Monday, August 22, 2011

The Computer Revolution and Unemployment

Yes, I think they are very much related. Computers are finally coming of age in offices all over the world, and the result is a shift in how companies staff.

When computers came on the scene in the early 80s in regular offices populated by people with no technical expertise, the buzz was that computers would help us do everything easier and quicker! Yeah, right! Not for at least for another 30 years.

Computers are finally living up to the hype. Or perhaps we low-tech humans with 30 years of dealing with them are finally more competent to use them. The truth is now we are getting a lot more done than we did 30 years ago. Personally, I think every day that I am doing the work that six of me could have done in 1981.

Remember what it used to be like? You would go to work in the morning and review the papers in your in-box. You would look for little pink slips of paper for phone messages to return. Then you would start to work. If you wanted to write a letter, you would take a yellow tablet and write it out in long-hand or if you were a big-shot you could have your secretary take dictation (I never experienced that). In any event, you didn’t type it yourself. Chances are that the letter would have to be retyped because of a typo. A letter I could zip off today in a few minutes via email would take two people several hours.

If you wanted to write a research report, you would gather all of the materials you needed around you. The magazine articles you might cite would come from your personal stash. You had a bookshelf in your office because you needed the books to do research. If you really wanted to get serious about research you would have to get in the car and go to an academic library. A thorough report might take days. And then somebody still had to type it.

If you wanted to do a slide presentation, you had to shoot the slides with a camera, get them developed; and spend several hours putting the slides in the right order in the Carousel tray and setting the timing. Obviously, PowerPoint is a great time-saver!

Our Boomer generation knows how to type and that has probably been our salvation. We didn’t learn to type in anticipation of computers, however. That was a fortuitous accident. My mother, like many others of her generation, made me take “personal typing” in high school so I could type term papers in college and letters when I was a functioning adult. I was in the college prep course, so there was no time in my academic day for regular typing. Besides, I was never going to be a secretary. In retrospect, typing was by far the most useful thing I learned in high school!

While doing anything before the office computer came along was harder than it is today, nobody talks about that decade from 1981 to about 1991 when computers seemed to make productivity go DOWN, not up. Nor do they consider the negative impact of SPAM and viruses on productivity that followed for another decade.

Why would all of these wonderful machines make things harder? The answer is that people had trouble using them. In the early 1980s, to type a letter you had to memorize a bunch of control codes. To add a column of numbers you had to create a spreadsheet and use formulas that reminded you of algebra class. I am not a fast typist (especially back then) and I could type faster than my computer display could show the letters. File names had to be short and have no spaces. In most offices there were a few computer-phobics and it was their secretaries who had to adapt. I was what some of my colleagues called a “computer person.” That meant I could turn it on and competently type and print a letter. I could even create a spreadsheet!

When the computer broke, I was still pretty helpless. There was no “tech support,” but I was lucky that my husband and son are both way more computer savvy than I am and could usually solve the problems. But all of that takes time.

For a whole decade we had offices with a handful of people who could deal with computers and a majority who could not. It wasn’t especially cost effective, but it was a way of life.

By the early 1990s many who simply could not handle computers at all had retired or moved to other careers where computers were not essential. The lingering computer phobic executives had competent administrative assistants who could do their computer work for them. At last we were beginning to realize some of the promise of what computers could do for us. They still broke, but they were easier to use. We still, however, had no access to information in real-time.
Enter the Internet and e-mail – BIG TIME! At first the Internet and its sister e-mail were novelties in the office. I remember having ten workstations in the mid-90s and only two of them had an Internet dial-up connection on shared line with fax machine.

Soon it became clear that everyone needed the Internet we got an Internet hub and DSL and thought we were hot-stuff. Now that everybody could get e-mail, we started using it to communicate. Everyone could get online, so we started using the Internet to research things and order stuff. It was pretty cool!

But everyone else also discovered e-mail and our e-mailboxes filled with SPAM. People started sending dumb jokes around via e-mail and employees, who lacked e-mail at home, started having personal e-mail come to the office and using the Internet to shop.

The bad guys also discovered that the Internet was a great way to wreak havoc, so we started getting debilitating computer viruses – not to mention big bad Trojan Horses and evil worms. Countless hours of productivity were lost in most offices.

But things are different now. We have SPAM filters so much of the distraction of SPAM is gone. Employees have computers and Internet access at home, so there is little temptation to waste company time on personal shopping or sharing jokes. The workflow is fast and furious!
We now have good virus protection software and a computer virus is a rarity. We don’t lose time to unraveling computers tied in knots by Trojan horses and the like. The computers mostly just work. And we have learned what to do when they don’t.

In order to work in an office today you have to be competent with basic office software. That means just about anyone can type a letter, create a spreadsheet, create a Powerpoint presentation, send and receive emails, and use the Internet. And, of course, everyone is self-sufficient. There is no longer much need for lower level employees to provide services for the higher ups. There is a culture of “do it yourself” – even if you are the boss!

I submit that there are thousands and thousands of jobs lost to increased computer productivity. In a tough economy, simply getting the work done is a top priority. Reducing payroll costs for a company may be the difference between profitability and bankruptcy. It is unfortunate that many people are not able to find jobs – competent, skilled people who are very adept at using computers. That’s the point – just about everyone is able to use computers well these days.
So what will be the differentiator of the future? I submit that it might just be creativity and problem-solving and the ability to work with little or no supervision. Of course, that assumes there is money to hire anyone new, and that is, of course, the challenge of our times.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


At 65, I don’t find fashion of much interest, but then I never did. I get a fashion magazine – I never ordered it – it just comes. Clearly, some computer out there has my birthdate off by about 30 years. Nonetheless, I must confess to occasionally thumbing through it before it goes into the recycling pile. The last issue they seem to be wearing a lot of short dark socks – whatever!
In most of us, I guess there is a herd instinct. We don’t want to stand out in a crowd, but rather be one of the herd members. Any analogies to sheep are purely intentional. For me, that is my only goal with fashion – I don’t want people to stare at me on the street and say – ‘get a load of that!”

Thinking back about fashion, I remember my first grade teacher had a long skinny skirt. Before then I have never thought about it one way or the other. When our teachers were wearing straight skirts, we girls were wearing plaid “school dresses” with little puffed sleeves and white socks rolled down.

Before elementary school was over, skirts got full and petticoats started being made of scratchy fabric. Girls wore their cardigan sweaters turned around backwards with little fake collars. Some had furry pom poms hanging down. I never really had a poodle skirt, as I was just a bit too young, but they sure were popular with the older girls.

By junior high, the full skirts and petticoats mercifully were gone, and we were in very tailored pleated plaid skirts with long fuzzy sweaters and oxford cloth blouses with Peter Pan collars. We wore our socks straight up and clip-on bows in our hair.

When I arrived in high school, we went from pleats to heather tone A-lines and from sweaters to blazers with emblems of nothing in particular on the pocket. We wore stiff- starched oxford cloth skirts with button-down collars. By senior year we had ditched our white cotton socks for hose with our loafers. How sophisticated we were!

My mother made my freshman wardrobe. She was a wonderful seamstress and I was very fashionable – but, of course, my mother (nor I) had no real idea what the other girls were wearing. The school had strict rules – no slacks and jeans were a major conduct breach. Mostly we wore the same stuff as in high school, but in spring out came the floral print Villager dresses with Peter Pan collars, pleated fronts, straw belts and beads. Having blazers in navy, red, and beige was a wardrobe essential. A London Fog trenchcoat was obligatory for going to the dining hall in one’s nightgown or out the car for a forgotten item – even in the hottest weather. Technically it met the dress code and we always wore them buttoned up.

By the time I started graduate school in 1968, something had changed and slacks were now OK on campus. Some of the undergrads were not even wearing school, except to class where they were still required. I didn’t get caught up in the whole Hippie dress thing. About the “Hippiest” thing I did wear cut off knee length jeans, though we would buy them pre-cut to avoid that sloppy threads hanging down look. Never to class, of course. This was still the South!

When I started my career in education, the rule was “no slacks.” We tried to wear dresses, rather than blazers and skirts so we wouldn’t be mistaken for the students. No more socks – we were professionals. My mother made me tailored dresses, but I still would wear a blazer and skirt when I felt I could get away with it.

As a young married woman, I tried to look sophisticated, but usually fell short of the mark. Fortunately, my mother kept my wardrobe flowing with new additions, and my beloved blazers and skirts were OK – until we moved to California. But when I lived in Illinois, I learned to wear a wig and wear high heel boots. Lipstick got pale and eye makeup got strange.

Enter polyester – the fabric we loved to hate. In California in the early 70s it was jeans and T-shirts or what we later started to call “fat’ polyester. The earliest polyester had a plastic feel about it – very thick and impossible to wrinkle. It was the fabric of the future. No more ironing (nobody objected to that!). Polyester just went with the whole 70s thing with disco, glimmer balls and the like. I hated that whole period.

About the time we left Southern California in 1976 and came east, Preppy was back. We never called it Preppy, but it was the look I had grown up with. I was thrilled to wear blazers and leather jackets again. Plaid was in again and so was its companion, oxford cloth- though now perma-pressed. Polyester became progressively more refined. It was sometimes indistinguishable except by touch from natural fabrics.

At some point in the 1990s I stopped worrying about things like dress length or even what other people except my immediate colleagues were wearing. I bought what they had in the stores that fit my overweight body. Before Women’s sizes, life after size 16 was definitely limited. My mother was no longer around to sew for me and I had to find clothes I could wear.

In the 2000s my mid-aged and beyond colleagues and I discovered that the secret to getting by in the world was slacks in black, white and beige in a variety of styles. Blouses could be solid colored knit tops and jackets could be bright colors – plaids, florals, anything goes! With black dress and jacket you can go anywhere – mostly especially Washington, DC, the city that appears to be in continual mourning.

What is next – I don’t know and I don’t really care that much. But I know for sure I will not be wearing what those people in the fashion magazine are wearing! Well, maybe the dark socks – but never with a feather skirt and baggy sweater! There are limits ---

Sunday, August 07, 2011

My Shoes from Mary Janes to Clogs

When I was a kid in the 50s, we had three kinds of shoes, leather oxfords for school, tennis shoes for play, and leather sandals for the beach. Life was so simple then!

The first shoes I really remember vividly were Mary Janes, but back then we didn’t call them Mary Janes. I would have remembered because my best friend, from across the street, was named Mary Jane. We just called them Sunday shoes. Usually they were white or black patent leather and we wore them with white cotton socks, rolled down. The rule, as every kid in Brimingham knew, was no white shoes until Easter! Being Protestant, I never associated patent leather with any inappropriate reflections.

For school, we all wore brown oxfords until sometime in the upper elementary grades saddle shoes came along. I think about that same time saddle shoes were all the rage in high schools, and somehow the fad trickled down to us. Keeping them clean was a lot harder than the brown oxfords. The saddle was brown or black and sometimes the sole was a reddish rubber. The main part of the shoe was a hard to clean white!

Tennis shoes, as we called them, came in two brands, Keds and PF Flyers. Keds had the blue rectangle on the back and PF Flyers had the red ball. The Keds were considered cooler in my social set of adolescent girls, though I am not sure why. We had a choice of three colors – blue, red or white. We didn’t buy white because everyone knew white was for P.E. class and for real tennis.
I never much cared for sandals because I didn’t like the way they felt when the sand got in them. But they were, after all, required!

When I got to junior high it was a different world – shoe-wise! Saddle oxfords gave way to rah-rah shoes, which were similar to saddle oxfords but the saddle extended with a long tale to the back of the shoe. They were called rah-rah shoes because cheerleaders wore them with their uniforms. For regular kids, rah-rahs were fun because we could pick choose from saddles in different colors. I vividly remember a red pair I thought was especially “cool.”
No more Mary Janes - -now we had to wear “heels.” My first pair was red patent leather with about three inches high and instruments of the devil. I still remember the pain and the awkwardness of walking in them. After that flamboyant start, I settled on plainer pumps with lower heels.

For gym, starting in junior high and all the way through college, we had to wear white tennis shoes. They had to be inspected every Monday. Nobody liked to wash the shoes because that made they never looked right after they were washed. We resorted to coating them with white shoe polish intended for nurses’ shoes. By the end of the school year, the canvas was very stiff.
By the time I reached high school, there was only one kind of school shoe that was acceptable – Bass Weejuns. Those shoes cost about $30 and had to be special ordered about 6 weeks in advance from the ritziest department store in Birmingham. My mother reluctantly relented after I became despondent about having to wear an obvious “knock-off” brand. The optimal color was brown and the preferred style was the penny loafer (in my world it was not cool to put pennies in penny loafers).

But by the time I was a senior, it was OK to be a bit daring. I remember getting a pair of navy blue Weejuns with a pebble finish and tassels. What a fashion statement!
In high school, there was only one two kinds of acceptable shoes -- pumps and spectators. A basic wardrobe required pumps in black, blue, white and off-white. Brown was OK too if you could afford another pair. We then dressed them up with shoe clips in various styles and colors. For Easter, spectators were a good choice.

Spectators were the dress equivalent of saddle shores because they were white with colored trim. They also had small holes in them similar to a man’s wing tip shoe (BTW, my grandfather, Thomas Green Humphreys, Sr., designed the original mens’ wingtip shoes).

In college, Bass Weejuns still prevailed, as did pumps and spectators. By the time I graduated, however, other shoe style were creeping into our wardrobes. I remember a pair of navy blue shoes with sturdy low heels and big buckles. My mother, who was always every fashionable, dubbed them my “Pilgrim shoes.” I loved those shoes and wore them most days when I was a student teacher in 1968.

In 1969, the hippie movement hit my college, but I was in grad school and saw no particular need to go barefooted. We did, however, hop on the sandal bandwagon with dark brown leather thong sandals – the fancy rendition of the humble rubber flip-flop. We also took our aging Bass Weejuns and made them into strange sandals using razor blades (a summer indulgence for bored camp counselors).

When I got married and entered the professional world, it was pumps and hose in the day time and loafers at home to relax in. We were in Illinois by then and things were pretty conservative on the small, church-controlled campus where I worked. The small town where we lived did not even have a shoe store, so the simplest thing to do was wear my old shoes.

When the military sent us to California in 1971, I was cast into a strange world of synthetic leather and strange styles that my Southern sensibilities found unacceptable. The weather was beastly hot and not a good combination with synthetic leather – talk about foot odor! I finally located a shoe store where they sold shoes to little old ladies and ordered a pair of really ugly brown oxfords. At last, comfortable shoes! My mother thought they were even uglier than my Pilgrim shoes that I had only recently retired due a un-repairable broken buckle.

The entire five years I spent in California I was not happy shoe-wise. On occasional trips to Alabama I would pick up new loafers, pumps or tennis shoes. But I never fit into a world a plastic shoes, platform shoes, and peculiar sandals.

When we moved to Maryland in 1976, I quickly noticed that all of the other kindergarten moms were wearing brown leather shoes with white soles and leather laces. It was love at first sight, and within a week of arrival I had secured a pair of brown Sperry Topsiders. Soon, I bought an off-white pair for a trip to the Caribbean. I have had at least one pair in my wardrobe for the less 35 years – decades before we ever owned a sailboat.

Maryland was certainly more to my liking shoe-wise. My leather pumps, loafers and tennis shoes, along with my boat shoes, served me well for decades, with slight variations in heel design, color, and style.

Then a few years ago, something happened. My feet started to hurt – a lot! Pumps, even with the broader stacked heels that were then my preference, were intolerable. In fact, even my beloved loafers were uncomfortable.

For a trip, I ordered some really unattractive clogs with mesh tops. Within a week, I learned to love them and have ordered more colors, including a fur lined leather pair for winter. I even ordered dress versions that are really pretty strange, but are acceptable for events where I am to be on my feet for extended periods.

I still have some pumps for weddings and funerals, and I still can wear my boat shoes. My tennis shoes have morphed into athletic shoes in black for winter and white for summer.
Because I live in Maryland, I now live by the more restrictive rule on white shoes – forbidden until after Memorial Day and banned after Labor Day – except when at the airport in a flight bound for Florida (of course).