Sunday, November 14, 2010

Happy at Work? You Should Be 8 Feet Tall

Earlier this month the Boston Globe printed a glossy magazine insert entitled "Top Places to Work 2010."  Inside, segmented into "large, midsize and small," were dozens of companies ranked by the engagement and contentment of their employees.

These sorts of articles come out on a regular basis--top places to live, top lawyers, best schools and pizza and podiatrists--and are clearly designed to increase circulation and drive business to advertisers. Consequently, we shouldn't take these lists seriously, though the winners undoubtedly do.

In this case, the Globe invited 1,160 employers to participate.  236 companies had enough critical mass to complete the process to the point where confidential surveys were offered to 133 thousand of their employees, 82 thousand of whom elected to participate.  Criteria included Direction (confidence in leadership), Execution, Managers (listening, praising, etc.), Career (opportunity), Conditions, and Pay/Benefits.

That seems like a pretty good list, though I cannot help but think about the Acura service manager who badgers me in person, by phone and by email for ratings of "10" on the survey Acura corporate inevitably sends after one of my visits to get the oil changed.  I'm not sure I even know what a "10" oil change is.

Of the winners of the Globe survey, one company offered unlimited vacation. Another free catered lunches, Fridays off in the summer, an iPod for every new employee, and a "kegerator"--a refrigerator that dispenses beer from two kegs on Friday afternoons.  One arranges for a tricycle to deliver local produce every Thursday in the warm weather months.  Another placed a masseuse and manicurist on site.  Who wouldn't be happy with those sorts of benefits?

Height and Benefits: A Quick History

Bear with me for a moment.

In 1800, the average native-born American white male worked six days per week, ten-hours per day on the farm and averaged 5'8" tall, a full two inches taller than his English counterpart.  Some of this height advantage was from living in a dispersed population where contagion wasn't as devastating to the population.  Most, however, was likely from eating better food, especially more protein.  Of course, by modern standards, nobody in 1800 had a balanced diet.  If our 60 hour-per-week, 5'8" ancestor lived in the North, he/she ate lots of beef and wheat, and in the South tons of corn and pork.  All of this came with plenty of milk, cream and butter.  As one historian summarized, this diet was "monotonous and constipating."

Now, cast ahead about 140 years to World War II.  The average native-born American white male enlisting in the Army was--guess?--5'8" tall.  No change in 140 years.

Though, in fact, a funny thing happened on the way to WWII.

It was called the Industrial Revolution.  It meant the growth of high stress, smoky, dirty, dangerous factories and urban areas.  And part of this so-called "urban stress" was nutritional.  People on meager wages tended to pay their rent before they bought good food.  Reliable logistics from farm to city were still being invented.  

What happened?  The average height of the native-born U.S. male population fell by nearly two inches from 1800 to a low point in the 1880s, and did not recover to 5'8" until the 1920s.

At the same time--as you might expect--male life expectancy declined from about 47 in 1800 to 41 in 1850.  Women had it even worse; as a group, they went from 48 to 37.1 years--and undernourished women carrying smaller babies was probably the most direct link to a shorter population. 

A Short History of American Capitalism adds:
The evidence so far indicates that females began to experience nutritional stress earlier than men during a downturn and were less likely to show improvements in an upswing. . .Social class and occupation also played a large part in the decline. . .In all studies without exception, the positive relationship between social status and physical stature has been consistently documented in various societies and at different times. . .
Out of nine industrialized capitalist countries, the United States experienced the longest decline in stature—sixty years.  The antebellum years constituted the bulk of this period. . .Growing inequality of wealth combined with rising food prices, and the falling birth weights of babies of poor women suggest that the quality of life may have decayed for the lower classes.
Clearly, when Americans made their move from farm to factory in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, they found working conditions tougher, sometimes much tougher, than on the farm.  And good, plentiful protein was harder to come by.  At the Chicopee Manufacturing Company, a Massachusetts textile mill that began operating in 1823, the average workday began at 5 a.m. and lasted until 7:30 p.m. with two half-hour breaks for breakfast and dinner.  13.5 hours of daily industrial misery.  Cotton fly filled the air, permanently damaging lungs.  Heat was oppressive.  Dangerous machinery sat everywhere.  When England limited children to 48-hour weeks, a factory manager complained that it became hard to get anything done.

Today, the average height for an American male is approaching 5' 10".  

Back to Today

Imagine, now, if you were employed by one of the Globe's "Top Places to Work."  Unlimited vacation.  Free catered protein.  A kegerator!  If poor work conditions and nutrition make you shorter, what would Top Work Conditions, Copious Protein and Beer Every Friday do for you?

You should be, what. . .about eight feet tall?!

Next time I'm in Boston, I'm finding the happy eight-footers walking the streets, following them to their offices, and dropping off a resume.  Those are clearly the companies we all should be working for.  Besides, this 5'8" stuff is for the birds.