself, avoided the pitfalls of his community, by working at a McDonald's. At the very least you should be able to see how this is a culturally insensitive portrayal of "Calvin" the young black protagonist.

We talk about socioeconomics and things like people's place in our society in glib terms, more often than not. If someone works a low level job at McDonald's it's because they aren't trying hard enough to go out and aspire to something better. But as I've said, I'm a Determinist insofar as I believe there are many external factors that play into who we become. No bigger is the cycle of poverty. Probably second to poverty's cycle is the cycle of affluence.

The point is, fine, go ahead and say "Calvin" is better off working at McDonald's than being a gangbanger and petty crook. No one disagrees (except maybe gangbangers and petty crooks). But how can we then say there's something "wrong" with a person who has evaluated his or her options only to decide / realize the best, most apparent one is working at a McDonald's? So we can then say the mentally defective populate these positions? And is it not funny that we let corporations off scot-free, bearing no burden of culpability by building these corporations that employ only "mental defectives," i.e. people who do not earn a respectable living, but the individuals themselves are the ones stigmatized. We need our McDonald's but we'd never deign to be employed by one! Or is there no incongruity? Is there no cake and eating it too, here?

How callous have we become as a society, and where does it end?

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