Waiting for dead men’s shoes
Workplaces were much more structured and hierarchical when I started out on my career. I remember that in order to move up to the next meaningful step in the ladder, you had to have a certain number of years’ service or have attained a certain age, as if either factors had much to do with whether you could do the job. The other problem was that there were strict caps on the numbers of employees on any particular grade so, even if you qualified on the grounds of experience or age, you had to wait for an opening to crop up. These only materialised if someone else was promoted, left, was fired or died in harness. It was extremely frustrating for young guns who thought they were the bee’s knees.
In such a situation, you might describe yourself as waiting for dead men’s shoes, promotion not being solely down to your merits, or otherwise, but achieved only when someone to retire or die so you can take their place or, in a figurative sense, step into their shoes. It was a forlorn and frustrating situation to find oneself in and must have been even more so in days gone by when there was no retirement age and people only relinquished their position when they were carried out in a box.
The origins of the phrase go back until at least the 16th century and it is clear from the contexts in which it was used that there was little sympathy for anyone who found themselves in such a situation. Indeed, the explicit message was that you use your time much more profitably by doing something else. In 1562 the English playwright and epigrammatist, John Heywood, published his Dialogue contaynyng the number of the effectuall prourbes in the Englishe tounge. There we find, “who waitth for dead men shoen, shall go long barefoote”.
A variant of this phrase, slightly more grandiloquent but the result is the same, appeared in Old Meg of Herefordshire for a Mayd-Marian from 1609; “it were no hoping after dead mens shooes, for both vpper-leather and soles would bee worne out to nothing”. And in The Independent from Wexford on July 14, 1847, in an article full of advice in proverbial form, we are told “he who waits for a dead man’s shoes may have to go for a long time barefoot”.
Twentieth century variants included “he who waits for a dead mans shoes may get cold feet” (Evening Telegraph and Post, September 1, 1913) and “while waiting for a dead man’s shoes you could probably earn a better pair” (The Pall Mall Gazette, April 7, 1916). How pathetic a practice it is was encapsulated by The Daily Mail from Hull on January 16, 1932; “the man or woman who waits for dead man’s shoes, or who lives in the future, is a most pathetic figure”. These days when the phrase is used the consequences of such action or the pejorative sense of the phrase is omitted.
Corporate and management structures a re much flatter these days which means, in theory at any rate, that opportunities are less restricted for genuine talent and that promotion is not dependent upon placeholders shuffling off elsewhere. Whether that is a good thing, of course, is another matter entirely.