One observation I’ve often heard from European friends, and visitors to North America, is, “It’s as if every single person in your culture has worked at one or more restaurants in their life.” I’d never thought of it before but they’re right … I can’t think of anyone in my orbits who hasn’t waited tables or bussed or dish-washed or cooked for some stretch. For Europeans visiting Canada or the States, remember that restaurant memories are a great conversation starter with most North Americans; everyone has their tales of psychotic bosses, Christmas morning shifts and après-work partying excess.
Working in a restaurant when you’re young doesn’t necessarily mean minimum wage (though it usually does) and, for many people, minimum wage is a stage-of-life thing that we all work through and gaze back on with rose-tinted glasses. When I put the word McJob in my 1991 novel Generation X, I wanted a word to describe what I saw as “a low-paying, low-prestige dead-end job that requires few skills and offers very little chance of intracompany advancement”. It made sense then, and it makes sense now. Back in the early 1990s I began to see the start of a process that’s currently in full swing: the defunding and/or elimination of the mechanisms by which we once created and maintained a healthy middle class. What was once a stage of life is now turning into, well, all of life.
In the early 1990s I wanted to set a book in a fast-food restaurant and in order to make field notes, I tried hard to get a job in various Vancouver-area McDonald’s restaurants but, as a reasonably well-nourished male in his mid-thirties with no references on his application, I raised too many alarm bells and I never got a job, and good on fast food for having HR mechanisms that can filter out infiltrators like me. A decade later I ended up setting a blackly comic novel in a Staples (The Gum Thief), which is basically fast food but with reams of A4 instead of pink goo-burgers. The point was to foreground the fact that a minimum wage job is not a way to live life fully, and to be earning one past a certain age casts a spell of doom upon its earners, sort of like those middle-class Argentines who lost their jobs in the crash 15 years ago and never went back to being middle class again.
McDonald’s campaigned for years and ultimately failed to have the definition of the word McJob revised in the Oxford English Dictionary, in 2006 even renting a big screen in Piccadilly Circus to put forth its viewpoint. The saga of this process is a fun read on Wikipedia but, given the accelerating shrinkage of the middle class, it all seems like a frivolous corporate bonbon from a nearly vanished era. Discussions of a minimum wage in 2014 seem to have a nasty bite. As I’ve said before, we’re all going to be working at McDonald’s into our eighties (not all, of course, on the minimum wage) but the relentless parade of numbers that are making this clear to us is starting to frighten people to the core. It’s really happening.
I guess the thing that bugs me about current minimum wage discussions is that the minimum wage has gone from being a drop-dead minimum salary that, if nothing else, protected the young, the weak and the less able from being exploited (and the moment people can exploit others, they will, and we all know it), into a mantra to the effect that if you can’t get by on a minimum wage – rent, food, transport, life – then tough luck sucker; you don’t deserve anything at all – and it’s all your fault – and by the way, you’ve forfeited your voice and participation in your culture.
The minimum wage is now used as a shield behind which politicians can deflect any social criticism that might be central to people who need a minimum wage – student life and education, most social and medical services, artistic and creative life and whatever else you can think of – and basically say, “Well, look, we gave you a minimum wage, didn’t we? So what’s your problem now? If you can’t stretch your minimum wage into food, shelter, lodging, medical, dental, education, then I guess it just sucks to be you.”
Minimum wage has gone from being a device created to protect the worst of power and labour imbalances to a fiscal panacea that allows its wielders to gut valuable social infrastructure while smiling beneath the cheesiest of haloes. I was 28 when I wrote Generation X but the last time I was officially an employee anywhere was in August 1989 – so, technically, I’ve been unemployed for the past 25 years. But about once a month I get this recurring dream where I suddenly realise that I’m unemployed, broke, living in a basement suite and desperately need a job – and so my mind automatically goes to having to work in a fast-food restaurant, and the sensation is terrifying because how on earth is anyone going to be able to live on what you make there? And then I wake up and say, “Phew. I’ve still got a few decades left before manning the French-fry computer. Dang, life is good.”
Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is published by William Heinemann. Twitter: @dougcoupland