Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Thirteen: Culprits’ and Their Characteristics-What They Do for and to Families
by Richard and Linda Eyre

There is nothing families need more than employment and income. Yet, ironically, more and more of the institutions that provide these things, in their own efforts of self-preservation and growth, have become a destructive force operating against the best interests of families.

In this week’s installment we will look at the first three types of larger institutions (see last week’s article for the full list of ten) that put families in peril . . . work and professional institutions, financial institutions, and merchandising institutions.

1. Work/Professional Institutions

There is nothing families need more than employment and income. Yet, ironically, more and more of the institutions that provide these things, in their own efforts of self-preservation and growth, have become a destructive force operating against the best interests of families.

Today, employers are more than a source of income and support. They are sources of identity and of image, and they exert more and more control over where people live and how people live.

C. S. Lewis said, “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose and that is to support the ultimate career.” Today, it seems the opposite is often the case. The family seems to be there to support the career, or at least to play second fiddle to it. If the employment institution wants to transfer us to another location, we go, without very much serious thought about what the move will do to our family. If a promotion is available, we take it, without much consideration of how the new responsibility or new hours will affect family. When we meet or are introduced to new people, they’re more likely to ask us “what we do” than about our families. We’ve become a society that lives to work rather than working to live.

Also, in their obsession for self-preservation and profit, the work institutions of today are into downsizing, cutbacks, force reductions and compensation restructuring which have everything to do with the bottom line but nothing to do with responsibility to the families of employees. Second incomes and longer hours become “necessities” to families who are trying to live the American dream created by merchandising and financial institutions (which we’ll get to next). The whirl of money and things and position and status and appearance and promotion and all the rest of it is what we read about, think about, talk about, and worry about, and in the process, the big institutions win and the little institution — the family — loses.

Let’s be specific about how this happens: Private sector business, particularly large corporate structures, employ most parents and supply families with all essential goods and services. Yet in supreme irony, corporate America is ravaging families in all sorts of unprecedented ways. The damage is being done on four primary fronts:

a. Wages, in real terms, are declining for blue collar and non-management workers.

b. Insecurity is at an all-time high. Downsizing and layoffs loom as a constant threat.

c. Work days and work weeks are getting longer.

d. Corporations are not doing nearly enough to assist and accommodate parents and to address work/life issues.

The growing chasm between the ever-increasing wealth and prosperity of U. S. corporate management (particularly top management) and the common employees and workers in those same corporations is shocking . . . and truly dangerous. The top executive in a typical mid- to large-size U. S. corporation makes more than one hundred times as much as the lowest paid full-time worker in that same company. Top executives’ pay goes up dramatically even as companies downsize. Examples abound: Levi Strauss & Company paid its president $125 million in 1996 and then announced plans in 1997 to lay off one-third of its U. S. work force. (1) Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO was paid $204 million in 1996, a year when the median wage was $33,500.00 — meaning a regular person would have to work 6,182 years to earn what Eisner earned in one year. (2) At IBM in 1995, right after 60,000 workers were fired, the company gave $5.8 million bonuses to its top five executives. The IBM chairman received a $2.6 million bonus on top of his normal compensation of $12.4 million, yet that same year his secretaries were told to expect salary cuts of 36 percent. (3)

Real wages, adjusted for inflation, for production and non-supervisory workers (80 percent of all workers and the vast majority of parents) declined 10 percent between the mid-70s and the mid-90s.(4) The median worker’s salary (the middle of the middle class) fell 5 percent between 1989 and 1997.(5) That trend, and the constant increases in pay and perks to top management, continues as we start a new millennium. Never before in American history have the majority of American workers suffered real wage reductions while the per capita gross domestic product was advancing.(6). By contrast, in the thirty years between the mid-40s and mid-70s, every sector of society, rich, middle class, and poor experienced at least a doubling of real income, and the bottom fifth advanced faster than the top fifth.

With all the talk we hear about a kinder corporate America offering flexible work schedules and other stress-busting programs, most companies still go by the old rules. USA Today,(7) in 1999 said, “Mounting evidence shows companies are not adopting changes widely toted as key to helping workers balancing work and family. Family friendly programs such as job-sharing, shorter work weeks, elder care help, and on-site child care are hardly the rage.” And a survey of corporation human resource officials shows that 64 percent think their companies don’t make a real effort to inform employees of the family friendly programs that are available in their companies.

Managers’ minds are on profit margins, competitive edge, mergers and acquisitions, and the bottom line, not on the human, personal, and family needs of their employees.

With the ever-present culture of downsizing and layoffs, employees are understandably hesitant to ask either for better wages or for more family-friendly benefits. In the mid-90s, a nationwide poll indicated that forty percent of American workers worried that they might be fully or partially laid off or have their wages reduced. During the two previous years, the granter(?) of the polls respondents actually had either been laid off, reduced, or taken a pay cut.(p.69) There were over 600,000 announced firings in 1995 (a year of economic recovery and progress) involving some of America’s most prestigious corporations. (AT&T fired 40,000 people that year, GM 75,000, IBM 60,000, Sears Roebuck 50,000. (8)

A significant minority of downsized workers fail to find new jobs, and many of those who do end up with a lower-paying job. In fact, a labor department study showed that only 71 percent of downsized workers find another job within two years and less than half of those find a job that pays as well as the one they lost.(9)

Even as American workers get lower wages and job security, they are working longer hours. The number of adult Americans who hold two or more jobs went up 64.6 percent between the early ’50s and the late ’90s.(10) Compared with twenty years ago, the average American is now on the job an additional 163 hours a year — essentially working a full month longer!(11) Imagine the family devastation that results from this extra work time — in a society where both parents usually work. As in so many things, the children are the real losers!

In the previous century the societal goal seemed to be the shortening and limiting of the work week. Unions played a huge role on this goal and on the goal of more just wages. Today most unions are all but emasculated. By the ’90s there were more than 1,500 corporation consultants earning 500 million per year, helping corporations bust unions — advertising their services with words like “we will show you how to screw your employees . . . how to keep them smiling on low pay, how to maneuver them into low-paying jobs they are afraid to walk away from.”

These troublesome trends in wages, job security, hours and other work/life issues are evident throughout the private sector. And within several sub-categories of business — particularly the financial, merchandising, media, and information institutions — additional factors are at work which undermine and threaten families.

2. Financial Institutions

Ever since there has been money, there have been bankers or their equivalent — people who borrow and lend money. But it is only recently that financial institutions have become so huge and so influential that they exert major control over many aspects of our personal and our societal lives. They have, in essence, created a credit society and a debt culture in which families spend before they earn and in which we are oriented to instant gratification at almost every level.

Credit cards, pre-approved, arrive in the mail — even to college freshmen and eighteen-year-olds who have no clue how to use credit. We heard first-hand when our oldest daughter left for her freshman year at Wellesley College in Boston, actually asked me for advice! One of the things I sent with her was a good pair of scissors and an admonition to cut in half every credit card she received in the mail. She told me later that she had used those scissors more than a dozen times. Her roommate, I found out later, had never borrowed the scissors and presented her parents with a $5,000.00 bill when she went home for Christmas.

People buy everything from cars to Christmas presents based on the amount of the monthly payment rather than on the total price. Often they do not even know the full ticket cost, let alone the total amount they will ultimately pay including interest.

Parents, in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses” and to give their children all they need become debt ridden and, in the process, teach dangerous financial principles to their kids even as they spend less and less time with their families as they work longer and longer hours to pay their bills.

It has been observed that you can tell a lot about a society by which of its sectors is building the biggest or most magnificent edifices. For centuries, churches and cathedrals and synagogues and temples were the most impressive structures. Then there was a span of years when government buildings seemed to be the biggest and most opulent. Then the skyscrapers, plants, and corporate headquarters of major industrial corporations. Today, many would argue that the most opulent and pretentious new buildings are banks and other financial institutions. The competition between them and their push for growth and stockholder profit has been their incentive to create a debt and credit mentality that is hugely destructive to families.

3. Merchandising Institutions

Of course there have always been salesmen. And the very essence of commerce and economy at any level is the promotion and marketing of goods and services. And certainly a desire for things — a materialism in some form or other — has existed since the beginning of time.

But again, what has changed everything is the emergence of huge and influential marketing and advertising institutions whose single goal or reason for existence is to sell more product — without regard to the true needs or buying capacities of the consumer.

A close friend of ours, chairman of a worldwide ad agency, is uncommonly objective and frank about his profession. “The basic goal of advertising,” he says, “is to make people think they need what they really only want.” Think about the implications of that. Hundreds of advertising impressions (from billboards to radio and TV spots) come at us every day, each carefully designed to make us dissatisfied with what we have, how we look, where we are, what we do, how we live.

Because of the messages of advertising, people tend to measure themselves (and others) more by what they have than by what they are. Appearances supersede substance. Things become more important than people. Acquisition and achievements are given more time and more effort than relationships and family.

Occasionally an ad plays on warm family images, but most often glitz, social status, materialism and “freedom” from burden or obligation is the portrayal ideal. Our own work-a-day family responsibilities look boring and mundane next to advertising images.

So parents and families take a double hit: 1. They are prompted to be dissatisfied with simple, family-oriented lifestyles. 2. They are enticed to spend more on things that compete with family needs.

And it’s not just advertising. The huge American merchandising machine includes everything from infomercials, home shopping channels, and on-line purchasing to wholesale clubs, rebates, and high-powered retail promotions. On the one hand, all of these service our consumer needs and can make life more convenient; but on the other hand, they fill our lives with complexity, with unmet “needs,” and with debt — robbing us of family time and family awareness and priority in the process.

In marketing parliance, there is a distinction made between “demand pull” and “product push.” Sometimes a real need or demand “pulls” or creates a product and a distribution system. Other times a product “pushes” or creates its own interest and market. Before the twentieth century, most of our economy operated primarily by demand pull. But with the emergence of today’s huge merchandising/advertising institutions there is a massive shift to product push — and the “products” range from unlimited things to styles to programming to attitudes. And very few of them enhance the family — in fact, most compete with and deprioritize family and neighborhood relationships.

Merchandising institutions, from agencies to the marketing arms of retail and industrial giants, measure themselves on how much product they can sell and how much money they can extract from people — from families. And it’s not just money they extract, it’s time, and attention, and priorities, much of which might otherwise go to children and to the maintenance and strengthening of family relationships.

Naturally this “merchandising institution culprit” is linked to the “financial institution culprit.” The wants that are cultivated and encouraged by the merchandisers lead to the need for the easy credit that is extended by the financials. The one-two punch works particularly well on families. Children are often the prime target of advertisers and parents overextend their credit to give their children things to make up for the very time and attention they are putting elsewhere.


Next week: A similar closer look at entertainment and media institutions, information and communication institutions, and political and governmental institutions.


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