Living to Work or Working to Live:

Advice for the Dotcom Generation

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interest and his own are the same."
-- Stendhal (1783-1842)




As I sit writing this, my hands are sticky and smelly. I've been cutting devil's vine down from the chainlink fence surrounding my horse pasture, and it's a really nasty job. The vine, a noxious weed common here in southern Arizona, quickly grows up through the wire of the fence, and entangles itself throughout the chainlink. It's difficult to cut down, because it is a tough vine that has a latex sap that is as sticky as pine gum and it reeks terribly. Once it is on your hands, you can't get it off, not with fuel oil, not even with gasoline. It's there until it wears away.

I suppose you think at this point that I'm going to tell you I love doing that kind of hard manual labor. Actually, I don't. I really hate cutting down devil's vine. There are other things I hate about maintaining my property, too, such as filling in gopher holes before I can irrigate the citrus, cutting down the Russian thistle, a very thorny noxious weed, and having to rake the horse manure in the pasture.

But I do them because they're a necessary part of having something I enjoy. And that is the privilege of having a large horse property, which makes possible the opportunity to ride at my leisure. The hard work I do to maintain this property makes it possible to sit on my back porch, sip freshly squeezed orange juice (vastly better than the nasty stuff the grocery store sells), and watch while the cat stalks a young jackrabbit through the bushes. Or going for a saddle ride up through the hills near my home. Or having friends over for an afternoon barbeque and swim in the pool.

Being able to enjoy these things is why I work.

It sounds simple enough. In many ways, it is the fulfillment of the "American Dream." And in that sense, I am fulfilled. I enjoy my life, and feel that I've worked hard and earned what I have.

I have, for many years, traded my talents and time so that I can have something that I enjoy. I continue to work so that I can continue to enjoy these things.

And there's nothing wrong with that. In many ways, it can be seen as living a balanced life.

The point of this is balance. I've learned over the years the need for maintaining balance in your life. Working to live, rather than living to work.

The Rush to Longer Work Hours

There's currently a trend in the United States to work longer hours. The work week is increasing, and it now stands at more than 46 hours, longer than it has been at any time since World War II. And it continues to increase, and rapidly. There are a number of reasons why this trend exists.

One of these is the shortage of key talent. Often businesses can't find the people they need to meet their labor requirements, and must have their available talent work harder or for more hours.

Another is the "drive and ambition" culture that has often been called the "protestant work ethic." It's the idea that has been passed down from the 16th century culture created by John Calvin that hard work and salvation are inextricably intertwined, and that prosperity is a sign of God's favor. Calvin was highly successful at creating this work ethic and it has been a part of Protestantism ever since. But in America, this work ethic has increasingly become part of the secular culture; someone who is not willing to work hard is seen as lazy and irresponsible, whether he is or not. The rise of conservatism in recent years in the United States, with it's emphasis on Protestant values, has intensified this view. Since the interests of the capitalist and the religionist coincide here, it's not surprising that those interests have synergized to reinforce this attitude.

The main reason why the work week is rapidly lengthening, however, is that for a business to be competitive, it must be as productive as it's competitors, and if it's competitors cut costs, it usually must do so as well. For most businesses, the easiest way to cut costs is to cut labor costs. And if a business can't make do with fewer people, the easiest way to cut labor costs is to get workers to produce more for the money they're being paid. If workers can be induced to work longer hours for the same pay, then inducing them to do so is very much in the interests of the capitalist, and he'll work hard to get them to do so. In the absence of external restraints, the work week will continue to grow until the average worker is too exhausted to work any more.

The restraint on this trend has always come from the workers themselves. Historically, the work week ran to 72 hours, twelve hours each day except on Sunday. It wasn't by magic that this situation changed. Labor began to resent the fact that capitalists had them working so hard and such long hours, while the capitalists themselves enjoyed considerable leisure. They became known as "the idle rich." With so many people working so hard for the benefit of so few, it was inevitable that a rebellion would occur. Stimulated by such thinkers as Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, workers began to organize into labor unions and fight for basic labor reforms that today we take for granted, including the 8-hour day, the 5-day work week, workers' compensation for illness or injury on the job and overtime for labor in excess of those hours.

Of course, the capitalists didn't take that lying down. They could see that it was not in their interest to accede to these demands, but over the course of a century of hard-fought battles, many of which led to many deaths, eventually, the cry of "eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for play" became the law of the land. All the capitalists had to play by the same rules, so they were not placed at competitive disadvantage by the new rules, and while they were not happy with the situation, they could live with it.

In seeking competitive advantage, however, they had a strong incentive to look for ways around the new labor laws, and it wasn't long before they began to find ways around them. For one, they convinced government to exempt middle-level management. Soon, anyone who supervised anybody was on a salary and could be required to work as many hours as the employer found neccessary. Work in excess of 40 hours was supposed to be compensated for by "comp time" or time off with pay, so that the total hours worked would average 40 per week. But this wasn't enough. A new exception was carved out, this time for "professional" labor. In other words, if you were an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer, or some other "professional," you could be exempted too.

Well, it didn't take long for everyone but the entry-level positions to be classified as "exempt" from the overtime rule. And as for taking "comp time," well, if you asked for it, you were somehow not considered a team player, and you soon found yourself "pounding sand."

In addition, if you were illegally classified as a manager or professional, there was often little you could do. The rise of political conservatism in the 1980's, with it's anti-regulation mania, labor law was the very first body of law to be effectively gutted. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with the responsibility of enforcing labor law, was staffed with pro-business people, often coming from business itself. The law requiring overtime after 8 hours in one day was soon changed; now it had to be 40 hours in a week. And now, there's even a move afoot to make the 40-hour requirement a three-week running average; workers would not have to be paid overtime until they had worked 60 hours or more in one week, or more than 120 hours in a three week period. And the requirements for who could be classified as "exempt" would be loosened further as well.

The reason that the business could get away with having the work rules considerably eased was because of the excesses of labor union organizers in the 1950's and 1960's. Seeing the abusive organizing tactics, the incredibly detailed and often punitive work rules that interfered with basic productivity, many people came to the conclusion that labor unions weren't worth the effort and the expensive dues that they required of members. As labor unions allowed themselves to become less relevant, labor itself didn't resist the effort made by employers to water down laws governing organized labor. The result was a loosening of laws that prevented employers from interfering with labor organizing. And as organized labor has faded, the benefits it brought have faded as well.

The tension between business and organized labor made for a stasis in labor law and enforced the standards of labor law for many decades. During that period, employers made few efforts to evade the basic standards established by labor law, and the reason was that they knew that they would face an organizing effort if they tried. Since the imposition of a collective bargaining agreement would drive up costs considerably, there was a discipline imposed on employers even if they didn't have a labor union in their factories.

Since labor unions have long ceased to be a significant factor in American industry, the restraint on watering down labor law has ceased with it. Essentially, there's been no discipline to keep labor standards intact since Ronald Reagan sacked the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers during their strike. The signal to industry couldn't have been more clear - do what you want, and government doesn't care.

Immediately, the work week began to lengthen, and it has been lengthening ever since. And because incomes have not risen with the increase in the work week, the effective pay rate has been declining right along with the increasing work week. Americans are working harder than ever, and seeing little for it.

In order to prevent a resurgence of labor organizing activity, business has sought regulations that enable them to quickly move work overseas, where labor standards are lax or nonexistent. Where work itself can't be exported, business has obtained an exemption to the immigration law, called the "H1-b" program, which allows them to import skilled workers from third-world countries, house them cheaply in dormatories and pay them little more than minimum-wage. These two activities, exporting work and importing cheap skilled labor, has very often been used as a threat. It has effectively prevented labor leaders from organizing workers into collective bargaining units. The legal, theoretical right to organize remains intact, but business has found very effective means to prevent workers from doing so.

Which brings us to today. By holding out the false promise of stock options, business in the high-tech sector has incentivized young people, most of whom have never known hard times, to work incredibly long hours for relatively low pay. Most of the so-called "dotcommers" would, if their paychecks were divided by the hours worked, find that they're actually working at the minimum wage, and even less.

The "dotcommers" who jumped onto the stock-option bandwagon in the hopes of hitting it rich had only to look at Microsoft. Here was a company whose employees all recieved stock options in lieu of competitive wages. For the early employees at Microsoft, it was a gamble that paid them very well. A hundred or so of them today are millionaires. Porsches and BMW's are a common sight on the streets of Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft is headquarted. It sure looks like a great deal. Enslave yourself to the company, and in a few years, you'll be well rewarded. Or so it seems.

Well, a closer look reveals a different truth. There are more than 30,000 people working for Microsoft. If a hundred became millionaires, that means for the average "microserf," the chances of hitting it big were only one in three hundred. Are those odds good enough to justify enslaving yourself? And considering that there's little room for explosive growth in the price of Microsoft stock, is the grant of a stock option worth becoming a "microserf" today? If your stock option exceeds the strike price, how much will it appreciate beyond it by the time your option is vested? Twenty, thirty percent? Is this worth the long hours and lack of social life for the years it will take for that option to become vested?

So we look at the situation in San Jose today. There in the high-tech capital of the world, there are literally hundreds of thousands of the "dotcommers" looking to become like those hundred people at Microsoft. How many of them will make it?

The odds aren't good. Of all the "dotcom" companies that started up in the late 1990's, only about one in ten are still in operation. And there are only a very few of those that are actually profitable. As I write this (late December, 2000), the NASDAQ stock index of high-tech companies stands at less than half of what it was six months ago. Even successful, profitable companies, such as Yahoo! and Amazon.com are facing stock prices that are less than a twentieth of what they were a year ago. The vast majority of "dotcoms" are unprofitable and have seen stock prices fall so low they've been de-listed. The net result is that even if a "dotcommer" winds up getting hooked up with a profitable, successful "dotcom," the chances that his option will even hit the strike price are relatively small. If the company is wildly successful by "dotcom" standards, shows a profit and enjoys a rising stock price, unless the "dotcommer" gets in early on in the company's growth and gets a large number of shares at a remarkably low strike price, he'll likely never see a profit in the sale of his option.

So you can see that for the "dotcommer" to accept a stock option in lieu of a reasonable salary and working conditions, is foolish. Fewer than one in a hundred will be adequately compensated for their sacrifices. Fewer than one in five thousand will become independently wealthy from the exercise of their stock options. Are the odds worth giving up four or five years of your life?

I don't think so. That's why I've elected to not play the options game and look, instead, for a stable, profitable employer who's willing to pay me a decent salary and allow me to have a balanced life. If an employer offers me a stock option, I consider it a nice bit of icing on the cake, and an incentive to stay with the company and work reasonably hard, but I'm not willing to give up my life for the company. This has always been my attitude. I believe that as a balanced, well rested employee, I'm able to make better decisions, use better judgement, create a happier and more productive work environment for my fellow employees.

And I'm not alone. So many of the "dotcommers" have been burned that recruiters are increasingly hearing that they're not willing to work for stock options. The salary has to be there. The working conditions have to be there. Increasing numbers of job seekers are showing up at job fairs wearing T-shirts saying things like "Not For Sale" or "Nobody's Slave." Welcome to reality, folks!

Which brings me to the point of this whole essay: You'll get only the salary and working conditions you insist upon. If you feel that you don't have enough bargaining power to draw the salary you're worth, you have but one option. Organize. Dare I say it? Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but the false promise of stock options!

Conclusion

The last piece of advice my father ever gave me, just two days before he died, was when he said, "Son, you'll never get rich working for someone else." Well, the wisdom in those words is underscored with every passing "dotcom."

In order to get rich, you have three options: Hit the lotto big, hit a stock option big, or go into business for yourself and show that you're one of the very few people who have the talent, dedication and determination to run a business.

The chances of hitting the lotto big are smaller than the chances of getting hit by lightning. The chances of hitting a stock option big are almost equally small, but require an enormous amount of luck and personal sacrifice in the process. And few indeed are the people who have the talent to run an enterprise successfully and build it into a financially rewarding business.

So what's the point? What's my advice? My advice is that you should not consider yourself anymore committed to your employer than your employer is committed to you. If your employer won't offer you the opportunity to have a life, why should you give your life over to your employer? If he has offered you only a bare minimum of benefits, but only the promise of a huge stock option, do you really think he cares about you? Of course not! So why should you feel yourself committed to him? The employer, for example, who offers a 401(k) but without any employer matching doesn't care what kind of retirement you're going to enjoy. Administering the 401(k) is the only cost and commitment he has to you. The employer who offers only a really cheap, exemption-ridden health care plan doesn't care about your health. Why should you care about the health of his enterprise? For one reason and one reason only - the continuation of your job.

This may sound very selfish of me, but I really have to ask why I should be any more commited to my employer than he is to me? Does it really make any sense? I don't think so.

The final point is that you should enjoy life as I have tried to do. Your happiness is your birthright, and you shouldn't sell it for the mess of pottage that the stock options game represents. Sure, if you don't mind working long hours and don't care about little pay, but simply enjoy the work and want to do it, then be my guest. But I suspect that relatively few of you do. If you insist on the stock option route, at least pick a company with a solid business plan, with good management and a solid reputation in the market. But above all else, one that is already showing a profit.

For the vast majority, however, I would invite you to take a job with a decent salary, even if it has no stock option. Insist on your right to go home at the end of an eight hour workday. Keep your weekends to yourself. Enjoy outside activities and interests.

And have a life for a change.




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Revised 12/26/2000