Have You Ever Been Experienced?

Let us call experience seniority. And let us mean by this that people who work over extended periods of time develop, ripen, face the hard knocks of life day in and day out, and that they usually gain from the experience.

To be experienced is to have spent the time, paid the dues of the job, learned what it takes, put out the raw energies and skills required. And more: to be experienced means that one has internalized all these things, and that one can bring to the everyday situation of work an array of competencies that the inexperienced are unaware of. That is why this precious game of life requires the serious engagement with it. Engagement brings, even if only eventually, an enlargement and a subtilization of competencies, things that one has in one’s hands, in one’s plan for the day, in one’s skill set, in one’s general work habits, all which add up to becoming experienced.

But consider: “senior” in America typically means old people, not only not at the top of their game, but also not necessarily competent. In the right-wing attack on seniority in the public sphere, and unions more generally, seniority translates into deadwood. Now every institution has some tiny percentage of deadwood in it, people who have disengaged from their work experience. But to assume, for example, as Republican state legislatures are in the process of doing, that teachers with years of experience are the deadwood whose seniority rights have to be eliminated (meanwhile ignoring the administration deadwood), is sheer folly. It completely ignores how those experienced teachers incorporate a reservoir of potential mentoring and actual “how-to” knowledge. It is a way of promoting inexperience at the cost of experienced professionals. And isn’t that what the mad-hatters’ Tea Party celebrates in politics as well: lack of political experience as a qualification for office?

Seniority in the workplace means that the years and decades you have put in paying your dues to the job count for something in the work community, and that a larger and deeper outlook and ability is something to be valued. In short, it means that all that work adds up to something like: work is a life, and that the work and workplace are intimately connected to the lives of the workers and the surrounding community.

Seniority in the Republican attack on middle class values means something quite different apparently. It means that you are someone earning more than the average for your job, so that your elimination can mean savings. That abstraction of eliminating seniority translates practically into hiring and promoting cheap, inexperienced labor. It means not having to pay fair and deserved wages (and, at the other end, not paying fair and deserved taxes). It serves to protect growing moneyed power interests at the cost of skimming from the middle class. It manifests the unwritten right-wing rule: Crush the vulnerable, immunize the invulnerable.

  • Scott

    Republicans value “productive” people; in particular, people who produce wealth. They argue that this wealth benefits society, but we know that is not always the case, and seems to be less and less the case. However, people who do not “produce” per se, not the idle rich of course, but those who either receive government benefits or who receive a government salary are considered “leeches.” They are a “burden” on society, and by “society” I assume they mean “taxpayers.” But if we consider “production” in more than just monetary terms, we would know that “seniors,” in whatever form, do contribute to society. (Even in ways that might indirectly contribute to the GDP.) I think even corporations, before they decided to trim the fat by laying off those with seniority, might consider the non-monetary contributions an employee makes. (Although perhaps not as often as we would like.) If you move beyond the morality of the dollar, and consider production in a broader (qualitative) sense, especially cumulative production over a life time, I think things like “seniority” might come to be valued more.

  • Christian Flores-Carignan

    Let’s not romanticize seniority, Eugene. Some older workers have much to offer, while others just did a good job of not stepping on anyone’s toes for 30 years. I remember an English teacher at my high school who wasn’t mentally competent anymore. He had his students teach his class. Of course the union made it hard to force him out.

    Our bureaucratic society is based on the principle of conformity. In this system, the one’s with the greatest desire for status and material wealth make it to the top and in the process gain much social capital. Out of those who don’t belong to this group, some are able to keep their vigor for teaching or engineering while tolerating the domination from above. Others can’t and drop out of the mainstream. Probably the majority just follow along without much vigor, cynically doing what’s necessary to get by. Some do it for 30 years. And no, they usually don’t have much to offer.

  • Scott

    That’s a rather heuristic approach to what is actually a much more complex issue. So there are those who are ambitious, hardworking, and productive and then the rest of the poor slobs who ride their coattails. And if you knew one teacher that fits the stereotype of the incompetent, lazy teacher that proves the stereotype. Really? And then there’s black and there’s white, and Atlas shrugged, and that’s that.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    Experience is a crucial way of knowing and a fundamental resource for creativity. When it is belittled, we lose a great deal, in business, in schools, in love and in politics, and many other human endeavors. Of course, experience is not the only resource. The advantage of a new view may on some occasions be more significant. Yet, I think the fundamental problem Halton is highlighting is the systematic dismissal of experience as an excuse to save money. Fire the teacher who has been in the trenches and knows the lay of the land, not as is often declared to get a young a creative person, but to get a young and cheap one.