THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
"The Unemployed Need Not Apply"
"Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exist."
— George Orwell
Spare a thought this Labor Day for the unemployed, underemployed and unemployable who escape our notice the rest of the year. "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island", an HBO documentary filmed in 2010 and released this summer, chronicles the slow and agonizing decline of several families as a result of not being able to find a job. The people whose stories are told in the film are educated and firmly in the middle class, with years of work experience and solid resumes. They had never before sought public assistance or a free meal, and bear no earthly resemblance to the indolent masses of myth whose poverty and joblessness are allegedly no one's fault but their own. They look for work day after day, for months and years on end. With mortgages under water and the bank literally knocking at the door, they have no capital with which to launch businesses of their own. Without a job and benefits running out, there is nowhere for them to go but down. It is difficult to watch.
One doesn't often think of one's fellow Long Islanders, a diverse and geographically scattered population, as "my people". But it is difficult not to identify with the plight of these wretched souls who speak and think and live much as the rest of us do. It would take a heart of stone not to understand why they feel utterly betrayed by the system that bred them and in which they invested their faith. They went to school. They worked hard. They bought a home, raised a family. They lived comfortably but within their means. They put money away for retirement. What exactly did they do to deserve the oblivion they are now facing? And how are they any different from anyone else? There but for the grace of the job market go I.
As miserable as it is to be rejected again and again and again in pursuit of a job — any job — society further stigmatizes the unemployed by supposing that they must at some level bear some responsibility for their situation. Angry voices on the television, radio and internet tell them that they are lazy and undeserving of sympathy, let alone government support. Perhaps this is how humans typically make themselves feel better about the suffering of others, by blaming the victim. Imagine how difficult it must be to maintain any hope for a better future when the door is repeatedly slammed shut in one's face, as when job-seekers encounter the bar denoted by the title of this essay. A generous interpretation of this cruel practice by some employers is that it is an improvement over "Negroes Need Not Apply" or "Irish Need Not Apply" or "Jews Need Not Apply". It is a sign of social progress that no one is officially subjected to overt racial or ethnic exclusion. This is, of course, small consolation to the long-term unemployed of all backgrounds. They are now being rounded up, metaphorically, into a category of undesirability that is as debilitating and humiliating as the stereotypes suffered by their forebears, and from which there is similarly no escape. Once you have been out of work for a period of time, there is no way to wipe that from your identity any more than you can wipe away your skin color or your grandparents' country of origin. The stigma is its own justification.
For those who have jobs but wish they were a lot better — a solid majority of Americans, if polls are to be believed — "Hard Times" is a powerful antidote to dissatisfaction. If you have a lousy boss, or think you're not appreciated, or not paid enough, or are being exploited, or have a terrible commute, or a lot of stress, or all of the above, consider that any of the people in the film who stand to lose their homes, their marriages, their health and even their lives, would gladly trade places with you. There are many aspects of the modern workplace, particularly how life has been organized to revolve around it (and not the other way around), that could stand some serious reform. We might very well argue that a job is a poor substitute for a life. But as long as we mostly live in cities and suburbs and have no choice but to be engaged in gainful employment, or self-employment, to keep body and soul together, then we have to at least acknowledge that joblessness is a terrible scourge, and that the vast majority of the unemployed are not looking for a state-supported path to idleness, but would much rather be working.
There are many reasons why people can't find work, and politicians and others with a bull-horn are only too happy to appropriate them for their own personal benefit: outsourcing to China and India, feckless government policies, and inflexible unions chief among them. But one that is seldom remarked upon is the unwavering worship of stock prices that has utterly infected America's corporate board rooms in the last 30 years. If we are to remain a capitalist society (not an absolute necessity, but unlikely to change any time soon), then there is no escaping the imperative of "creative destruction". Corporations are not social welfare agencies, and are not under any obligation to keep plants, stores and offices open if they are losing money. However, in a period when unemployment is high and capital, though cheap, is harder to come by than it was in the profligate days of the mid-2000's, must bankruptcy or mass layoffs be the only options? Do we really need to sacrifice human capital just to meet the market's expectations of the next quarterly earnings report? Germany has found ways to keep people working by providing direct payroll support to companies. Have we completely lost the ability to apply such practical solutions to our nation's problems?
In this country we would no doubt dismiss the German approach as the government "picking winners and losers". But honestly, which is better: paying benefits to the unemployed while they are inactive, or paying companies to keep them active until the economy turns around? I once had a co-worker whose father who had been a labor organizer, and he used to say that any job that can't be done in eight hours a day is not a job for one person. When "productivity" rises it is just another way of saying that fewer people are being paid to do more work for the same salary, or less. Just ask anyone who has been asked to carry a heavier load after those to the left and right of him have been laid off. If you are working 16 hours a day, then you are effectively taking a job from someone else. Would we not all be better off paying to keep people in their jobs, so they are less likely to need further benefits, less likely to lose their homes, and more likely to recirculate their earnings into the economy?
As the Occupy Wall Street movement soon plans to mark the anniversary of its inception, we need to ask exactly what if anything they think they accomplished for working people. One hesitates to call it a "celebration" as there doesn't seem to be much to celebrate. Not a single idea, not even a single candidate for office, has emerged from this well-intentioned attempt to bring attention to the plight of the vast majority of the population. Even the steadily employed are falling ever further behind as the decades roll by.
At the epicenter of the movement, New York's Zuccotti Park, where glittering office towers built by corporate profits once cast a dark, cold shadow over a phalanx of scruffy but dogged protesters, we encounter the strange intersection of two parallel revolutions of the last half century. First, there was the social revolution that heralded the exercise of a far greater degree of personal liberty. Then, beginning in the 1980s, there was a financial revolution that ushered in an era of less regulation, higher profits and a more powerful and varied financial sector. This second revolution owed an unacknowledged debt to the one that immediately preceded it. Without the unshackling of social constraints by the anything-goes, all-about-me ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, the anything-goes, all-about-me ethos of latter-day Wall Street would not have been possible.
Regrettably, the worst traits of both revolutions have come to dominate behavior in the new century. Those who, 40 years after the fact, still bemoan the loss of self-restraint in sexual and social matters, are oblivious to the parallel loss of self-restraint in banking and corporate matters. Similarly, those who bask in the glow of a more open, just and color-blind society fail to notice how an absence of a universally accepted ethical code has severely degraded a sense of decency in the worlds of business and finance, not to mention politics, the news media and much else besides. Liberals want prosperity without the constraints of commerce, while conservatives want wealth without the constraints of conscience. The consequences are devastating for legions of the unemployed, and for most of everyone else whose wages have been steadily declining since "the revolution" — whichever one suits your taste.
A different dream
One of the most poignant statements in "Hard Times" was by a gentleman who wondered aloud whether he had wasted his time, effort and money getting a college education. He would have been better off, he said, if he had been a plumber instead. There is more wisdom in his regret than he probably realized: most of the jobs lost by those in the film were in highly specialized industries and therefore highly vulnerable to the ax. The higher one climbs up the employment ladder, the further removed one often becomes from any practical skills that one can fall back upon when the economy goes south. Being "overqualified" for a minimum-wage job is a cruel irony for a former executive who would take any job just to bring some money into the household.
If anyone persists in the notion that the "American dream", for most people, means making so much money that they don't have to work any more, watching this film will go a long way towards dispelling that illusion. The lost of routine, fellowship and pride are at least as devastating as the loss of income. Everyone needs something to do that they feel good about, and our society is organized in such a way that work provides that opportunity for most of us. For many, a job is so much a part of a sense of accomplishment and well-being that it is almost indistinguishable from life itself. Blaming the unemployed for their own predicament may temporarily lighten our sense of responsibility for our fellow citizens, but no one is immune. The job market may be increasingly blind to race, creed and gender, but it is no less indifferent to our common humanity than it ever was.
September 2, 2012
For more on the subject of working:
Cruel Jokes, Chapter 3 – "Work is Good for You"
"Take This Job: Why Most Human Activity is
Fundamentally Useless", Feb. 2009
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