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Book review: Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures And What We Can Do About It

By Don Peck

Crown Publishing ($25)

Rejection letters were my postcards from the lost summer of ’92.

I’d graduated from the Harvard of the North into the teeth of a recession. No one was hiring. Everyone was firing. Baby Boomers hunkered down in their jobs. And freshly minted grads with bachelor’s degrees in political science and master’s degrees in journalism didn’t stand much of a chance.

All through that sunless and soggy summer, I made a daily trek to a job centre and then over to the library to read the help wanted ads in newspapers from near and far. I sent out a forest worth of resumes, got a sapling worth of rejection letters in return and joined the starting lineup of Team NEET (not in education, employment or training).

After four grinding months of fruitless searches and marinating in self-pity, I lowered my sights, pulled up my big boy pants and learned to say yes. I said yes to a job at the restaurant where I’d worked during high school. Yes to a string of freelance gigs where I earned about $2.50 an hour. Yes to a part-time job working weekend nights at a daily newspaper. And, a full year after graduation, yes to a job that launched what’s been a rewarding and durable career.

It’s been 19 years but that lost summer has left both an indelible mark on my psyche and empathy for 20-somethings who’ve been battered and bruised by the Great Recession.

The Millennial generation is sinking, warns author Don Peck, an award-winning reporter and features editor with The Atlantic. “Many twentysomethings will emerge from the Great Recession with their earning power permanently reduced, their confidence dimmed and their ideals profoundly changed.”

Making a bad situation worse is an ingrained sense of entitlement and a highly structured and scheduled childhood. Peck says the checklist generation has a serious lack of independence, entrepreneurialism and sense of perseverance. “Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out — or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.”

But it’s not just 20-somethings who are struggling. The Great Recession has accelerated the sorting of winners and losers and the hollowing out of the middle class. A two-speed society is taking shape, with a highly educated professional class moving ahead and everyone else getting stuck in neutral or falling into reverse. In March of this year, the U.S. unemployment rate was 12 per cent for people with only a high school diploma, 4.5 per cent for college grads and 2 per cent for people with professional degrees.

A large, white and predominantly male underclass is forming along with a new politics of grievance. In growing numbers, women are the breadwinners in working-class and non-professional middle-class families. In the United States, men suffered roughly three-quarters of the eight million job losses in 2008 and 2009. In January of this year, 18.8 per cent of men in their prime working years didn’t have jobs. Fewer prime-age men have been employed than at any time since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. As the male-dominated manufacturing sector shrinks, the female-dominated service sector grows.

“Joblessness corrodes marriages and makes divorce much more likely down the road,” says Peck, who was told by the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia that marriage is an increasingly fragile institution among couples without college degrees.

Peck calls chronic and all-consuming unemployment a pestilence that slowly eats away at people and families and becomes society’s most noxious ill.

“One of the largest long-term risks to society is that the norms of a very large class of people, in a very large number of places, are now changing in unhealthy ways.” A broad array of measures of family dysfunction are blinking red. The lives of moderately educated families increasingly mirror those of high-school dropouts, burdened with financial stress, job loss, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children.

These pressures can prove to be fertile ground for discontent. South of the border, public views toward society’s more marginal members have hardened since the crash. “Proliferating signs of a turning inward and a narrowing of minds should not be surprising,” says Peck. “As hard times linger, they reliably produce resentment toward outsiders, suspicion of unfair treatment and zero-sum thinking. Frustration is typically strongest not among the most marginalized groups, but among the newly marginalized, those whose status and self-image have collapsed the most abruptly or are in the greatest danger of doing so.”

Peck says the Great Recession offers a preview of where our economy is headed and what’s in store for our communities. “While this preview is troubling, it is also clarifying. Many of the deepest economic trends that the recession has highlighted and temporarily sped up will take decades to fully play out. We can adapt successfully to them, if we start now.”

According to Peck, the key to building a stronger, more resilient economy and healthier society rests on smarter, more creative and decisive government actions and a renewed private commitment to civic responsibility and community life. “This was not a vanilla recession and vanilla responses will not end it,” says Peck.

To save and strengthen the middle class, Peck recommends a continued push for better schooling, clearer paths into careers for people who don’t immediately go to college or university, better access to affluent communities and dynamic cities and stronger support for low-wage workers.

Yet Peck says we tend to underestimate the costs and consequences of a lingering recession and overestimate the risks of aggressive action to jump-start the economy. We should expect little if any action from governments that have already closed the door on stimulus funding and are focused on reducing deficits through funding cuts.

“If we remain stuck in an economic climate in which stagnation and disappointment are the norms for large numbers, the most likely risks to our politics are not rogue leaders or an insurgent populist party. They are endless vacillation, low levels of public trust, and political options that are stunted by a poisonous atmosphere and heavy discontent.”

Book review: The Great Workplace

This review originally ran in the Aug. 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Great Workplace: How to Build it, How to Keep it and Why it Matters

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

Jossey-Bass

$33.95

Maybe you’re tone deaf when it comes to singing your employees’ praises.

Maybe you believe the troops should be thanking you for their steady jobs and decent paycheques.

Or maybe you’re just too busy with meetings, reports and paperwork to give thanks for a job well done.

That’s your choice. But here’s the deal. You can invest some of your time every day saying thank you in big and small ways. Or you can waste every minute managing for compliance and dealing with the headaches and hassles of constant turnover.

A demographic shift of epic proportions is headed our way. By all accounts, there won’t be enough Gen Xers and Millennials to fill the high-skilled jobs vacated by retiring Baby Boomers.

Embedding recognition into your organizational DNA will help you weather the storm. Show the love to your best and brightest and they’ll be less likely to stray.

But if you’re unwilling or unable to formally and informally recognize your staff, you risk turning your workplace into the Land of Misfit Toys. You’ll be left with a motley crew of malcontents and nonperformers who have nowhere else to go.

Effective recognition starts at the top with strong leadership. “Where you invest your time and attention as a leader serves as a powerful model for what employees see as important and meaningful,” say authors Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin, who work with the Great Place to Work Institute. Established in 1991, the institute is a global research and consulting firm that publishes annual lists of the best places to work in 40 countries.

“When a leader focuses time and attention on their people’s successful performance behavior, employees respond with even greater energy and commitment.”

Yet based on the institute’s research and their own consulting experience, Burchell and Robin claim the majority of leaders and organizations don’t earn a passing grade on formal and informal recognition. “Most people aren’t thanked enough for their contributions, instead they are rarely praised at all for their good work and extra effort.”

Recognition demonstrates respect. And respect, together with credibility, fairness, pride and camaraderie, are the key dimensions that make up the institute’s tried, true and tested Great Places to Work Model.   

Employees at great place to work believe five things to be true. They believe in their leaders. They believe they are valued members of the organization. They believe that everyone plays by the same rules. They believe that they contribute something meaningful. And they believe the people they work with are great.

Trust underpins the Great Places to Work Model. Open and honest two-way communications is the place to start for leaders looking to build buy-in.  

“If you were to work on one single aspect of a great workplace, you’d likely make far-reaching improvements by strengthening two-way communications,” recommend Burchell and Robin. “Two-way communication is arguably the most important dimension of the Great Place to Work Model. It is foundational to employee perceptions of credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. How can you believe your leaders are competent in the first place if you have no idea what they’re up to?”

Communications is about more than setting expectations, giving employees the information they need to do their job and letting them how their performance measures up. It’s also about giving straight answers to tough questions, being accessible and approachable and actually listening to what staff have to say.

A great workplace is built by great leaders.  “In the best companies, leaders at all levels have a strong commitment to creating strong ties between the employee and the organization. Indeed, enhancing trust, pride and camaraderie in the workplace is the central task of effective leadership in today’s organization.”

Great leaders also understand the need to balance the tensions between responsibility and humility, passion and patience, relationships and results.

“As a leader, you must accept responsibility for your role in culture,” say Burchell and Robin.  “You are the chief role model and trust builder, and people look to your behavior and decisions for guidance on their own behavior and decision making. But you also need some degree of humility that allows you to reach out and enlist people. Your responsibility needs to become everyone’s responsibility if you want to create a great workplace.”

If your organization is less than great, there’s still time and hope for a turnaround. Burchell and Robin offer a proven gameplan for shoring up your employees’ relationships with you, their work and their colleagues.

And if you’re not feeling the love at work, Burchell and Robin will introduce you to employers that get it right when it comes to credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. It’s about to become a seller’s market so don’t settle for anything less than a great place to work.