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Excerpt from On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger , plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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On the Clock

What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

by Emily Guendelsberger

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger X
On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 352 pages
    Jul 14, 2020, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tara Mcnabb
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Chastened, I resolved to be the best ice cream scooper I could possibly be. For the rest of the summer, I tried to be that overeager, kiss-ass robot. I tried to make my cones beautiful. I made myself smile and be extra friendly when I was exhausted. I cleaned equipment before being asked to. I even asked if there was anything I could mop.

I kept hoping that if I worked hard enough, the dignity my dad talked about would just materialize, like a runner's high. But it's hard to feel digni- fied when your right arm is never not sticky or when a jackass crew of boys runs you ragged while pretending not to recognize you from history class.

Anyway, my manager didn't seem to notice my attempts to be the best damn ice cream scooper in the land. All us counter kids were summarily fired at the end of the season, and I moved on to a string of service jobs that took me through high school into college and my early twenties—dishwasher, cashier, receptionist, mall photographer, church pianist, grocery stocker, projectionist, sandwich maker.

When I moved to Philadelphia after college, I continued working service jobs to support myself while trying to break into journalism. I tried to embody my dad's advice by working harder than everybody else — for about a year, I worked five days a week as a receptionist and two days a week as an unpaid intern. I stayed up late memorizing the AP Stylebook. I jumped at the chance to do anything editors needed — I practically asked if there was anything I could mop. And, though it felt agonizingly slow at the time, I gradually clawed my way up out of the service sector.

At my first white-collar job — copyediting on the night desk of the Philadelphia Daily News — coworkers were confused when I'd say I couldn't go out for a smoke because I was "in the weeds." Here, I discovered, "in the weeds" meant stuck in the details. Overburdened with work was a distant second, and it seemed to get more distant the higher you climbed up the career ladder. There was such a class difference between service and white-collar work that those three words actually meant different things, as if the two groups spoke different languages.

I was young, insecure about being self-taught, and desperate to fit into the white-collar world, so I started saying I was "swamped" or "on deadline" instead. But I did start noticing the many other ways a lot of people with influence seemed to live in a completely different world from the one I knew from service work.

The easiest example to pick on is the "Why don't millennials do X?" think piece, which often settles on the cultural or technological quirkiness of my generation of consumers. (Okay, readers of a certain age, sing it with me: young people don't buy houses or boats or diamonds or save for retirement because we don't have any money.)

I noticed this dynamic a lot in media coverage, too — particularly when you got to the national level. Even now, real, respected people with real, respectable jobs express confusion about things that make me wonder how long it's been since they've had a conversation with anyone making less than $100,000 a year. These vexing puzzles include:

  • Why do American employers complain they can't find good workers to fill open positions?
  • Why has the life expectancy of middle-aged white Americans fallen off a cliff in the past decade?
  • Why is the country ready to riot over jobs — immigrants taking them, trade deals killing them, Wall Street destroying them?
  • Why are depression and anxiety so widespread when this is one of the best times to be alive in history?
  • Why do people vote against their self-interest?
  • If the data says everything's so great, why is America freaking the fuck out?

You can make a lot of money explaining away the gap between data and reality in ways that flatter puzzled wealthy people. But if you've had a service job in the past decade, I'll bet that some of the answers are probably as obvious to you as why millennials aren't buying yachts. I'll spend the next few hundred pages trying to make it just as obvious to all you readers, but the short answer? The bottom half of America's labor market lives in the weeds. All the time.

Excerpted from On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger . Copyright © 2019 by Emily Guendelsberger . Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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