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Jewish World Review June 16, 1999 /2 Tamuz 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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If work is a dance, how's
your partner doing? --
YOU SEE THEM on downtown streets every weekday this month:

Graduates of the college Class of '99, just starting out, reporting to offices where they are the newest of the new men and women. You can't blame them if their eagerness is palpable; in fact, you ought to envy it. Envy it, and remember when you were the new person at work.

It was scary, it was unfamiliar, it was confusing . . . but mainly, if you had any sense of belief in yourself, it was filled with ideas of limitless personal possibilities. For all the stories of alleged cynicism among recent college graduates, for all the reported obstacles they face in entering a business world clogged with longtimers solidly into middle age, there is something about those first weeks at work that can be almost intoxicating. Nothing is routine; little is mundane. If you make an impression, the world can be yours -- at least the world contained within the walls of your company. That's what goes on inside the skin of the new hire.

Jump forward 30 or 35 years. The new hire has now been with the company three decades, going on four. One of the most intriguing quotes I have read recently came from an Allstate insurance agent by the name of Edward Fox Jr. He was being quoted in a report about disgruntled agents stirring up Allstate Corp.'s annual meeting.

The agents were alleging that their disillusionment was because of changes in Allstate's ways of dealing with them over the years. Whether that is true or not -- which side is right and which side is wrong -- I have no idea. It's business. They'll work it out.

But the quote from Edward Fox -- who lives in Ridgefield, N.J., and who has been an Allstate agent since 1965 -- speaks volumes in a context that goes well beyond this particular dispute.

Fox -- speaking about his company -- said:

"This is not the girl I came to the dance with."

And you can bet that he's right. With all the talk of corporations having abandoned the paternal loyalty they used to bestow upon their employees, with similar talk about how employees now behave like restless free agents, always ready to sprint out the door for a better offer somewhere else, there is something irrefutable:

Companies do change. It's inevitable. The worst companies change in a haphazard and disorienting manner, but even the best companies change year by year, decade by decade, and if an employee stays around long enough he or she will almost always, in the middle of some long and sleepless night, have the thought about the company that Edward Fox had about his:

This is not the girl I came to the dance with. Everything has changed.

Managers are promoted and replaced by men and women who don't really know the employees they inherit; young hotshots in the business office come up with policies that will save the company money while disrupting the lives of men and women who had become accustomed to the old ways. Skills that made an employee valuable are rendered less than precious by new technology; the person at the next desk, with whom you felt so at ease, retires, to have his or her seat taken by someone whose style makes you vaguely nervous.

The name of the company changes sometimes; during the course of a long career you may be asked to pack up your things and unload them in a new building designed to meet objectives that weren't even on the horizon on your first day at work. When your salary review comes due, it suddenly occurs to you that the person evaluating your worth came to the corporation 20 years after you did -- that the person looking in your file was a toddler on the day you first strode in the door, so full of ambition and drive. You think of your freshman class at the company -- the first-year men and women who arrived with you that first June -- and you can count on one hand the number still around.

Nefarious? No. A devious plan? Hardly. It's just the way of the world -- at least the way of the business world. It's the natural order of things -- the way businesses must shed their skins to remain young in their next incarnation. It's no use trying to tell that to the Class of '99 as they arrive at work this month; this is not the time for them to think about such things. They'll find out, somewhere down the line. "This is not the girl I came to the dance with." Yes, she is. She's just changed, while you weren't looking.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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