Sanity Takes A Vacation
The other day I got this spam message advertising a newsletter containing lots of sage career advice. It’s a little too late to have any benefit for me but a lot of people ask me to look at their resumes and that sort of thing so I decided to take a look at some of the articles so I’m up with the play on the state of the art.
Bottom line? There’s a recession on.
Resume cover letters are back to basics. No pictures of your dog, no more saying how crappy the potential employer’s web site looks and how you can’t wait to
But the article that captured my attention was the one that talks about vacations.
To make a long story short, the message was if you are entitled to a vacation, you probably shouldn’t take it, and if you have to, plan to work while you are vacationing.
The idea is that times are so tough that if you show that you are expendable, by being gone for a week or two, you might end up being turfed out in favour of employees whose personal values are better aligned with those of the company.
Some statistics from the article: Fifty-two per cent of people surveyed said
they were cancelling their vacations. And in this case, cancel means
not taking time off. Eighteen per cent said that they needed to be “available” in the event of an emergency and thirteen per cent said that even if they were out of town on vacation they would still be expected to do work.
One of the experts quoted in the article said “Checking out completely is an old-school mentality.”
Let’s deconstruct that statement. “Old school” means out of fashion and therefore no longer accepted. “Checking out completely” means having a life.
And that is now unacceptable.
I’m not one of those people who see conspiracies everywhere, but this makes me wonder if there isn’t some nefarious capitalist plot afoot to get as much work as possible out of the masses in order to maximize profits and shareholder returns. Do they care if people get burned out and quit? No! There’s a recession on and for every poor schlub who can’t take it there are ten applicants waiting in line. Why not squeeze as much blood as we can out of the turnip?
But you don’t need conspiracy theories to understand that what is happening is inevitable. It’s the way the world works.
All of this was explained in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen in his landmark book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It should be required reading for everyone because it explains everything from Lady Gaga to the Tea Party to Creationism and reality TV. And remember it was written in 1899.
I’d first heard of the book when I was in high school and my father made us read Chapter 9 “The Conservation of Archaic Tastes” in an attempt to get us to stop listening to heavy metal music. It didn’t work but I ended up reading the whole book and that enabled me to see Veblen’s every idea validated as I’ve
lived through the end of the 20th century, and the 21st century so far.
Briefly, Veblen states that humans are fairly primitive and tribal people (just watch Jersey Shore if you disagree). Back in the hunter gatherer days, for reasons having a lot to do with testosterone, the hunters emerged as socially superior to the gatherers. Because hunting was only occasionally necessary but gathering was a full time job, the socially superior hunters had leisure time on their hands. This gave them time to get up to mischief like starting wars with other tribes (I’m oversimplifying here). Wars and military honors created additional opportunities to create measures of status in society and to create distinctive classes. That’s how kings and nobles emerged.
What is crucial to the theory is that the lower class is dependent on the upper class. Initially the gatherers were dependent on the hunters. If the crops failed the hunters could always go out and kill a woolly mammoth. Later, the lower class became dependent on the warriors to protect them. In Veblen’s day the factory workers were dependent on the white collar workers to sell the goods they produced, give them paychecks and to keep the business running. And today we look to politicians to protect us physically, politically and economically. And to Hollywood stars to give us reasons to buy magazines at the grocery checkout.
Because the upper class doesn’t have to work as hard as the lower class, they have the luxury of leisure and Veblen argues that our innate desire to achieve higher status and demonstrate our achievements have led to conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. In fact, he coined both of those terms.
We all know what conspicuous consumption is. Conspicuous leisure is the same thing. When you don’t have to work as hard as the poor gatherers you have time on your hands. So you can play polo or golf or spend your evenings on Facebook.
Of course, human nature being what it is, higher status people are generally not all that happy to share their wealth, leisure or status with the rest of us. That is why it’s hard to get into a country club. Veblen stated that just as the leisure class evolved rituals for demonstrating status, they expected the rest of us to be suitably impressed, and more importantly to do our part to support them and their leisure pursuits.
Which brings us back to vacations and one of my all-time favourite Veblen quotes:
“Servants should not only show a servile disposition, but it is quite as imperative that they should show a trained conformity to the canons of conspicuous subservience.”
And what better example of conspicuous subservience is there than to forego your vacation so that the CEO can take a private jet to his vacation home?