6 Reasons the System is Rigged: A Response

One of my favorite websites to visit on an almost-daily basis is Cracked.com. If you don’t know, they’re a comedy website who often publish list-type articles based on real life, but with plenty of humor sprinkled in to make it more interesting and fun. Often the writers over there talk about big issues in a humorous way, while still getting across important points that they think everyone should be aware of.

Recently, Cracked writer David Wong (who is also a New York Times bestselling author, by the way) wrote an article entitled: 6 Reasons the System is Rigged (A Guide for Grads), and because so much of what he said in the article reminded me of my own life (and the lives of my friends and family), I felt a great desire to write a response post to said article. So here we go. Prepare to have your most cynical views on “the system” confirmed.

#6. There’s a Good Chance Your Degree Is Useless

Right out of the gates, David lets us know that the chances that the degree we chose to study toward in university is useless is actually extremely high. Evidently, according to the Washington Post, only about 27% of graduates end up in a job that actually requires their degree…and that statistic does not include the more super-specialized stuff like med school and law school students (who deserve the higher success rate since they go to school twice as long and spend about ten times as much money).
Now, the thing is, if you had shown me this statistic ten years ago, I probably would have balked. “Surely that can’t be accurate,” I’d have insisted. “Why would so many people even bother to attend university if it isn’t getting people a job?” And then present-me would have laughed her ass off at the naivety.
When I sit back and consider my closest friends and family members, and the people who I actually attended university with, the number of us who are actually using our degrees is painfully depressing. I know a couple of people who managed to become teachers with their degree, but most of them are only “sometimes I’m working, sometimes I’m not” substitutes, since the job market is so difficult in that field right now. I know two guys who did a BA and wound up becoming pipefitters because their degrees gave them precisely zero opportunities. I know more than a couple of people who actually have multiple degrees and other forms of training and haven’t used any of them. Even if I look at myself…yes, technically I wound up in a field that my degree applies to, but the fact that I have that degree in the first place is mostly unnecessary. The job field that I wound up in would have been perfectly fine with me having a 1-1/2 year technical program, instead of the 4-year degree that I shelled out crap-tons of money for. And the technical program would have had me starting work with a 2-year credit toward my apprenticeship, instead of the degree, which is not recognized by the apprenticeship board and thus accredited me jack squat.
The problem is two-fold, in my opinion. One major issue is that the job market is constantly changing and unpredictable, and it takes so long to get a degree that the job you’re looking for simply might not be there by the time you’re ready for it. When my classmates and I were first entering university we were told that there would be a huge number of teachers retiring over the next few years, thus if we went into teaching we would be guaranteed work. A bunch of my classmates, therefore, went into a degree for teaching. The problem? Well, for one thing, a bunch of those teachers who were supposed to retire simply didn’t. For a number of completely legitimate reasons, many of them chose to stay in the workforce. When you add in the fact that a metric ass-load of students went in to become teachers all at the same time…well, there simply weren’t enough jobs for all of the graduates.
The other problem, of course, is one that Mr Wong pointed out as well: we expect 18-year-olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives and choose the proper degree accordingly, and that’s just a little bit foolish. I know 50-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with the rest of their lives, for Pete’s sake. Most 18-year-olds have a hard time deciding what they want to wear today, never mind deciding the specific action they want to be doing five days a week for the next 30 to 40-odd years.

#5. Trying to Change Careers Later Is a Nightmare

So, say you chose poorly. You’ve been out of school for a couple of years and your $50,000-$100,000 degree is tucked shamefully in a drawer somewhere, underneath your McDonald’s uniform. You think to yourself, “Well, I totally pooched that one…guess I’ll try again.”
See Mr Wong’s original article for a bunch of reasons why that’s not exactly the easiest path.
Because of the aforementioned “18-year-olds don’t know jack squat about what they want for their future” issue, I know several people who have found themselves returning to school half a dozen or more times, and it’s not just as easy as walking into the front door and demanding a new degree. For one thing, if you’ve already wracked up tons of student loans as a result of the first degree (almost a guarantee, unless you have extremely rich parents), you’re going to have a hell of a time getting a new one. Protip: banks and other lending institutions don’t like lending you more money when you’ve been totally unsuccessful at paying back any of the other huge amounts you already borrowed.
For another thing (and this is something Mr Wong didn’t mention), there’s a bit of a stigma against older people starting a new career. Young people just coming out of university have a hard enough time finding that first job because every employer wants the fabled “experience”, but it’s also somewhat understood that of course a 20-year-old isn’t going to have much experience, because they’re just starting out. But when a 30-year-old with no experience applies to a job? The first thing the employer things is, “What the hell has this idiot been doing for the past ten years?” And that person looks poorly for that one simple reason Unfair? Sure. But it’s just one of those first impression things that is really difficult to get past.
On a personal note, I can tell you that trying to change careers is also painful mentally, and more than a little bit stressful. Though I’m not exactly the poster child for determination, I’ve been working toward becoming a published (i.e. PAID) writer for a few years now. The catch is that while I’m working toward this, I’ve also got to, you know…do a job that feeds my family. So for all intents and purposes, I’ve got two jobs, and pretty much anyone with multiple jobs will tell you that it sucks.

#4. Your Success Depends on How Much Work You’ll Do for Free

For this entry Mr Wong explains the idea of “giving 110%”, or in other terms, doing extra work for free. It’s an extremely common thing in lower-end jobs, such as how the restaurant you work for might expect you to do a certain amount of clean-up after closing, but if it takes you longer than a certain amount of time you are no longer getting paid for it. Plenty of employers have been known to bully their employees into working “volunteer overtime” that they’re only getting paid regular-time wages for, if they’re even getting paid at all. The whole idea, as Wong explains, is that even though it’s totally unfair (and sometimes even illegal), if you don’t put up with it you get blacklisted as a bad employee and you don’t advance.
I’ve worked a bunch of low-end jobs that I genuinely didn’t give a damn about advancing in, because at the time they were just a ends to a means, but I did experience this in my first “real” job at the paper mill. See, a big part of a maintenance job is that there will be call-ins. If something breaks down in the middle of the night, for example, they will call down through the list to see if anyone wants to come in for overtime. Anyone who says no for any reason is deemed an asshole. It doesn’t matter if you live an hour away, and you’re sick as a dog, and your significant other is on a trip across the country so you have no one to babysit your two-year-old while you’re gone; if you say no to overtime, you’re considered to be a jerk who doesn’t appreciate their job. You should be licking your employer’s shoes for a chance at overtime.
Now, in that example you’re getting paid for the extra work, so at least there’s that. But every now and then a weasel would sneak in and try to derail the train just to see what happens. The way call-ins worked at my mill was a little convoluted, but for ease of explanation I’ll just say that if you were called in after midnight and worked for four hours or more, you were given rest pay for the following day if it was a normal work day. So if I got called in at midnight on a Tuesday morning and worked until 4 am, I would go home and catch up on the sleep I’d missed and get paid my normal wages for Wednesday. It was a system put in the contract to keep people from working while fatigued. Keep that in mind…it was a contractual right.  One morning, in the middle of December, I got a call at 2 am. I didn’t really want to go in, but I dragged my ass out of bed and out into the snow and drove into work to look at a valve that was causing a lot of issues. When I diagnosed the problem I was asked if there was anyway that I could bypass the valve for a moment just so that they could start up the system while I worked on the issue. I should have said no, but I was young and naive. I created a bypass and they got the system running. Then, as I was searching for parts to actually, you know…fix the problem, the supervisor came in and told me that I had to go home. His exact words were, “If I let you stay and get rest pay for tomorrow, they’ll kill me.”
So, in conclusion, I dragged my ass out of bed at 2 am, out into the freezing cold Nova Scotia winter weather, and drove into work to save the asses of the people who were in there trying to make paper, and I got completely screwed out of my rest pay and had to come into work exhausted the next day as a result. I was angry. Extremely angry. And because of that anger, I never took another call in again.
Which, of course, made me the asshole.

#3. Someone Less Deserving WILL Get Hired/Promoted Ahead of You

The big sentence that Wong uses for this particular entry is “More than 40 percent of workers got their job because they knew the right person
I’m not even going to sugar-coat it: I’ve been one of those 40 percent several times.
It’s truly depressing, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter how much training you have, how much experience you’ve built up, or how qualified you are…employers hire/promote people they want to hire/promote. That’s why networking sites like LinkedIn have become such a big deal in recent years. You can be the most qualified person in the world, but if you happen to be applying for the same job as the boss’s college buddy, chances are you’re going to get passed over. It is ridiculously unfair, absolutely, but there’s really nothing you can do about it.
And the thing is, as angry as you might be that someone got “name-hired” for the position that you so desperately wanted, you could have a totally different attitude if you were on the other side of the equation. I’ve been one of those people who kept getting passed over in favor of guys who were buddies with the guy in charge of hiring. I hated it. I wanted the system to burn because guys who (I assumed) didn’t deserve the job kept swooping in and stealing all the opportunities while I was unemployed for months on end. Then I was hired onto a job specifically because my resume landed on the desk of a guy I’d worked with before who knew me and liked me, and the only thought that passed through my mind was, “Sweet merciful God, THANK YOU.”
The moral on this one is that, while the system may suck and seem totally unfair, the only real way to deal with it is to use it. Network like a pro. Meet people, make them like you, and use them to get a job if the opportunity arises. This is absolutely a case where “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” rings true.

#2. There’s a Good Chance You’ll Get Fired and Never Know Why

I’m interested to hear some stories about this one, so if you’ve got a good one please share in the comments.

Wong points out an unfortunate universal truth: the “at-will” employment termination. Long story short, for the most part employers can terminate you at any time, for any reason, and you might not ever even know what that reason was. There are exceptions, of course…unions will fight like hell for someone who they feel was wrongfully terminated, and there are loads of discrimination laws that protect people from being fired because of their religion/sexual preference/etc. Unfortunately, in a lot of those situations it comes down to your word against theirs. You may strongly suspect that you were fired for a discriminatory reason, but can you prove it? Your employer will probably just come up with an alternative reason that is perfectly legal, and all will go on as if you were never wrongfully expelled from your only means of income.

I’ve never been fired from a job myself, but my husband had a wonderful experience with a power-mad restaurant manager. He was a part-time employee working some of the crappiest hours (because, sure, okay, that’s how these things work), but he was returning to school in September. He explained this to his boss, noting that if she wanted to keep him on the staff she would have to work his hours around his school schedule. He wasn’t requesting particular hours or anything like that – he wasn’t high enough on the food chain for that. He was simply explaining that he was going to be in university during these particular hours of these particular days, so he wouldn’t be available for work at those times.

The boss pitched a fit, saying such thing as how he was “ungrateful” and that his “job should come before school”. Keep in mind that this was not a 9-5 career job…it was a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant where the shifts were made up weekly at the boss’s whim. She seriously – seriously – believed that he should ditch university classes in order to come in to his minimum wage job whenever she deemed that he should. And then she suggested that if he was going to choose school over this job, then she would just fire him.

He wound up quitting (because, seriously?), but in this case he could have just as easily been fired simply because he was trying to better himself, and no one would have given a damn because his boss could have just said that she fired him for being uncooperative and ditching shifts.

#1. At Some Point, You Will Find Yourself on the Dark Side

“The Dark Side”, as Mr Wong puts it, is basically just finding yourself on the other side of the equation. If you’ve gotten a good job with your awesome degree, making good money at a place where you’ve been fairly promoted for your hard work and are always fairly compensated for said work, then none of the previous entries of this article mean a thing to you. You’re on “the Dark Side”.
It makes sense that if you’ve never experienced any of the previously mentioned issues, you’d be a little biased. You’ve never had any issues in the workforce, so what the hell is everyone else complaining about, right? It’s annoying, but it’s kind of understandable. People don’t understand what they’ve never experienced. The problem is when you’ve gone through it all yourself, experienced all the pain and stress and frustration, but then as soon as some success finally comes your way…BAM! Dark Side attitudes.
I won’t try to say that I’m exempt. I’ve totally been there myself. Up above when I mentioned all that stuff about name-hiring? Within a few months of working at that job I found myself scoffing at people who talk about how hard it is to find a job. I thought to myself, “Hell, there are a million jobs in Alberta, you whiner. Come get one!” I’d completely forgotten that it took months of unemployment and my resume landing on the exact right person’s desk in order for me to land this particular job. It’s not that I’m a total bitch…it’s just that it’s human nature to feel like everyone else’s complaints are unjustified. It’s the bad driver effect: when you’re speeding it’s because you have somewhere important to be, but when someone else is speeding it’s because they’re a lunatic and shouldn’t be on the road. You can be on one side of the fence for years, but as soon as you manage to climb over to the other side you look back at all the people you left behind and think, “What the hell are you doing over there, you idiots? Jesus, just jump over and stop whining!”

It’s a horrible system in a great number of ways, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot that we can do to change it. Degrees will keep being useless, and changing careers will keep being painfully difficult until we find a better system of choosing and training for our desired fields. Employers will keep exploiting our good nature and trying to get free work out of us as long as we allow it – which will be forever because that’s what happens when you have to compete with all your fellow employees for brownie points to avoid losing your income. People will always get hired or promoted ahead of us unfairly because there is simply no way to keep employers from hiring the people they like best. And employees will always get fired for completely unfair reasons because how are you going to prove it, hmm? Really all that we can do is settle in at #1 as soon as we get a chance. The “Dark Side” might not be an attractive way of putting it, but it’s really the best place we can hope to wind up, because at least then we’re working and (hopefully) a little happy about it.

Share with me, fellow workforce members. Do you have a degree (or two), and has it helped you at all? Have you ever made the leap to switch careers, and how did that go? Have you ever been exploited by an employer in the form of “free” work? Have you ever been passed over for a job in favor of someone less qualified, or have you ever found yourself hired even though you might not have necessarily deserved the job? Have you ever been fired for a ridiculous reason, or no reason that you could discern? Are you currently on the “Dark Side”? Share! Complain! Commiserate! And don’t forget to check out the original article that this post is a response to!
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21 thoughts on “6 Reasons the System is Rigged: A Response

  1. Oh, soooo many stories, but I’ll keep it short.

    I worked at Starbucks for four years. One weekend, I was rollerbladding and happened to have a head-on collision with a blackberry bush. Unfortunately, this bush was also the hiding place of some seriously overgrown poison oak, and––wouldn’t you know it––I am terribly allergic to the stuff.

    Anyway, the right side of my face swelled out like a vertical football. I called my boss (and I was the type who never showed up late, never called in, took emergency cover shifts whenever someone needed me) and said I couldn’t come in.

    He said he didn’t believe me. He said “We need you. Get here.”

    So I did…. and I had a hoodie pulled over my face as I walked through town like Quasimodo. When I got to the store, my reveal was priceless. The manager and the assistant manager were standing at the end of the counter, doing nothing in an over-staffed store, and they both jumped about two feet when they saw me. “WOAH! Go home! Go home, now!” Yeah, because they forgot poison oak was contagious… 😛

    • Bwa ha ha ha ha! Oh my goodness, thank you for sharing that! It sucks that you had to deal with the whole poison oak thing, but it’s kinda awesome that you got to prove to your bosses that they’re mistrusting jackasses. 😄

      • You’re quite welcome. I have a ton of stories like that from my time there, and one for each of those points in the article, too, probably.

        The whole not knowing why you were fired thing… I went through that recently, as someone on the “dark side” of the employment game.

        I work at a school as the head teacher. We teach English to native-Japanese students and also returnees. One of my students is a returnee with excellent English. I teach him less about English and more about the makeup of the universe, and socio-political economics, and so on… and he’s only 12.

        Anyway, I’ve worked six days a week for almost three years, and my contract said that I should have two days off. For all that time, I did it because there was really no other choice for our school, but my health started getting poor from the stress, so i finally asked my boss for that second day off.

        He asked me if another teacher would be able to teach that returnee. The teacher in question was super nice. Very energetic. I may have had a few issues with how she spoke to the children, but all I said to my boss is that I didn’t think she would be able to teach that one student because she wasn’t actually a “teacher” (any degree can get you a job in Japan as an English teacher. No skill required––they just want you to talk. But she wasn’t a fully-native speaker). I said that I wasn’t sure she could handle that student. Then my boss asked my GF (we work together) if that teacher could take her own private students from America, and the GF had the same answer.

        So, just like that, the boss looked at both of us and said “I’m going to fire her.”

        I felt so bad. 😦 But I couldn’t defend her. She’d had other issues like taking time off work weekly (and as a teacher, that’s a NO no NO.)

        • Oh yikes. o.o Well, take solace in knowing that you’re not alone on that one. I work out on the oil fields of Alberta, and since no job out there is permanent there winds up being a lot of these types of situations. The big boss will tell the foreman that he needs to lay off five people, for example, and the foreman will in turn start asking people what they think of this guy and that guy, and the opinions are how he’ll decide who to boot. It can make you feel really skeezy if someone you spoke poorly of gets kicked off site.

  2. I got chewed out by a manager once because I called in (only) an hour before my shift because I still wasn’t able to stand up after recovering from an upper respiratory infection. The hitch here is that I thought I was calling in at least two hours in advance.

    But the schedule had been changed while I was out sick.

    And no one had called me. So I would have been late ANYWAY even if I had been able to make it in, because I didn’t know I was now supposed to come in at 7 am instead of 8 am because I’d been out for a week with, oh, a hundred-and-four-degree fever.

    I had the foresight to… not get a college degree. I have completed some college courses, and if my local community college had an actual creative writing degree, I would be SORELY tempted. They do have a lot of creative writing courses that I’d love to take, but it’s just not in the budget right now, even as audits.

    And honestly, not getting a degree is one of the best decisions I ever made. I don’t need a degree to write, or be a mom (eventually). And the benefit is that I now don’t have the debt. The only ‘debt’ hubby and I have is the mortgage, and I’m so grateful for that.

    • Oh lord, you’re making me have more flashbacks of my husband’s boss – the one mentioned in the article. She used to ALWAYS change the schedule and then berate people for not following it. Once, my husband checked the schedule on the way out the door on a Sunday night after closing to make sure he wasn’t working the next day. At 8 am the boss called in a complete fit, screaming at him for being late. When he went in to argue her down he found his name written in in pencil…she’d scribbled it in that morning. Like, wtf, seriously?

      As for the whole college degree thing, I’m totally with you there. Having a degree is a huge boon if you know exactly what you’re planning to do with your life (and you know that a degree is a requisite for those plans), but an inordinate amount of the time it just ends up being an extremely expensive piece of paper. 😛

      • I wonder your husband had the same boss as me at one point. That would happen where I worked, too, the hours getting scribbled in the night before. That doesn’t do any good if you leave at, say, 4 pm, and the schedule changes at 4:30.

        No expensive pieces of paper here, hehe! My best friend does have a degree – she’s a veterinarian. But she’s REQUIRED to have a degree in that profession, and so for her to do so was what needed to happen. I know she also got a few scholarships, but she also held down jobs the entire time she was in school – whether it was on campus or elsewhere. She was one of the lucky ones who finished undergrad with NO debt, and finished graduate school with less than $50k in debt. And she was able to pay it off within a year of graduating, because she’d made good connections in her time and school and was able to land a well-paying job right away.

        But not every profession is like that, sadly. It’d be pretty much pointless for me to get a creative writing degree at this point. Not when I can spend that time actually writing.

        • I’m not a fan of creative writing degrees anyway, to tell the truth. I can understand going to school for the basics, but there’s something about relying on a professor to TEACH you creativity that just seems like an enormous waste of money to me. I do not believe that you can TEACH creativity, and definitely your time is better spent getting words on paper. 🙂

          • Can’t teach creativity, no, but they can teach deadlines and discipline, and give you connections into the publishing industry that are hard to come by completely on your own.

            • I’m with you on the connections part. I definitely can’t argue that, and I’m sure it helps a lot of the people who take those courses. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the “deadlines and discipline” part because in my opinion you still have to have the “right” kind of personality to be able to actually take what you learn about those sorts of topics and USE it.

              I, for instance, could have someone scream at me about time management every day for the rest of my life and it still just would never happen. lol

  3. A fabulous whirlwind of a post, that covers a tremendous amount of ground. I’d actually read the original article prior to reading this, so it was very interesting to get your perspective. As with most things in life, the key to understanding nearly all of it is empathy. This is the one thing most people are least mindful of.

    • A very good point, and a true one for sure. Personally I think a lot of the issue comes down to the dual problems of expecting young people to be able to predict exactly what is going to keep them happy for the rest of their lives, and having it ingrained into our heads from the time we are small that there is no way to advance in life without that degree. It’s a truly ridiculous system that has enormous faults.

  4. I stupidly read this post before leaving for the day. I intended to post a well thought out comment, yet the subject matter of this post commandeered my brain all day, taking a simple comment and snowballing it into a full legnth essay. Needless to say, I will be posting my own follow-up on my blog, with references to your post as well as the article on Cracked.com.

    Thanks a lot. No really, thank you.

  5. An addendum to point #2: In the public sector, not only with the unions fight for the wrongfully terminated, but they will fight to get the jobs back and/or serious back pay and/or help employees get paid off who were properly fired.

    Always remember that the public sector is not the real world and what would get you fired in the real world will more times that not, earn you a brief suspension and your old job back.

    • I definitely won’t disagree with that, although my personal experience has been that only the people who deserved to be fired in the first place benefit from this kind of system. I’m sure I sound a little jaded, but just from what I’ve personally seen, it’s rarely the person who genuinely did not deserve to be dismissed who winds up getting retribution.

  6. I have Associates of Arts degrees in Japanese, History, Humanities, International Liberal Arts, and Psychology. I had a few professors tell me to pick ONE. I gave the counselors aneurysms. My really GOOD professors knew what I was doing. I had an insatiable desire to learn things and knew I had no particular career path in plan that would require a very specific degree. So I spent 4 years at a community college getting 5 different 2-year degrees and learning almost all the things I really wanted to (that the college offered at the time) instead of slaving away for a single 4-year in something I knew wouldn’t help anyway. I know there are free courses available now, but I had several scholarships, paid little overall for my education, and knew that chasing the degree would keep me focused, even if I couldn’t USE it later. =)

    • There is certainly nothing wrong with that! I know several people who did similar things, who wanted to have multiple options, or who just loved learning so much that they kept choosing different things to try. The key is having some kind of focus or reason. Too many young people go to college simply because that’s what you’re “supposed to do”. Then they wind up graduating with something that doesn’t help them in the slightest, and they can’t understand why the world isn’t throwing job opportunities at them. As a society I think we spend too much time and energy on trying to get young people to follow the “right” path, rather than encouraging them to figure out what it is that they want out of life, you know?

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