The Year@Work: 2017

The workplace took center stage in the global news of 2017. This was the year of the journalist, women@work, side-hustles and maintaining focus. It was also the year that we, as a society questioned expertise.

Two quotes summed up 2017 for me:

“I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me”
Cecily Strong  (2/12 SNL skit )

“How do we measure ‘fulfillment’ in work, and where do we find it when the traditional channels have given way to a round-the-clock hustle?”
Meghan Daum (9/15 NYT Book Review)

It was a year of constant distraction, disruption and fake news. The workplace became a refuge, and activism an essential ‘after hours’ pursuit. Low unemployment rates held, while wages stagnated. The income inequality gap widened.

An overheard conversation on the street this week: “I haven’t had a day off since September 1, with the three jobs I’ve been juggling.” This is the new American workplace.

The year@work was the year of the journalist. Although many were bullied and threatened, the coverage of workplace issues was stellar. For this year in review, I recommend some of the best writing of the year, suggest a book from the new genre ‘UpLit’ and share a few random thoughts.

IMG_8149.jpgWomen@work
On a cool Saturday morning in January we headed downtown to join a protest march. The plan had been to park the car and take the light rail. There were no parking spaces. There are always parking spaces. Something was different.

What was different was this wasn’t a march, it was a ‘standing in place’ because there were too many people and nowhere to go. In downtown LA the crowd was a mosaic of SoCal demographics. It wasn’t a ‘woman’s march’, it was a ‘families march’ in support of women. I think that may be the one thing the press missed this year.

IMG_8191.jpgAt the time many were skeptical.  The Los Angeles Times reported: “New protest era may be emerging, but sustaining unity could prove difficult.”

Yes, it has been difficult, but subsequent elections on local, state and federal levels demonstrated an ongoing commitment to civic engagement. The gig economy has a new ‘side-hustle’ and it’s called involvement.

I believe the seeds for #MeToo were planted on January 21, 2017.

Workplace Harassment

On February 19, former Uber employee, Susan Fowler posted a blog about her experience as a software engineer. “It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go…”

On December 11, Ms. Fowler was named the Financial Times’ Person of the Year.
“Women have been speaking up for many, many years, but were very rarely believed, and there were almost never any real consequences for offenders,” Ms Fowler told the Financial Times. “This year, that completely changed.”

Two other stories of note broadened the narrative of women@work in Silicon Valley:
‘The Ellen Pao Effect Is What Happens After Lean In’Jessi Hempel for Wired, September 20, 2017
‘Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?’Liza Mundy for The Atlantic, April 2017

fearless girl.jpgOn October 5 the first major story on workplace harassment in Hollywood was reported in The New York Times.  Since then, some of the best journalists have both reported and reflected on the relationship between men, power and women@work.

Here’s a sampling of the best:
‘Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades’Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for The New York Times, October 5, 2017
‘From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories’Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker, October 10, 2017
‘Your Reckoning and Mine’Rebecca Traister for The Cut, November 12, 2017
‘The Cost of Devaluing Women’Sallie Krawcheck for The New York Times, December 2, 2017

rose reading room.jpgThe questioning of expertise

At work, you know the value of the expertise you bring to your organization. You may be a generalist, a specialist or a combination. You bear the scars and carry the laurels of hard won achievement, and you are compensated for your talent. Colleagues ‘pick your brain’ to complement their own skill set. Customers rely on your advice.

That’s why ‘How America Lost Faith in Expertise’ by Tom Nichols is required reading.

“I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none.

A modern society cannot function without a social division of labor. No one is an expert on everything. We prosper because we specialize, developing formal and informal mechanisms and practices that allow us to trust one another in those specializations and gain the collective benefit of our individual expertise…The relationship between expert and citizens rests on a foundation of mutual respect and trust.”

IMG_8367.jpgThe gig/side-hustle career

The world of work has changed. We’re not going to time-travel back to a magical place where work fit neatly into single employer; 9-5, five-day a week increments. Whatever you choose to label the current paradigm, it’s a patchwork of assignments, for a variety of employers: some resulting in valuable skill development and others providing the means to an end. And it’s exhausting.

Jia Tolentino examined the consequences of our new work/life for the New Yorker.
‘The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death’ March 22, 2017. “It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news.

“There’s a painful distance between the chipper narratives surrounding labor and success in America and the lived experience of workers.”

IMG_9786.jpgUp lit: A new genre emerges in publishing

In the September article for the NYT Book Review, Meghan Daum reviewed three memoirs.“I’ve always believed some of the best material comes from the workplace…it’s the job site, the place where our skills are honed and our labors converted to currency, that truly defines not just our proficiencies but our element.”

I would agree.

Danuta Kean reported for the Guardian: ‘Up lit: The new book trend with kindness at its core’ “A bruising year dominated by political and economic uncertainty, terrorism and tragedy has, publishers say, kickstarted a new trend they have have branded “up lit”…bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood.”

One of her favorites was also mine. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman, a perfect example of how fiction can outdistance non-fiction when it comes to our relationship to work and our colleagues.

IMG_9162.jpgIt begins: “When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, hairdressers – I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work ‘in an office’ and automatically fill in the blanks themselves – lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard. I’m not complaining, I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them.”

One other recommendation, looking at work from a different life cycle perspective:
‘Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney.

“Now I don’t work anymore, and the world is uncomfortable.”

The world is uncomfortable, for many reasons. As 2017 merges into 2018 the question remains for all @work: How will we find fulfillment @work in the new year, amidst a shape-shifting environment where the familiar has been replaced by a round-the-clock hustle?

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The week@work – The ‘Fallows question’, flexibility@work and the long term impact of student debt

On Saturday Night Live actor Cecily Strong delivered a line that summed up what many of us are feeling this week@work, “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” 

It got me thinking about the question Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg posed to the Barnard Class of 2011, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

This week@work The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks posed ‘the Fallows question’“If you could move to the place on earth where history is most importantly being made right now, where would you go?”

“James and Deborah Fallows have always moved to where history is being made…James and Deb have an excellent sense of where world-shaping events are taking place at any moment — and a fervent commitment to be there to see it happen.

If you want to “observe” history, the Fallows say, go to Washington. If you want to “participate,” go elsewhere.”

If you weren’t afraid, and could pick up and move to where the action is, where would you go? Brooks offered a few destinations to start, but just maybe, this week@work you might spend some time considering a temporary relocation “in search of history”.

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Folks@work are moving forward, finding ways to succeed independent of national politics. Some voice concern about the potential impact of new policies on their workplace, while others seek ways to express a response in their work. For many, the challenges of the gender gap and student debt remain a constant, often extending into retirement.

Claire Cain Miller examined the tension in employer expectations between flexibility and presence@work in ‘How to Close a Gender Gap: Let Employees Control Their Schedules’.

“The main reason for the gender gaps at work — why women are paid less, why they’re less likely to reach the top levels of companies, and why they’re more likely to stop working after having children — is employers’ expectation that people spend long hours at their desks, research has shown.

Flexibility regarding the time and place that work gets done would go a long way toward closing the gaps, economists say.

A new job search company, Werk, is trying to address the problem by negotiating for flexibility with employers before posting jobs, so employees don’t have to.”

And then there are the financial pressures; spanning generations from twenty-somethings being subsidized by parents, as their grandparents face social security payment garnishment to repay outstanding student loan debt.

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Quoctrung Bui reported on ‘A Secret of Many Urban 20-Somethings: Their Parents Help With the Rent’.

“According to surveys that track young people through their first decade of adulthood, about 40 percent of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds receive some financial assistance from their parents for living expenses. Among those who get help, the average amount is about $3,000 a year.

It’s a stark reminder that social and economic mobility continues past grade school, high school and even college. Economic advantages continue well into the opening chapters of adulthood, a time when young people are making big personal investments that typically lead to higher incomes but can be hard to pay for.”

On the other side of the generation spectrum, The Editorial Board of The New York Times identified an emerging trend threatening older Americans, ‘Haunted by Student Debt Past Age 50’.

“The experience of being crushed by student debt is no longer limited to the young. New federal data shows millions of Americans who are retired or nearing retirement face this burden, as well as the possibility of having their Social Security benefits garnished to make payments.

Americans age 60 and older are the fastest-growing age group of student loan debtors. Older debtors, many of whom live hand-to-mouth on fixed incomes, are more likely to default. When that occurs with federal loans, as happens with nearly 40 percent of such borrowers who are 65 and over, the government can seize a portion of their Social Security payments — even if it pushes them into poverty. About 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 in 2015 had their Social Security checks cut below the poverty line because of student loans, with poverty-level benefits falling even further for 50,000 others, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.”

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The last story this week@work, highlights the importance of art@work and in our lives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the next step in their digital evolution – open access to over 375,000 archive images. (Monet’s ‘Garden at Sainte-Adresse’, 1867 above)