Thursday, March 27, 2008

This is what's wrong with America

This week, I have twice had the occasion to hit a fast food restaurant for lunch. In both cases I didn't get what I ordered, and the food was anything but fast. Total time waiting in line for these two trips amounted to almost twenty five minutes. In the first case it was a completely different hamburger, and the second time I received a someone else's order entirely.

This morning, my car pool buddy related a story to me about his attempts to find mudflaps for his new pickup truck. He went to a big-box auto parts store and asked them to look up the mud flaps he needed. The items they sold him were not correct, so he took them back and had them look again. This time they ordered him a set that took two days to arrive. When he picked them up, they were identical to the set he had just returned.

Stories like this in my memory are too numerous to mention. I'm sure you have some as well.

I've done quite a bit of thinking on this recently. In my opinion, what this all amounts to is a total lack of competence by my fellow man. People these days just aren't capable of thinking on their feet, or they aren't interested in trying. There's no reach for excellence, no desire to attain a level of proficiency. Folks are just watching the clock and hoping that they won't have to deal with customers, or are just doing the bare minimum to satisfy the situation and move on. It's as if the entire service industry has ADHD.

For my own situation, I admit that I'm no top expert in my field. I'm a web developer in a large firm that moves slowly and adopts technology a lot later than some of its peers. If I stayed even with that pace, I'd be so far behind the current state of technology that I'd be no better than some of the COBOL programmers I know. To avoid that, I read voraciously, buy books and software continuously and attend classes in new technology, and I do this on my own time and with my own money. Show me the same level of initiative in an employee of any fast-food restaurant or big box department store. I dare you.

Some will argue that this is because those folks are minimum wage earners. That may be part of it, but I would counter with the notion that the minimum wage was never meant to be a life-sustaining level of income. Jobs that pay the minimum were meant to be training positions, occupations that teenagers could work as their first jobs so they could start to build a work ethic and learn the value of a dollar. Nowadays I see a lot of 25 to 40-year-olds working in menial jobs for the bare minimum, and they're no damned good at it.

To make matters worse, the minimum wage keeps going up, which forces companies to hire fewer (and perhaps older and hopefully more dedicated) people. This squeezes the teenagers out, and the work ethic isn't being instilled in them at all. It's become an old joke in America; the boy behind the counter of the burger joint with a glassy-eyed stare and slack jaw.

I've grown tired of it all, and I'm very afraid for the future of my daughter and my unborn son. The empty persons that she will encounter in her lifetime will be far more numerous than they are today. How can I fix that? What can I do to help her understand that she is the only person she can really rely on?

For my part, I am resolved to raise her with a firm but gentle hand. My children will understand that giving a 75% effort in anything is unacceptable. This will be a difficult task because I can't guarantee that their peers won't be the same sort of misfits I'll be warning them about.

But as I see it, this is all I can do.