I used to be a news junkie. I would read 4-5 daily newspapers and watched all of the news opinion shows. I have really trimmed that down over the past few years, partially because of time commitments, but mostly because of frustration. Frustration at the laziness in the media and their choice of narrative, and frustration at the behavior demonstrated by the people who become the focus of the narrative. As I said to a friend once, I really do fear for the future generations in this country.
I don’t intend this to be a political White Paper. I intend it to be more of a questioning discussion of personal behavior and expectations. I have two stories to tell. The first was an article I read about a year ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer that drove me to despair at the sloppiness it represented. The most recent happened over the Memorial Day weekend and gave me some faith in the future.
Let us start with a subtitle to this White Paper taken from Dickens- “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. “
Starting with the aforementioned year old article, let’s begin with the worst of times. The article was an analysis of the debate at that time about extending unemployment benefits once again. My belief was that there were valid arguments on both sides. This White Paper is not intended to take part in that debate. I want to focus on the media narrative in that one story and the behavior of the subject.
The subject was someone who would be hurt if his unemployment were to be ended. The reporter told his story. Here is a synopsis:
The fellow, let’s call him John, seemed to be about 23 years old, maybe 25. He had a child that he was raising with the child’s mother. I am unclear if they were married but they did live together. He needed unemployment to supplement her income to put food on the table because he could not get a job. By his calculations, if he lost his unemployment, they would lose 10 or so meals a month. I honestly don’t remember the financial calculations in detail.
However, I do remember his employment situation in detail. John graduated from Temple with a degree in Actuarial Science, according to the reporter. He looked for a job in his field but “no one was hiring.” After all, “times are tough.” John, it seemed, was just like many young people coming out of college, and was “locked out of the workforce.” It was a very sympathetic picture. How could we let John and his child go without meals?
My frustration after reading the article came from some questions I would have asked of John were I the reporter.
- A quick Google search shows that actuaries are one of the most sought after professions in the country. The unemployment rate for actuaries is only 2% and there were dozens of junior jobs advertised. I would have asked John why he seemed to be the only actuary grad in the country unable to find work. Why?
- I can’t walk into a Wawa without seeing help wanted signs. Wawa is a place where you can start by making sandwiches, a few years later run a store and a few years later run a district at 100k a year. Has John ever applied for a job like that or is he only interested in his “perfect” job?
- As best as I was able to tell, John had never actually worked in a job. How does someone who has never actually been employed get unemployment in the first place?
Please understand that my frustration was not in the topic of extending unemployment. My frustration came from two specific areas.
- John’s story was probably the worst possible example one could choose as a base for a policy decision. A little research would have led to some real doubts about him as a typical example of the employment world and unemployment insurance. If something this obvious is used as a general example of policy choices, what other poor examples are being used to drive other poor policy choices? In other words, are we basing decisions on weak premises?
- More interestingly, if the narrative about John becomes accepted, does anyone have any motivation to extend themselves to find employment? If John is suddenly the norm, does anyone have any hope? Have you ever been the only hard worker in a group of slugs, maybe on a school project? Try to remember how foolish you felt as the only person trying to do the right thing. Very uncool. Peer behavior can be a powerful false, both as a positive and negative.
For me, that was the worst of times. It was an example of a powerful narrative that has gained strength over decades to become accepted fact- the deck is stacked against you so just give up. After all, it is hard to have hope if everything is hopeless. The worse and more pitiful the story, the more attention you accrue. And, there is one thing we have learned from people like the Kardashians, attention is better than money. Publicity is its own currency.
On the other hand, this past weekend a chance encounter became a good counter-narrative to John. Let’s talk about the best of times.
A little over 10 years ago I had to wait a few months prior to starting Right Recruiting due to a non-compete agreement with a prior employer. Our local community college is a mile from our home so I decided to take some courses there. I specifically chose to take day courses because I wanted to see what the world was like for 20 year olds. That was when I met Sam for the first time.
Sam was a student in one of the courses I took. He was about 22 years old and had arrived here from Africa with his wife. They were about to have a baby.
Sam was a nice fellow. His English was very good but not perfect. He had a good sense of humor and was always happy. Candidly, in a class where half of the students either didn’t show up or fell asleep in class, he stood out. By the way, that part about falling asleep is not an exaggeration. When I asked the instructor about that he said that 2/3 of the funding the school got was from the state on a per-pupil basis. It was all about enrollment, not education. Disciplining someone or kicking them out made no financial sense to the school.
I got to know Sam and some of the other, more awake students pretty well. In fact one day I ran into Sam working in the kitchen at a local sandwich shop. He was no doubt making minimum wage. He told me about his frustrations balancing work, school and family but also talked about how he was continuing his education. Over the next few months I started my business and the sandwich shopped closed. Once or twice I casually wondered what had become of Sam.
Fast forward to last weekend. I was walking out of a local store and a fellow stopped in front of me and asked, “Weren’t you in a Chinese class with me about 10 years ago?” Of course, it was Sam.
Sam was about 10 years older. Honestly, I recognized him more by his accent than anything else. His English was better but he had a unique accent and the minute he spoke I recognized him. You can probably guess the rest but let me share it anyway.
Sam had gone on to Temple and gotten his Bachelor degree there. It took quite a few years, especially working and supporting his family too. He was currently working as an Analyst for Homeland Security and going for his Executive MBA at Cornell. His son was 10 and he was still married.
I looked at him and said, “Sam, you should be the Community College’s poster boy for success.” We both laughed. I said that I remember the other kids who used to sleep in class and wonder what they are doing now. He said he often thinks of the people he worked with at the sandwich shop who used to laugh at him for having ambitions. He wonders what they are doing now, he told me.
That was when I found my faith in the future. However, I want to end this White Paper with one question: Why don’t we ever read about people like Sam – the quiet achievers who expect nothing and do everything?
As ever, thanks for getting this far and don’t forget Right Recruiting for all of your corporate recruitment needs.