Rat Race


Left to follow the current, the average guy will fall into what we call “The Rat Race.”  Partly described in the 1960s song “Little Boxes,” which you may have heard in the theme song to the TV show “Weeds” the song only describes the probably bests parts of it.  When you combine the personal and financial grind it can become, it is a wonder more people don’t crack.  Maybe more do and we do not notice it?



Most of us graduate high school and go one of 3 routes.  The plurality goes to college or some other post-secondary education.  Some join the military.  A few get right into a trade program, either a formal, sometimes union, program or else just some guy hires you as a “helper” and you learn.  Eventually you have the secrets of the trade.  The rest just go to work at a low-skill job, hoping for one of the three former groups fate “someday.”

The guy in the trades is furthest along the path, ironically he is the one least likely to fall into the trap.  The guy in college will be most prone to fall, and the guy who goes to work in a low-skill job, he is screwed.  Did this happen/is this happening to you?

Lets assume the plurality guy, heads to college.  He will be taking a 4 year degree, chances of both needing and using it much less than half.  Some STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, Math) degrees will get right into their field.  Business majors will mostly get one of a low-level management training, sales, or generic white-collar work.  Customer-touch at a casual restaurant or filling out TPS reports in cubicleland, they will wonder why on earth they needed the degree?

Then the end of the month comes and they have their student loans to pay.  These days that means $30,000 on average, though I have shared cubicle pods with people who had $60,000 and even $100,000!  How on earth that happens, don’t ask me.  The one with $60,000 wasn’t even using her major, some kind of horticulture, instead was processing mortgage modifications that trust me didn’t even require high school.  What we were making would maybe let you buy a $60,000 house.  Her school bill meant she would never be able to buy a house!

Still, rent or a mortgage needs to be paid.  These two are probably outliers, $30,000 is normal.  After college, his clothes were totally shot, and the college car is getting old.  Car payment, clothes, rent, before you know it there is several thousand a month going out.  Job might be paying mid-$30s, keeping him running in place.

He finds a hopefully nice girl and they get serious.  Kids come and her income goes down.  She has student loans, hers are now effectively his.  There is a second car in the family, and a second car payment.  Or they decided to least the cars to afford more car.  Credit card payments start being a way of life.  Financial disaster is never far away.

As I write this, several surveys have been published showing nearly half the USA cannot come up with $500 if they had to.  The exact numbers vary, the theme is the same.  At least half of Americans face disaster if they had to go with no income for merely one month.  Doubt this?  If you live in a state that allows them, notice how many Payday Loan Stores are out there, at one point there were more than McDonald’s, Burgher King, and Wendy’s COMBINED!  No matter how bad the job is, they have to keep showing up, even looking for overtime, so they can spend even more time at a place they grow to dislike or even hate.


If you have not, watch the movie “Office Space.”  Even as a comedy, it does not do justice.  The real world is just as silly and annoying.

You went to college, got your degree.  Now you are beyond some retail level job and in a real, professional office.  You have made it, no more worries.  Right?  Wrong!

The business world is based on military organization principles.  A Four-Star General at the top.  Lesser generals reporting to him.  Colnels on their staffs.  Majors and captains below them, some with direct “line” responsibility, Others are “staff” officers, these officers help the line guys run things.  A Major may have a captain or two and some lieutenants reporting.  Meanwhile, there are enlisted grunts.  Starting at private and working up to specialist or corporal.  Above these are seargents of various stripes.  Literal stripes, there are many seargent levels.  The sergents are a front-line and filter, they give most orders to the enlisted men, while the lower-level officers make sure they do.

In the corporate world, the top general is the CEO.  His generals are various Vice Presidents.  There may be few or many.  They will similarly be line or staff.  Line are probably in charge of a regional area, say the states of Texas and New Mexico; or a line of business, in a food company maybe pickles.  The staff VPs make sure bills are paid, government regulations are followed, or any other job that takes too much time from or requires higher expertise in a specialized area than line VPs have.  Down the line it goes, until you have a local manager in the trenches, the one who really sees what is going on.

Meanwhile, the workers start out as privates.  New hires with little knowledge of what needs to be done, so they get trained.  The better and more ambitious ones become “team leads” or what in the old days would be called a “straw boss.”  Fancy way of saying a regular worker in a formalized leadership role.  Another title might be “swing manager” or in a casino, “dual rate.”  All of them live in between the worker and management, hoping to make the later.


Most people with some level of maturity know their jobs, and will do that job with minimal direction.  An office worker knows their function, shows up, sits down, and gets to work.  The work is the same day to day, so they just start doing what needs done.  A short order cook will fire up the grill.  A cashier may need to be told what register to go to, but once informed counts up their opening drawer, and take customers.  The straw boss may be watching, but has their own job to do and got to be straw boss by knowing when and when not to bother things.  While some immature workers need to be fired and every now and then a “lets go!” needs to be yeller, it mostly works with little special effort.

Anyone can see low level workers being productive.  The higher up in the command structure you go, the less obvious it gets.  The officers rarely want to go back to being workers, so they try to look busy to their boss, who in turn needs to look busy to his boss.  Even the CEO has shareholders asking for better and better results.  All of them will eventually try to do “job justification,” and here is where office hell begins.


The mid-level manager and above have time to think during the day.  This thinking breeds ideas.  1 in 10 may be brilliant, the other 9 better left forgotten.  Guess which get implemented?  An example is banks.

Banking was once boring.  Bank managers took deposits at 3%, lent at 6%, and worked on their golf games.  Tellers were cashiers.  Cash checks, take deposits, then at 3:30 close the branch and balance it all out.  Customers who needed loans asked for them.

One day, some manager decided they should ask the customers for loans.  Tellers would ask here and there.  It worked.  Then they decided every teller should ask every customer for new business on every transaction.  When more and more banking was done by phone, the same was done to the phone reps.

What is wrong with everyone asking for a sale every time they get a chance?  Well, much of banking is regular customers.  I used to take my deposit to the bank every day.  Tellers knew me.  Will a smart person waste their time pushing the same products all the time?  At the call center, many calls were for quick questions on a vehicle.  Many from the dealership.  The person is busy.  Does a smart person not know to not waste time asking that person about mutual fund offerings?

Ah, but we were told not to think, just ask.  As if we are in the French Foreign Legion, just do!  To make sure we just did, “tick sheets” or monitoring go into effect.  Instead of setting the standard at 95% to allow for judgment, management makes it 100%!  Impress *their* boss that they are going for results.  The lowest manager knows it is silliness, but they do not have the standing to say so.  Their chance of being the one making the silly orders later in life would be eneded.

The games have many varriations.  I have been at places where we were told to put out so many fliers a day, and someone expected so many sales off of replies.  I have seen sales counted to individual units and much time wasted telling what came from where, balanced to the individual unit.  How much money did that make anyone?  I have seem well intentioned programs go bad.  An appeal process, a good idea.  Demands of so many appeals a week, a bad idea—what if there were no issues that week?

The higher up the idea comes from, the worse the results will be,  Worst was a company President decides that if a customer thinks it is an emergency, we think it is.  Managers would be called at home, day or night.  The call center was there so they knew we would call back, no longer good enough.  Guy had an idea!

Can you imagine what happened?  I bet you can by now!  As many calls were made “emergencies” as possible.  See, the managers have to show they took it serious, so they make more and more emergencies.  Top guy is happy he solved a problem, he can report to his boss what he did!  The low level guys getting awakened for what should be handled with a “we’ll call in the morning” was of no matter.  (In this case, it eventually mattered.  Guys were complaining left and right, about calls in the middle of the night over every little thing.  The policy was revised, a rare thing.)



Some of this can be avoided.  For one, work at a smaller place.  If you know the owner or ultimate boss, they are less likely to have this kind of time to waste.  Be a skilled person.  A low level phone monkey has to put up with this treatment.  The IT guy does not, he is too valuable and the boss may not know what the IT guy really does or knows.  Finally, follow the business and side hustle ideas in this book.  Working for yourself means never having to play their little games.  No self-employed person ever filled out a TPS Report.