May 11, 2009
In most parts of the world, mass unemployment
brings the specter of mass social unrest. Not in the U.S., though,
where 13 million people have accepted joblessness with nary a peep
Many reasons -- from Prozac to Pentecostalism -- have been cited to
explain American passivity in the face of economic violence. But
the truth might be far simpler: In America, being unemployed
doesn't mean you have nothing to do but run around burning police
cars. Unemployment has been reconfigured as a new form of work.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the white-collar world, where the
laid-off are constantly advised to see job searching as a full-time
job. As business self-help guru Harvey Mackay advises: "Once you're
fired, you already have a job. The job you have is tougher than the
last one. It's more demanding." How demanding? He says you need to
"plan on 12 to 16 hours a day."
Picture it: People across America rising at the usual time, suiting
up in full corporate regalia and setting themselves down at their
laptops to fiddle with resumes, peruse Monster.com and pester
everyone on their address lists for leads.
Some people no doubt have found jobs in this manner, but there have
been no scientific comparisons of the technique with, say, printing
a resume on a sandwich board and parading around Times Square.
If there is something familiar in the image of laid-off workers
soldiering on, it may be because of films such as "Tokyo Sonata"
and the 2001 French film, "Time Out," in which the heroes --
laid-off executives -- conceal their status from their families and
continue to mime the daily ritual of going to work. In the movies,
this behavior seems pathetic -- a case of terminal denial -- but
it's exactly what the American "transition industry" of career
coaches and outplacement companies recommends: If you don't have a
job, fake one.
In real life, it's OK for a man to tell his wife he's lost his job;
he should just never reveal that he has time on his hands. A
February article in The New York Times featured a laid-off Illinois
man who justified his refusal to do more around the house by
saying, "As one of the people who runs one of the career centers
I've been to told me: 'You're out of a job, but it's not your time
to paint the house and fix the car. Your job is about finding the
next job.' "
At the kinky extreme, laid-off white-collar people are advised to
simulate the office environment further by finding someone to play
the part of a "boss" -- a spouse, a friend, a paid career coach --
to whom you report every few days on your progress.
Is it any wonder there's no time left for lobbying for universal
health insurance or reading Marxist tracts on the "reserve army of
the unemployed"? It's all a person can do to keep up with the
relentless pressures of an imaginary job.
The blue-collar unemployed are subjected to gerbil-like exercises
of their own. While white-collar layoff victims are encouraged to
polish the "brand called you," blue-collar people are told they
have nothing to offer unless they start all over with "retraining."
Hence, in part, the current surge in community college
But in his 2006 book "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their
Consequences," Louis Uchitelle raised the obvious question:
"Retraining for what?" At the beginning of the decade, computer
skills were all the rage; then the low-level computer work vanished
to India. Air-conditioner repairing is popular right now, and
big-rig truck driving is a perennial favorite. There are no
guarantees, of course, of eventual jobs. In a recent report for the
organization Food AND Medicine on laid-off manufacturing workers in
Maine, Steve Husson, who himself was laid off as a DHL driver,
found paper-mill workers stuck with intermittent seasonal work and
low-paid service-sector jobs despite stints of retraining.
Even two or three years ago, when the economy was apparently
healthy, average layoff victims "landed" in new jobs paying 17
percent less than the old ones -- if they landed at all. Today,
with the country losing more than a half-million jobs a month, both
white-collar job searching and blue-collar retraining are becoming
surreal exercises in futility. No matter how smart you are -- how
flexible, personable and skilled -- you can't find a job that isn't
there. At least until the unemployment benefits run out and the
credit cards are canceled, you might as well devote yourself to
"Madden NFL" and "Minesweeper."
Of course, there are a few constructive, work-like alternatives.
You could join one of the emerging efforts to organize the
unemployed, such as Food AND Medicine in Maine, the Unemployed and
Anxiously Employed Workers Association of Allen County, Ind., or
the nationwide group United Professionals, which I helped start. Or
you could pitch in with one of the several organizations fighting
for single-payer health insurance or at least a huge expansion of
public health insurance for the unemployed. You could get together
with laid-off friends and co-workers to discuss how you would
design an economy that made use of people's precious skills instead
of periodically tossing them out like so much trash.
But the first step, as in any 12-step program, is to overcome
denial. Job searching is not a job; retraining is not a panacea.
You may be poorer than you've ever been, but you are also freer --
to express anger and urgency, to dream and create, to get together
with others and conspire to build a better world.
© 2023 The Capital Times
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