Friday, February 13, 2009

Self-Esteem and Elf-Esteem

A friend and I were talking about our beloved "Precious Snowflake" younger generation (I will define them here as people born in 1985 or afterward, and who have therefore never used a typewriter or watched Johnny Carson). Specifically we were talking about self-centeredness and the surplus of self-esteem, even when it's unwarranted - you know, the same traits that make your highly-paid boss SO ANNOYING and yet allow him to blithely climb the corporate ladder.

Your boss doesn't go out and socialize with his employees because he knows he would be misunderstood while outside the confines of the workplace. Safely inside the workplace, your boss' high level of self-esteem keeps him from experiencing doubt about his plans to reduce overtime hours by installing larger clocks that move more slowly (or reduce back injuries by building the new distribution center on the moon, where "things are much lighter"); this self-esteem surplus allows your boss to perceive himself as receiving the unlimited respect of underlings who bask in the warmth of the generosity he displays by declaring mandatory "Funny Hat Day".

Outside the workplace, this self-centeredness is the armor that allows your boss to wear assless chaps and a tweed blazer to the karaoke bar. It is this high level of misplaced confidence that allows him to attract women despite his outfit. And this is why he does not want to socialize with you outside the office: because he knows you would hate him for scoring with all the hot chicks.

But back to the Precious Snowflakes. I will generalize here, but many of them have this same amount of self-centeredness, self-esteem, and self-delusion (born, it is commonly believed, by being graded on effort rather than result; being the recipients of lavish praise no matter the worth of the product or behavior). Does this mean that all of them are both REALLY ANNOYING and REALLY SUCCESSFUL? Will they grow out of it? What will happen when they have children of their own (as you may have heard, children are sometimes self-centered and demanding themselves, occasionally even impolite or inconsiderate of their parents' feelings)?

What happens to the Precious Snowflakes in our current economy? With 243,000 job cuts in January, some of the Precious Snowflakes were the first to go (having the least seniority in any organization).

Those laid off report loss of self-esteem and feelings of rejection. Along with their downsized income, many who have been laid off report feeling "smaller" in the eyes of their peers and having a smaller voice in the economy. This was of great interest to me - an entire generation of the confidence-endowed, now stripped of their armor. How would they cope?

But then I realized there was an even greater story afoot. Not the schadenfreude-licious story about the Self-Mighty fallen to new lows, but of the Small felled to new even-lowers.

In this plummeting economy, what happens to those who started off downsized? Those who already had just a tiny voice in the economy or the political process? To those who, on their best, most productive days, reported feeling small?

The answer to my question came in the form of an article from the online magazine Falsa Economia, which I will excerpt here:

On January 26th, the government of Iceland officially collapsed, having been dragged to its doom by Iceland's economic implosion in October 08. The economy of Iceland has for countless years kept a steady stream of goods and services flowing Northward to a small (yet powerful) manufacturing complex led by an aging tycoon dedicated to philanthropy. In the global economic downturn even this, the most kind-hearted of employers (he has often been called "a saint"), has had to lay off workers and ask for Union concessions. Mr. Nicholas, traditionally jovial even in the bleakest of winter, sighs and details his woes:

"The worst of it hasn't been the workers - they've been great, been with me for decades. It's that the supply chain has dried up and nations are becoming protectionist. I've been getting more and more of my electronic components from Korea, and now with the Nikkei taking a plunge the Japanese are playing hardball with their software contracts unless I agree to purchase more of my components and chipsets from Japanese manufacturers. I run a lean shop, and I can't afford these kind of price hikes."

Mr. Nicholas leans back on a finely-crafted wooden chair and sucks on an unlit pipe. He catches me eyeing it.

"Smoking's been a hard habit to break, and the winters are a little harsh for stepping outside. I used to do my best work while puffing on my pipe, but ever since the Union called OSHA about the air quality . . ." the plump executive turns away, looking a little bitterly at the health-related postings on the wall near the time clock.

For a CEO long known for his liberal workplace environment and atmosphere of general geniality (once named at the Top of Fortune's "200 Best Companies to Work For", the 2009 list sees no mention of Workshop, Ltd.), the jolliness of Mr. Nicholas is striking for its absence.

"My Cheer Engineers and my Giftwrights are the heart and soul of this company," says Mr. Nicholas heavily, his broad face weary, "and they are proud of the traditions we've established, so the realities of the day aren't sitting well with them. We've had to offshore basic material manufacturing, and concentrate more on repetitive component-assembly tasks here at the workshop. Frankly, this requires fewer people - if we're going to weather this economic storm and allow any traditions to survive, some of our workforce has got to be let go. The Union used to be all in jest, but relations have lately become strained."

The downsizing in the Arctic has gone beyond the hiring freezes found in other companies - in a specialty company already renowned for its small workforce, feelings of betrayal run high. The Helper's Union has stepped up its labor actions, citing favoritism and seniority violations (Nicholas asserts that "It's been a long time since they were all hired, I have to say I've lost track of seniority by now"), but the economic realities have forced these traditionalist craftsmen to venture out of the Polar regions in search of more conventional work.

Workshop, Ltd. Human Resources Manager Holly Garland spoke to us regarding the struggle of the newly-displaced.

"These are proud people with very specific skills, and it's been a difficult adjustment. We've been helping in the search for work, but placement has been problematic."

Helper's Union Business Agent Maeglin Thvorusleikir gives details:

"Our workers have been unable to break into some of our more historically-friendly markets - for example the baked goods industry is saturated with fat and happy cereal chemists. Their technological innovations have given them a disproportionate market share, and many of our Brothers who grew up baking are having difficulty complying with regulations restricting trans-fats. It's also been troublesome establishing premises for new bakeries - we generally prefer old-growth forests, which as you may know are in decline worldwide . . ."

Some Workshop workers have attempted to return to their shoemaking origins, and are now faced with the prospect of having to follow the footwear-manufacturing jobs to Malaysia or Indonesia, where labor is much cheaper and the climate unfamiliar to those accustomed to working with reindeer.

According to Thvorusleikir, Workshop workers applying for temp work in the still-lush entertainment industry have often mistakenly been assigned temporary work as Elvis impersonators. "The costumes don't fit right and they can never get the mike stand low enough," says Thvorusleikir, scowling, "They've been having better luck impersonating Paul Williams, Elton John, or Paul Simon".

Susie and Otto Collins, Relationship Coaches, explain one of the symptoms of low self-esteem: Always wanting something you don't have or something that's out of reach."When someone has a great dissatisfaction with their life and it seems that what they want is just out of reach, there are probably low self-esteem issues lurking underneath. Believe it or not, getting what you want in life begins with being appreciative of what you have and what you've been given. Switch your attention to gratitude to begin your healing process and see what happens."

This advice is reflected in the surprising success of many of the displaced Workshop craftspeople; workers with this much experience and goodwill are hard to keep down. Many have proven resilient and adaptable, despite their professed dependence on tradition.
Many are finding success in the High-Tech field. Raudur Bjalminn found work as a progrommer, becoming an expert in the Executable and Linking Format adopted by many different operating systems on many different platforms.

Maranwe Gattathefur has joined the European National Safety and Health Board to investigate how Extreme Low Frequency Fields can affect power-industry workers (Some epidemiological studies have suggested increased cancer risk associated with magnetic field exposures near electric power lines).

Askasleikir Tifill has engaged the economy directly by joining the ranks of Wall Street, specializing in Short-selling stocks.

Nienna Ketkrokur has found a second career in semi-pro sports, using her considerable skill and enthusiasm to organize and promote The European Lacrosse Federation: 
 "Lacrosse is no longer just "the fastest game on two feet", says Nienna excitedly, "it is also considered one of the fastest growing sports in the world!"

Nienna's former colleagues have found themselves in positions of influence in the Small Business Administration; working at Pixar in short films animation; even in organizing Little League on a regional level.

It is this resilience in finding new work and reveling in it that can make or break the newly displaced.

So I guess the moral of the story is that whether quite elderly and set in their ways or part of the self-absorbed Precious Snowflake generation, it is the avoidance of despair and the ability to embrace chance that will shore up our precious mental armor, and allow us to keep (if not our jobs, then) our self-esteem.

And what about the self-esteem of overweight, overly-sarcastic Mid-Thirties men with no particualr emotional attachment to their jobs? The jobs can dump us any time - we'll be fine as long as we still get the paycheck and benefits.

And we're keeping the assless chaps, Ladies.