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Mike Richman

Health Care

Who’s Looking Out for You?

Work-life balance has never been more important

Published: Thursday, April 5, 2018 - 11:03

During this past Friday’s episode of Quality Digest Live, our weekly web TV show, QD editor in chief Dirk Dusharme and I covered stories about the gig economy and the skills gap and workforce shortages within manufacturing, especially as it relates to metrology, which is the science of measurement.

For the final segment of the show, as we are wont to do, we went “off-script” to further delve into these important topics and others that speak to people’s unique and fast-changing relationships to work. Our extended conversation also touched on apprenticeships, universal basic income, minimum wage increases, and the ability (or inability) for those in the middle class to earn comfortable retirements following their working lives. You can see the video here:

Toward the end of our discussion, Dirk asked me how wages have been holding up vs. corporate profits, and I frankly didn’t have the information readily at hand, although I mentioned my strong suspicion that the two figures were rapidly decoupling in favor of the corporations. This article, which appeared on the MarketWatch website in May 2017, confirms this. A chart within the piece reveals that, at the time, corporate profits stood at nearly 9 percent of the United States’ GDP; employee compensation was at about 44 percent. Although these figures seem on first blush to very much favor workers, the corporate profit number was then near a seven-decade high, while the employee compensation number was scraping the bottom for that same period. And although higher corporate profits traditionally correlate with better overall economic conditions (in the early to mid-1980s or the mid- to late-1990s, for instance), never has the spread between these two measures been so extreme. Over the past several months, with the passing of a huge tax break that mostly benefits corporations, that spread is likely to just continue growing.

So what does all this mean for you? Given all these data inputs, I believe that your best protection in the face of being buffeted about by the sea changes that all workers are now experiencing, both on the macro and micro level, is for all of us to take control of our own professional experience. If you’re interested in a gig, pursue it as a choice, actively seeking out various opportunities that you would enjoy. If you want to focus on a career within a single organization or industry, get yourself the best possible level of training—whether it’s a Level-One or Level-Two certification from the Coordinate Metrology Society, the Certified Quality Engineer from ASQ, a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, whatever. These programs provide assurance that you have the chops to do your job at world-class levels, and they nicely bump the compensation you can demand to boot. The more you know and can prove your knowledge, the better positioned you are to be the king of your own career rather than a pawn in someone else’s game.

The central idea of the capitalist system is that competition will tend to yield the best possible results for the greatest number of stakeholders. The idea that there’s an “invisible hand” at work, ordering the inherent chaos of markets, was first brought to light by seminal economist Adam Smith in his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Gutenberg Publishers, 2011); he revisits it in the 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations (Bantam Classics, 2003). Essentially (and this is a very basic rendering of Smith’s theory), the pursuit of self-interest by all parties will lead toward greater equilibrium in supply and demand for a product or service, of which a worker’s own unique talents and skills are certainly included.

If this is correct, then a worker is damaging not only himself but the greater organization and the entire society at large when he suboptimizes his talents and settles for less of a wage than he might otherwise be entitled. Similarly, an executive who pays her workers too much (or even too little) is similarly suboptimizing her company’s ability to efficiently compete in the broadest possible sense.

In other words, workers owe it not only to themselves but to their companies and society to embrace all opportunities for personal and professional development and the financial rewards that come with that growth. This isn’t a zero-sum game, because higher levels of compensation for workers, if accompanied by those workers’ ability to delivery greater value and productivity, will yield vast benefits for many stakeholders... investors of the company, executives and managers, other employees, and customers, not to mention the dependents of the workers in question.

The days of nice, comfortable careers where people can stay with one company for 30+ years, earning consistent 8 percent or higher annual raises, and retiring with a great pension are long gone. It’s harder these days, on multiple levels. There’s less assurance than ever before that your company and job will remain solvent—automation, outsourcing, and corporate mergers affect you and your job in ways both big and small. Even if you keep your job and are blessed to do something you like on a consistent basis, you’re likely to struggle with work-life balance. Forget the 24-hour news cycle; now we’re in a 24-hour work cycle where email, videoconferencing, text messages, and more bombard you constantly from every corner of the globe.

Work-life balance is not that dissimilar to capitalism, in that the invisible hand of self-interest will tend to yield better results for the greatest number of people. To participate fully and reap the rewards, in other words, individuals must take an active role. Passivity is not your friend when you’re trying to set and keep boundaries any more than when you’re trying to get and keep your best, most fulfilling job. Organizations are made up of people with hearts and souls as well as minds, but those organizations don’t have hearts, souls, and minds of their own. If you don’t establish and maintain your own sense of self within today’s gargantuan machine of business, you can’t be the engaged and principle-driven person you want to be at work or at home. The message is look out first for yourself—and by doing so, you can then better help look out for others, too.


About The Author

Mike Richman’s picture

Mike Richman



I enjoyed reading your excellent article which resonates with a recent Quality Digest article "Do CEO's Deserve Their Pay" Interestingly, Adam Smith is known as an economist but was actually a moral philospher and is actually studied more in this regard than economics.


Excellent commentary... The only item I would treat with some degree of skepticism is the MarketWatch graph. Ignoring the fact that there is an approximately 4.5 scaling factor between the two charts, any time you are comparing two variables as percentages of a floating baseline and there are other independent components which contribute to that baseline, the results are, at best, questionable. Energy costs alone have varied greatly over the encompassed time span. Let us also not overlook the fact that there can be a great difference between "wages" and "total compensation", and even more so compared over time.

Ask five economists and you'll get five different answers - six if one went to Harvard. - Edgar R. Fiedler