Watch Out the World is Changing (originally published November 6, 2011)


If you keep your eyes and ears open, occasionally you’ll be in the right place at the right time to watch the world change.  Sometimes it will be obvious and at other times you’ll only realize it years later and wonder how you missed it when it happened.  The shift in racial and sexual equality was obvious to me in the 1960’s.  The fall of the Iron Curtain and its resulting pro-democracy movements were obvious to me in the 1980’s.

But the true meaning of the change that I was immersed in for 12 years beginning in 1976, escaped my notice altogether until years later when I had time to ponder its significance.

I was living in Berkeley and in need of a job.  My best friend and roommate pulled some strings and before I knew it, I was working for the much-despised Bank of America.

And although we were a unique group of young, hip Berkeley employees, we worked for an institution which was symbolic of the times.  Still very much a reflection of our parents’ generation, the man in the gray flannel suit would have felt right at home.

The unspoken understanding was that if you were white, male and patient, and didn’t do anything to embarrass yourself or the bank, you would receive regular promotions and eventually be rewarded with a branch managership.  After that, the women would take care of running things and you could attend the requisite “business development” two-martini lunches until it was time to retire.  Simple.
The rules were the rules and there was not much need to think outside the box.

My first indication of change was when a new manager arrived at our branch.  Yes, he was white and yes he was male, but he was young and sort of Kennedy-esque.

One day a customer wanted to buy only part of a bundle of Japanese yen that another customer had sold us earlier that same day.

“Can’t do it,”  I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“You have to buy the whole bundle,” I said.

“I want to talk to your manager,” he said.

“Why can’t we do this?” my manager asked me.

“Because I was told we couldn’t,” I replied.

“Do it,” my manager said.

The customer smirked and I learned two important lessons that day.  Question the logic behind everything you do and always be open to change.

From then on, things started to change quickly.  The defined benefit pension plan that we so dearly treasured was scrapped.  In its place came the 401k plan.  What this meant in the real world was that we could no longer count on a retirement annuity of X dollars per month.  We had stepped into the territory of the unknowable.  We were now expected to contribute to our retirement plan and we were expected to share in the bank’s investment risk.  We might do really well in our retirement… and we might not.

Then came the layoffs and the first to be laid off were the middle management white men who could hardly believe that the sacred trust, the unspoken agreement which allowed them to sleep easy at night had been invalidated.  Just like that.

When financial regulatory walls came tumbling down, I saw the writing on the wall and entered a credit training program.  When that didn’t seem to be enough, I tried to make myself more valuable to the bank by becoming a Certified Financial Planner.  And still the changes kept coming.

We went from an institution of checking and passbook savings accounts to money market accounts and beyond.
We went from car loans and carefully plotted mortgages to unsecured lines of credit and badgering appraisers in our quest to make more and more loans.  To help us be more productive we got FAX machines, email and Lotus 1-2-3.

And soon we realized that we weren’t bankers anymore, we were sales people.  And if we weren’t, we’d better get out of the way because this was the future.  A sales person could be easily trained as to the ‘ins and outs’ of banking specifics but a banker could only be trained to the extent that her personality could take her in the art of selling.  No sooner was the bar set, then it was raised again.

I learned two things about myself during this time– I was pretty good at sales….and I hated selling.

Since the bank was looking for attrition, nobody shed a tear when I left in 1988, except maybe me.  My long-term love/hate relationship with the employer where I had grown up came to an end.  I received a pen and pencil set and, I think about 3 months salary.

Good bye to an era.  I would take my chances with my husband as he established his own business.

Now I look back and realize this was where the middle class was heading.  We were becoming an endangered species nearly 25 years before the rest of the country would face the same changes.  Bank of America and other corporations like it were only on the cutting edge, that’s all.  They were visionaries in their own sad way.

About 5 years ago Thomas Friedman told us that the world was flat and we applauded him.  That is until we came to recognize what a flat world really meant for America.  While I was coming to grips with a world that was changing so quickly around me it made my head spin, many lower-income folks in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) were coming to terms with new possibilities that never existed for their parents.

As children they might have imagined they would live within the same dome of financial hopelessness that constrained their parents and grandparents before them.

When they saw a door with the sign that said “This Way to the Middle Class”, they pushed the door open and walked through to the other side.  And why not?  What consensus ever existed in the world community that determined America should stay on top to the detriment of all others?  This was their time now.

35 years ago I was a young woman sitting on a giant seesaw staring down the long plank at a Chinese woman about my age sitting on the other end.  She was holding a 50 pound sack of sand and was weighted to the ground.  I was high in the sky enjoying the view from my lofty position, my legs waggling freely in the air.  And then one day she divided her sandbag and handed half of it to me.

In this great upheaval, nobody is safe and nothing can be taken for granted.

The only certainty is that change is here to stay.