Friday, November 8

Editorials & Ignorance

I ran across a reference to this editorial (, which has apparently been causing quite the furor. I have had some experience with the phenomenon plaguing the article’s author and can empathize with his frustration. I can also validate some of his arguments: the still struggling economy and mass expansion of digital media have altered the playing field for all workers and in many ways the world is still trying to catch up. Then, too, of course, there will always be those who try to take advantage of others and get something for nothing.

But I think that the troublesome trend the author so resents has roots in a much larger issue, as well. The alarming reality is that a huge proportion of Americans simply don’t understand the basics of how a business works.

I have seen the evidence of this in every field I’ve worked in or with. People of all ages, education levels and backgrounds have absolutely no frame of reference for the critical, behind-the-scenes infrastructure essential to keeping businesses functioning. Although few would ever phrase it so bluntly, most carry a vague conception that every business has a pot of money somewhere fueling its operations. The pot naturally and continuously grows, simply as a natural byproduct of the business’s operations. What difference does a little pro bono work, goofing off, or inefficiency make? Surely someone somewhere else in the organization is simultaneously creating a surplus and it will all even out in the end.

Admittedly, this deeply flawed assumption is rarely their fault. Once, it was standard practice for children to work in the family business from a very young age. They were exposed early and often to the workings of a business, learning new positions as their abilities increased and thereby acquiring a picture of the business as a whole. By the time they were ready to learn a trade or take on significant roles in the company, they had a solid understanding of how every task – from sweeping the floors to serving customers to working carefully and efficiently in the back – impacted the success and prosperity of everyone involved.

Modern youth, but contrast, are forbidden to work until 16, and often can’t get hired until 18 due to severe restrictions on what they are allowed to do. Most of the work available to them falls in tightly limited spheres removed from any association with the management or operations of the company. Your average retail associate, restaurant hostess, or teacher’s aide shows up for their shift, does the specific tasks they’re assigned, and leaves. They work might be overseen by a shift supervisor/ assistant manager, or occasionally the general manager, but will typically have little opportunity to cross train, and even then only into an equally confined position. Even internships are of little use as, in most cases, they are also narrowly confined as a result of insurance and corporate privacy concerns.

College graduates fair no better. I know very smart women with Masters degrees who know nothing about the back-of-house necessities of running a business of any size. It simply wasn’t taught in their coursework, and they’ve never worked for an organization in which such functions were not the sole domain of nebulous individuals performing specialized functions in a separate office – often far removed from their own workspaces. They genuinely have no frame of reference for the amount of time, energy, or resources that go into performing another person’s task.

Of course such individuals can ask for free creative work with a clear conscience and without a second thought. Our brains reflexively and unconsciously assign an inconsequential value to that which we cannot quantify (the inputs necessary to create the requested output), and our standard operating assumptions (that individuals engaging in business must automatically be generating supporting income in that mysterious pot of money) assure us that they must have the time and energy to spare, so what is there to stand in the way?

Certainly, proper respect for all working individuals – regardless of their gifts or fields – is a worthy and appropriate goal. But perhaps, more than shifting our perspectives on our peers, we need to shift our perspectives on our systems. This is merely the latest alarm bell, alerting us to the devastating impacts of segmenting and specializing tasks to such narrow degrees and denying both our youth and our employees the opportunity to understand businesses as whole entities. Small businesses are consistently the documented as the largest job growth sector in America’s struggling economy – if we act soon, by reducing restrictions and barriers to their success (and their employment of young people) we can still harness their potential as deeply eye-opening learning experiences and train up the next generation of workers to truly understand how and why businesses and individuals fail or succeed.

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