Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Social Classes in the Workplace

For me, one of the interesting aspects of the Frank Rich piece that I previously linked to was bringing together the idea of surprise over the great sense of mourning at the loss of Steve Jobs coming from participants in the #Occupy Wall Street protests. As noted in the Rich piece, some media figures characterized this as hypocritical.
Yet those demonstrators who celebrated Jobs were not necessarily hypocrites at all—and no more anti-capitalist than the Bonus Army of 1932. If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius—in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on—was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured. Those in Palin’s “real America” may not be agitated about the economic 99-vs.-one percent inequality brought about by the rise of the financial sector in the past three decades, but, like class warriors of the left, they know that “financial instruments” wreaked havoc on their 401(k)s, homes, and jobs. The bottom line remains that Wall Street’s opaque inventions led directly to TARP, the taxpayers’ bank bailout that achieved the seemingly impossible feat of unifying the left and right in rage against government—much as Jobs’s death achieved the equally surprising coup of unifying left and right in mourning a corporate god.

That bipartisan grief was arguably as much for the passing of a capitalist culture as for the man himself. Finance long ago supplanted visionary entrepreneurial careers like Jobs’s as the most desired calling among America’s top-tier university students, just as hedge-fund tycoons like John Paulson and Steve Cohen passed Jobs on the Forbes 400 list. Americans sense that something incalculable has been lost in this transformation that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
Anti-Business, Anti-Capitalism, Anti-Success, Socialist, Communist and Un-American
Historically, and with particular energy during recent years, the political right has tried to apply a broad brush of anti-capitalism. During the Cold War, it was used to equate the values of the political opposition with the values of "the enemy." During the Obama administration, it's been used by the right as an avatar for "Obama is black" and to channel the political energy drawn from that. Rich's piece is, in part, an effort to debunk aspects of #OWS as they have been characterized in the media, with a key one being the idea that #OWS was anti-business.

What struck me about this was how it tapped into many aspects of workplace culture that we all deal with. For many people in the workplace, few things are more frustrating than managers or colleagues that receive accolades for not doing anything, collecting fat salaries and workplace kudos while skating by on the hard work and talent of others.

And while this perceived inequality may just be an aspect of our cultural DNA, the natural reaction of humans working in groups juxtaposed against the perceptions of self, there is also an underlying aspect that connects back to Steve Jobs versus Finance -- Steve Jobs did stuff. His success was built on the creation of things, not collecting money from some Bluto-style counting game (one for you, two for me, one for you, three for me).

Most of us have have little animosity toward those that work hard and to the success that comes through entrepreneurial efforts. This is part of what makes Tony Stark's character in Ironman likeable. Similarly, we have an established hero mythology for "the guy that rose up through the ranks to lead the organization" and it's implied understanding of the values and principles gained through participating in the mechanics of the business operation.

This is one of the more enticing prospective benefits of working in a start-up. While most organizations inevitably draw a certain amount of slackers and free-riders that surf the waves of bureaucracy, there's not really any room for dead wood in a start-up. It's also usually small enough that people can recognize strong contributors.

The Reality of Social Classes in the American Workplace
One point that I would counter the themes in Rich's piece is the notion of an absence of social class here in the US. Even here in Silicon Valley, there are entrenched social classes in the workplace.

Ask any admin if there is a hope of escaping their role. Try to find a job outside of the field or the industry that you have been working in and you will come face to face with an entrenched establishment. While social class may not be defined at birth, it's not far off from the career chip concept from Futurama.

In career social classes, your status typically doesn't advance more than 1-5% of your salary annually. Your class may be defined by token milestone adjectives like "senior", but realistic changes in your status tier often require changing companies. Often, attempting to break this career social class structure is real goal behind going back to school, relocation or changing jobs.

This is also the American Dream that lies at the heart of working at a start-up -- the opportunity to re-invent yourself, to escape the bounds of your existing career class and redefine yourself through your ability to respond to a new set of challenges -- the new frontier. One of the reasons that people like start-ups is that, because start-ups tend to have more needs than resources, there tends to be greater opportunities to expand the boundaries, to be entrepreneurial, to win success though initiative and innovation.

Hope Springs Eternal
As I noted in this previous post, it's unlikely that we'll see an Arab Spring in the business world. Nor is it likely that we'll see things go the way of the London riots. Don't expect a revolution or transformational class reform in the workplace. And while the odds are pretty good that, of the people dreaming of a more open career environment with less rigid social classes, few are anti-business. After all, the first step in the entrepreneurial dream comes from envisioning the possibility of a change, from thinking different.

No comments: