My first job out of college was as a sports reporter for the New York City bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper based in Tokyo. They hired me a month after I graduated and I started working two months after graduation, making me among the first of my fellow graduates to be gainfully employed. I assisted the bureau’s sportswriter, who was Japanese (each of the bureau’s Japanese journalists had an American assistant), allowing me to cover the World Series, Super Bowl, US Open and several other significant sporting events. They paid me about $40,000 over the 11 months I worked there, which seemed like a bonanza to a 22-year-old who had few expenses and still lived at home.
Perhaps my most memorable day on the job came in mid December, when the bureau’s accountant walked over to my desk and handed me an envelope.
“Robert,” he said in halting English. “Bonus.”
The envelope contained my Christmas bonus check, which was more than $1,200, equivalent to what I made bi-weekly. I vaguely remembered a mention of a “holiday bonus” during my job interview, but I had no idea what that meant. Now, I knew. This working-for-a-living thing is great! I thought to myself. You get a bonus just because it’s the holidays? How neat is that!
The following December, I was in Yakima, Washington, working as an account executive for the Yakima Sun Kings of the minor-league Continental Basketball Association. I was miserable, not because I’d taken a significant pay cut when I chose to leave the Yomiuri Shimbun the previous June, but became I had a job I despised and I’d just found out the Yakima Bears, the minor league baseball team I did radio play-by-play for the previous summer, decided not to bring me back the following season. I’d taken the job with the Sun Kings so I could stay in Yakima and call games for the Bears the following season, a plan that had gone up in smoke. I didn’t get a Christmas bonus from the Sun Kings, but I wasn’t expecting one either. The team was losing a lot of money; it got so bad that one of my Sun Kings paychecks almost bounced, my bank withholding the funds a few extra days to ensure the money was there.
I was in much better spirits the following winter. Now, I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I did sports play-by-play and news anchoring and reporting for Fairfield Broadcasting, a local company that owned four radio stations in town. We had an event that was billed as a holiday party, but it was more like a holiday luncheon, since it was held during the day in a conference room. Nevertheless, this event was eagerly anticipated, because the festivities included Fairfield’s 63-year-old company president handing out everyone’s Christmas bonus checks – which amounted to $50 for every year one was with the company – along with a large jar of mixed nuts from one of our sponsors (those jars of nuts became fodder for many jokes between me and my Fairfield co-workers the rest of the year). I picked up another Christmas bonus check – and another jar of nuts – from Fairfield the following December.
After getting Christmas bonuses in three of my first four years as a working man, one could understand if I got used to such bonuses and if I started to expect them. But, it’s a good thing I didn’t grow accustomed because I haven’t gotten a Christmas bonus since. Part of the reason for the lack of a bonus has been the career choices I’ve made; since receiving my last Christmas bonus in 2004, I’ve worked several seasonal, freelance and part-time positions, most of them in broadcasting, and those type of positions almost never offer the possibility of a bonus. However, several of my friends with full-time employment have also lamented the elimination or lack of Christmas bonuses. Some employers give their employees gift cards or inexpensive trinkets instead, since those things are cheaper than cash bonuses. Of course, employers rarely give long-time employees gold watches when they retire anymore either, something that was once a common occurrence. It also used to be a common for employees to stay with the same company for decades, clocking in at the same place for most, if not all, of their working lives.
Christmas bonuses were an outgrowth of the attitude many companies once had that their employees needed to be treated like valuable commodities. But now, jobs are easily outsourced to other states or countries. Improvements in technology mean jobs that once required an army of people now require a handful. Labor unions, which many studies show raise the wages and working conditions of non-union and union workers alike, don’t have the numbers or impact they once did. Not to mention, a recession followed by a slow recovery has flooded the job market with an abundance of qualified – and overqualified – job seekers in many lines of work. As a result, employers now see employees as expendable, easily replaced and as a means to an end.
Nowadays, if a company offers a bonus, it’s performance based, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, what better way to show an employee you appreciate his or her efforts than with cash? In this day and age, with a hypercompetitive job market, fewer people are going to get paid simply for sticking around since simply sticking around is no longer enough. People used to judge their jobs and careers by how much their employer showed their appreciation for their efforts; loving what you did for a living and where you worked was secondary. Nowadays, you better love what you do and where you work because employers are much less likely to show you or tell you how much they value your contributions.
My daughter is 18 months old. There’s a very good chance she will never get a Christmas bonus. Years from now, I’ll probably be waxing poetic to her about the three Christmas bonuses I received, just like previous generations have told me about their gold watches, employer-financed homes and generous pensions. I feel it’s our generation’s job to prepare our children for the new realities of a workforce that will be even more streamlined, mobile and technology-dependent by the time they’re adults; if they want more money, they’ll need to earn it with their on-the-job performance. My daughter will know not to expect a Christmas bonus. She may get a jar of nuts, but only if she’s lucky.Follow @raford3