Commentary: Happy New Year!

By Ellen Foley Special To Channel 3000

Monday, Jan. 3, was a day of reckoning for many of us. The holidays are over. We ate too much. Many of us headed back to work, busily looking for time on our calendars to exercise, take smoking cessation classes or join the local Weight Watchers. How do we fit it all in when we need to work five days a week?

At the same time, there?s been a lot of chatter on my Facebook channels from parents of small children or spouses of couch potatoes who cannot wait to get back to work.

Work for these friends is a second family, a community with people of like interests or an escape from an existence in which one has to ponder that the beds need to be made every day and no one is going to give you a job review if you don?t use hospital corners. There is no closure on housework. It has to be done over and over. There is no job to blame for the unwashed dishes. There is no cash to have a drink after work with an old friend and laugh until you are silly.

Americans like to work and you can read a story every day in the media about the handwringing over the stubborn American unemployment rate now at 9.8 percent and how sad we are when we can?t work or can?t find work outside our homes. Those of us with good jobs are quietly grateful because we don?t want to talk too much about it and taunt the fates.

Unless you are my circle of friends in their 20s.

During December, I had conversations with two recent college graduates. One is unemployed and retraining at Madison College where I work. She weathered a layoff and looks tired as she explains she is staying up past 2 a.m. and getting up past noon ?because this is my last winter break.? In other words, next year she?ll have a job and a boss who gives her only a day or two at Christmas, not the many weeks that students get in their winter breaks. She needs to fill up all the free time because she may never see it again.

The other graduate is one of the lucky ones, landing a job in Chicago at a big company doing creative work and being paid a pretty good salary. She had an epiphany the other day on the morning train during her first week of work:

?Oh my gosh, I have to do this EVERY DAY?! Not that I just want to sit at home all day and do nothing. But I can’t believe that the majority of my time is going to be spent with all these strangers.

?It’s kind of odd. I think maybe I just have to get used to going to work everyday??

America has some of the most productive workers in the world. You hand us an economic crisis in 1982 and we say we can?t wring out any more productivity. Twenty years later, with the help of technology we have much higher productivity.

Why then are these younger workers with a whole lifetime of success and adventure in front of them feeling so guarded about their time? Is this new generation a bit ambivalent about spending more time with co-worker strangers because they?ve figured out the current economic puzzle means they may all be moving to the Asia-Pacific regions for the next promotion?

This past week, a report uncovered a curious explanation for why unemployment in the United States hasn?t dropped despite many indicators that the economy is on the mend. It?s because American companies are hiring people in other countries to do the work.

?There?s a huge difference between what is good for American companies versus what is good for the American Economy,? said Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, in an Associated Press report this weekend.

The report cites Caterpillar and DuPont, two long-heralded American companies, that are now hiring workers in Asia-Pacific countries with growing middle classes that are hungry for their products. China is now the world?s second largest economy.

I thought about this the other day when I was skimming our job postings for a friend and a part-time job teaching Punjabi, the language of western India and Pakistan popped up. We are teaching Punjabi in Madison, Wis.

Yes, yes. I know the world is flat as the famous book title tells us. And I too remember starting my first job and wondering if I could weather 52 weeks without any time off. (These were the good old days when you didn?t start with any vacation.)

My work mates are now a second family. The last day before the holiday break was hilarious with executives bobbling small gifts for all their close workmates and rushing from building to building to deliver them. We are lucky that the college closes from Dec. 24 to Jan. 3 so we take a collective deep breath and are eager to come back to see each other this week.

My young friends don?t know whether they will spend their working lives near mom and dad or with strangers in some foreign land. They see the work landscape as a global place. I?m beginning to feel that this new job-itis is more than the jitters I felt in my first job more than 30 years ago. My young friends need our support and compassion because soon they may be spending Wednesday nights learning Punjabi to put a sheen on their resumes.