By Pete Rivard September 12, 2007 -- My medium-sized small town, population 18,000, has three coffee shops: a Starbucks, a Dunn Bros and a Caribou Coffee. The last two may be familiar only to folks in the Midwest, but they’re all of a piece. In addition, there is Panera Bread, a coffee shop/bakery chain. All four do a brisk business. Walk in to any of the above after 10 AM on a weekday morning and you are as likely as not to encounter a gathering of people, mostly men, in their 50s, a localized cell of un and underemployed professionals. They take advantage of the free wireless Internet connectivity, the free newspapers and the camaraderie. You could start a small business enterprise with the expertise found in the average knot of 55-year old men in these coffee shops. Ex-managers, former sales reps, IT pros, software designers, you name it. The middle class in this country has been sucker punched. We treat middle management, support staff and production employees like cannon fodder. What the hell are these guys doing idling the day away in coffee shops? They should be putting their noses to the grindstone, their shoulders to the wheel, their backs into it and their heads into the game. And not a one of them who isn’t shouting, “Put me in, coach!” to a business world that doesn’t seem to hear them. Must be the headphones. All that experience, all that talent, all that education and knowledge. Sitting around nursing 16 oz. dark roasts far longer than any fully employed and on the run professional would spend to suck one down between meetings, email and phone messages. Every man-jack is scanning the want ads, posting on Monster.com and burning cell phone minutes working eroding networks. It is nerve wracking to note how close to me in age they are. They could be my high school mates, were it not for the fact that my high school is over a thousand miles from here. We’re all boomers, supposedly still close to our prime in terms of value to an employer, raised by parents and schooled by teachers to show up every day, work hard and play by the rules. Get that college degree, show up every day, work hard and play by the rules. Keep your nose clean. You will never want for work. There will be regular and generous raises, full benefits and a retirement filled with golf and tennis matches, bridge games, hobbies and travel. The middle class in this country has been sucker punched. We treat middle management, support staff and production employees like cannon fodder. We celebrate gains in productivity by allowing those who have improved their productivity to keep their jobs, for a while, while redirecting the profits to upper management and shareholders. We treat executives like royalty who demonstrate the “guts” to carve away whole divisions of somebody else, not them. Mature students are invariably the most dependable and driven students in the room Every year when a new class of potential press, prepress, digital print and graphic design students show up in my college’s program, there will be one or two forty-year olds sitting uncomfortably in a room full of eighteen year olds. They may be moms returning to the workforce. They may be employed second-shifters sacrificing sleep and family time to hone their skills. Increasingly, they are in their seats not so much by choice but by circumstance. Shown the door by a previous employer, they’re holding up their end of the social contract by adding another layer of educational touching up to render their selves desirable again. The question remains whether society will choose to hold up its end of the deal and take them to the dance. These mature students are invariably the most dependable and driven students in the room, totally focused, aware of the value of everybody’s time, and hungry for more knowledge and new skills. They are the model student, surrounded by classmates too young to regard them as role models and largely indifferent to them as resources and mentors. Having spent years in positions where I was one of the guys who hired and fired, I’d hire them in a minute. I know usefulness when I see it. Better health care and personal habits such as regular exercise and informed diets lead to longer life expectancy. Pressure on the Social Security safety net is pushing back the retirement age. Yet more and more of us aren’t making it to retirement. Our companies don’t want us around past a certain threshold on the actuarial tables. Hello, McFly! Let’s adhere to a modicum of logic here. If we expect people to work longer, retire later and bear an increasing share of mushrooming health care costs, we need to see to it that they remain employed. That or open up a few million more coffee shops, leaving the middle aged unemployed to nurse dark roasts and darker thoughts.