Living Here in Allentown

Last week on MSNBC’s a.m. juggernaut, Morning Joe, Jack and Suzy Welch

Photo Of An Abandoned Industrial Interior With Bright Light

were plugging their latest book, “The Real Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing Your Career.” Suzy commented on how employee engagement is at an all-time low, as noted by the Gallup Organization’s 2014 poll results showing a scant 31.5% of U.S. workers as engaged in their work. When pressed to pinpoint the reasons behind the number, she flatly stated it began in 2008 with the financial meltdown. The business world changed drastically and permanently at that time she purported, leading to a general malaise among working professionals about their careers and future.

It began in 2008?

Welch’s assertion literally and figuratively had me scratching my head. True, there have been seismic shifts in the employment picture from the Great Recession. Permanent ones including a new class of under-employed who cobble jobs together to make a living, jobs with top-name, highly profitable companies whose employment model depends on part-time, not full-time, help.

But the wheels did not fall off the bus a mere seven years ago.

The Morning Joe interview with the Welches made me think of Billy Joel’s 1982 hit, “Allentown.” Over 30 years old, the song clearly outlines exactly what the 1970’s and 80’s felt like for many in America; a period of seismic shifts in which the prevailing version of the American Dream blew away like dust. Joel sings, “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found. For the promises our futures gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income between 1967-2013, in current dollar terms, rose by about $9,000 during this 47-year period. On the other hand, the stock market during roughly the same period, as illustrated by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, finished 1968 at a high of 908.82 and then grew to 16,576.55 by December 31, 2013. There were certainly many ups and downs for the market during the period, as well as for the average worker, but this represented a spectacular rate of growth. A far better rate of growth than was experienced by the average worker. And let us not forget the last Great Recession of 1990-91. This downturn introduced a wave of corporate efficiency measures, downsizing and job restructuring that reverberates today.

So the idea that growing disparities and related disengagement among workers is something new is just not accurate. It’s been part of the story of the U.S. economy for decades. I won’t debate economic policy or tax codes. There are enough voices out there with differing views on how to improve the state of things.

What I will voice is the need to be clear-eyed about where we are at this time. I have many friends, all of whom are talented, dedicated working professionals, who feel disengaged in their jobs. People who are looking for a few more good years before moving on to the next stage in life. People who would openly state that their careers did not grow the way they had expected, but who are hoping to find pockets of satisfaction to keep themselves present. This is what disengagement looks like. And I can attest to the fact that it began before the 2008 financial crisis.

Is this state of affairs really what is in our collective best interest? Are we OK with growth at the fringes coupled with widespread disengagement? The mid 20th century experience of broad economic progress is one worth kick starting in the 21st.  Seismic change begins with early tremors. Better to recognize and redirect those tremors before the next quake hits.




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