Back in my day

Written in response to: Start your story with the line ‘Back in my day…’... view prompt

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American Contemporary Fiction

Back in my day we had something called manners. If you asked for something you said please and if you received it you said thank you.

Now it seems people misuse manners like it’s a command. You say please passively-aggressively like you’re annoyed at having to ask in the first place, and say thank you as though what you’re asking for is a done deal before I have given any thought or consent.

And that’s the trouble with you lot in this workplace; you assume everybody is a willing participant in this corporate machine because we are desperate for the money and have nowhere else to go. We should be grateful for having this job. And you exploit that.

Back in my day you were able to get a decent lunch break (and lunch!) subsidized by the company canteen, and go home at a reasonable time to be with the family. Back in my day you were rewarded for hard work. Back in my day you believed in the American Dream because it actually existed.

Every day I hear stories of employees who are told they must choose between their job or their family. Today this happened to me. I found out this morning that my father suddenly and expectedly passed away. I requested some time off to make funeral arrangements and be with my family to grieve for him. My manager bluntly replied “my father died too – stop being so whiny.”

Since when did being inhuman at work become the norm? Charlie Chaplin was right in his “Great Dictator” speech; we don’t want to be human anymore; we want machines. We want productivity, and presenteeism and we want it now. We want to vent our anger and our frustration and incompetence as managers onto our best and most loyal workers by treating them as second-class citizens. We want to create a culture of stress that has nothing to do with being high achieving and everything to do with the desire for greed and profit which has spiralled out of control.

It is true that some employees my age boast they have never taken a sick day, or a day off, even when it was necessary. They would rather be on their death bed than call in a sick day, because technically if you can still move, you can still work, right?

We only have ourselves to blame for creating a culture of unsustainable competitiveness, we cannot ask ourselves to do any more than what we are already giving. It’s not enough to be here 12, 14, 16 hours a day and on weekends without overtime pay; we have to give our entire minds over as well.

Last week Jenny was reprimanded for drafting her ‘to-do’ list during one of the staff meetings so she wouldn’t forget anything; the manager told her she needed to pay attention during the entire meeting to show she really wanted to be there. (She didn’t). And yet, managers are not held to the same accountability or standard; getting away with being absent from work without fear of reprimand or intimidation.

I’ve missed countless family birthdays because I ‘had’ to be at work, but poor Yanko here has missed his entire honeymoon. His boss just wouldn’t give him the time off, even though he informed his boss about the wedding months and months in advance.

Don’t get me started on what HR are doing about all this; last I heard they were supposedly negotiating new employee agreements to scale back more of our rights in exchange for a measly 1% increase in our annual pay (compared to the 20% bonuses offered to managers).

I don’t even know what we’re supposed to be selling or who we are serving anymore; we’ve become such a giant conglomerate of mergers that no wonder we need several staff meetings a day just to get clarity on our ‘Mission Statement’ and ‘Products and Customers’.

I don’t want this work thing to be taking up any more of my head space; it’s there first thing when I wake up in the morning, it’s in my dreams and nightmares and it’s in my (rare) spare time with family. My mind is constantly ticking over on what I have to do next. I cannot switch off. I live in constant panic mode that I have or will let the team down in some way. For taking a few extra minutes at lunch. For coming to work a few minutes late or leaving work a few minutes early, because I have to be a parent too. For turning down mandatory overtime when I have already promised the wife date night and don’t want to cancel on her again. I love my wife. But this whole job thing feels like it has become my mistress.

***

The sentiment thus shared, Michael clicked the send button to his supervisor. He cc’d his manager. And his manager’s manger. And the entire division and the CEO. And he also got hold of a few media outlets; contacts he had been harvesting for the last six months for a moment like this, and he cc’d them too. He also cc’d his local government representative. And the governor’s wife (surely she would understand the pressures of what it was like having an overworked husband who also had a family). He cc’d his local minister at the Baptist Church, and his sporting heroes and his local radio station. Anyone could advocate for things to change were included on that email.

Then things started erupting fast. Very fast. Like Mt St Helens.

***

Later that evening Michael went home to his wife. Unlike previous evenings he didn’t scream or shout at the kids for making a huge mess, or being too noisy, or wanting his affection as soon as he came home. He embraced all four of them, one by one, giving them an extra special hug.

His wife was a little surprised by this change in his demeanor. Normally he was a sourpuss that came home late at night, like a drunk, in his sweaty nightshirt, demanding dinner and some peace and quiet. He would then retreat to his home office and thump away on the computer all night long, like a mad composer trying to squeeze out an epic symphony. But all he was doing was bashing numbers on a keyboard, trying to cram them all to fit into neat little squares to satisfy the tyranny of his unreasonable bosses that demanded more and more from him, always telling him that the numbers needed ‘revision’. Again and again, and again.

***

After an unusually relaxed dinner, where his wife got more praise than ever she expected, she asked him if there was any reason for his behavioral change.

He broke the news to her.

She cried. She was absolutely heartbroken. She had absolutely adored Michael’s father that had become a surrogate father to her, after her own father had left the family home when she was three.

Michael consoled her, but there were no words to describe what his father had meant to him. A hero. A good man. A gentleman. Who later in life got sucked into the corporate machine, and died alone in his home aged 81. It was a while before the care nurse found him, slumped on the couch, still in his work clothes. He couldn’t even afford to retire properly! He worked three days a week at the local grocer, packing bags and doing the accounts.

When Michael received the call at work, he spent all day thinking about this father, how he should have been there more for him, but, like his father, he was also too preoccupied with a thing called “Success” which then became the golden handcuffs. He couldn’t break free of this privilege, this lifestyle, until it began to eat him from inside out, clouding his judgment on what was important and consuming him in the process.

He was told at work later that day that his requested time off to grieve for his father would likely be ‘denied’ as there was an important deadline coming up. When Michael challenged this decision, his manager texted him to ‘stop whining’ – that’s when he lost it.

Michael had once been the Wonder Boy and Employee of the Month seven times in a row, until managers were forced to choose someone else because it was getting a bit embarrassing for Michael. But he really was that good, that talented, and that much of a likeable person, until the mergers started happening and Michael’s small team expanded into something very big and very messy. New teams and managers were brought in that didn’t respect or value the way Michael’s team operated, accusing them of being outdated and inefficient. Like vandals, they tore down all the furnishings around the office and erected a new edifice and decree to their new CEO who proclaimed: “There is no such thing as the individual.”

He missed the birth of two of his children because of ‘work’, and his wife, bless her, never signed any divorce papers, though she thought about leaving Michael. A lot.

As Michael held her close that evening in the kitchen, wiping her tears on his nightshirt, he whispered in her ear: “I love you Michelle. Always will.” From this moment on, he would be the man she deserved him to be.

November 19, 2021 06:38

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