Friday, August 10, 2007

The Workplace Prison

The great myth of the workplace is that everybody should have a meaningful job that they love. The reality is that most of us see our job as a kind of sentence in a minimum security prison.

Don’t believe me? Just listen to how people talk at work.

"How many years have you got in?" "When do you get out?" "We’re breaking out at midnight, Rocky."

Well maybe you don’t hear that last one too often. But you get the idea.

Work, for most of us, is not that soul-satisfying, world-saving experience we read about in the "Careers" section of the daily newspaper. Rather, it’s usually a mind-numbing, soul-crushing, eight-hour daily sentence that we have to serve in order to get food, shelter and that big-screen plasma TV we’ve had our eye on.

Think about it. Most of us have a booth or a chair or a cubicle that we have to be in for a set period of time for five or six days a week. We get exercise breaks, a lunch break and, if we’re lucky, a weekend pass.

That doesn’t sound like work; that sounds like prison. And with prison comes a warden or, in the argot of the workplace, your supervisor. She’s the one who decides when you have your breaks, if you’ll get that weekend pass and what time the lights go out.

And if your workplace is like most, it’s populated with the same folks you find in prison. There’s the guards or, as you might know them, middle management. They carry out the warden’s orders and think they’ve got actual authority. But like prison guards, their authority is more imaginary than real. In fact, since they put in the same or longer hours than you do, they’re basically just prisoners with higher pay.

Then there’s the stool pigeon or snitch, the guy who rats on you to get special treatment from the guards. You know him as the office suck or the brown-noser. Same person; different title. But like the stoolie, Mr. Brown-noser usually gets his in the end.

Day-to-day activity at work is pretty much the same as in prison. You’re usually pushing paper, working the cash or manning the phone, all workplace equivalents to making license plates or working in the prison laundry.

Play by the rules and you get rewarded. It might be a good evaluation, an enclosed office or a minor promotion. Just like in prison where the prisoner with good behavior might get his own cell or become the warden’s "trusty."

And if you break the rules, you get punished. That means a black mark on your record or, if you’ve been really bad, you have to work alone. Kind of like solitary confinement, if you will.
The older you get, the more your thoughts center on "getting out." The big question becomes: do you have to serve your full sentence or can you get paroled? Except you might know it as early retirement.

Like the folks behind bars, you soon learn to keep your mouth shut and do your time. Keep your nose clean and your head down and you’ll eventually be free.

But don’t despair. As inmates will tell you, if you don’t obsess about getting out, the days pass more quickly. As they say in the slammer, that’s easy time.

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