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33,000 Lost Their Jobs Last Month — Read This Book If You're One (Or Have Already Been Canned)

In behavior, business on March 5, 2010 at 10:12 am
Circuit City

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

I finished this book, The Disposable American, by Louis Uchitelle, a former, long-time New York Times economics reporter, yesterday and did something I’ve never done before — called the writer to ask him to meet me. While writing my own book on work, I’m finding very few writers who truly dig beneath the surface of our “business as usual” perspectives.

If you’re unemployed, today or for the past few years, get it from the library and read it.

It’s not a new book, published in 2006, therefore likely researched in 2004 and 2005. It pre-dates this terrible moment of 10 percent+ unemployment.

Reading it won’t get you an interview, a sexy resume, a part-time or temp job. It will, smartly, compassionately and compellingly, speak to the toxic mix of emotion, greed, commerce, lax regulation, union weakness and profit-making pressure that have separated you — and millions of us — from jobs we loved, needed, relied on, may have held for decades — or a few months.

From Bookslut:

Louis Uchitelle’s book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, is another one of those great books that none of the right people will read.

It will of course be read; it’s published by Knopf and Uchitelle is an award-winning journalist with the New York Times. He’s been writing business and economics news for more than three decades, and he clearly knows his stuff. But a book in which the author demands that both the easy “myths” of layoffs and the true achievability of the American dream be carefully considered may not be particularly appealing to your typical “buy low, sell high” business readers.

Uchitelle wastes no time enumerating what he feels are the three primary myths that have lead to layoffs becoming accepted as a normal consequence of doing business: that they offer a payoff in the form of a “revitalized corporate America;” that those employees in danger of being laid off can and should save themselves through education and training; and that layoffs are a purely financial proposition, rather than personally traumatic experiences that damage both employees and companies by “undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.”

For every bouncy best-selling business book filled with peppy little bromides — Uchitelle singles out “Who Moved My Cheese” as one egregious blame-the-victim example — there are precious few that honestly and compassionately recognize the trauma, short and long-term, that job loss inflicts and is currently inflicting. When he went looking for those who study this, and are willing to talk about it on the record, this persistent, talented veteran found almost no one.

Dr. Alexandra K. Rolde, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Boston and  clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told him:

“It is a trauma to the entire family. You have a parent working at a prestigious full-time job. All of a sudden, the parent sits at home and can’t find a job and is depressed. And suddenly the child’s role model sort of crumbles. Instead of feeling admiration for the parent, the child eventually begins to feel disrespect. Because the children identify with the parents, they begin to doubt that they can accomplish anything. They feel they won’t be successful in life and their self-esteem plummets. This of course is a long-term thing. We call it transgenerational trauma; it is similar to what we used to see with Holocaust survivors and their children. The children feel as damaged as their parents, even though they did not experience the trauma directly themselves.”

But, in this recession, there is a trans-generational piece we’re not talking about. I know many younger people, in their 20s and 30s, who have already lost several good jobs, been unemployed for many long months, have, perhaps found a new job. At a time in their lives once filled with excitement, hope and anticipation — pay off those student loans! get a car! get married! buy a home! — they face anxiety.

I’ve recently been advising a  new young friend, a woman of 23 about to graduate journalism school. I wish I had truly helpful, practical things to tell her about what will be her wisest career choices right now. She is not someone who wants to slack off or hang out, whose family is willing or able to pay her bills for years. I lost my own staff newspaper job in June 2006. I was well-paid and enjoyed the work tremendously.

Like millions of others, certainly those considered (illegally) too old and expensive, I eventually gave up looking for another one. Will I look again? I’m not sure.

Am I someone she can trust? I don’t want my pessimism to infect or burden her, but neither no do I wish to blow smoke and lies at someone who’s entering the world of work.

Get a job, cool. How long will it last? How about the next one?

The damage has been done.

It is a deeply held American myth that we are solely and individually responsible for our successes and failures, that when you’re canned/axed/terminated/off-shored/out-sourced, it’s your fault. You, loser, screwed up. Not your handsomely compensated CEOs or the multiple layers of management they have chosen to hire and keep.

The language of job loss, used unthinkingly and carelessly, remains insultingly infantile and euphemistic.

Every day, in many news reports, we’re blandly informed: “XY,000 jobs were shed.”

Shed? Like a snake’s skin? Like a bird’s feathers?

More like a vicious virus, deeply, persistently painful.

Read Uchitelle. His passion and intellience won’t help you in any practical way. But he  — luckily, safely retired — gets it.

  1. I’ve been out of work for approximately 9 months. I’m in my late 20s with a degree from an elite private school. I’ve always been something of a cynic about the economy, but the long-range effect for me is likely to be a lack of faith in it’s stability and reliability.

    How this will practically translate itself into my life is unknown, but one way is definitely my attitude toward investments. 401(k)s are a joke, since it takes years (I won’t have at one job) to become fully vested. Home ownership increasingly looks like a trap, and I will fight hard to keep my kids from taking out much student loan debt at all, unless they are entering a field with countless possibilities.

  2. I’m so sorry to hear this…It’s exactly my point. You, like many of us, played “by the rules” — which are broken beyond repair.

    This morning I spoke to a 28 year-old fresh graduate school grad in Toronto (who I am paying $15/hr for research for my book) who cannot get a job in a field she was told is growing — because she is competing with people with 10+ years’ experience in it. I posted the need for a researcher through a Canadian listserv for extremely well-educated graduates students in information management — I was inundated within hours by applicants. Grateful, but shocked.

    I’ll also disagree, respectfully, about home ownership. I bought 20 years ago and my home has increased in value; I expect (hope), when we sell (if we sell) to see its price having doubled. It’s nothing fancy, a one-bedroom apartment but in a great location with great views (i.e. unchanged, inherent value.) I would never, ever, ever advocate buying a home the way many did – 0-5% down, interest-only ARMs, way. way beyond my means, etc. It has been, for me, the smartest decision I ever made, if only in allowing me a safe, reliable, affordable haven through some rough years of upheaval. I never used it as a piggy bank, which many did.

    re: 401ks…If you can save money at some point, you must — SEPs, Roths, whatever. I have never once had access to a 401k or match, even in ,y staff jobs, so have always had to force myself to save, typically 15 to 20 percent of my income, even in the worst years.

    The frightening results of cynicism and mistrust is that we pull away from the few ways, with luck and prudence, we can still recoup a little.
    When the “system” is broken, you/we have to invent our own.

  3. This is slightly off topic, but, when last month’s unemployment numbers were announced today, the commentators also noted that productivity showed a very sharp rise, which is seen as a “good” sign.

    I have never been able to fathom this. Think of it in two distinct tracks, both of which are not favorable to an improving job market:

    1. An increase in productivity means an employer can get the same amount of work done with a smaller workforce. A 6% increase in productivity means an employer who had 100 workers last year needs only 94 workers this year.

    2. In this climate, an increase in productivity can mean that those workers with jobs are working harder because their employers are pushing them to do so, in conjunctions with a fear of losing their jobs if they fail to do so.

    The popular wisdom on productivity has been that increasing productivity will lead to better wages-if this is the case, how do economists explain a stagnation in real wages over the past 30 years, even though advances in technology have no doubtably increased productivity. I’m a mathematician but I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around this concept.

  4. Bill, I, too heard these stats. I read a tremendous amount of business news, and also consume it daily by radio and TV….and have HAD it with analysts and economists opining on things like “higher productivity” without the damn journo’s interviewing them asking exactly this sort of smart, pointed question!

    There is endless description of what’s going on — with zero anger or even skepticism WHY being, as you wisely point out, more productive is de facto good. Yeah, let’s all work 1000% percent harder for stagnant or falling wages because…?

    The very ways we monitor, measure and value (ethically, morally, fiscally, intellectually) GDP or output are seriously f—-ed up. It feels Dickensian to me these days; we are meant to be so grateful to even have work that we don’t notice how insane the pace is for many of us. I am seeing and hearing, anecdotally, terrible stories of illness and injury — in white-collar folks working insane hours.

    I am writing a book about working retail. To boost profits, my then-employer (like many) last year cut staff (i.e. labor costs) so the few of us remaining were run almost literally off our feet. Some days, and I have a lot of stamina, I was literally nauseated from exhaustion. I doubt I am/was in any way unique in that respect.

  5. [...] 33,000 Lost Their Jobs Last Month — Read This Book If You’re One (Or Have Already Been C… – [...]

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