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THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER'S WORK ENVIRONMENT
[posted 01.07.2001]

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BEFORE I WAS EVEN BORN, my father got a job with IBM — and from the moment I was able to understand things I understood IBM was more than just the way my father paid the mortgage. There was a reason he carried a slim black notebook with “THINK” — IBM’s motto — emblazoned on the cover. IBM was a way of life. I was an IBM baby, we were an IBM family, and, above all, my father was an IBM man.

I was just days old when The Company bought me a sterling silver baby spoon and hung a sign on my father’s office door recognizing him as a proud new papa. At holiday time my father took us to IBM parties where I received an Etch-a-Sketch and got to meet Santa. Every summer my brother and sister and I anticipated the annual IBM Day when IBM families took over the local King’s Dominion amusement park and the company picked up the tab. We swaggered onto the rides and the roller coasters with the pride of the upper echelon. The highest castes of Indian societies had nothing on us, damn it. We were IBMers.

So it makes sense that I would remember the day my sophomore year of high school that my father came home from work, took his usual place at the family dinner table and said, “Everyone whose dad or husband works for IBM, please stand up.”

Before we could respond, he cracked a half-hearted smile. “Not so fast….”

The news wasn’t all bad. My father still had a job. He even had the same office. But IBM, suffering poorly in the early ’90s, had sold my father’s division of the company to another corporation. Now he worked for something called LORAL. The name sounded foreign on our tongues. Could we trust it? It didn’t matter, because just a few years later my father would be part of yet another deal, and his name and title would be just a few more coins in the giant poker pot of the corporate game.

Was my father a sucker? Was my family naive? No. But it was the end of an era for him and so many workers like him — an era in which many people (mostly white, middle- and upper-class men) graduated college, got married, received a nice gold watch on their 25th anniversary with the company, and at age 65 enjoyed a retirement party complete with sandwiches from the local deli and cake proclaiming “Happy Retirement, Harry!”

Things are a little different now, it seems.

I THOUGHT THIS WAS A JOB, NOT SOME KIND OF NAZI WORK CAMP

In the two years since college graduation I have held two internships and two full-time jobs and lived in three different cities. The most permanent thing I own is my cat, and even he can get as finicky as I act sometimes. True, my situation might be an extreme (I certainly have friends who have actually maintained the same job since graduation). But I increasingly find myself surrounded by friends and colleagues who look at their jobs as mere stepping stones. They want to try different things. They want to stay somewhere two years, maybe three. They want to head back to school, live in different cities. Some of them don’t want to get married…yet.

These aren’t radical hippie types obsessed with fighting “the man.” They are not necessarily ethically opposed to ties or pantyhose. They’re not lazy. But the image of company as father figure doesn’t cut it. These workers don’t want an IBM intruding into every facet of their lives. Frankly, they don’t need it.

And neither do I — which makes it hard for me at present. My current employer (an association that shall remain nameless, as I need to pay my rent) requires my coworkers and me to attend numerous painful meetings and seminars at which we are constantly bombarded with the values and principles of the company. At some of these meetings I’ve watched my more eager coworkers dress up and perform skits illustrating violations of the association’s Code of Ethics. For one all-staff meeting dedicated to building “a culture of high-performance,” we were encouraged to dress up as construction workers to get us in the mood to “build.” Yes. Really.

At this same meeting I watched in awkward embarrassment as our CEO slipped on a pair of oversized plastic sunglasses and, borrowing from that ’80s anthem, announced, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

We have also been given laminated cards with the company values on them to post in our cubes. We are expected to use the screensaver with the company motto on it so that any time we slow down long enough for it to turn on we are reminded of what should be our sole purpose in life: to produce for The Company. In a sick, Orwellian twist, we are expected to fill out “Culture Assessment Surveys” that report not on our colleagues’ work performance but on their ability to conform to the company values and culture.

It could be worse, I suppose. A coworker’s friend works at a company where the employees are forced to stand together and repeat the company mission statement — out loud.

While kvetching with a young coworker the other day, I found myself saying, “This management style is, like, so 1983.” First, I was a little freaked that I was using the term “management style” so freely. But more than that I was shocked by upper management’s inability to realize that an overwhelming number of their younger staff found the act to be corny, boring, and a giant waste of time. As members of a generation that can’t stand waiting the seven minutes it takes to microwave our dinners, we certainly don’t understand the need to spend valuable time (*company* time, mind you) discussing what “integrity” means.

Remember, we were raised on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street: We already know how to play nice with our neighbors.

FORGET THE GOLD WATCH

Are we “no fun”? Are we “bad employees”? Certainly not. Most of us work very hard. But perhaps we don’t see the need to identify solely with our JOBS. (And even those I know who are in love with the idea of making their first million by age 30 fantasize more about taking their own company public than about working the same place for a decade.) Perhaps we saw our own parents traded and laid off enough to learn that we are all truly freelancers in the world of work. Perhaps we’re just too media-savvy (there, I said it) to fall for any kitschy, awkward attempt to make working “fun” and “feel like family.” Forced company solidarity merely breeds suspicion, and companies and associations that want to — and increasingly have to — attract and utilize the skills of younger employees would be wise to realize that.

And they would be wise to realize what we do want: Excellent benefits, good retirement packages that roll over easily, flex time, relaxed dress codes, comfortable work spaces, less red tape and bureaucracy, and honest, down-to-earth communication. We will reward you with innovation, hard work, useful skills and a wide breadth of life experiences that can only prove valuable to the company.

Such a work environment would be a welcome change from my current one, where I once had to attend a meeting to discuss “excellence.” There the leader of the company promised us that she believed in what she liked to call “face time.” Finally, we were each given a clear plastic notepad holder with the company values printed on it.

Hell, I’d have been happy with a decent 401(k).

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jennifer mathieu writes for houston’s alternative weekly, the press.