Percy Spencer never graduated grade school. He was orphaned by his father, and given away by his mother to his uncle who died when Percy was seven. Percy learned early if he wanted to get anywhere, he was going to have to get there himself. In 1906 at the age of 12, he began to look for work at a mill where he discovered that despite no training, he had a knack for electrical engineering. He explored this further when he joined the Navy in 1912 and after World War I found a job working for the American Appliance Company.
By 1939, both Percy and his company had undergone some huge changes. Percy became one of the world’s leading engineers specializing in radar tube design. The American Appliance Company underwent a name change to the now more recognizable Raytheon. Percy’s expertise would help Raytheon win a government contract to help develop combat radar equipment at M.I.T.
With the long and grueling days inside the lab of the Massachusetts university, Percy took the opportunity to spend his lunch breaks out on the grounds, taking in the brisk New England air and spending time in nature, a passion he’d had since he was a child. Every day, he’d bring with him a peanut cluster bar, break it up and use the pieces to toss to any stray squirrel or chipmunk he happened across. It was one of these peanut bars that would make Percy one of the most important engineers of our time.
In 1946, Percy was working on one of his latest projects, a high powered magnetron used to amplify microwaves. When Percy reached into his pocket he found that his snack had completely melted into what he termed “a gooey, sticky mess.” He tested this effect on other items which led to a few exploded eggs and the world’s first microwave popcorn. A patent later, and Percy Spencer was the inventor of the microwave with the first commercial models hitting the market in 1947. By 1975, more than a million microwaves would be sold yearly and found in nearly every home in America.
Now, we’d like to think this is a story of an orphan who didn’t finish grade school, who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become rich and famous, the true American dream.
Here’s the reality.
Despite his work, Percy was an employee of Raytheon. The work he did and the discoveries he made were not his. Whatever brilliance spewed out of the computer in his mind belonged to his employers. Revenues for the eventual boom of the microwave went directly into the pockets of his bosses. Percy would receive no royalties. What he would receive however, is the same token gratuity that Raytheon paid to all inventors on its payroll who patented something.
If adjusted for inflation, Percy Spencer was paid $28.51 for inventing the most widely used cooking appliance on the planet. Sure, he did continue to work his way up the corporate ladder and became a Senior Vice President as well as eventually earning a spot on the Board of Directors of the company. But none of that equates to what he would have earned if he had invented the microwave at Percy Spencer Enterprises.
I don’t have half the brain old Percy had. I’ve never invented anything besides new ways to push a bill past the due date without having a utility turned off. What I do have in common, and what Percy had in common with a great majority of the working class, is a severe case of underappreciation. And it’s that unbearable affliction that has caused what I feel, through no actual research, to be the largest case of mass burnout the world has ever known.
Back in Percy’s day, millions of workers across the globe took a job somewhere and they worked that job, every day, year after year, until the company closed down, they retired or they dropped dead. Working at the same company for 30 or 40, even 50 years was not only not unheard of, it was pretty common.
This is a trend that isn’t quite dead just yet. In 2016, the Associated Press took a poll that found that 40 percent of baby boomers had been with the same company for two decades. Eighteen percent of those surveyed said they’d been with their employer for three decades. Can you imagine? Thirty years with the same coworkers, the same awful shop talk, the same stale coffee, the same desk or spot on the line? I can’t. And apparently neither can anyone else younger than 50.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median number of years that workers have been with their current employer is 4.6. For workers in the 25–34 range, that number drops to 3.2. The era of being loyal to the same boss is dead.
Some of the older generations will tell you it has something to do with millennial laziness or social media or avocado toast or some other weird thing someone in their bridge club shared on Facebook. But it isn’t. For the last few decades, corporate profits have skyrocketed to record breaking levels. Companies are growing in size. The rich are quite literally getting richer. But if you think any of this new age of corporate expansion has reached the wallet of the employee, then you’re frankly a fucking idiot. Workers have been screwed over and overlooked for too long and bosses? We are tired of your shit.
When I graduated from college in 2006, I took an entry level job at a local newspaper. I wanted to be a writer but the job was as coordinator of sorts, inputting calendar events, proofreading and such. After proving that I could handle the menial work, I began to drop hints that I wanted to write. Not long after I was given a shot, a story compiling some tips for car care from local mechanics. It went over well and I was given another piece, and then another, until finally I was considered one of the staff writers. To help me focus on my true passion, the writing, the company shifted my coordinator tasks to someone else, clearing a path to my career goals.
Most of you know just reading that sentence that I’m fucking lying. That’s not how any of this works.
What really happened was that I continued doing my calendar and proofing duties, all the entry level tasks I was hired for, while adding the workload of a staff writer on top of it, for which I was paid the grand sum of an additional zero dollars. Over the course of my six years at the paper, I’d get the occasional pittance raise, a percent here, percent and a half there. But by the time I left, I was doing the work of three or four people and I was starting to feel a little overworked.
Towards the end of my time at the paper, the newspaper industry began to kick its descent into the shit in high gear. Furloughs and layoffs began. It became a Lord of the Flies environment, with friends turning against each other, everyone out for themselves. It was the Hunger Games if the Hunger Games was filled with over-the-hill journalists afraid of the internet instead of bow-wielding teenagers. It was in this environment that I made the mistake of telling someone I thought was a friend that I was considering moving away. Within an hour, I was called into meeting. Followed by a request to resign.
“If you’re leaving anyway, maybe you should just go ahead go,” they said. I glanced over at my supervisor, the friend that had turned me in. He couldn’t work up the guts to return my glare. Unable to restrain my contempt, I unloaded on the room.
“If you want to fire me, I can’t stop you,” I told our managing editor, a weaselly man with the journalistic ethics of a 1960s payola DJ. “I do the work of three different people. This is insane.”
He never took his eyes off me. He showed no emotion.
“I think you completely overvalue your role here,” he said.
He might as well have set off a grenade. I sat back in my chair, taking in the shrapnel of the bullshit he had just dropped on me. I turned to my supervisor who was now kicking the carpet like a 9-year-old little leaguer forced to play the outfielder.
“You’re not gonna say anything,” I asked.
After a moment, it was suggested that we all take a moment to cool off and reconvene later. For me, there was no cooling off. Even if I lasted past this day, the bridge was deader than the one over the River Kwai. There was no coming back from this.
An hour later, I received an email that read “Re: This Morning’s Meeting.”
Why don’t we just forget this morning happened and get back to work?
I didn’t respond.
Later, still angry, I relayed the story of the morning’s events to a work friend.
“Well, that sucks and I know this place can be rough,” she responded. “But at least you have a job.”
But at least you have a job.
Never has there been a phrase that spoke the feeling of indoctrination more than “but at least you have a job.”
“But at least you have a job” is the Hallmark greeting that Corporate America created to give you the illusion that it could be worse. Work changed your job without your input? Hey you could be on food stamps. A bunch of tasks dumped on you because someone else didn’t feel like doing it? You could be asking for nickels outside a gas station. Supervisor throw you under the bus and try to get you fired? At least you aren’t living in your car like Jewel.
But here’s the thing. Jewel wrote a bunch of hit songs in that car and you still work at this shitty job.
I’ll let you in on a little secret…you do not have to settle for “at least you have a job.” A job is simply a thing you do to make money to do the things you actually care about. And if the place paying you money makes you miserable, you can find another place that will also pay you money for doing a thing. You owe your employer nothing.
This world of workers not staying at jobs for long periods of time is not the result of new generations becoming less loyal, hardworking or patient to deal with obstacles. If anything, we’re moreso. Next time you’re at a restaurant, watch how a thirty-something will talk to a member of the wait staff. “Sorry for the wait,” the waiter will say. “No problem at all, we’ve got nowhere to go,” they’ll joke. Now get behind a 62-year-old woman with an expired coupon at the grocery store and watch her go from zero to “I don’t care. Take it anyway, you bitch” in 2.4 seconds.
In life, you learn that there are certain things you put up with because not putting up with it isn’t an option. The chef at the restaurant didn’t undercook your steak on purpose. The store didn’t run out of laundry soap just to spite you. The bank charged you an overdraft fee because you spent more than you had. But through that patience, through that tolerance, we’ve also begun to develop a good sense of what we will not tolerate. We will tolerate the stress of the daily grind. We will tolerate a bad day at work. But when the place that pays us begins to disrespect us because they feel they can do so with no repercussions? Hear this well. You do not have to tolerate that and you are doing yourself a disservice to try.
And if you’ve begun to reach the 4.6 year mark and you realize that it’s time to make a change, make a change. You are beholden to only yourself and those who depend on you to survive. Don’t compromise yourself. Your mental health is important. If you wake up in the morning and rack your brain for reasons you could use to take the day off, that anxiety will begin to eat you alive and will waste you to a point that even when you aren’t at the office, it will live in your headspace ruining all joy. Don’t let it.
I wish I could pass on better advice to help you navigate the waters of work demoralization. The only thing I can give you is this. Be curious about the world around you. Never emotionally invest yourself in a cubicle. Don’t be afraid to try something new or start over. And no matter what you do, don’t eat lunch at your desk. Because one day you will die, and if you’re lucky enough to have loved ones, be assured that the things they will pass on about you are they way you lived your life, and the love you gave, and not the loyalty you had for your 9–5. So get up, take a walk down to the store and buy yourself a peanut cluster bar. You might not wind up inventing anything like the microwave but at a minimum you can make some squirrels happy and that’s something.
Originally published at http://woefullyinsignificant.com on September 11, 2019.