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Sometimes You Just Want to Scream

Employees Complain That the Work Contract Has Been Broken, but Others Say They Expect Too Much


As turbocharged capitalism overtakes America, workers feel unprecedented strain. A sense of powerlessness, suspicion and simmering rage is creeping into America's cubicles, as employees come to terms with dashed expectations. Eavesdrop at the water cooler and hear them bemoan longer hours, added responsibilities, management's broken promises, unfair performance appraisals and shrinking benefits.

Not that such complaining is new.

"The market is glutted. . . . Advantage is taken of men's wants, and the pay is cut down; our tasks are increased, and if we remonstrate, we are told our places can be filled. I work harder now than when my pay was twice as high," a Massachusetts worker testified in 1879.

Today the grumbling is louder--and many workplace experts say it is justified.

Some employers, however, contend that their workers have become spoiled prima donnas who refuse to embrace "the New Deal," a fancy name for corporate Darwinism.

Once upon a time, paternalistic employers traded security for loyalty. A mediocre employee could look forward to decades of mediocre employment if he showed up at work and didn't park in the boss' reserved space.

But saddled with mounting global competition and skyrocketing Wall Street expectations, employers today have changed the rules.

"Give us your dedication and top performance to maximize our shareholders' values," they say. "And in return, we'll keep your skills marketable and make your job challenging." Translation: "Don't order too many business cards."

Foot soldiers grumble, albeit not too loudly. "Downsizing survivor's syndrome"--the moribund trance state of the "walking working"--affects a great many of them.

Eighty-seven percent of employers surveyed for a recent Conference Board report acknowledged that they couldn't guarantee continued employment for their workers.

The employees, meanwhile, ache for greener pastures. A 1998 Kepner-Tregoe study revealed that 64% of employee respondents said they "think about leaving one or two times a year or more."

"Welcome to temp world," says Barbara Moses, a 20-year veteran management consultant and author of "Career Intelligence" (Berrett-Koehler, 1998).

Moses believes that many workers are disillusioned because they have unconsciously accepted television images of the way work ought to be. Programs such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi" and "WKRP in Cincinnati" depicted the workplace as "an extended family of friends," notes Moses. Would Lou Grant re-engineer Mary Richards' job?

L.A.-based clinical psychologist Bonnie Mark-Goldstein contends that television and Internet access have reduced some people's ability to cope with difficulties.

"There's no delayed gratification" on television, she says. "All is given to you instantly. Problems are resolved by show's end. You don't see frustration, only the ease of things."

As for the Internet, she notes wryly, "When things get too frustrating, you can either change your identity or shut off the computer."

Are we a generation of crybabies, reared permissively by parents following "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care"? Psychotherapist and business consultant Bill DeFoore thinks this may be partly so. Other experts hazard opinions about today's more confrontational, publicly peeved worker persona.

"There's an erosion of civility," Moses says. "People are bringing their whole personalities to work now. And that's not going to be very nice all the time."

Lynne McClure, author of "Risky Business," (Haworth Press, 1996) bemoans the loss of virtuous role models.

"Starting at least 10 years ago, we see heroes who are selfish, self-centered and quick to act out their anger on others." Icons of the 1950s, McClure says, set positive, though perhaps idealistic, examples for "normal behavior."

"It's more socially acceptable to act on impulse than in past decades," says Robert Vecchio, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame. "The media show this paying off--like shouting at the boss if things don't go well. However, although confrontation can be very entertaining, in the real world, it's complex and problematic."

While annual reports frequently gloat about rising profits, they remain silent about wages, which are comparatively flat. Despite longer hours, increased productivity and corporations' record earnings, family incomes have largely stagnated for more than 20 years. For 60% of Americans, in fact, incomes have declined.

Add to the stew an unprecedented wage disparity between top and bottom. In 1997, the average chief executive's compensation was $3.09 million--326 times higher than the average factory worker's earnings.

While CEOs' salaries rose 35% last year, white-collar wages increased a far lower 4.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' employment cost index.

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