Who gets to say what this woman is doing: Douglas Coupland or McDonald’s

Mcjob One of the lessons of the 1960s was that certain kinds of cultural innovation were actually "matters indifferent."  New and strange lifestyles could be allowed to flourish, sexual expression could grow more explicit, every kind of speech could become more free.  Cultural tumult and experiment didn’t turn out to have structural consequences that would threaten the order or good government.  The youth cultures of the post war period, the ones driven by Bill Haley, and Elvis, would actually not run riot.  Only the Mayor of Chicago seemed not to grasp this new truth.  The rest of the world shrugged and said, "well, as long as it doesn’t happen on my lawn, knock yourself out."  In retrospect, we didn’t have to crucify Lenny Bruce after all. 

[This turns out to be an amazing anthropological experiment.  It was easy for liberal mavens to dismiss the anxieties and the hostilities of the mainstream, but in point of fact, I don’t think anyone knew for sure whether the cultural ferment of the post war period wouldn’t threaten order and good government.  It was a remarkable finding.  Now we know. Before we just didn’t. 

And the experiment continues.  What is the minimum order of agreement, or cultural consensus, that called for.  Was it Vance Packard who called us a "society of strangers."  The question is how strangers can the strangers get before really something necessary condition is violated and mutual estrangement takes us to the breaking point.]

But as the mainstream grew more tolerant, it was merely catching up to capitalism which had always ignored challenges from the margin.  Riesman and others so lovingly documented by Carey brought every kind of charge against capitalism in general, and marketing in particular, and no one to my knowledge, bothered to reply.  They arrested Lenny Bruce.  They ignored David Riesman. 

But now it looks like capitalism is fighting back.  It’s a small example but it might be an indicator of a larger trend to come.  According to today’s Financial Times,

The UK arm of [McDonald’s] is campaigning to get British dictionary publishers to revise their definitions of the word "McJob," a term the Oxford English Dictionary describes as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.  McDonald’s says the term is "out of date, out of touch and … insulting."

The Financial Times says that the term was merely disseminated by Douglas Coupland in his era-shaping novel Generation X.  I had thought (assumed, really) that Coupland had invented it.  In his column, Stern suggests the McDonald’s protest is futile, a gesture worthy of King Cunute.  But I am less sure. 

There is a larger issue here.  Specifically, who gets to say who and what we are.  Still, more specifically, the question is who gets to say describe the job that millions of employees at McDonald’s perform each day.  It may suit the novelist to dismiss this labor from on high.  After all, he works a word processor, an instrument we regard as vastly more interesting than a fryer.  And sometimes, we do suppose that writers should decide on matters of this kind.  But if I was a fry cook at McDonald’s and someone called my labor a "McJob," I would have some questions.

References

Carey, John.  2002.  The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers.  The Amazon.com page here

Newman, Jerry.  2007.  My Secret Life on the McJob.  publisher unknown.

Stern, Stefan and Jenny Wiggins.  2007.  McDonald’s Unit Spreads the word to change dictionary definition of "McJob."  Financial Times.  March 20, 2007., frontpage, p. 2.   [The quote above comes from the front page of the FT which excerpts the article cited here from p.  2.  The  quote within the quote comes from David Fairhurst, senior-vice president and chief people officer for McDonald’s.]

Stern, Stephan.  2007.  McJob: n., slang, C20, a fulfilling role with great prospects.  Financial Times.  March 20, 2007.  p. 7.

4 thoughts on “Who gets to say what this woman is doing: Douglas Coupland or McDonald’s”

  1. So what is this then — another member of the intelligentsia staking out an even loftier position? Why not some objective data – do McJobs actually exist? Is Coupland accurate or not? How can we take the McDonald’s Corporation at their word? (At any rate, what happens in their kitchens is less akin to cuisine as it is to injection molding…)

    McJobs exist. They are terrible. I’ve had more than my share of them in my lifetime. People take them if they are young, have no experience, no education or other prospects. They now do not pay enough for you to live on, much less support a family. Sometimes they are dressed up in fancy titles like “partners” or “associates” but in reality there’s very little power doled out to the individuals hired.

    The term is a largely accurate description of what working at a McDonald’s is like: low-job-security, high turnover, low-advancement-prospects, no-health-benefits, often dirty and dangerous; in similar companies, most notably Wal-Mart, many documented instances employees are asked to work overtime for no extra pay, sometimes being locked into their stores overnight.

    With the squeezing of the middle class and the disappearance of the North American manufacturing sector, this landscape is what greets many high school and even college graduates today.

    As always, Coupland was presciently describing a then-emerging socio-economic trend and the subclass of people who inhabit that part of the pie chart…

    May I suggest Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book Nickeled and Dimed for a slice of documentary truth to back up the term “mcjob?” (she also makes an appearance in the new “dramatic documentary musical”, The American Ruling Class — which looks interesting)

  2. Didn’t our Chicago-bred friend Studs Turkel teach us anything about evaluating the meaning of work from the perspective of those who actually do it? Nowadays we act as if any labor involving the use of one’s hands should be relegated to people surreptitiously entering the country under the cover of darkness. And that anyone who actually found meaning in such work must be illiterate or defective. How about this? How about we stop defining what others’ lives mean without asking them and stick to figuring out our own?

  3. in my experience, the term “mcjob” stems not so much from the popular perception of the labor experience offered by mcdonalds but rather to the meanings attached to its product. mcdonalds product is generally viewed as “cheap,” “easily accessible,” “of dubious (nutritional) value,” and, ultimately, “disposable.” it’s these associations, then, than inform the use of “mc” as a prefix to “job.” note, for example, how large, new construction in the suburbs is commonly referred to as “mcmansions.”

    thus, though the dictionary may accurately assess the word’s meaning in contemporary usage, it obfuscates the word’s true origins. neither the dictionary folks nor the corporation itself seem to grasp the meaning management aspect of this issue. perhaps a better strategy for mcdonalds would be to shift the meanings associated with its product (and, by extension, its career offerings)? the current strategy only reinforces an image of mcdonalds as a corporate giant acting against the public.

    starbucks has, to some extent, avoided having its positions identified as “mcjobs” by offering the kind of perks (e.g., health insurance, stock options) not normally associated with part-time, unskilled labor. more importantly, though, the meanings so carefully selected and grafted to starbucks’ product are not those of mcdonalds.

    incidentally, laurie anderson spent a year working at mcdonalds not too long ago. i heard a brief interview with her regarding the experience on “studio 360,” but i can’t recall her final analysis.

  4. It’s very simple.

    Dictionaries are descriptive, not proscriptive. The OED is an historical dictionary, which means that it captures every meaning that an English word has ever had.

    Hence, if ‘McJob’ was, at any point in time, ever understood by a large number of English speakers to mean a demeaning, unstimulating job with no development opportunities, then the OED can’t delist it without completely destroying their reputation. For the moment, the OED definition is correct, however much McDonalds may protest.

    Hence, McDonalds has no chance of having this entry revised. The fact that ‘McJob’ may be offensive to McDonalds, or some other people is irrelevant. Dictionaries, by their nature, must contain derogatory and offensive words.

    If McDonalds are successful, through marketing, to change the common meaning of ‘McJob’ to mean an interesting, dynamic job with a future, then the OED will add a second entry, and note the period of time to which the previous entry applied.

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