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Illustration By: Jason Schneider
Commentary

What the Dickens?

Nov 13, 2014

It’s well known that in Las Vegas the game is played for the benefit of the house. You think you’re there for your own reasons—have a few drinks, play a couple of hands, stay up all night to get lucky. That’s an illusion. You’re there to feed the machine. The rest is incidental, particularly to the machine.

The big game is not that different. That is why we who work for a living need a bit of help now and then, rules and conditions that level the playing field a little. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there have been gains in that regard. They were hard won. Shorter hours. Better working conditions. The chance to stay up all night to get lucky.

But in the past maybe 20 years or so, the scales have shifted back. Working conditions that Dickens would recognize have reemerged and are being sold to us not as concessions, not as regressions, but as really cool developments we’re supposed to embrace.

One: Open-plan offices. My friend Harrison is the president of a big company, reporting to the CEO. His office just went to open plan. “It’s great,” he says, “except, you know, I can’t eat my lunch without conversing with every person who walks by my space, or have a private conversation.” The open-plan office is the factory floor. No more privacy for anybody. The homogenization of work experience. Constant scrutiny. There’s an illusion of democratization, as the bosses ostentatiously join the cadre at their standup desks and glassed-in conference rooms. But believe me, Mike Bloomberg and Mark Zuckerberg have someplace to go when they want to take a nap.

Two: Bad wages. I actually have read in the business press celebrations of ostensible disrupters who pay writers pennies a word for their work, and punish those who don’t achieve certain online hits. It makes me think about my grandmother, who received a few cents for every shirtwaist she sewed into place.

Three: Crappy benefits and no pensions. They want you young now so you don’t think about things like medical and dental coverage and pregnancy leave. And when you get older, they throw up…disincentives…for people with certain expectations for their lives to stay around.

Four: Lousy hours. Do you know how many times I’ve heard the “joke” that goes, “If you don’t come in Saturday, don’t bother to come in Sunday”? Except it’s not a joke: It’s a condition of employment. The good news is that in some enlightened places you can now work until you’re 40 without worrying about having kids, because the company can hold your frozen eggs for you until it’s ready to say so long to your increasingly inconvenient compensation package.

Five: No unions and no likelihood of any. Yeah, yeah, unions—so 20th century. Quite a few years ago, I was a non-union actor. You know what I made for eight shows a week? $87.50. There’s a reason management hates unions. They’re a pain in the butt. For them. That’s why it will fight like hell for your “right to work.”

Six: Mega-rich bosses. They enjoy a vast, vast disparity of income and lifestyle compared with their workforce. You know who they are. Except now, instead of being the guys in the black hats in the story, they’re the heroes.

Seven: No job security. But no big deal. Any millennial who stays at the same place for more than a couple of years is a loser, right?

The answer? I don’t know, ladies and gentlemen. But we really should do something about it, shouldn’t we? Go on Reddit and talk about it or something?

Follow Stanley Bing at stanleybing.com and on Twitter at @thebingblog.

This story is from the December 1, 2014 issue of Fortune.

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