The sociological origin of the term “McJob”

With McDonald’s hiring 62,000 employees on April 19, a journalist looks at the sociological origins of the term “McJobs“:

The term McJob first appeared in the summer of 1986, when George Washington University sociology professor Amitai Etzioni wrote a column for the Washington Post decrying the “highly routinized” jobs at fast-food restaurants and their effect on American teens.

“By nature, these jobs undermine school attendance and involvement, impart few skills that will be useful in later life, and simultaneously skew the values of teenagers -especially their ideas about the worth of a dollar,” Etzioni wrote.

He went on to criticize the culture and routine of working at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies, noting that the jobs do not provide opportunity for entrepreneurship like the traditional lemonade stand, or the lessons of self-organization, self-discipline and self-reliance like the traditional paper route.

“True, you still have to have the gumption to get yourself over to the hamburger stand, but once you don the prescribed uniform, your task is spelled out in minute detail,” he argued. “There is no room for initiative creativity or even elementary rearrangements. These are breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday’s assembly lines, not tomorrow’s high-tech posts.”

The article then goes on to describe how McDonald’s has tried to fit back against the term, including a 2007 from “the British arm of the company…to get the Oxford English Dictionary definition changed.”

On one hand, such jobs may not be great and this is what Etzioni was getting at: they generally are low-paying and in many places don’t pay enough to be considered a “living wage.” A work like Nickel and Dimed (a review of the theater version here) portrayed such employees as having difficult lifestyles and little hope for the future. More broadly, we could think of these jobs as emblematic of a larger process of McDonaldization, coined by sociologist George Ritzer, that describes the rationalization of the modern world.

On the other hand, we live in a country that really pays attention to job reports with less interest in what kinds of jobs were actually created. The April jobs figures showed good jobs growth but we could inquire about the quality of these jobs: are they well-paying, sustainable jobs that will pay American workers for decades to come? Or, were the majority of jobs middling to lower-skilled jobs that serve American consumers in the service industry?

In the end, we have a society that is quite dependent on such “McJobs.” The term is unlikely to go away though it clearly applies to a lot more corporations and areas than simply McDonald’s. Just as Walmart tends to get singled out as emblematic of big box stores and suburban sprawl because of its revenue (still at the top of the Fortune 500), McDonald’s size and influence draws attention (Super Size Me, anyone?). But as a society, we could have larger and ongoing discussions about what kind of jobs we wish to hold and to promote. In these discussions, we need corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Apple, and others involved to think about the American future.

Quick Review: Nickel and Dimed (theater version)

I recently saw Nickel and Dimed in a local theater production. The text is a staple of Introduction to Sociology classes but I was not aware until recently that the 2001 book had been adapted for the stage. While the New York Times reviewed the play in its 2006 New York City debut, I have a few thoughts about the production I saw:

1. Like the book, the play follows Barbara to her three new professions that pay minimum wage (or a little higher): working as a waitress at Kenny’s, working as a housecleaner for a maids company, and working on the sales floor at Mall-Mart. From what I remember of the book, the basic story is the same: Barbara decides to do this in order to understand the experiences of the American working poor, finds that the work is physically taxing and also takes time to master, and concludes that such a life is quite difficult and unfair.

2. Besides Barbara, the key characters are some of her co-workers. These people are often caught in dead-end jobs that offer little money and few or no benefits. With nowhere else to go, some of the coworkers doggedly follow the rules in order to maintain their jobs, others rebel a bit, while others show Barbara compassion that she was not expecting to need. In the final moments of the play, we hear about some of these workers have fared in the long run even as Barbara has returned to her cushy life.

2a. One of the more interesting scenes from these co-workers comes toward the end of the play when her Mal-Mart manager speaks directly to the audience for a few moments. As a manager, he says “the numbers don’t lie” and suggests that there is little that can be done to improve work for he or his employees as the prices dictate the wages and benefits. Of course, he is suggesting that the problem extends higher up in the company.

3. One of the fun parts of the evening was thinking about how the audience was reacting to these scenes. Barbara plays up some of the class conflict ideas and says some uncomfortable things, particularly to a fairly wealthy, suburban crowd.

4. This particular production included four musical numbers which I don’t believe are part of the typical stage production. While I am not a fan of musicals, I thought these numbers added something to the show. I always find it interesting to hear cheerful-sounding numbers about less-than-cheerful themes such as unjust working conditions.

5. Several of my students saw the show and their comments to me suggested that the play hit an emotional nerve in a way that a lecture on social class in America in my Intro to Sociology course has a hard time doing. In additional conversations, we found that my students and I have worked in some similar jobs but the difference was that we knew that we had better educational and career options down the road.

Overall, I enjoyed thinking about these topics in a new way though the theater. Now that Ehrenreich’s book is 10 years old, is there another book that was recently published or that is in the works that can address some of the same issues while attaining the popularity of Nickel and Dimed? That might be a tall task but such works help keep sociological discussions alive in the public sphere.

(I also found that Ehrenreich’s personal page for the book includes positive reviews from a number of sociologists.)