A Career Assessment: The Social Contract & Punching the Ticket

I was born in 1937. That makes me one of the last generation eligible to retire on Social Security and Medicare at the age of 65. I also worked for the same company for nearly 30 years and was one of the last to have a guaranteed, defined benefit pension,  and participate in the company’s health plan.  My children won’t have these benefits, and my grandchildren may only read about them in an economics class as historical anomalies.

My good fortune was in adhering to what in the Fifties was called “The Social Contract.” Some said that, in simple terms, “If you take care of the Establishment, the Establishment will take care of you.” My father called it “Punching Your Ticket.” He was born in 1903, and firmly believed that we all come into life with a ticket we are expected to have punched for important accomplishments at various stages of our lives. “You must behave yourself, follow the law, attend school, work part-time after school, and full-time in the summer, get a college degree  serve with the military, get a full time job, and settle down to the mature life of family and responsibility.” When I went into the army in 1959, my Uncle George, a World War I hero, gave me similar advice: “Keep your nose clean, your shoes shined, and shut up. You’ll be fine.”

(Editor’s Note: Uncle George specialized in such pithy advice. When I got out of the Army in the 1960’s, and went into the Active Army Reserve, we were asked to parade down Main Street on Memorial Day. I remembered going to watch Uncle George parade with his World War I buddies during the 1940’s, so I asked him if he had any insights on military parades. He said, “Yes: Never march behind the horses.” He had that right too.)

So, I had my ticket punched, and did all those things that were expected of me, and the Social Contract was honored. I retired in a good place, keep myself busy and out of trouble, and recently started blogging about my thoughts and experiences.

The young people today are not so fortunate. We have gone through a major paradigm shift in the Social Contract.  In the Fifties, people talked about a “One Decision Career:” You accept your first job , stay there, and work your way up as far as you can, and then retire with a reasonable pension. There is no such concept today. In fact, my son told me that if you’re in one place much over 2-3 years, they wonder what’s wrong with you. Back then,  holding  two or more jobs in 2-3 years would border on “Job Hopping.” It suggested lack of commitment, continuity, even maturity issues.

Part of the problem is the government, but the government is always part of both the problem and the solution. That has always been the case.

Another part is the young folks themselves. Many of them don’t grow up as fast as they once did. They want to remain kids forever, with their electronic toys, high school mentalities, and freedom from responsibility. Many still live at home, some because they have to, others because they want to. I have a friend who talks about his twenty-something son in terms of “he’s only a kid.” A kid? When I was twenty-something, I was married, had a college degree, was a 2nd lieutenant in the Army, a platoon leader responsible for 5 tanks, associated support vehicles, and 30 men – and I never thought of myself as a kid. I don’t think anybody else did either.

Also, we must consider the priority shift in The Establishment itself. Somebody once wrote, “Say what you want about the old time Robber Barons like Morgan, Pullman, Rockefeller, Ford, Astor and that lot but…. although they took what they wanted, they left in their wake millions of jobs in banks and railroads and oil and  factories, and in shipping.” That was a major contribution to the American Dream. They built railroad tracks and strung power lines across the country, and in later life funded libraries, hospitals, charitable foundations, and colleges.  Too many of this current lot leave nothing in their wake but unemployment and foreclosures and broken promises.

This was brought home to me again recently when I read about a book by that young Wall Street trader who’s  off on an ethics tirade against the giant bank, Morgan Stanley  I’m sure there are many things there that need to be cleaned up at Morgan Stanley, just as there are at every bank and corporate headquarters in the country. But what about him? In his 30’s, he was making over a half million dollars a year,  selling complex financial instruments he didn’t fully understand, to people who understood them even less, at prices far more than they were worth. How ethical is that? It sounds to me more like a snake oil salesman than an investment banker, trader, or ethicist. How many new jobs , and benefits to the economy, do such efforts produce?

When I went to work for my first big company, in 1964, we had a briefing by the company president, “Big” Ben, a successful middle aged technocrat. Someone asked him how he would define the CEO’s job. He thought for a moment and replied, “Balance. It’s all about balance. I serve several different interest communities. First there are the investors; without them we don’t have the money to operate. Then there are the customers; without them, there are no markets and no profit. Then there are the employees; without them there is no production. Then there are the local, state, and federal governments with whom we must work and maintain good relationships to operate effectively. Then there is the local community, from whom we recruit, obtain licenses, and purchase utilities and protection. It is always in our interest to work with them. If  the CEO should fail in any one of these balancing acts, the whole company could be damaged, or even destroyed.”

I wonder how many CEO’s see their jobs in that light today? They may still say what we used to say: “We’re a Team.” But today, it gets a modern twist: “We’re a Team, Until We’re Not.”

I know, the pendulum never stops swinging. There is no middle ground, we just constantly go from one extreme to the other, and the lucky ones, like me, live and work in the middle times. I was a child in the Forties, free of the danger of war, but participating in its excitement and support; a teenager in high school and college during the Fifties; “The Happy Days” time for many, but not all, of us; an adult in the Sixties, and  just starting out with wife, family, Army, and job (I always liked John Cleese’s great line: “I missed the Sixties. I was working.” That was my story too). The Seventies, Eighties and Nineties were the business bubble years when opportunity was there for the taking and everything seemed to work. And finally, the “Aughts,” when I tap danced off stage a few years before the dam burst.

Did this Social Contract concept work for everyone of my generation? Unfortunately, no. There are many good people out there struggling today through no fault of their own; but it did seem to work better than whatever, if anything, replaced it.

I guess my career was equal parts good fortune, good timing, and good work. I wish we could recapture some of those earlier times, attitudes, and business mentalities to benefit today’s young people. What is today’s Social Contract? What is on the ticket they must get punched? I guess they just have to figure it out for themselves.

I wish them all great good fortune. I envy them their opportunity and challenge. Sometimes, I think it might be fun to go through it again and see if I could do it; but, on the other hand, I am grateful to be where I am, and sincerely hope that events and opportunities work out for  today’s young starters as well as they did for me and my generation.

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