Wednesday, 25 January 2012

McDonalds is creating 2,500 new jobs in the UK. Is sneering at "McJobs" just plain old snobbery?

The Golden Latrine began to suspect that McDonalds did not have the most rigorous hiring policy after a friend listed "self-harm" on an application form under 'interests'. And still got the job.

The global fast food giant announced yesterday that it was creating 2,500 new jobs in the UK, sparking a debate about the worth of such "McJobs" - a term derived from Douglas Coupland's slacker bestseller Generation X, defined by Coupland as: "A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one."

Newspaper columinists and economists wrung their hands over this being the "wrong type of service job" (basic and low-skilled, rather than the creative, hi-tech jobs we're all supposed to crave in our glass-and-steel utopia), but is working in McDonalds really that bad? Is it the modern day equivalent of the blacking factory that Dickens' David Copperfield is sent to work in? Or is the real problem, as McDonalds themselves put it, "the prejudice that still exists around service sector jobs."

I can't help but think it's the latter. Charlie Brooker wrote a brilliant blog last year about working in a shop (you can read it here). He concluded:

What I disliked most about working as a shop assistant wasn't the occasional snooty customer, or the shop, or the hours, but they way people reacted when I told them I was a shop assistant – their automatic assumption that I didn't enjoy it. I didn't particularly enjoy my life at the time, but I did enjoy the job. Not every day, not constantly – but I liked it more than I disliked it.

This rang true for me. I worked in a call-centre and for the most part, angry clients and asinine corporate motivational videos aside, quite enjoyed it. Nevertheless I used to occasionally find myself on the receiving end of similarly nuclear levels of condescension - mostly from well-meaning types who felt I should be doing something more commensurate with my genius.

More annoying were the ethical objectors. I recall a trainee paramedic telling me, in complete seriousness, with pitying eyes: "I really admire what you do. I personally have to do a job that means something." To which the only appropriate retort is: try paying your rent in principles when your landlord comes a-knocking.

I worked in a call-centre to raise the money to do my journalism qualifications, so there was always an end-goal in sight. But reading the Guardian's reader debate on McJobs, most of the comments from past employees were reasonably positive. People said the job taught them discipline and in many cases, if it wasn't a glamorous life, well that was an incentive to work hard and do well.

And let's be honest, there are worse things to do for a living than fry chips and serve burgers. As one poster put it:
I worked at Burger King's for a while when a student. I definitely saw it as a step up from my job before uni (working at a kennels). Anyone who thinks fast food provides s**tty jobs should try one where the real thing is provided in large quantities.

What was most shocking was the level of vitriol directed at fast food workers. Several even reported being physically attacked by customers. In part that's likely to be because fast food places tend to stay open late to cater for the lairy throwing-out time crowd. But it's also because there is a general air of contempt that hangs around these jobs, which is fostered by the non-lairy professional class too.

A number of posters on The Guardian's discussion seemed to think that the correct response to "Would you like fries with that?" was "If I wanted fries, I'd have asked for them." Which is to miss the point that the server doesn't actually care if you have fries, they just have a script they have to stick to, and they get in trouble if they deviate from it. Personally I would have stabbed them in the eye with my till fob, no second thoughts.

McDonalds certainly has a diverse racial profile (mainly because a lot of Brits consider such service industry jobs beneath them) and the general consensus was that they promote from the shop floor. So next time you're wrecked and mouthing off in McDonalds/KFC/Greggs, spare a thought for the person behind the counter. This probably isn't their dream job, but it's a job, and right now that's better than nothing.

Have you worked in a McJob? The Golden Latrine invites you to share your experiences of unruly customers/psychopathic managers/terrible corporate videos below.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

David Cameron is downright delusional if he still thinks unemployment will fall over this parliament

The Golden Latrine dimly remembers July 2010, one month after the Coalition's election - a time when he was still hiding under the duvet, fingers firmly plugged in his ears, la-la-laing and praying it was all just a feverish dream.

Back then our freshly-minted PM latched on to figures from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) to confidently predict during Prime Minister's Questions: "Unemployment is going to be falling during this Parliament". Let me just repeat that: Unemployment is going to be falling during this Parliament.

While it was transparently obvious that the deficit reduction plan was going to wipe out large swathes of public sector jobs, Cameron was insistent that the growth in the private sector would more than makes up it.

In fact, as recently as June 2011, Cameron's friends at the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies were claiming that public sector job losses would be offset by a ratio of 3:1 in the year from March 2011.

Those claims now look openly delusional, to put it mildly. Over the last year, new private sector jobs have (just) offset public sector job losses, but I don't imagine that momentum is likely to be maintained.

Cameron, meanwhile, is still claiming that there have been over 500,000 new private sector jobs created since he was elected, a claim which some minimal digging from Channel 4's FactCheck proved to be just plain untrue.

New statistics released on January 18 by the Office for National Statistics show unemploymemt at 2.68m (8.3%), the highest since 1995. David Cameron responded at PMQs by taking "responsibility" for the figures, rather than the blame - a stance nicely lampooned by the Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer Simon Hoggart:

[Cameron said] "The government takes absolute responsibility for everything that happens in our economy, and I take responsibility for that." But not the blame. It might be the government's responsibility, but it isn't their fault.

Except clearly it is. The idea that the private sector could take the slack for the wholesale vandalism of the state (and by extension, public sector jobs) has been shown to be fundamentally flawed. In the three months to November, employment in the private sector rose by 5,000, while employment in the public sector fell by 67,000.

There was also a large increase in part-time work, a classic sign, as Larry Elliott has pointed out, of weak demand in the labour market.

And why does all of this matter, you ask? Because unemployment is the spanner in the economy, creating a vicious circle. When unemployment is high, people have less money to spend: benefits don't stretch far, and companies can get away with offering pitiful wage increases to those clinging to a job, knowing employees will be take whatever they're offered. But that lack of spending hits the economy, which means new jobs aren't created. It's a cruel algebra, and one that looks set to be troubling the UK for some time to come.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Journalists take shelter, Wikipedia is offline

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. The Golden Latrine has taken to his Anderson shelter and advises you all to do the same, for today the apocalypse has hit. Yes, that's right, Wikipedia is down for the day.

This seemingly minor inconvenience will hit the journalistic profession with the force of a meteor strike. Forget all the other issues bedevilling the profession - the Murdochs, phone-hacking, the loss of advertising revenues, dishonest journalists - this is, as political types like to say, a game changer.

Newsrooms across the globe will come to a standstill. Puzzled journalists are, right now, sitting and scratch their heads, starring bereftly at their half-eaten sandwiches, wondering where the hell they are going to find out the GDP of Gambia, that actress's credits or an explanation of a basic scientific concept. It's almost as if they're going to have to start doing genuine research.

But there is a serious point behind Wikipedia's temporary snooze. Their 24-hour blackout has been decided upon by their community to protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate. Anyone trying to log on will be confronted with this:

There is a reasonably clear explanation of the two bills here on the BBC website. Essentially they are entertainment industry-backed bills designed to crack down on music and film piracy and illegal downloading. And the punishments they are looking to impose are suitable draconian: anyone found guilty of streaming copyrighted content without permission 10 or more times within six months may face up to five years in jail.

The recent case of Sheffield-based Richard O'Dwyer, the 23-year-old student threatened with extradition to the U.S. for running TV Shack, a site linking to pirated TV shows, proves that simply not being a U.S. citizen isn't going to save you. Those free South Park episodes may soon be a thing of the past.

The two bills also ban advertisers/search engines from linking to file-sharing sites, effectively rendering them invisible. So why are Wikipedia (and other internet giants like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook) so strongly against these bills? Well, you can read Wikipedia's full statement here, but it boils down to the fact that the wording of the bills is so open-ended that if passed it would be, in their words, "devastating to the free and open web". The battle for the internet has well and truly begun.

Is Wikipedia accurate?

When Wikipedia announced the blackout, there was a lot of snarky online comments along the lines of "Quick, we'd better stockpile inaccurate information". Amusing, yes, but research has continually shown that the myth of Wikipedia's inaccuracy is just that, a myth. A 2010 study showed that cancer information on Wikipedia was just as accurate (if less well-written) than on the National Cancer Institute’s peer-reviwed Physician Data Query.

EDIT: For anyone still puzzled, I've just found this nice little animation on the Guardian website which clearly explains SOPA.