“Undercover Boss” and the Death of the American Dream

CBS has been broadcasting a limited run reality show called “Undercover Boss”. The premise of the show is that a C-level executive of a company goes undercover to work with “low-level” employees and learn more about how their company really operates. As of this writing, two companies have been featured, the Hooters restaurant franchise, and Waste Management.

The first episode with Waste Management, really struck a chord with me. The COO, Larry O’Donnell, seems a nice enough guy. His heart is in the right place, and in keeping with the premise of the show, he tries to right some “wrongs” that he notices as he works undercover. Larry takes on five jobs. He works as a garbage sorter, a garbage truck weigh station operator, an outdoor trash collector, a porta-potty cleaner and finally an everyday garbage man. He discovers that all these jobs are hard work. (Go figure.) He discovers that back-breaking work is being done by people with far worse circumstances than his, including one man who bags garbage outdoors while maintaining a steady schedule of dialysis treatments.

The show made me go places that I don’t think CBS had in mind. The American Dream is that you start at the bottom and through hard work you make it to the top. I have always been ambitious and yes, sometimes my ambition wrote checks that my ability or stamina could not cash, but I was always looking at that next rung. I spent 24 years in corporate America. Where I worked, you could start as a computer operator and retire as an executive, perhaps not the CEO, but an executive just the same. Of course, nowadays even this is no longer true. Promotions are few and far between and the strategy du jour is do more with less. Of course, at Waste Management, the difference in education requirements, for example, for a starting position as a garbage man is entirely different from the requirements needed of a COO. It’s probably not realistic to expect the garbage collector to one day be running the company.

Still I was left with a feeling of melancholy when the show was over. Despite his best intentions, Larry O’Donnell clearly glided right into a management position with no requirement that he have any experience with the real work of his company. On the flip side were a corp of workers whose hopes for true advancement were dismal at best. It felt like the caste system of India, born a garbage man, die a garbage man. Don’t get me wrong. There is no shame in any honest day’s work. If a porta-potty cleaner is earning a living for his family, more power to him. But is that the American Dream?

“Undercover Boss” paints a picture of a society in which there is a ruling class and a working class, neither of whom know much about the other. For those of us who believe in an America where you can be anything you want if you work hard enough, it is a depressing portrait indeed.


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