While each generation has left its imprimatur upon the workplace environment, the old workplace paradigms are arrantly still in effect today.
Remember the 1990 movie Joe Versus the Volcano with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Recall the office scene with Joe, a veritable drone, in his cold, lackluster, monochromatic office, going through the motions of working under the flickering fluorescent light bulbs? Bingo!
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Eighteen years later, not much has changed in the workplace. Quite frankly, not much has really changed in a century. For white-collar workers, it's still the one-shift, pro forma 9-5 or 8-6 or later, with the accompanying two weeks vacation per year, which gets upgraded as you gain seniority within the company...if you gain seniority. It's the N personal days and sick days, accrued but not carried over. It's the compliancy of being on time and being a "yes" person and the complacency of a turkey sandwich at noon. It's the run around like a chicken sans head, or run around sans your own head or avec your head with your hair ablaze because someone in accounting kicked off end-of-year instead of end-of-month processing ("Oh, that's what that button does!") last night and corrupted all databases.
From a human resources (HR) perspective, nothing has really changed either. A full-time-equivalent (FTE) is, well, still the same. And a part-time-equivalent (PTE) is still a PTE and gets little or no benefits...gotcha! Flex time was introduced but did not become the champion of working mothers as was originally thought. Conformity is the operative term in the workplace environment.
Telecommuting is the on-again/off-again fad that is fraught with serious psycho-social side effects. While awesome during inclement weather, telecommuting has left a lot of people feeling socially deprived and full of all kinds of new neuroses and angst as they wring their hands (in their virtual offices), worrying about not having face (and body) time at the office and how that might negatively affect their careers. (I have been working at home for over 11 years. I have been through all of the second-guessing, the paranoia, and the anxiety attacks if I am not at my desk promptly at 8:00 a.m.--even though I am wearing my pink, furry bunny slippers. Just get over yourselves. I did.) But I digress....
Different generations, such as the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and now Millennials, have approached, and are approaching, the workplace with very different goals, attitudes, and skills. However, the workplace has, by and large, remained the same. An anachronism, yes, but unchanged over time. And this holds true for everyone, those of the IT persuasion as well as everybody else. Of course, IT is credited with being the most creative because we work nights, weekends, and holidays. It's OK to buck the paradigm as long as it translates into longer hours and more stress, with the stunning payback of scapegoating IT while lavishing praise on everyone else.
The fact is the workplace has been rocked hard for about eight years now. (Hmmm...eight years; that coincides with something else.) And things are likely to get worse before they get better. Job security is an oxymoron, and job loyalty gets rewarded with a pink slip. Add to that the credit boom and the foreclosure crisis, whose repercussions will have ripple effects for many years to come. Wall Street is taking a rollercoaster ride. Freddie and Fannie had to be bailed out by Uncle Sam. Banks are collapsing, and for the first time since the Great Depression, people are concerned that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is not going to live up to its promise.
And There's More...
In August, the august Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor painted a rather terrifying picture in its Employment Situation Summary. The Web site reports, "The unemployment rate rose from 5.7 to 6.1 percent in August...[and] [t]he number of unemployed persons rose by 592,000 to 9.4 million in August." The report continues, "Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has increased by 2.2 million and the unemployment rate has risen by 1.4 percentage points, with most of the increase occurring over the past 4 months."
Moreover, in August, "...the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) rose by 163,000 to 1.8 million, an increase of 589,000 over the past 12 months." This is a stunning revelation that is not normally mentioned in the media.
The long-term unemployed. Sounds like a fatal illness. These people have not only lost their jobs, but are also likely to have run out of unemployment insurance benefits as well and still have to figure out how to pay for small things such as food and housing. Fortunately, the federal government has given them the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), for which the short- and long-term unemployed pay astronomical premiums of up to 102 percent of the cost of coverage to their former employers so that they can keep their health insurance coverage for 18 months at the former employer's group rate. Face it, COBRA is not a long-term option because sometimes the choices come down to, let's see, "food or COBRA" or "rent/mortgage or COBRA."
Until the umbilical cord between health insurance and the employer is severed, there will be no change in the workplace paradigm because many people remain tethered to lousy jobs because of good benefits. Moreover, many are likely to forgo excellent out-of-the-box opportunities or early retirement (remember Medicare does not kick in until you are 65) because of very realistic concerns about healthcare and having coverage--for themselves and their families.
Health Insurance: Ah, There's the Rub!
Almost every other first-world nation has universal health coverage. Not only does the U.S. not have universal medical coverage, but health insurance is joined at the hip to your employer--if you are fortunate to have an employer that provides health insurance and if the premiums are not prohibitive.
The obvious problem with having to procure health insurance through your employer is having to play musical chairs with your providers. Every time you switch employers, you likely have to switch providers. Then, you end up paying more for premiums and co-pays, and only the very fine print in the byzantine and illegible insurance policy informs you of what services and products for which you are not covered.
Another interesting set of statistics reported by the Bureau in August was that the number of people who worked part-time for economic reasons remained unchanged at 5.7 million. The interesting point about this is the fact that the "...category includes persons who indicated that they would like to work full time but were working part time because their hours had been cut back or they were unable to find full-time jobs." For many employees, if their hours have been cut, it is also likely that their benefits--including health insurance--have been either cut or obliterated. Hence, the PTE with no insurance and the mind-boggling 48 million people uninsured.
We don't buy our car insurance through our employers....hmmm.
The bottom line is that I believe if we severed the health insurance ties to employers, both employers and employees could work out more suitable and mutually beneficial workplace arrangements.
Let me provide some examples, which will resonate with the IT employees. For the most part, I think employers realize that if you have to come in over the weekend to perform an upgrade, you get comp time off (I hope). But what many do not yet understand is that certain IT jobs would be better accomplished with very flexible work schedules. Programmers, can, for the most part, program from home. Systems and network people need to be onsite, but not all at the same time. Staggering schedules and providing incentives such as reducing the hours of a person who works on weekends and who gets the job done more effectively and efficiently, for the same amount of pay, would be a great pay-for-performance incentive. Hey, the unions pay time and a half for overtime and Saturdays and double time for holidays.
Why must we work a 40-hour week (Yeah, I know, 40 hours! What am I smoking?) every week whether we have 40 hours worth of work or not? There have been times, I'm sure, when everyone experiences a lull or gets done what needs to be done sooner than expected (that's where the expression "I had a productive day" comes from). So you clean up your files, desk, cubicle, office, etc. Wouldn't you rather be home cleaning out your closets or sock drawers--or spending time with your kids or significant other?
Pay-for-performance and on-demand work paradigms might be worth considering under certain circumstances. We have on-demand everything else. And insurance companies want to institute pay-for-performance for providers. Why not pay project managers--fairly--for the job instead of by the hour? I understand that this will drive HR and accounting up the wall, but the outmoded algorithms they are using are just as convoluted. The problem is getting past "We've always done it this way."
But we can't continue to.
Granted, employees will have to become more accountable and competitive, and employers will be able to cherry pick the people they want, but many employees will also be able to break through the glass door and build mobile or collateral careers, work the hours they want, retire early, and maybe even be able to spend quality time with their families.
At the time in our lives when we Baby Boomers (Why do they have to call us that?) and more mature Generation Xers want to wind down our IT careers or take the road less traveled (e.g., teach Monday, beach Tuesday...), we are faced with potential layoffs, postponed retirement, and shrinking retirement funds. And at a time when health insurance is an absolute necessity, what do we do if we are "let go" at age 60? Take a full-time job at Wendy's to get health insurance coverage?
I am not sure if it is just me, but at 40+ (read that 50 in January 2009), I'm not sure I want to work full-time (read that to mean 60+ hours per week). But I am also not sure I want to consult on a myriad of different projects, which as the number of senior moments increases, becomes more daunting because it is harder to shift gears on a dime. Fortunately, I have health insurance through my husband's employer--for now.
I realize this is not your dyed-in-the-wool IT careers article, but I do invite you, dear reader, to sound off on the ideas put forth here and present your own. After all, we are IT professionals. We are about change.