Minimum wage hike: Advice for my son about work and pay

Minimum wage hike: As Americans fight for a minimum wage hike to $11.50 per hour, one father takes the opportunity to gather some honest advice to share with his son about work and pay.

Paul Sancya/AP Photo
Protesters rally for better wages at a Wendy's in Detroit, Dec. 5. Minimum wage isn't just for teenagers anymore, as many adults struggle to make ends meet on a the supposed entry-level salary.

For a long time in America, the income inequality problem has been obscured by Americans' baffling belief that they, personally, were among the country's wealthiest people, or (even more often) right around the corner from becoming wealthy. But a recent push for a significant bump to the minimum wage seems to suggest that income inequality and its downsides have become more widely acknowledged.

Here's a helpful snapshot of the situation, via a Washington Post story on the national push for a higher minimum wage:

"Whether calculated by comparing the growth in wages of the highest-income Americans with the lowest, or the proportion of wealth controlled by the richest Americans, or the ratio of wages for production workers to those of chief executives, inequality has grown."

The fact of the matter is that the nature of work has changed radically over the past 20 years, and the advice I'll give to my son is going to be a little more dour than the advice I heard as a teen. It'll start with the following:

"Contractor" means "cheap and disposable"

The new model for work seems to be a small, tight core of full-time employees surrounded by a soft, fluffy, pliable layer of contractors, people who can be paid market rates to do profitable work and then discarded whenever conditions warrant. Particularly in creative fields, if you end up as a contractor, get ready to be discarded – a lot.

"Job security" is an illusion

My father grew up in the '50s and '60s, and consequently had a perception of work as social contract: if you did a good job and showed up on time, your employer would maintain your full-time position as long as financially feasible, probably for life or close to it. After 30 or so years of hard work, a reasonably generous pension would kick in. The current model is far more frenetic, and the pensions a little more scarce.

Degrees are not guarantees...

Once upon a time, a B.A. or B.S. meant that you were skilled, educated, hard-working, and ready for most challenges any given job would throw your way – you were highly employable. Now, the average undergraduate degree is little more than a stamp reading "acceptable for consideration," and even advanced degrees are losing clout as signs of employability.

...and the tenure of security in academia is fading.

I grew up in Madison, WI, and the academic life led by my friends' parents seemed like a dream: good pay, great benefits, meaningful work, and ample opportunities to travel, teach, and explore the world.

Now, the "adjunct faculty" label has been stamped upon more and more aspiring professors, condemning them to years of low-paid teaching work while they queue against dozens or hundreds of competitors for extremely scarce tenure-track positions. There's no question that meritocratic competition has a place in academia, but the near-minimum wage exploitation of talented aspiring faculty seems to be begging for some sort of reform.

Guard your time like a hawk...

Part of the secret of being a bad employer is not compensating employees for after-hours work, for time spent doing work email from the road or home, for time spent changing into uniforms or cleaning a work space, and so forth.

...and seriously consider starting a plumbing business

The skilled trades seem to be one of the last refuges for people who want to enjoy steady work to earn an honest living. A good plumber, electrician, or carpenter is always in demand, can generally set his or her hours, and can count on being compensated for his or her time. For a long time, work in the skilled trades was (unfairly) seen as a sign that you settled – now, I suspect, the trades will get their due.

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