Separated at Worth
Posted on December 8, 2010 by Marian Salzman
This is the eighth in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.
What is anything, or anyone, worth today? It’s clearly a question for which the old “lies, damned lies and statistics” quote could be resurrected. This is to say that when talking about worth, things have gone—frankly—berserk. Paul Krugman, way back in January 2009, editorialized on “Wall Street voodoo” and illustrated it with a case study of fictional “zombie bank” Gotham, still operating as if alive but actually dead bust.
Just last week, we heard a lot more about how the Fed kept dead banks alive. Risking the taxpayers’ dime (or bullion), the Fed paid out about $3.3 trillion as the “lender of last resort” in overnight loans—daily during most of 2008 and 2009. The recipients were not just U.S. financial companies such as Goldman Sachs, but international banks, too, plus Harley-Davidson and GE (the Fed bought commercial paper from them) and Verizon (for which the Fed picked up debt issued by the company twice, totaling $1.5 billion).
If you’re seeing double, well, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. “Worth” discrepancies, whether you’re a Living-Bigger-Than-the-Joneses or a Downsized-Me, can make your head feel like it’s about to explode. Remember Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the “powerful smell of mendacity” he whiffed? Burl Ives’ ire applies today to the “worth” question, because people just don’t really trust in what worth means, much less whether it sticks. And why should we? With lines on graphs swinging as erratically as a derailed roller coaster—gold and silver rising one day; bonds leveraging stocks, and vice versa; bonuses here and gone, then back—it’s a world of confusion over what “worth” really is.
Even if the equation behind relativity were seminal in modern times, the term “it’s all relative” depends on where you sit. You might be throwing darts at your old Albert Einstein poster if you’re the one who paid $500,000 for your house in 2006 and it appraised for half that last week. Or you might be kissing it if you bought an ounce of gold for $550 that same year and sold it for $1,300 in October.
It’s all relative in offices across America, too. Consider how the downsizing of workers has evolved through the camera lens, using two movies released a decade apart. In 1999, Office Space introduced “the Bobs,” bad guys who behaved like bumblers riding the elevators down from corporate to issue pink slips. By 2009, there was George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, no bumbler but a spotless, soulless “termination engineer.”
In real life, lots of people have found this reward after years of solid work and overtime: half an hour to clean out your desk, with a security escort watching. In the meantime, the boss might still be seeing six-figure bonuses, a Rolex and a humidor filled with Cohibas on retirement. And the No. 1–paid CEO of 2009 was Oracle’s Larry Ellison, at $84.5 million in compensation. Big money will keep smelling like bad eggs in 2011, for certain, as many Americans have either personally experienced unemployment or know somebody who has been a victim of the zero net job creation of the past decade or of inhumane layoffs.
Look for issues of worth and compensation (and overcompensation) to be very much on people’s minds next year, although we might find more questions than answers. Wal-Mart is facing a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit on gender pay equity, with allegations it has paid women less than men and given them fewer promotions. According to the latest Census, U.S. women still earned only 77 cents on the male dollar in 2008 (African-American women earned 68 cents, and Latinas 58 cents). But a recent survey found young women’s salaries overtaking those of their male peers to the tune of 8 percent across major metropolitan centers. So which is it: worth more or worth less? Getting the picture?
Even as these topics continue to dominate the news, and people hear about executive parachutes, multimillion-dollar bonuses and even tax cuts for the richest—and as confusion continues about “pay” versus “compensation”—what’s going to be more and more valuable now are emotional connections. The word “worth” for many Americans will return to that real worth that lies in emotional wealth: the love and respect of family and dear friends. And compensation will be far more about emotional currency. Emo bling (that’s emotional bling) is going to be compensating people for their losses, supporting them in their new ventures, and creating systems of relationships that not only feel real but also are real, as friends go the distance for one another.
Everything from the business handshake to the three-cheek kiss will start looking different—on a measurement of trust through deed. It’s a values-set shift possibly unparalleled, and it looks quite the contrary of the famous painting of businessmen in mackintoshes dropping out of the sky. (Or was Magritte being psychic about parachutes, like the one that let Dick Cheney down easily into the office of the vice president a decade ago?)
For all of us, lightbulbs about worth will turn on in 2011, showing relationships to be a much better bet than the cold bling of fleeting fancies and luxuries. As Thomas Edison once said, “I have friends in overalls whose friendship I would not swap for the favor of the kings of the world.”
“Mad as Hell—and Only Getting Madder”
Photo Credit: creativecommons/ Marion Doss