One of the first things a customer notices about any retail business is what the establishment looks like, the disposition of the employees, and even whether the painted surfaces are in good shape. A great deal can be gleaned about the culture and health of the business by these simple observations—and unfortunately I think that our country’s paint is peeling.
The peeling paint is simply a metaphor for the cracks that are appearing in our lives at many levels, both public and private. This past weekend, I took a red-eye flight on United Airlines (UAL) from LAX to JFK and was a bit saddened by what I saw at the airport. Using United as an indicator regarding the state of U.S. business may not be perfect research because as you may know, U.S. Airways and UAL have been talking about merging to make one healthy airline. United has troublesome issues as they rank19th out of 19 airlines in customer complaints. The report card says they’ve had 343 complaints per 100,000 passengers, a rate of 2.25 per 100K. By the way, my flight was full, but it departed on time with courteous cabin attendants and extra leg room in economy seating.
But in the waiting area at Los Angeles International (they no longer feel like lounges) the story was quite different. The seating was ripped and tatty, the carpet was very, very tired looking and the service personnel didn’t exactly show game show contestant enthusiasm. The overall effect was that of a person who has grown weary of the responsibilities and challenges that come with a thriving lifestyle. You know, the hunched shoulders, shuffling walk and a flat look in the eyes.
What bothers me as a business owner and advocate for all business and especially small business development is that what I saw at one of America’s busiest airports and legendary airlines is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Our tolerance for mediocrity seems to be growing while business activity is slowing. Flaking paint is really a snapshot of fading hope and expectations for the near future. When we are feeling insecure, we’ll let the weeds grow and ignore the leaking roof. If our attitude of positive expectancy is tampered with or punctured, happiness becomes a very sometimes thing. If the people we view as leaders are not articulating an inspiring vision but only being reactive to problems, the public spirit begins to slide.
General media and the federal government have conditioned us to think in terms of “gross domestic product” or GDP as the measure of our national wellbeing. That number is a statement of the total market value of all goods and services produced in a country in a given period. However it can’t measure illness, crime, war, storms and certainly not fear or quality of life. The numbers may tell an upbeat story, but looking around at people on a cross country trip indicates to me that as a country we are feeling less than confident. Years ago, a salesman whose territory extended from northern Texas to the Canadian border told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said that during his long drives on the interstate highways he could tell when times were tough by a simple observation. According to him, more drivers were tailgating when people were feeling stressed with worries about their economic futures. If that is accurate, I’d say we are on the edge of something right now.
No single statistic will tell us about the national mood or attitude, but I do know that cracked and peeling paint precedes deterioration of the wood underneath.