Money 2010

In this era of economic anxiety, the question of how your paycheck stacks up looms larger than ever. A shameless accounting of who's making what — and how they're spending it.

So…Is It Cool to Complain Yet?

The case for acrimony as an economic indicator.
By Joe Keohane

“Well, at least you have a job.”

“Yeah, but I’m working 18 hours a day for a third less money.”

“That’s better than working no hours a day for 100 percent less money.”

“But they slashed my benefits and my new office is full of rats.”

“That’s nothing. I know a guy with no job, 10 kids, and a sick dog. He’d love rats. Be grateful.”

For 18 months, employed Bostonians have had to routinely endure these sorts of unpleasant but-there-are-children-starving-in-China-style reprimands. If you wanted to bitch about work in this economy, either you had to be sure there weren’t any unemployed people within earshot, or you had to be confident that your company had made so many cuts that you were now suddenly indispensable.

Those who talk about the Great Recession nearing a close usually point to a handful of key economic indicators. Unemployment in Massachusetts fell in November, to 8.8 percent, compared with 10 percent nationwide. And jobs are returning to the critical healthcare, education, and tech sectors that kept us from tanking as badly as some other states during the darkest days of the downturn. That’s all well and good, but I would argue that the local economy can’t be considered fully stable until the willingness to vent — a pastime Bostonians regard as something of an inalienable right — is restored in the workplace. You’ve heard of green shoots; let’s call these yellow shoots.

Consider Harvard. The World’s Greatest University’s endowment buckled this year, forcing the Ivy to lay off an estimated 275 workers, and yet a few yellow shoots have been spotted recently. When things were bad, says an IT manager there, “even serial complainers were quiet, and there was a slight increase in hustle.” But as it became clear that no more layoffs were in the offing, “chatter quickly trended back to routine grousing.” This realization, he says, “coincided with the perception of economic stabilization.”

This is good. If things continue to improve and jobs return, God willing, by summertime the air will once more be filled with the sound of workplaces being denounced as nests of waste and dysfunction, and tales of villainous bosses and coworkers possessing the intelligence of doorknobs and vegetables. Bostonians will again freely spew their exasperation at squandering their lives working at jobs that numb their souls, sap their strength, and waste their time. This will be done without fear of giving offense. And when it does, all will be right in the city.