Monday, January 21, 2013

The Holiday Class

This MLK Day, I find myself questioning the concept of holidays. In a culture in which leisure is defined as indulging in the purchase of goods and services, how does one enjoy oneself when everything is closed? If all the stores and places of amusement shut their doors, what are you supposed to do on your day off? Imagine if you couldn't buy food or gasoline or anything else on a holiday. By most people's measure, that would rather defeat the point of having a day off. Our celebrations would consist of folding laundry and watching re-runs.

Because marketers have largely convinced people that they need to spend money to have a good time, there's a strong incentive for certain businesses to stay open on holidays. By necessity, that means their employees don't get the day off. In effect, then, holidays don't exist for people who work in these kinds of places.

Who works there? Well, what kind of places are we talking about? Restaurants, retailers, gas stations, airports, hotels, casinos, theme parks. What we're not talking about are insurance companies, financial firms, ad agencies, law offices, schools and universities, software developers, real estate agents, and the like. It's interesting because, while these two groups generally break down along lines we're used to talking about--blue collar/white collar, poor/middle-class, unskilled/skilled--you can see that it's not really quite that neat. There are some fuzzy overlaps. Airline pilots may earn more than school cafeteria workers, but still have to work on holidays. Police and firefighters work holidays, but earn many times more than someone working the drive-thru window at Taco Bell on Independence Day. It's generally true that people who can count on having holidays off have better paying, more sedentary jobs, but it's not a reliable marker.

No, what we have is an entirely new division. Rather than an outright class structure, this is a privilege system that determines what  expectations employers have of their employees, and what kind of treatment the workers can expect in return. Generally speaking, the holiday-off people are treated more like independent human beings, whereas the holiday-on people are treated more like company property. The holiday-on people don't just work holidays. They wear uniforms. They punch time clocks. They're more subject to micromanagement. Where the holiday-off people may have their own cubicle or even office, or at least their own desk, the holiday-on people are less likely to have any kind of space at work that they can personalize or claim as their own. If they have any such thing, it's likely to be a locker in a communal dressing room. Holiday-off people have a general company culture they're expected to conform to; holiday-on people have massive books of specific "thou shalt nots" issued by their human resources departments. Holiday-on people are more likely to be paid an hourly wage portioned out in three-minute increments; holiday-off people are more apt to be paid a salary or commission or both.

These different work environments lead to different work ethics. The holiday-off people may be motivated to be productive, but they'll also take a more relaxed approach to it. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of the day to get a cup of coffee, chat with co-workers, and check personal email is considered perfectly acceptable in most holiday-off workplaces. That kind of conduct can lead to disciplinary action in a holiday-on job. Consequently, the holiday-on worker begrudges the employer every minute and takes off like a shot the moment the clock ticks off the last minute of the shift--unless there's overtime to be had. The holiday-off worker may work late without compensation or even take work home. This is because, while the holiday-off worker is made to feel more entitled, she's also more personally invested in the outcome of her work. The holiday-on worker simply feels like a captive, exchanging minutes of his life for the subsistence needed to sustain it.

As a rule, neither of these groups sympathize with the other. The holiday-on people feel like the holiday-off people lead cushy, spoiled lives and deserve no pity. The holiday-off people, by and large, never give any thought to the fact that not everybody has the same privileges they do. They feel they deserve what they have, and if they are aware at all of other workers not having those privileges, the holiday-off worker can probably rationalize that the holiday-on people are less deserving. What gets overlooked in most discussions of class is that all these people are "working class." That term has largely become a euphemism for the poor, but any middle-class person who works for a paycheck instead of living off investments--and that's most of them--is also working class. I think more light needs to be cast on the disparity between these two groups of workers. Not only do the holiday-on people suffer the conditions they do largely for the benefit of the holiday-off people, but it's often the holiday-off people who are the employers or mangers imposing rigid policies on the holiday-on people .