Lessons in Corporate Failure From a 5th-Grader

There's no one more bitter than a disgruntled employee in a failing business. I heard all about the unfairness and stress of corporate life in our shaky economic times all this week from my fifth-grader. The class assignment was to form small companies that sold the various parts necessary for making paper airplanes, such as paper, glue and glitter. I first heard about this new assignment from a very unhappy 11-year-old who dragged herself off the school bus with the demeanor of someone with a pink slip in her hand. She just couldn't believe that her group didn’t get the paper-selling concession — the big money-maker, older kids had told her. Instead, they were stuck with markers, which, according to her corporate spies, never made anybody any money. At first I thought this was pretty funny, but after watching my kid mope around the house for a day about the lousy marker company she worked for, I began to worry about her. And for good reason. A recent World Health Organization Study has shown that working for low pay, for a failing company, under stressful work conditions, or only part time with no benefits dramatically increases the risk of coronary heart disease and the possibility of major depression, anxiety and substance abuse. It's not just about the money, the study commented; it's the work atmosphere. Worried that this class assignment was going to send her on a bender, I kept close track of how it was going in her corporate world. Each employee, no matter what their company sold, had to make an airplane that would later be up for prizes (think military contracts). So the kids had to negotiate with other outsourced companies for paper and glue, and just like Boeing, keep the costs low so they could afford to build the airplane at all. They also had to cooperate with each other to test the planes, and that was a good lesson in how others, apparently incompetent others, can ruin a company. In this case, according to my inside source, the president couldn’t even toss their planes correctly into the atmosphere, but he had a great time trying. There he was, just another CEO with no experience in a particular product, taking over and ruining a company, and then walking away scot-free and smiling. Other employees were just as useless. They wanted to color and glitter, but didn't really invest their energy into the end product, demonstrating how a weak link can bring a company down. But the real stress came when the planes were launched outside and two judges, the principal and the art teacher, awarded prizes for most creative, most acrobatic and such. My employee with the marker company reported that other planes, planes not any better than hers, got prizes. Of course this led to a discussion about the qualification of the judges and the possibility that lobbyists, that is kids yelling and screaming, might have unfairly influenced their decisions. In the end, all of the paper airplane companies folded, not because of bankruptcy per se, but because it was time for math class. It might have all been a good lesson about how businesses survive and fail but there was one big difference from an employee's point of view. The newly unemployed fifth-graders were getting training in a new line of work as their jobs disappeared. And they, unlike employees in the real world, got to keep the markers and paper.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.