Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fridays, Black and Otherwise

Most of the many ways to divide humanity split the world into two groups -- as Benchley archly said, there are those who split people into two groups, and those who don't -- but, in this season, I'm fond of one I heard twenty years ago that had three groups, like Caesar's Gaul.

In this formulation -- and I'm sorry to say that I don't know who originated it -- modern Westerners can be separated by the work they did when they were young and unskilled. One great mass worked in retail, selling goods of one kind or another. A second cohort worked in food service, waiting tables or working a grill. And the third group, seemingly the lucky ones, were those rich or privileged enough not to have to work at all -- the ones who were children, then entirely students, and then set off on their careers, without ever having had "just a job."

That division is most clear and stark among the young, of course -- college students know which of them jet off to Aspen on breaks, which of them have to work a double shift at the Rathskeller on Thanksgiving, and which will be getting up in the middle of tomorrow night to be perky at 4 AM when Sears opens. But it never quite goes away, either.

The second cohort generally overtip throughout their lives; the first group shop online as much as they can, and never violate the law of the "Twelve Items or Fewer" lane. And the third group, never having had to do anything physically dirty or unpleasant in their working lives, run the big offices and make trouble for the first two groups until they finally die from the withering of their black and twisted hearts.

Every year The Wife and I have a conversation about the stores that are open at ridiculous hours on "Black Friday," and, these last few years, we're also reminded of the stores that don't even bother to close for Thanksgiving at all. We're not planning on going shopping ourselves; we're from the first group and we remember getting up early for our own Black Fridays and war-zone Sundays, so we're mostly thinking about how horrible it is for the employees.

(I saw one article in this morning's paper where the apologist for some retail behemoth -- and, sadly, the reporter did not think to ask her if she and the home-office staff would be hard at work today -- proudly stated that their New Jersey employees would be making time and a half today. Feh. I don't know if the laws have completely changed, but we used to get time and a half every single Sunday, and holidays were double time and a half, since there was an additional required holiday rate. Perhaps the union was stronger then.)

I don't want to be King Canute, but please do not encourage this behavior. When societies encourage bad behavior -- like "door-busters" that lead to part-time security guards being trampled to death, or just requiring workers who would really rather be with their families, or still asleep, to be at work at ridiculous hours of the night -- they get more of that bad behavior. If you must shop tomorrow, wait until normal hours to do so. Better yet, take a day to relax -- if you're lucky enough to have that day -- and do your shopping a bit later.

So this year I'm thankful that I don't work retail anymore. But I'm also thankful that I did work retail, once upon a time, and that I can still remember what it was like. And, even if by some miracle I have enough money to keep my sons from having to work when they're teenagers and college students, I'll make sure that they do get "real" jobs -- someplace where they can learn that the world isn't fair, and it isn't consistently fun, but that doing things right can be a great reward in itself.

I hope that you all have things to be thankful for as well, whether you're here in the USA, or elsewhere in the world where November 26th is just another working day.
Listening to: Kate Tucker & The Sons Of Sweden - The Hours
via FoxyTunes


Rose Fox said...

Your division of humanity seems to leave out a lot of people. Farmers, for example, and those who didn't have jobs in high school but did a lot of volunteer work, and those whose "careers" involved customer service or data entry jobs as mindless as any retail shift (we are distinguished from the rest by our unfailing politeness to call center staff even when we are furious, the equivalent of being an ex-waitress who routinely tips 25%), and those who like working in food service or retail and are happy to consider it a career, and those who took apprenticeships, and those who dealt drugs on street corners, and those who were groomed for the clergy, and those who served in the military from the day they turned 18...

As a former retail worker, I agree that the Black Friday madness should be scaled back, and hard. I just don't see why that conclusion requires painting the vast diversity of humanity in such broad strokes. Were there only two retail workers in the history of the world, we could still want them to get double time and a half on holidays.

James Davis Nicoll said...

My first job for pay was cataloging several years worth of potentially hazardous chemicals (This would be what led to the "James knocks over a bottle labeled 'picric acid'" incident). The great thing about that job as a starter is that pretty much everything I've done since has been much less likely to end with me scattered over a wide area or reduced to a

Celine said...

I'm with Rose. My high-school job was volunteer work at the public library, and involved everything you get from a "real" job except a paycheck. My college summer jobs were all clerical office positions. I consider myself very fortunate not to have had to work retail, wait tables, or sling burgers (especially since that last carries with it a very high risk of workplace rape). But that doesn't make me one of the elite few who "never had a job" either.

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