Working from rags to riches in the Land O’

Author: By Chris Gulker

It’s been a week since Labor Day, when we Americans all take the day off and honour those who have to work for a living.

And since the millions who get the day off want to have fun, millions of other of souls with jobs at shops and restaurants and hotels and cinemas wind up working overtime to serve the lucky folks who get weekends and holidays off. The rich guys have a good time at the expense of the guys not so lucky. This is very American.

Silicon Valley is almost as far as you can get from Britain, and still be in America. And Silicon Valley’s notions of labour are probably even more distant. Work in Silicon Valley is certainly hugely removed from the concept of work almost anywhere else in these United States.

And work in the US is already a different beast from work in the UK. That’s because you all in the UK still have that class thing going on. Those of you who think not are just in denial. I know. I went to school in England, and I visit every rare chance I get. Get over it.

In the UK, rich guys and those with good accents have a good time at the expense of those not so lucky. Very different, you see. At least, that’s my take – and, full disclosure – I’m hardly an expert on work.

Admittedly, I’ve been working since I was 15 years old. The fact that I’m still working at the age of 49 is the tip-off. If I were an expert, I wouldn’t still be working. I’d be sitting somewhere – a balmy, breeze-caressed beach, perhaps – with my copy of The Independent (three days old, courtesy of the slow boat from the nearest outpost) wondering how you all were getting along.

I’d imagine you hopping in cars and facing massive traffic jams on the M-whatever, or crushed into rush-hour trains, or battling the platforms at Charing Cross station, or braving the ancient escalators of the Underground and squeezing into lifts, all for the privilege of reporting to some pea-brained “superior” whose idea of productivity was scheduling four-hour meetings on the topic of why productivity was so low.

But rejoice. I get in my car every morning, and face that marvel of human engineering known locally as Interstate 880. It’s just me, my twin turbo-charged Audi coupé and about 400,000 other folks, all enjoying our morning outing together. We must be enjoying it, because we make it last so long – usually about an hour, in my case.

The Audi owner’s manual warns that the engine governor cuts out at 135mph, precisely 130mph faster than I’ve ever actually driven on my way to work. California is car crazy, and Silicon Valley types have lots of dough, so the Audi is usually the most modest vehicle stuck in line behind the overturned lorry, or the thoughtful rush-hour highway work. I drive the local equivalent of the 20-year-old, rusted Austin Ambassador.

We all try to be productive, though. I’ve got the Palm Pilot out, I’m reading e-mail and I’m on my mobile phone, as are my freeway mates in their BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, Lexuses and Ferraris. Sometimes, I’m actually on the phone with some of them. Sometimes, we’d be better off just rolling down our windows and talking to each other. I know the UK takes a dim view of people talking on the phone and driving at the same time, but there’s no Silicon Valley politician with the guts to try and ban such behaviour here. Besides, at 5mph, the risk of death or dismemberment is spectacularly low.

But I digress. The topic was why work is so different here in the Land o’ Dot Com.

So, a little personal history: truth be known, I come from humble beginnings. My first job was cleaning the ceilings in a flea-bag motel on the outskirts of Cleveland – don’t ask why the ceilings needed cleaning. I moved right up the ladder, though: my second job was washing dishes at the International House of Pancakes, across the street. The pay, and work, was much better.

But now I’m a participant in the New Economy. I’m an Information Worker. My day-job category is on government lists of highly desirable types of employment (translation: I pay huge amounts of tax). The US government labours mightily to increase the numbers employed in my field, but I’m not sure it’s an altogether altruistic thing.

Last year, I made more than 100 times as much as I did back when I was washing up at the IHOP. Now, most of us expect to move up the ladder a bit as we gain experience and are in a position to add more value to our employers’ companies.

But 100 times more? I make two lifetimes’ worth of Chris-the-dishwasher wages in a single year in a hi-tech startup. And startups are risky, shaky outfits that often disappear overnight. International House of Pancakes is a big, stable company that’s been around for decades. People have to eat: they don’t have to do hi-tech.

So am I just lucky enough to be in the right town just as the world is flipping from Industrial to Information economies? Maybe. I know for sure it’s not on account of my accent. This is America, after all.

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