TCS Daily

Defining Suitable Employment

By Joshua Livestro - December 1, 2003 12:00 AM

This year's "Most Despised by Activists" award for Multinational Corporations goes to ... McDonald's. There were of course other contenders for the title: the tobacco firms, Coca-Cola, Shell, Starbucks, to name but a few. McDonald's deserves this year's title, however, in part for its impressive list of adversaries -- among them the animal-rights ayatollahs of PETA, class-action lawyers, and the anti-globalization movement. But what really clinched it was the official recognition of a McDonald's job -- McJob -- as "low paying and dead-end."


That, at least, was how it was described in the latest edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. The editors had come to the decision to include the term because they concluded that the term was "widely" used in this extremely derogatory way. But instead of taking their cue from José Bové or Toni Negri, they would have done better to look at the facts first.


Let's start with the low pay claim. The editors could have easily established that the company's lowest base pay rate still meets minimum wage standards in any western country, and that its incentive schemes allow even low-educated starting employees to earn hourly rates that are substantially above minimum wage. One look at the list of other benefits, savings and insurance schemes on offer to employees (which I managed to find within ten second simply by looking on the company's website) would also have cured them of the thought that the company makes its money by cutting corners on pay. Its benefits package looks more like a Swedish trade union Christmas wish list than a sweatshop manual.


What about "dead-end," then? As McDonald's CEO Jim Cantalupo pointed out in an open letter to the Merriam-Webster editorial board, "more than 1,000 of the men and women who own and operate McDonald's restaurants today got their start by serving customers behind the counter." He also stated that for most employees, their jobs at the company aren't dead-end but "gateways to opportunity," a first step on a career ladder that can lead all the way to a senior management position. Nine out of ten of the company's salaried workers started as hourly crew. In fact, most of the company's current senior management started their working life as ordinary crew members in a franchise somewhere across the globe. The company annually educates more employees through its training schemes than the US Army, which is generally considered to be the model employer for the emancipation of socially disadvantaged youths. Small wonder Fortune magazine called McDonald's "America's best place to work for minorities." Some dead end.


The funny thing is the editors probably wouldn't have been surprised by the facts listed in Cantalupo's letter. They would be quite willing to accept that McDonald's is in fact a socially responsible, environmentally conscious employer. They might even take their children there on a rainy Saturday afternoon. But when it comes to defining McJobs, they would be unrelenting. There is something in our culture that devalues making a living through honest hard work. We all laughed at the spoof of a McDonald's career in Eddie Murphy's Coming to America: "I started out just like you guys -- on trash. Now, I'm washing lettuce. Pretty soon I'll be on fries. In a year or two, I'll make assistant manager.... and that's when the big bucks start rolling in!" We don't just want jobs -- we want HappyJobs. We want glamorous, high flying, serious responsibility jobs, with short hours, high pay, 25 holidays and a company car -- preferably a convertible. And we want them NOW. If the only thing that is on offer is a job that requires actual hard work and serious dedication and that only gives us a chance of working our way up, then we'd rather sit at home doing nothing.


Most European social security systems are in fact based on this logic. The welfare recipient can only be compelled to consider -- please note: consider -- accepting a job if he deems it to be "suitable" to his qualifications and experience. But since no legislator has ever been able to come up with a definition of "suitable employment," in practice most people will stay on welfare unless they are offered something on CEO level.


The attitude of the Merriam-Webster editors is typical of the outlook of the well-off, highly educated section of Western society. People in this stratospheric part of the labor market might be forced to change jobs every once in a while, or even get fired. They might have to draw down on their savings for a limited period of time, or take a forced career break. In the end however, more likely than not, they would find other suitable employment, moving from HappyJob to HappyJob.


But as Myron Magnet pointed out in his classic study The Dream and the Nightmare, they are the happy few. For most people the choice isn't between McJobs and HappyJobs. It's between the dignity of an independent existence which only a job -- any job -- can provide, or the humiliation and isolation of welfare dependency. Work doesn't just provide people with an income. It provides an opportunity to improve your situation in life and that of your family members, to meet people and make friends, to learn to deal with deadlines and daily routines and to develop new skills. It offers everything a life on benefits could never offer. And yet by dismissively talking about McJobs as demeaning and not worth the try, the happy few rob others of the motivation to take up those jobs. Instead of joining the Jihad against McJobs, the Merriam-Webster editors would have done better to recognize the fact that employers like McDonald's provide an important career opportunity to people who truly "deserve a break today."


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