On the Scene: the Unemployment Office

I could tell who she was at a glance: a former journalist, now unemployed. One question confirmed it—“where did you work?” InStyle, she said, referring to the Time Inc. fashion-and-celebrity magazine. Time has had waves of layoffs like so many other media companies. And it turned out, the room was full of similar people, from InStyle, Gourmet, and, of course, BusinessWeek.

Site: the unemployment office. The New York State Department of Labor had summoned me there, via a threatening, computer-generated note. I anticipated a grilling, connected to some failure on my part, real or bureaucrat-invented. Turns out, everyone receiving unemployment benefits has to report for an “orientation session.” Happily, the Kafkaesque elements of the meeting were kept to a minimum, and department representatives even offered a bit of self-deprecating humor about how long a telephone caller might have to wait before speaking to a live person.

I thought again about this experience as I examined a posting on the New York Times site–a fascinating, action chart called “The Jobless Rate for People Like You”
As you click on variables such as race, gender, age, and education level, the graf line jumps – very notably, for example, for black men under the age of 25 who lack a high-school diploma, for whom the rate is nearly 50%. My group—white, male college grads over the age of 45—have a relatively low rate of unemployment, namely under 10%.

I don’t doubt that the last figure is at least somewhat accurate. Nevertheless, the “restructuring” going on in the field of journalism is having profound consequences for former scribblers, many of whom are casting about in other fields of work. I’ll be keeping you posted regarding my own job search and the adventures I encounter on the way.

Meanwhile, the Rutgers alumni magazine (Winter, 2010) carries a sobering piece, based on a survey conducted by that university’s John J. Heldich Center for Workforce Development. Among the recently unemployed, the survey shows, 84% received no severance package, 60% received no warning that they were about to lose their jobs, and 53% have received no unemployment benefits. Those who have gotten such bennies must count themselves lucky.

Further review coverage of Daniel Pink's "Drive"

I’ve been advised that I could provide a useful service by aggregating reviews of recent books. So, at the risk of seeming to be flacking for certain titles, that’s what I will begin doing. So far, I haven’t seen a lot of negative coverage of Dan Pink’s Drive — but I will be sure to include such pans if they appear.

In a Time interview with writer Kristi Oloffson, Pink opines that some employers have resisted his ideas since “there’s this idea that employees have to be monitored, that if you let them have any kind of autonomy they’re going to slack off.” To read the interview go to http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1952993,00.html

And writing for Forbes.com, George Anders questions whether Pink’s proposals are appropriate for every kind of work — specifically mentioning supermarket clerks and mall cops. But Anders concludes that Pink’s ideas “deserve a wide hearing” and suggests that corporate boards “could do well by kicking out their pay consultants for an hour and reading Pink’s conclusions instead.” You can check out his column at: http://www.forbes.com/2010/01/12/daniel-pink-motivation-drive-workforce-opinions-book-review-george-anders.html

That’s Anders’ take–what’s yours? Several readers got into a heated back-and-forth after reading my Fortune.com article on Drive. One reader said he’d turned down a pay increase in exchange for greater vacation time. What do you think–is money still the primary motivator, or are you looking for something else in a work experience?

Why Carrots and Sticks Are Suddenly Passe

Daniel Pink’s just-published book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books) is beginning to get some attention. Credit the former Al Gore speechwriter (and author of the bestselling A Whole New Mind) with leveling a blow at “pay for performance” schemes at the precise moment when big bonuses are sooooooo unfashionable. Pink says that, provided people have a baseline level of pay, what really moves them toward high levels of performance are such factors as autonomy on the job, mastery over a craft, and a sense of contributing to a higher purpose.

Stanford B-school professor Robert Sutton believes Pink “does a masterful job of showing the limits and drawbacks of widely accepted assumptions about motivation–showing the limits of carrots and sticks.” (To read Sutton’s comments, go to: http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/12/drive-daniel-pinks-definitive-and-fun-guide-to-motivation.html)

On The Wall Street Journal’s website, Barbara Chai quotes Pink as recommending that people look for personal motivation–their “third drive”—by considering things they do for fun. “Think about whether you can make a living doing that,” says Pink. “It’s more possible than people think.” (Go to http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628230428869074.html

My own take is recorded today on the Fortune.com website at http://money.cnn.com/2010/01/07/news/daniel_pink.fortune/index.htm

An NPR “Talk of the Nation” spot with Pink can be heard at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122221202&ft=1&f=5

As I cast about for further writing gigs, let me offer a New Year’s wish that baseline pay doesn’t become passé. A Los Angeles Times article details the woeful situation now facing freelance writers: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-onthemedia6-2010jan06,0,2787168.column