Our Times

Saw a job listing on a professional networking site that intrigued. Thirty/35 years ago, I would’ve been all over it. Most astonishing thing about the job description? A former high school classmate generated this possibility.

Recalling him, he never struck as being particularly dynamic. He filled backgrounds in many scenes.

Yet two reasons have throttled any enthusiasm towards pursuing his offer. One, I’m 63 and along the glidepath into retirement. Two, I’d bring experience to the job.

I only relocated to Nevada after my prior career dissolved. No way I could remain back East and attain any position with the perks that had vanished. If it’d happened in my late 30s or early 40s, I could’ve reclimbed the mountain. Yes, it would’ve taken greater effort than the first time around because I’d be retracing steps. Find me someone who wouldn’t have found that frustrating.

But as a 50-plus adult? That handwriting was chiseled into walls.

My job interviews just would’ve been formalities, and those certainly uncomfortable occasions for anyone younger sitting across from me.

As I’d heard from one completely honest HR dog to whom I’d assured of my confidence, my presence could’ve discomforted less mature staffers. Working in proximity to someone their fathers’ or uncles’ ages might’ve unnerved them. My answer to that was most of those who’d have felt so unsettled should’ve suffered pangs later on in life after having avoided opportunities to have been with such men.

But this knowledge only comes through experience. Our world today revolves around the callow and unformed.

Just before Labor Day I watched a perfect movie about working and striving. Modern Times. A satire, the 1936 Charlie Chaplin silent to sound celluloid bridge is just the sort of film whatever label this present generation brands itself might ridicule. That is if the immediate gratification bunch could sit through 90 minutes of linear storytelling.

It’s too broad. It’d been filmed in black & white. There are no nuances for overly aware audiences to delve into then congratulate themselves on for having deciphered.

Modern Times is a movie classic. Only cave dwellers, avid gamers, and people incapable of tearing their eyes off a handheld’s screen might be ignorant of Chaplin’s send up of the Industrial Age. Much of our focus on industry lionizes boardroom titans, satraps, shoguns. Extremely little on the worker ants who make and expand the renown of the high & mighty.

There’s no shortage of glamorous onscreen portrayals of boardroom intrigues or financial shenanigans. There’s an acute paucity of showing the effort producing our daily bread. And until several decades ago, those movies were tinged pink in order to claim them instruments of whatever sinister “-ism” wanted fairer disbursements of profits, i.e., wealth.

Rather than narrow the divide, give the true creators of American prosperity their due, the narrow-minded encased in executive offices preferred claiming such as insidious attempts to undermine capitalism. Therefore, America.

The idea of addressing inequities between labor and management scared powerful Americans. (Still does.) Wasn’t this a topic through which communists made hay? As any erudite red menace type or genuine anarchist could’ve explained, the only true enemy of capitalism is greedy executive board members and grasping shareholders.

Until automation eliminated much of assembly lines’ human elements, Modern Times was an apt, okay, exaggerated, demonstration of the mindless drudgery necessary to manufacture objects which fueled prosperity. Assembling components produced articles that offered consumers inexpensive goods. (Had to include that. There are at least two generations of Americans who don’t know how shelves get filled.) Volume sales yielded marvelous profits. The process also dehumanized and demoralized the people along the conveyors.

Presenting the above scenario in a humorous way probably hammered the point better than had it been put forward with gravity.

However, overlooked or underappreciated in the movie is Chaplin’s view of how authority indifferently grinds those deemed marginal.

An acquaintance succumbs to an accident. The state wants to send his minor daughter to an orphanage. Instead, Chaplin’s unnamed character assumes custodial duty. He becomes her guardian. While quite irresponsible for himself, he does care for her in a manner beyond that of any institution.

In Modern Times Chaplin’s figure is admittedly a shit magnet. Misfortune is easily drawn to him. What chance to improve himself doesn’t he screw up? A running gag in the movie shows him often being sprung from jail after serving his sentence.

Nonetheless challenged by obstacles of his own making as well as a few fate has rolled his way, he and his ward eventually reach a place where they’ve created a design for living. Theirs. The requisites are met and surpassed. He finally becomes a dutiful earner. Unfettered, she’s happy.

Unfortunately for both, the state must be obeyed. Despite having become productive and through that establishing a comfortable level of domesticity, authority emphasizes contentedness must yield to its control. Rather than respect the solution the pair have found, agents of the state come to seize the girl. Her thriving is immaterial. She must be fed into the system.

Here’s where cinema and real life diverge. Especially present-day real life. In the movie the couple resists then escape. They become vagabonds.

Seeing, knowing how deferential our society has become to the state, anyone today in any kind of similar straits would’ve submitted. No hitting the road, just a handover. Maybe a tearful one but a surrender nevertheless.

Technologically and intellectually advanced as we’ve become, the two attributes have also deepened docility. The kind employers prize.

One of the few benefits from Covid is that it’s strengthened employees’ hands. Either through better wages, improved benefits, or just making management finally realize the essential nature of worker ants, smart hourly and salaried people are using this leverage to their advantage. Even better, let’s hope they’re reversing the boss roles by exploiting their new-found edges.

Since these new American nomads of labor are unlikely to belong to unions, there’s no way the new conditions can be codified then ratified. Meaning once Covid conditions significantly abate, management will be clawing back its “generosity” like fiends on sugar jags.

Unfortunately, today’s American laborer does not possess the same tenacity of prior workers. No protests. No job actions. No proud committed agitators haranguing hostile bosses or timid workers who prefer living bent than standing straight. No manifestations to publicly air grievances loudly. No burning tires to remind, inform, discomfort, aggravate those societal segments believing themselves inoculated from labor strife. No rolling cars owned by co-workers wishing to hang apart rather than hang together.

Left to 21st century clock-punchers, most of us maintaining livelihoods through honest toil as well as retaining our dignity might still be pulling beastly long hours in settings resembling those of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company or the meatpacking plant in The Jungle, a 1906 novel. Forget about hiring goons to confront any employee promoting positions contrary to business or injurious to the bottom line. The barest suggestions of intimidation would suffice to further mash and keep the current workforce heeled.

When management does come demanding resumptions of pre-Covid standards, there will be muted complaints and scant dissent. Most grumbling will re-tuck itself into quiet conformity. The meek shall re-inherit the end of the short stick.