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.
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.