My young friend, whom I’ll call Alice, is a 25-year-old aeronautical engineer who works for a locally-based Israeli company producing mechanical parts for things that fly through the sky.
Presumably, it is very important that things that fly through the sky, stay in the sky and don’t suddenly plunge back to earth. So producing the parts to these flying objects is a pretty responsible job.
However, though Alice works long hours five days a week, her pay turns out to be very low, especially when you take into consideration her qualifications and responsibilities. But this is India, where pay is usually low; most importantly, she loves what she does.
Much of her time is spent in close fiddly work, stretching copper wire, realigning bits of metal and coil and screws to build item parts whose complete function she knows little about; she is not told and not encouraged to ask. But as I said, she loves what she does. The end product, its purpose or its rewards are not a concern of hers; she is interested in how she feels about what she is doing.
Most of her friends and extended family members are giving her a hard time. All those years of study, they say. That high university degree and now such a difficult, specialised and skilled job… How can you accept such low pay?
Well, she can and does, because…she loves the work. She doesn’t only love the work, she loves the environment, the place, the people she works with, the bosses… She appreciates the way she is treated: with respect, with an even-handed equality, with the fresh air of what I would call American democracy.
Despite its flaws, American democracy has afforded everyone with a more or less equal playing field. People are not afraid to muck in with whatever work needs doing whenever it needs to be done and no one makes class distinctions as to what work they should or should not do.
In this vein, the everyday relationships between Joe the garbage collector as he jumps aboard his mechanised truck and Jenny the financier as she strides with her briefcase down Wall Street are all equal. Egos may abound everywhere, but courteous, amicable and socially mobile friendliness exists throughout all economic strata of the nation.
Alice is not a high-caste Indian and she comes from a minority religious community – Indians are tremendously caste and community-conscious. She told me she had worked in another engineering company before her present post – an Indian one – where, despite her high qualifications, she was treated as a lackey. The bosses and supervisors were addressed as Sir; they ate their meals at different tables and never fraternised with the workforce. They gave her instructions but barely ever looked her way otherwise, or even appeared to see her.
She also felt their interest in the quality of her work was zero. For her co-workers, the job was a task to yawn your way through on the way to going home for a dinner of butter chicken and TV. Her supervisors were constantly telling her that a piece of work she considered incomplete or poorly executed was “good enough” and that it was time to move on to the next item. Their interest in her expert eye or the standards of the outcome itself barely existed.
Where she is now, she is understood to be an equal, if less experienced, partner in a joint venture. Her attention to detail is looked on with favour, and the workers hang out together and treat each other with mutual respect. She is relaxed and appreciated.
Alice is a natural-born perfectionist. She loves to assure herself that the fiddly bits of machinery that her quality-control job is to assess end up without a single flaw.
And for those of us who sometimes like to fly in the sky, we should be seriously grateful for folk like her – it is the Alices of this world who keep us up there.