Su Lum: Slumming |

Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

I’m not going to say they were the good old days, but back in the early ’50s in Boonton, N.J., just about anyone who could walk could get a job, and just about anyone who had a job could raise a family on the wages of one earner.

As an adolescent female, I wasn’t expected to have a real job or a career or anything. The deal was that I’d eventually get married, and my husband would take care of the finances. In fact, this didn’t work out that way and I’ve always been glad that, by the time I married the first time at age 20, I already had five years of work experience under my belt.

During the summers I worked as a soda jerk, waitress, puppeteer and office clerk. I’d worked on the assembly line of a Valentine factory and as a secretary and cost estimator.

I can’t remember if there was such a thing as minimum wage laws then, but I made $27 per week at the Valentine factory – my first real 9-to-5 job – and thought I had died and gone to heaven rolling in all that dough.

Boonton was a big factory town – the smelly soap factory, the worse-smelling perfume factory, the stocking and lingerie factory, the beeswax factory, the pocketbook factory, the Boontonware factory, now all obsolete along with the local dairies and most of the truck farms. You could always get jobs as an unskilled worker in those places.

I shudder to think of the time I wasted as a secretary (this was pre-Xerox) and especially as a cost estimator, the latter being a full-time job in a department of five or six people, which could be accomplished now in a matter of minutes on a computer.

One would think that with all the new speed and technology everyone could take life a little bit easier, but the opposite occurred: Now, anyone wanting to make a decent living has to promise both heart and soul to work for the company, to be available night and day in the shackles of smart phones, email, Facebook, Twitter and tweet and to devote not a mere 100 percent of your effort but more – 110 percent, 125 percent – rah, rah, sis boom bah.

Even our recreation is not relaxing. Tote that barge, lift that bale, lose that pound, no pain no gain, and meanwhile get those kids signed up for day care before conception and register them for college before they’re in elementary school, and haul them back and forth to soccer, play practice, piano lessons and karate classes because that’s what good parenting is all about. “Parenting” became a verb only recently.

Then comes the recession – bang – and people who were mortgaged up to their eyebrows (homes, vehicles, tuitions) were in deep trouble. The great ball stopped rolling, and all of a sudden it was an employer’s market. It had been heading that way all along, but now it was reality.

The first step was to get rid of all the dead wood – the halt and the lame, people the companies couldn’t justify keeping on but had been there too long to fire. Hey, it’s a recession – sorry, but you have to go. The first wave went gently into that good night, so gently that the companies realized that they could take it a giant step forward.

The remaining employees, who had seen their co-workers felled – axed like cords of firewood – jumped on the chance to fill the gaps. Can you handle three jobs for the price of one? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. Will you do it at half your salary? Yes sir, yes ma’am.

If companies can continue to function- maybe not optimally, but at least marginally – with a half or a third of their original workforce, is there any motivation for them to change? How can Barack Obama wave a magic wand and fix this?

In this situation, LOL means “Lots of Luck.”

Su Lum is a longtime local who wouldn’t want to be in charge. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times, and she can be reached at

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