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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Gifted - or Cursed?

It's probably why so many "gifted" folk end up struggling with substance abuse - gotta numb the disconnectedness and maybe kill a few brain cells along the way.  It'd make life so much simpler.

The Double-Edged Sword of Giftedness, Part 1: Cognitive Traits

Ah, William... HE knows that Robert E. Lee traveled with a pet hen...

"So help me figure this out," she says. She waves her fork in the air distractedly.

"Ok, what's that?" I ask. I watch as she dips her fork into a small Dixie cup size serving of dressing and then spears another bite of her salad.

"Why is it that whenever I am doing group work—you know, whole class discussions or cooperative learning in small groups or whatever—it's going to be my gifted kids that cause all the trouble. Boy do they sure like to stir up the muck."

We, this young blond haired lady and I, are sitting at a table in the teachers' lounge at one the four schools I am assigned to service as part of my job, the school's gifted specialist. I look her over a bit more carefully, trying to judge the question's intent by the questioner. She's fairly young, mid-20s I'd guess, and just two years into her teaching career. Her tone and body language do not indicate any real animosity or bitterness, per se, so I eliminate garden variety complaining from the list of reasons she has raised this topic. There can be a fair amount of cattiness in the teachers' lounge particularly, I've noticed, among those who are not new to the profession. Most of the time the more seasoned teachers are merely expressing frustrations but sometimes it can be downright snippy and it is for this reason that I usually avoid eating here. Still, on occasion, I find myself with no other place to eat and so I join the ranks.
"And you're sure it's your gifted students that are doing this?" I counter. "It's not just that they're the easier ones to spot?"
She considers the question a moment. "Well, sure, it's not always them. Of course there are others that may act up too. But they do it in a more predictable way, I guess. I mean, with my gifted kids, it's like they want to question everything or play devil's advocate for everything or raise points about things that really don't matter all that much to what we're talking about. And they do it because I think they just like to see how everyone reacts—not because it really matters to what we're doing at the time."
I know what she is talking about in more general terms. In fact, it's a concern I've heard in similar forms before—sometimes even from the parents of these students themselves at conference time.
What each is responding to as they voice these thoughts aloud is the frustration they feel as they
consider why behavior issues sometimes get in the way of what they feel should be some especially promising potential for exciting thinking and learning. There are reasons why this happens and this phenomenon is what I call the "double-edged sword of giftedness."
We must take stock of one very important truth: gifted students are no different in many ways from any other student. Each has his or her own level of patience, willingness to take risks, respect for authority, etc. To think that gifted students/children will automatically respond to any situation (whether that be in school or at home) in a particular, even predictable, way is to make too simple the whole nature of social interaction.
Still there are characteristics of gifted students that are common enough to this particular group that they should be made a part of any new teacher's curriculum before they enter the classroom—and in many teacher ed programs, they are. These characteristics, if understood, might help adults—like the one who sits across the table from me now—better understand why they find themselves facing situations like the one she has just described.
I glance at the clock and try to decide how best to tackle this topic, how to parse it, because it is not one that can be covered in its entirety with the mere fifteen minutes we have left in this short lunch period. For the moment, it seems as if identifying the common cognitive characteristics that most typically cause trouble is as good a place to start as any because for each of these particular cognitive traits, there is a brighter/more positive side as well as one which causes frequently some degree of consternation.
I run through a quick checklist in my mind, take another swig of my Diet Coke, and begin.
Cognitive Trait #1: Gifted students tend to be more adept at seeing the "whole picture" and see value in doing so. Frankly, this is something we all wish we were better at sometimes. Being able to see the larger context of the issue at hand is what allows us to have "perspective"—to see and measure the importance of our own point of view beyond our own ego. Seeing the "whole picture" allows a good thinker to consider alternative courses of action that others may not even conceive of—and to consider decisions about those actions based on what is better for those in a larger sense. It's what most of us would agree we want to see in a leader—that ability to better understand the nuances of complex ideas and concepts that, to others, may seem too abstract or even downright unrelated. But in the classroom or over dinner conversation at home, this same trait can be highly irritating.
Mark, for example, is the child who seems to always raise questions about things that don't really matter to others. If the school topic under discussion is bullying, for example, then why would we care about how the Native Americans perceived the colonists? If we are discussing the family budget at home, then why in the world would we stop that conversation to consider what Roosevelt thought about the Great Depression? To bring these other issues up is mildly amusing, at best, and distracting at worst. But to Mark, these topics seem highly pertinent because he is considering how people in history might have already dealt with similar issues to help us better consider the current topics at hand.
Cognitive Trait #2: Gifted students are likely to have intense interests in a particular subject and, correspondingly, a vast storehouse of knowledge about that topic. University professors make their life's work studying everything from Mark Twain (ahem, Samuel Clemens!) to Boolean Algebra. Chefs can specialize in everything from pastries to pasta. Doctors know the differences between fifteen iterations of cancer and how they metastasize; an effective NASCAR pitcrew boss can effectively supervise as his team strips a car engine and reassembles it in mere moments. Most of us would never deny that having a passion to learn about nearly any subject is anything other than a positive. What these people know and contribute to the culture is never questioned.
And yet consider nine year old William who is terrifically interested in the Civil War. He is a gifted learner who, with sufficient resources at home, has more than mastered the minimal requirements typically laid out in the 4th grade. When the teacher seeks to impress upon the rest of the class a few of these facts, William chimes in with his own material (facts which are, frankly, more interesting and memorable than those deemed "essential" by the state curriculum). William knows the main figures of the Civil War, as well as the dates and locations of the key battles. But he also knows a great deal about Andersonville prison, black market trade among Northern and Southern soldiers, and that Robert E. Lee traveled with a pet hen throughout much of the war.
Cognitive Trait #3: Gifted students, put plainly and simply, learn and retain more information/skills much faster than their non-gifted counterparts. What takes most students up to twenty-four repetitions of practice to master, may likely only require the gifted student two or three rounds of practice. Algebraic thinking processes, balancing chemistry equations, conjugating irregular French verbs—the gifted learner may very well not need the time the rest of the class requires to sort out these thinking skills.
So, then, what is a new teacher (who is, as yet, unskilled in differentiation) to do when a child in 3rd grade has mastered two-digit division and does not need to do the practice worksheet containing twenty more of the problems he has already shown he can successfully solve? Similarly, what is the parent at home to do when the child refuses to complete that very worksheet that was assigned for homework? What are each to do with this child when the boredom of rote (and unneeded) practice begins to manifest itself as a behavior issue?
Cognitive Trait #4: Gifted students have a more advanced vocabulary than their age peers and are adepts at manipulating discussion of the subject at hand using appropriate "jargon." Paul, a sixth grader, loves biology class. He is easily able to answer the teacher's questions about any topic from cell biology to genetics using, appropriately, words like "mitosis", "permeable", and "double helix." He even knows what DNA stands for. He is confident as he discusses and explores the topic in the room.
But to his peers in middle school, Paul sounds "uppity"-and since this is middle school they tell him this in less than kind ways. Sometimes the way he talks just plain confuses them—and on a good day, his teacher.
There are two sides to this issue. Sometimes their use of advanced language makes this student seem as if they understand the material better than they actually do. And when questions they have go unanswered, the student is confused further. If the teacher then spends more time helping those who do not seem to understand, the student can easily grow frustrated and behavior issues can ensue.
Cognitive Trait #5: Gifted learners are adept at analogical thinking and use it effectively and efficiently to solve problems and reason their way through tasks. They do this by often intuiting the right questions to ask or eliciting the correct elements and details within the learning concept. Joy, for example, is asked to solve a multi-step math word problem about percentages. She is able to recall similar methods to accomplish this style of problem as she tackled ratios and fractions earlier in the year. Others around her, however, are less than sure precisely how to proceed.
Elsewhere in school, this is a great transferable skill to employ on long term projects and often this student is sought to be the leader of group projects because he can more easily see the finished project and map out the intermediate steps for others. But this responsibility can also frustrate the gifted student—especially when others in the group do not pull their weight. For this reason, he may refuse to work with others or may ask the teacher for alternate assignments—especially if the one offered to the whole class seems a tad too simplistic.
Ms. Hope tightens the cap on her vinaigrette and zips it away in her lunch box. There is more movement around me as other teachers too begin packing their lunch materials away. Beginning long conversations in a teachers' lounge is not usually a good idea, and I am proven right on this point yet again. But it will wait. I throw my own can into the recycling basket. The second part of this issue is one that we can resume easily next time.
Now, however, it's time to pick up our students from the cafeteria.
Back to work.

Harper's Inbox

It's definitely not positive that Team Harper is keeping an enemies list, for all the reasons Kinsella describes.  It'll be interesting to see whose names have made it on to that list - will a lot of random blogs with little traction find themselves under the watchful eye of the PMO, or will a lot of folk who fancy themselves as worthy enemies of the state be disappointed that they don't merit a mention?  Probably a bit of both.  If there has been illegal activity engaged by this government to suppress its perceived opponents, justice should be served for all parties.
But it's not the fact that a list exists that makes me shake my head in dismay so much as the sheer, ignorant overconfidence on the part of the PMO that made them think they could compile such a list in this day and age without it leaking out.
The risks of sending something to the wrong inbox are huge and well documented - how many people did Team Harper plan to send this out to?  More than that, what if anyone on the recipient list had a personal connection to one of these enemies?  Might they not have felt compelled to send it to that person as a warning?  What are the odds that one of the staff on the receiving end could be thrown under the bus and decide to leak this in revenge?  What if a recipient feels at some point that the Conservative Ship is going down and decides to use the leaking of the list as their saving grace? 
What if, horror of horrors, one of the recipients had a conscience and questioned themselves whether it was appropriate at all for a Political Party to keep a hit list?
It is exasperating how short-sighted this all is, as was the Senate shenanigans, the Committee Disruption Manual, the Cadman Affair, etc, etc.  There's a small cadre of hyper-confident and marginally oblivious crew of insiders somewhere, chuckling to themselves about how in control of everything they are.  They think people won't notice, won't care or that there's always an underling to throw under the bus or a distraction they can throw out to keep the consequences of their actions at bay.
I have written at length about the fallacy of overconfidence, the illusion of conscious control, how the assumption of success leads to sloppiness and of the importance of looking at the entire map of potential consequences rather than assuming "we are smart, they are dumb."
I've also laid down a suggestion as to why this kind of thing keeps happening; players of old have mental models of what they used to be able to get away with and keep trying to recycle - the horses and bayonets of political tricks.  Or, aggressive but not overly creative newbies look for tricks that have worked before without considering how changes in media might have altered the playing field.  Of course, I'm a back-of-the-class kid, so why should any of the really successful people - like Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright and Stephen Harper - pay attention to me?
The fact is, I'll bet dollars to Tim Horton's doughnuts that if the PMO actually got to know some of these enemies of theirs, they'd learn something beneficial.  Maybe even make some allies or pick up on some policy ideas to crib that could even help keep them in power.
Here's the thing, though - to correct destructive behaviours and evolve as an individual means accepting it isn't about us and them and realizing it's not such a bad thing to commit sociology.
What can I say - the truth hurts.

Friday 19 July 2013

99 Problems but the Snake Isn't One of Them

It's like God created this man for a busy day and he forgot to put fear in his hand.

We tend to view fear as a powerful tool.  Employers use it to keep their employees in line.  Governments, same - either by encouraging their people to be afraid of them or by blowing up external fears as a justification of "why they need us."  Terrorism, that nebulous activity against which nations have attempted to go to war with, thrives on fear.

In practise, though, fear is not a tool - tools are devices used to facilitate productivity.  Fear is a weapon that serves to end activity, be it speaking truth to power or living a life contrary to traditional dictates.  Fear is a glass ceiling that instinctively restrains us from taking risks, either positive or negative.  It's a firewall that keeps out the threat of change - or a flaming sword that banishes change from within.

So what happens when fear is not an issue? 

When you stop waiting for the worst to happen; when you stop waiting for someone to remove the thing that makes you anxious before acting - doors open.  The opposite of fear is wonder.

If fear is about closing doors, wonder is about opening them.  It's funny, that - how the end of one thing leads to the beginning of something else
Clearly, you can't walk through every door - but having the option matters.
When you pull back the veil of fear, the world seems a lot clearer.

Best of all - it's a meme, too.


Wednesday 17 July 2013

Unpaid internships: the most precarious work of all (Marci Chown Oved)

By: Staff Reporter, Published on Tue Mar 05 2013
Anya Oberdorf has a university degree, a college certificate and experience with two employers in the publishing industry, but still can’t find a paying job. She spent more than a year working two unpaid internships, neither of which led to gainful employment.
After working part-time in a gourmet food store to pay the bills, she left to focus on finding work in her field. Though she’s been able to secure a few freelance editing jobs, the elusive salaried position still eludes her.
“My experience has been really frustrating,” said the Toronto native. “I can’t afford a third internship, but I don’t want to sit around at home, either.”
Oberdorf’s story is far from unique. Young people are stringing together multiple unpaid internships, and it’s not always helping them find a job — breaking an implicit promise that has drawn a generation of workers into offering their work for free.
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Unpaid internships that last months or even years make up the most unstable part of an increasingly precarious workforce, which accounts for almost half of employment in the GTA and Hamilton, according to a recent report.
Very few facts are known about unpaid internships. The Ministry of Labour doesn’t regulate or keep statistics on them. Yet, for young people, they seem to be everywhere.
According to Statistics Canada, unemployment in Ontario for those younger than 24 is 16.5 per cent.
That’s more than double the rate of 6.3 per cent for those above 24.
“You won’t find the word ‘intern’ in our employment laws at all. It’s an industry term,” said David Doorey, professor of employment law at York University. “There seems to be a widely held belief that an employer avoids our basic employment law rules simply by labelling someone an intern. That’s wrong.”
In many sectors of the economy, internships seem to have replaced entry-level positions, forcing young people to work without pay for years till they gain enough experience to get hired for mid-level jobs, says Toronto lawyer and internship critic Andrew Langille.
“Exploitation of unpaid interns has reached epidemic levels,” Langille said.
Langille estimates tens of thousands of people are misclassified as interns by their employers. “As a result of this mischaracterization these young people forgo wages, can’t collect EI, and aren’t credited with contributions to CPP,” said Langille, who monitors internship job postings on his blog and often intervenes in an attempt to see that minimum wage is paid.
Much of the confusion stems from a Ministry of Labour fact sheet posted in 2011.
“There are no regulations pertaining to unpaid internships,” the fact sheet explains, before going on to outline the exceptions to labour law where less than minimum wage can be paid.
Six conditions must be met, including one that stipulates internships cannot lead to paid work — a promise often used to attract young people to unpaid internships in the first place.
An unpaid intern can’t do work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee, nor can the employer benefit from their work, the fact sheet says.
While it may seem clear, there is lots of wiggle room for employers in current labour law. Exemptions to labour law can be made for many reasons, said the Ministry of Labour’s Gisele Rivet.
People in training, volunteers, co-ops, apprenticeships and a variety of other categories of workers aren’t classified as employees under Ontario labour law, she said.
Yet even the labour ministry can’t clearly explain what a legal or illegal internship would look like. “I can’t say whether it’s a lawful situation. We have to look at the facts of the situation. We’d have to have somebody investigate . . . to determine whether the general rules apply or an exemption or special rule applies,” Rivet said.
With unpaid internships so widespread, critics say it’s time to address them in law instead of treating them as an exception.
“It may be time for governments to consider introducing a permit system,” said York University’s Doorey. “This would allow the government to verify that internships are not being used as a method to obtain free labour.”
Nav Bhandal, a Mississauga labour and employment lawyer, says people fear filing complaints because they want a job and don’t want to anger prospective employers.
There have been very few cases of interns suing for wages — he knows of only one — which makes it hard to interpret exactly what the law means.
“We need people who are going to take a stand,” he said.

The Vicious Cycle of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

In Laissez-Faire capitalism, people pursue their own interests with a profit motive.  If they're not getting paid, what's the point? When they do have resources, those resources are there to use as folk see fit.

Including Human Resources.  Employers can hire or fire as they choose; employees can take or not take jobs as they choose.  It's through negotiating selfish interest that balance and stability gets built in to our non-system of a Randian non-society on a contract-by-contract basis.  Equal pay for work of equal value, etc.

Of course, this structure implies that the employer values individual labour and will pay appropriately for it.  A smart employer won't want to perpetually hire and fire - they'll want the best talent from the get-go and will work to keep it. 
But what if that isn't the case? What if employers see employees as disposable widgets and figure really anybody can do the job, so why pay big bucks for it?  After all, that's why North America lost its manufacturing industry - too many benefits for employees, too many regulations, not enough profit.   

What if employers view employees as tools, not resources?  If you smack something with a hammer hard enough, you'll break it; you can use the back of a screwdriver the same way.  It's less the tool that accomplishes the work than it is the pressure applied by the user.  That's exactly what micromanagement is.

Yes, some employers treat their employees like human beings; the laissez-faire capitalists, however, will hire and fire as they please without worrying about support, training, etc.  Why should they?  Labour doesn't make products, the employers do.   They built that.

Cheaper labour, less expensive regulation in places like Bangladesh - no need to waste money by operating in countries like Canada.  It's the international equivalent of child labour (including actual child labour).

If the quality of the labour doesn't matter, then the employees have lost their key self-interest bargaining chip.   Work becomes less about getting stuff done and more about sucking up the boss, (creating that personal value) or undermining your fellows so that if the axe falls, it'll land on them, not you.  The product suffers - but it still gets made.  Maybe it's a cheaper product, but so what - you can just push your people to up productivity and sell more for less.

Rational consumers in a laissez-faire model want lowest dollar for value - more for less.   They can compete between sellers for the best quality of product, but again - do they really need the fanciest tool to accomplish what they want? Doesn't it make sense to get the cheapest product so they have more cash to get more stuff? I can buy one dish at The Kitchen Store, three at Wal-Mart and ten at the Dollar Store.  The lowest cost wins - just as it has with the manufacturing industry.

Buying more for less, hiring more for less and ultimately, working less for whatever you get.  If the boss wants you to do more, they've gotta pay for it.  If you know you're going to be stigmatized from finding work regardless, the incentive to go through the standard job-hunt process isn't there.  Money, not legacy, not accomplishment nor even pride becomes the prime motivator.  Paying for training when nothing is guaranteed makes no laissez-faire sense; it's a waste of resources.

So what if you have a populace that isn't going to invest time in training or all the legwork it takes to get to a position where they might get hired?  What if you have people who won't even think about issues unless someone is paying them to do so?  What if every action is expected to turn around rapid results and everything is to be gotten for as little investment as possible?

It's not hard to imagine - we are surrounded by examples both domestic and international.  The best ROI comes from crime - little effort or brief effort pays handsomely; all you need to do is invest in some security and not care about what happens to people not you, laissez-faire style.  Drug lords do this.  Warlords do this.  Abusers of interns are doing the same thing.  Not hiring to save on cash is hardly a crime, but it's hardly to the benefit of society, either.  But that's what you get from focusing solely on your bottom line.

Here's the picture we have right now - employers with money want to spend as little of it on labour as possible and are skirting the rules by moving overseas or turning to contract work and intern work as methods to keep their costs down.  The marginalized demographics in our society know that the system is stacked against them; there's little motivation to invest in the time, energy and training to compete for the chance to maybe possibly get an interview for a dead-end position against a host of higher qualified or under-employed candidates.  It just makes no sense.
We can do as Jason Kenney has done - turn to foreign labour to fill the gap, cheaply.  The problem with this approach is that it doesn't solve the structural problem and feeds into the bias that already stigmatizes New Canadians with low or non-transferable skills.  You can't force the work that nobody wants to do without leaning towards indentured servitude 'with those desperate for work getting trapped in cycles of internships/Joad-style style Labour Migrations at best and Concentration Camps at worst.  You can try to create more stable work through government, but again, that means greater taxation which people aren't in favour of - it's that more for less thing again.
The analogies here are deliberate, but they aren't the only ones available.  In a social system where the few with the greatest wealth benefit and growing majorities are seen as tools in an economy rather than as human beings, something's got to give; instability festers.  Indifference leads to frustration of the kind that can kindle into crime waves, war or revolution.  In any of these scenarios, it's the people with the most who have the most to lose.
Which is why it makes sense for the haves to be the ones giving back.  There is precedent - every pulse in the history of labour has led to greater investment in human resources, and each has resulted in greater prosperity.  There is also precedent for what happens when employers head in the other direction - that, too, is the history of labour.
At the end of the day, a democratic government can't force it's people to do right by each other, to invest in society - when it starts trying to do that, it ceases to be democratic.  It is always ultimately up to the people to commit to living together.  This, too, we will continue to do - reactively, in response to a World War II or a Great Depression if not a Syria or an Egypt - until we stop turning a blind eye to the woes of others and seek to blame them for our own problems.
There's more to this "forward together" business than just an inclusive slogan - society is a Commons that can only be sustained on common ground. 
And of course, despite what the laissez-faire capitalists will tell you, altruism is really just selfishness that plans ahead.

Life is Like a Box of Cheerios

This is a powerful commercial that has sparked a huge swath of controversy.  Why?  Because it bursts the bubble of illusion many frightened people live in - the illusion that the world is stagnant and that traditions are inviolate.  Blame not these people for their fear - it is beyond their conscious control.  Until, that is, it isn't.
Meanwhile, Cheerios has done the right thing - reflecting the tone and resetting the conversation to address head-on the taboos that hold us back.  They will benefit from this, too, in the same way businesses that have taken a stand for gay marriage have.  It's a new form of conscious capitalism, with the private sector leading the way on social issues as a way to build market share, but doing the right thing at the same time.
Things have changed.  Diversity is slowly being viewed not as a threat to supremacy of one group over another, but as an opportunity for growth.
Diversity = strength.
Watch the video and the next generations comments on it here.


Tuesday 16 July 2013

Idle No More - No, really!

Ask pretty much anyone how they're doing these days, you're likely to hear the word "busy."  It's become a badge of honour, an excuse for not getting back to someone or a deer-in-headlights realization that the amount of expectation does not match the amount of time generally considered available for accomplishment.
My day today was busy, but no more so than any other day in that if I have a moment, I'm generally filling it up with a productive activity.  I try to do nothing that is of no use - sleep is regenerative, play is to refresh the body/mind or absorb new ideas and try out new conceptual combinations.  I'm always suspicious of the people who, when asked what they're thinking will say "nothing" because to me, non-thinking is about as feasible as non-breathing.  Multi-tasking is my normative state.
I'm hardly alone in this.  People walking down the street are texting or talking on the phone, or both, making deals or making plans at the same time as walking the dog and getting their daily dose of cardio.  I won't soon forget the young woman who went in search of a power source during the recent Toronto blackout in search of a power source, because she needed to plug in her phone - the concept of just being and not doing for a spell simply wasn't on her plate as an option.
We are an agitated people, reinforced by a society that wants us to be agitated.  If we're not working (to fuel the economy) we should be spending (to fuel the economy) - plunking down coin on goods or services, supporting our community, buying local, being good Samaritans or good citizens.  If we're not doing those things, or even while we're doing those things, we're on social media - tweeting while we write, blogging (or thinking about blogging) simultaneously with doing something else, composing the next instagram masterpiece as part of our daily ablutions.
There's a sidebar to this.  Since we're all engaged, all the time, we don't want to be missing out on something, particularly something that feels like we're being excluded from.  We equally have a hard time doing things that don't seem to have personal meaning (despite what the Andrew Keene's of the world tell us, this is nothing new - it just happens that concepts like King and Country have been diluted of their mass appeal through things like the Senate Scandal).  If political debate seems too much like inside baseball and we don't have the time to learn the signals, we're not interested.  That protest over there is much more interesting and gives a better chance to express oneself more personally.  The cause might be our own, or we might make it our own, but it's better than the alternative of waiting around while things get done to, not with us.
Idle no more, indeed. 

Monday 15 July 2013

Branding Belfast

Loyalist rioters prepare to attack riot police in the Woodvale area of North Belfast on Saturday.

I'm looking at the pictures, I'm reading the words - those don't look like Protestant protesters to me.  The look like frustrated kids of the variety that have been told to get a job or fight for their country or eat cake over the centuries.

I do not write this frivolously; throughout history, attempts to lump problem groups under one brand have tended to create much larger problems (that will wreak havoc and then break down into disparate groups again, causing further chaos).  Of course, justifying the overlooking of marginalized communities through an "us" and "them" narrative doesn't work so well, either - that's what leads to the disenfranchisement in the first place.

It really comes down to this - people want to feel like they belong and that their lives have value.  This is the choice the leaders of any society ultimately needs to make - do you want to reach out to the people, or have them stand against you?  Guaranteed that, time and again, it will always come down to one or the other.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Presenteeism: Working 9 to 5 Isn't Getting Us Ahead

Tumble outta bed
And stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
Yawnin, stretchin, try to come to life
Jump in the shower
And the blood starts pumpin
Out on the streets
The traffic starts jumpin
And folks like me on the job from 9 to 5

The Industrious Age
The Industrial Revolution was a period of unparallelled productivity.  For that reason, it's been suggested that it would be more appropriately called "the industrious revolution." 
We didn't get to the peak of manufacturing capacity without some hiccoughs, however; the rise of the economic might of the manufactured economy was not a simple matter of a few Horatio Algers building the means of production and offering decent wages for decent work.  A whole host of other factors had to come into play to result in the ultimate widget-building system.
You can't have an industrial revolution in a sparsely populated, agrarian society.  No one can spend their day travelling from the farmstead to town to punch a clock nine-to-five, play the role of HR cog in a production line and then get home, milk the cows and till the yard.  Industry requires density, specialization and a complex economic system that makes people more reliant on each other.
Let's look at this from another angle.  If dad is out working the fields and mum is sewing clothes, doing dishes or tending to five children and every family follows more or less the same model, you have neither the ability to have an industrial economy nor the need to have an industrial economy.  There's little need for education, either; everything you need to learn to get ahead in life can be learned at home by folk who've been doing the exact same thing their whole lives, as have their parents.
A functioning industrial economy required a fundamental change the way we view not only work, but the way we define family.
Work in Agrarian Society:  That thing that you do to directly support the life and livelihood of your family.  When the work is done, or temporally done (can't harvest what's just been planted), you rest, spend time with family - relax.
Work in an Industrial Society:  That thing you do to earn money to buy the goods and services (food, made clothes, kitchen tools, furniture, lodging) you need to support your family.  When the work is done, you unwind - or, because there are manufactured goods and new services, you goods and services to supplement your life and add value to your day.
Family in an Agrarian Society: Larger, more complex, multi-generational.  Family is the thing that comes first and work is done to support it.
Family in an Industrial Society: 2.5 kids, so that the stay-at-home parent isn't overwhelmed.  The go-to-work parent is the "bread-winner" earning the coin needed to buy the goods and services needed for life.  There may be grandparents in the mix, but that changes the hierarchical structure (the workin' man deserves to be in charge, after all, not the enculturating stay-at-home grandparent).  Besides, isn't success defined by independent property ownership and copious consumption?  Grandma doing the knitting just messes that all up.
Well, to a degree.  More people working on the line means more people buying stuff; when this happens, costs starts to go up (because the end goal is profit, so if you have more people you can sell to, why not jack the prices?  The people will compete to have ownership of stuff and therefore portray themselves as better off than the Joneses) and the need for increased income rises.  There are only so many middle-management positions available so eventually, parent #2 needs to go to work, too.  Schools, not homes, become the depository for kids during the day - and an opportunity to learn more skills leading to a demand for more out of work than just the assembly line.  What's the point of spending all that time in school if you aren't going to get a job better than your unschooled parents had?
Then, there's the actual work itself.  For the most part, working on an assembly line sucks.  Simple, mind-numbing repetitive tasks aren't fun for most people and the end product isn't even something you're likely to enjoy yourself (doubt that, go live with the average factory worker in Brazil or Bangladesh for a couple of weeks).  What's the motivation to go through such an uncomfortable day when you could be on the farm, enjoying the fruits of your own labour?
The myth of Horatio Alger is good enough for some, at least for a while.  Over time, though, it will quickly become clear to many that the myth is just that; it's simply not true that anyone can be President or CEO.  Instead of striving to be the best, we satisfy ourselves with being better than someone else.  That, plus we need something to sweeten our mad existence.  There's a reason why sugar played such an important role in the industrial revolution - it made for an excellent carrot to motivate employees and played a hugely important role in shaping the evolution of the global economy.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that sugar makes an excellent sweetener for energy-nurturing beverages like tea and coffee, which surprise surprise, also play a big role in the development of a manufacturing-based industrial economy.  Keep your workers caffeinated so they work and through in some sugar at the end of the day; that, plus the threat of being replaced if you don't work fast enough are pretty good motivators for producing more widgets per hour.
That's not enough, though.  When you have workers coughing up lungs, losing fingers or generally being upset at the fact that they're busting their buns for meagre pickings while their bosses where fine suits and live in mansions, something has to give.  The 1% can and will tend to deny this fact for as long as possible, trying increasingly conflated confabulations to justify their fungal lifestyle but eventually, the aurora of entitlement wears off.
Whether by choice or by force, the playing field has to even out a bit.  Employers invest a bit more in their workers - training, benefits, vacation time, etc. - and lo and behold, productivity goes up.  Healthy, marginally happy workers with something to look forward to (even if it is just the TGIF roundup on the telly) are more productive than Concentration-Camp workers.
That's what it took for the perfection of the manufacturing economy - the empowering and properly motivating and stimulating of labour, the 9-to-5 workday, the breaks for tea and the odd week off to get away from the job.  Provide those things and you'll get the most bang for your buck.
The Manufactured Bleed
The rise of Western Society (best exemplified by the US) was build on the industrial revolution - whole populations grew, flourished and became more urban (and therefore more socially integrated and systematically dependent) and productive as a result.  It's taken a while and a few revolutions of the bloodier variety, plus some failed flirtations with communism for non-Western societies to fully embrace the industrial model.  And to be honest, in most cases, they haven't fully gotten there - poor infrastructure, low wages, little or no training or support have proven to be less of an impediment than it was to Western Countries because of much larger and more desperate population bases.
Products made in sweat shops in China, Brazil or Bangladesh might be cheaper made, but they're cheaper to buy, too. 
We Western folk, programmed by our own industrial revolution to want more of everything as recompense for our own labours tend not to pay so much attention to what happens behind the productive curtain - until, that is, we are exposed in thrilling fashion to horrors like the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh for which we, as consumers of the products made on that floor, are ultimately responsible.
This also brings us to the biggest flaw in the laissez-faire free market model favoured by the likes of Stephen Harper or Mitt Romney.  It's all well and good to suggest that, eventually, systems become balanced, wealth gets invested in labour and all the other top-down approach thoughts to economic growth, but this is a variant of the mentality that fuelled robber barons and czars.  The boss can be impatient and push for more production; they can even use labour employed as security and paid/resourced better than the masses to reinforce the point.  At the end of the day, though, there are always more ants than grasshoppers and the grassroots can always topple their leaders, if they become impatient enough for their own opportunity.
Yes, Western economies are suffering from the bleed of manufacturing jobs to countries like China, Bangladesh and Brazil, countries that have raced through industrialization.  At the same time, those countries are going to find themselves racing through the labour revolutionary process, putting them back where we were until the 90s.  Trying to scale back our economic evolution to the production equivalent of horses and bayonets won't only not get us ahead, it also won't fly - not with a populace that has been trained to expect more.
The Knowledge Economy
When you step back and line up the evolution of the manufacturing-based industrial revolution and the information/social-media tech-fueled Knowledge Economy revolution, all kinds of fun parallels line up.  The traditional definition of family doesn't mesh well with the labour requirements of the age - stay-at-home parenting is almost impossible for any family that wants to live comfortably.  More goods from Wal-Mart isn't making people happier.  The carrots, sticks and sugar model of labour motivation that worked so well for widget-making isn't keeping countries like Canada at the head of the innovation pack; heck, we can't even compete in pure knowledge productivity.  The 9 to - 5 workday, lived in one setting doing one task, no longer applies - we now need to have our heads all over the place and be multi-tasking, even innovating the work we're paid to do, yet the expectation is that will happen between 9 and 5 while sitting at one desk.
It's a bit ironic - while employers call for deregulation and an opportunity to keep more of their funds to themselves, somehow assuming that's all it takes for modern-day success, they don't see the value in freeing up their labour in the same way.  Especially in Canada, we are doing a terrible job of training and motivating our staff to produce the work/services/products we're demanding of them.  Across the board we're seeing average folk Occupying themselves with this imbalance; as the gap between their quality of life and that of their employers rises despite their clear importance to the production chain, the worker is Idle No More.
What has happened before shall happen again, etc.