There’s a thread that ties the Democrats’ arguments on the employer-covered contraceptive coverage mandate and their push to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour: We’re going to make your employer give you something you want.
People rarely turn down things that they’re offered for free.
Throughout the past three decades, without any real national debate or referendum, American workers found themselves in an era of fierce foreign competition. Goods are easily imported, and services increasingly can be handed elsewhere as well. First your telemarketer or help line was serviced from Bangalore, then it became an electronic voice menu. (“I’m sorry. I did not understand your answer. Please try again.”) Companies periodically embraced “outsourcing” and “offshoring,” utilizing cheaper labor in other countries. Mass illegal immigration increased the supply of labor, particularly manual labor.
“Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, a corporate executive who built a notorious reputation for mass layoffs at Scott Paper and then Sunbeam, helped create the modern iconic villain of a corporate executive willing to throw away his own workers in pursuit of a higher stock share price. The perception of callous and greedy corporate executives long outlasted Dunlap, who was tossed out at Sunbeam in 1998. American workers feel that their employers aren’t loyal to them, so they feel no need to reciprocate that loyalty.
There are times when those thriving the most will observe the difficult time that those once considered “middle class” are having, and rather openly say that they don’t care or that it reflects some meritocratic punishment for Americans who have grown too entitled:
The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.
I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”
Easy for him to say!
Note that a striking percentage of Americans don’t like their jobs: “Approximately 70 million Americans either hated their jobs or were simply ‘checked out,’ according to a recent Gallup survey of America’s workforce.”
That Gallup survey found that one of the biggest factors in an employee’s engagement is the opinion of the boss – more consequential than pay level, hours, benefits, and workload. “Managers from hell are creating active disengagement costing the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually,” wrote Jim Clifton, the C.E.O. and chairman of Gallup.
Obviously, these things are subjective, but maybe Americans really have worse bosses than a generation ago. Mocking the boss has always been a comedy staple — Office Space, Dilbert, Horrible Bosses — but maybe people laugh because they relate all too well. They feel like their hopes, dreams, and life’s path are blocked, indefinitely, by the pointy-haired micro-manager. No wonder they cheer a Democratic officeholder who pledges to make the boss give you more stuff.
Mitt Romney and other Republicans spent a good portion of 2012 singing the praises of “entrepreneurs,” and perhaps many Americans heard that as singing the praises of their bosses — or more likely, the founder of the company that hired them, whom in most cases they’ve never even met.
Of course, you won’t get very far in life if you see your boss as your enemy. Ideally, it’s a partnership. But that requires a positive, flexible, mature attitude on the part of the employee — and the boss as well.
Companies will argue that no one sets out to hire a bad manager — true enough — and that they’re giving their workers the best deal that they can, setting their wages at the market rate. Still, some of America’s businesses are sitting on piles of cash — $1.64 trillion among U.S. non-financial companies at the end of 2013. If America’s businessmen are worried about the growing atmosphere of resentment, populist anger, demonization of the wealthy, then throwing that money around — whether it’s on higher wages, new hires, new product research and development, or plant expansion — might persuade frustrated, increasingly cynical Americans that the companies that employ them aren’t such bad guys.
Is this the face of America’s employers?