October 19, 2021

Finding Fulfillment in Work With Award-winning Sociologist and Author, Jamie McCallum

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #60

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Jamie McCallum, award-winning sociologist, Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College and author of Worked Over: How Round-The-Clock-Work Is Killing the American Dream, where he reveals the unexpected link between overwork and inequality, examines labor time of low-wage workers that are the most volatile and precarious, and shares inspiring stories of those battling today’s capitalism to win back control of their time. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, McCallum sat down with Sam and discussed emotional fulfillment at work, the treatment of low-level workers, and wages.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights McCallum shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “There is a world out there that most of us never see and that’s by design.”
  • “Good pay does keep people around.”
  • “Everyone deserves the chance to have a job that fits their skill sets, desires, strengths, and fulfills them.” 
  • “As a society, we have a real social stake in making workplaces places where people want to stay.”
  • “My hope for the future of work is that we take advantage of the opportunity the pandemic provided us, by rewriting the rules of the labor market.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: So, I guess Jamie, a good place to start would be, if you could share a little bit about yourself and what got you into the line of work that you’re in? 

Jamie: So I’m a sociologist at Middlebury College. I’ve been here for 10 years and I used to be a labor activist, a union activist. And so I decided I wanted to study that stuff more, from an intellectual scholarly standpoint, I guess. I went back to grad school for that, and I wrote a book early on, on global unionizing, so workers organizing across borders in the same companies, different countries. I helped do a book on youth unemployment with some other people globally.

And then I wrote this recent book called Worked Over, which is on labor time. So in general, I try to marry like scholarly intellectual stuff with sort of an activist background for activists spirits, I guess. 

Sam: The book is powerful. Our office is in Newark, so obviously I got the book in front of me. The chapter about the sad story about Maria from Newark, New Jersey was one that really hit home for us.

Jamie: Yeah. I mean, I read her story early on, years ago and was shocked by it. And you know, I wasn’t writing the book then, and I forgot about it then just like everybody else forgot about it. Then in 2019, I was like, oh, wait a minute there’s this story out there. And for me, it sort of encapsulates most of what’s in the first half of the book, I guess you could say.

And so it tends to resonate with people and I assume that’s why the cover has a picture of a car on it in the parking lot. I don’t know. I mean, I can talk about the stories you want me to.

Sam: I think the thing that I wanted to talk to you about, even the book does a really good job at getting you to think about the way that work really is a lot harder on certain folks, primarily coming from different backgrounds and different experiences. What do you feel is the biggest takeaway that a talent leader listening or C-level executives today? What’s the takeaway you want them to have if they were to read the book?

Jamie: That’s a good question. There are a few things. One is that yes, there is a world out there that most of us never see and that’s by design, I think, and there is a segment of the working population, which is designated as disposable and sacrificial. During the pandemic we’ve seen this, and contrary to what’s commonly asserted, they have been increasing their effort and time at work more than anybody else. And so while it’s true that high-paid executives, including mostly high-paid white men, tend to work more hours than everybody else, it’s ordinary workers who have increased their time the most in the last four or five decades.

And that shift has mostly been driven to keep up with the rising standards. So where people at the top of the income bracket have worked more and get paid more, mostly because of higher compensation, workers at the bottom have tended to work more hours. It’s more or less a coping mechanism or a survival strategy. And I think being aware of that is useful. 

Sam: It’s wild how over the last year, especially, we went from looking at frontline workers, like many of the stories in your book, talking about workers, either at an Amazon center or in restaurants and retail that have been heroes fighting through, and then it’s almost like in the last 45 days, it’s taken a drastic turn back to sort of some of the things you mentioned in the book that have been largely historical in the way that we’ve treated workers.

Jamie: What do you mean the last 45 days? Because of the sort of labor shortage? The discourse and stuff?

Sam: Yeah. The conversation around… I’d love to get your take on it. I just don’t understand how a C-level leader can get on Squawk Box and call workers lazy and expect that many of them are gonna want to come back and work for them. But that’s maybe a second question. 

Jamie: Yeah. So, I’m writing a book about this now, as it turns out, and so I could talk all day about it. I mean, the transition from ‘workers are heroes’ to, ‘you need to go back to work no matter what at this shit wage’ is a pretty significant turn of events, I think. And there was a moment when I think we all thought that the pandemic would open people’s eyes to sort of the lives of ordinary working-class folks. And it did for a while, but then that didn’t necessarily translate into these kinds of things that we might expect : higher wages, better conditions, more time off, more childcare, more sick leave, stuff like that. There has been a small uptick in wages in the last three months, but it seems like it’s still not enough. 

Sam: It might be like the tighter labor market for the moment, and as it loosens up what will happen? Will it go back? 

Jamie: I don’t know. I mean, historically, we have seen after major catastrophes, and this is very historical, but after the plague, after the 1918 Spanish flu, there were wage increases for all kinds of reasons. And it may be the case that people, don’t want to work anymore, and simply won’t work until wages get high enough, in which case, we’ll see a sea change. 

If there’s ways to force people back to work, as you said, the labor market loosens up, other things happen when Biden’s, policies erode, people are probably more likely to go back, but I think we’re at this moment of reckoning where we really have to take stock of what we saw in April, 2020 and remember that though the virus and the biological pandemic may be coming to a close in a lot of places, like Vermont, for example, I don’t wear a mask when I go in some stores now, but nonetheless, the poor working conditions that were there before are still there. 

And we still have that problem. It was a problem in 2019, it’s a problem two years later. And some of those things will only be resolved by workers getting more of what they want and deserve. 

Sam: You mentioned in the book that meaningful work wasn’t eroded by high wages. You said that meaning was introduced to make up for declining wages. And there’s a good discussion around this movement to make jobs and work connect to identity. Obviously, I don’t want you to recite the whole book, but I guess what’s the knee jerk on that as today, I see so many folks trying to connect life meaning and identity to work as leaders.

Jamie: Yeah. I think there’s a lot to say about it. And that was the part of the book that I wrote first. Like that’s what I wanted it to write about. But it led me to something else, or led me to this broader picture, I guess. 

But from the meaningful stuff, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, if we have to work to survive, everyone deserves a chance to have a job that fits their skill sets and desires and strengths and fulfills them in some capacity. I have a job that does that, and everybody should, and not most people and most people do not. However, I also think that the sort of mandate to sort of take this job and love it or find meaning in what you do is a relatively new phenomenon and the kind of the history of American capitalism.

You know, when I grew up, my grandfather was like, just get a job. He never said to get a job you want, a job you like. It was like go to community college and get a job. That was a success. And where I work now, that would be considered a failure for graduating seniors, right? Like they’re always successful if they get a job that fulfills their emotional and sort of psychological and almost libidinal needs.

And so I was interested in why that is, and I think that it has less to do with simple changing norms. I think it has to do with the way that we produce goods and services and a service economy. In order to lead links, people work more to work with other people, interacting with things and interacting with high level machinery, communicating with people all the time. And that kind of work necessarily requires more self and more input. And when we have more of that investment input in our work, we’re more likely to develop attachments to it. So I think that cultural value, to some extent, stems from an economic process.

Sam: Gallup had a book that came out before the pandemic called It’s The Manager talking about a lot of stuff, but that employee engagement numbers are just bad. It’s like without even quoting the percentages are just tough. And it seems like a lot of companies say the solution is job training. 

I wanted to get your feeling on where you think job training fits in, and where is it maybe over-hyped, especially because I think one of the stats mentioned that only 37% of the 50 million new jobs that America will be adding by 2028 are going to require any education. So, where can job training really play a role? Because there’s gotta be more to it. 

Jamie: As to your point a minute ago, if you look at the fastest-growing jobs that our economy will produce in the next 10, 15 years, there are a bunch of different ways of saying home health aide and nurse. Those are the kinds of jobs that we’re making and more on the lower-wage caregivers’ side. I think when we think of the future of work, we think of either a robot or someone in some sort of gleaming office with glass walls everywhere. And in fact, what we should picture is like a woman of color taking care of someone hanging on to Medicaid or something like that, because that’s the way the job production is going. 

As far as job training, as someone who runs a job training company, you probably know more about this than I do, but, I think for employee engagement, what people are looking for is some degree of autonomy and freedom and power on their job. Even at the lower echelons of the labor market. Like not only are low wage jobs may keep you poor and they’re undignified, but you have no control over what happens at work. And in a job like mine, which my mentor called being a faculty member ‘the last good job in America’, because you have control of your time, but you have a lot of autonomy and that more than anything else, probably makes the job so desirable and it keeps people’s eyes on the prize and keeps them engaged at work. So ways that managers can help facilitate that for people I think helps engagement.

Obviously, as we were just talking about, the other thing would be, it sounds crass, but money. Good pay does keep people around, as far as I know anyway. There’s a chance given the labor market today, I could be forced to do my job for a little bit less, but not for a lot less. And I think there’s a lot of people out there basically who run on a situation or working for far, far less than they should be, and no wonder turnover is so high. 

There’s a danger of that also that we witnessed during the pandemic. And that is when turnover is high, among low-wage workers, you have people in nursing homes in direct competition with fast-food joints. So it’s like, we need fast-food work. We need healthcare workers. And the last thing we need is them being like, ‘oh, maybe I’ll work at McDonald’s because they pay a little bit more.’ And the job is probably a lot easier, especially during the middle of COVID. So I think we have, as a society, a real social stake in making workplaces places where people want to stay for a long time, like making professions out of a lot of what we think to be low-level jobs.

Sam: The last question I wanna ask you, Jamie, is, talking about the future of work, what’s your hope for the future work? 

Jamie: My hope is that we take advantage of the opportunity the pandemic provides us, and that is to rewrite the rules of the labor market and adjust recovery from the pandemic is not back to normal. It’s like a transition to a world in which ordinary people have more power on the job and the people who take care of us every day are well taken care of. And if we can learn that lesson from the pandemic and put it into action, that would be a minor miracle, but it would also be the right thing to do.

And so my hope is that the people that are sort of visionary thinkers in the world of work that actually have the capacity to make some changes are given room to do that. One way to do that would be to think historically and pass the ProAct, the Protects Our Right to Organize Act, which, after the depression, you got the pendulum swung the other way and you got the new deal.

We need something like that. The future of work needs some sort of new deal like pendulum swing to protect workers and to empower them. So that is my hope for where things go. 

Sam: Jamie, it’s great to meet you. Thanks for talking.

Jamie: Good to meet you too. Thanks so much.

Topics discussed: Labor Shortage, Pandemic, Wages, Job Training, Leadership, Labor, Workforce, Work, Jobs

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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