White-collar unemployment

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 2 19:02:30 MDT 2003

12 years ago before I began work at Columbia University I was unemployed
for about 4 months. It was not only depressing; my days were filled with
great anxiety about whether I would ever work again. Shortly after I began
work, I read an excerpt from a book titled "Executive Blues" by J. G. Meyer
that had appeared in the excellent Harpers magazine and bought it
immediately. It has remained on my bookshelf all these years until I began
reading it about a week or so ago. Obviously it is as timely as ever. I
have no idea what became of Meyer. After writing this book, he switched
careers from corporate America back into journalism where he started. All I
can say is that is a really great book as this excerpt should demonstrate:


I once read a story in which a young German soldier, shattered by his
experiences on the eastern front in World War II, is visited by the ghost
of his father. The soldier asks the father, who had been killed in World
War I, for help in understanding all the terrible things he has seen.

"How could I know?" the ghost answers. "I'm only nineteen years old! I'm
not as old as you are!"

I too have questions. Mostly they're pitiful little questions, and I have
the whole world to search for answers. Therefore it seems strange that
there is no human being on the face of the earth to whom I feel I can go
with a reasonable hope of getting answers.

Where can someone in my situation look for help?

The answer, I think, is nowhere. Actually, in my situation it's all but
forbidden to ask for help--to let anyone know that you feel the need for
help. Suppose you learn, for example, that a job apparently well suited to
your experience is vacant at the Magma Corporation. You send in your
resume, and in your cover letter you'd like to say not only that this job
interests you and that you think you're probably pretty well qualified for
it but that, hey, you're hot to trot--out of work for months now, finding
it both scary and boring as hell. Give me a chance, you want to say, and
I'll show myself to be the most grateful, loyal, hardworking S.O.B. on the
North American continent.

Help! you wanna say. Help me and I'll make you glad you did!

But you can't. You just can't. Everybody who's supposed to know says you'd
better not.

This question of help gives rise to some of the trickiest little paradoxes
in the life of a jobless white-collar worker in the 1990s.

For most of us--the ones who don't have an uncle in the CEO's office at
General Motors or an old college roommate who's now under secretary of
state--those relatively few people capable of being helpful can be very,
very hard to ask. To ask for help is to risk looking lost, pathetic,
outside the charmed circle. It's to risk a very hard rejection. It's to
risk making yourself look contemptible and therefore unworthy of the very
assistance you want and need so badly.

You can try, of course. I tried. When I got into trouble at McDonnell
Douglas I bought lunch for a man I'd once worked for, a famously
influential p.r. executive whom I'd left voluntarily and with whom I'd
stayed on distantly friendly terms over the years. I invited him to lunch
because I knew for a fact that he had good jobs to dispense. I told
him--being about as candid as it's possible for me to be about such
things--that I was in serious need of work.

He said he'd get back to me, and he never did.

This may have been his long-delayed retribution for my departure years
before. Maybe down deep he just didn't like or respect me. Whatever the
truth about that, the experience was humiliating. It left me with no
stomach for exposing my need for the inspection of die powerful in the hope
that they will do what they can.

Is that foolish? If you say so. But I'll never try any such thing again. As
the Ricky Nelson song says, I druther drive a truck.

On the other hand those relatively few people who really would do anything
within their power to help--spouses, parents, children, genuine friends as
opposed to business friends--invariably are incapable of offering more than
encouragement. You find yourself hating to let them know how needful you
feel because most of them are already so worried about you that you're
starting to worry about them.

The outplacement folks, of course, are paid to help. The trouble is that
you know what they're going to answer before you ask your questions. It's
like trying to have a heart-to-heart talk with a book of sermons by Norman
Vincent Peale or a videotape from the Dale Carnegie Institute. There's no
connection there, no human dimension. No wisdom, for that matter. You're
better off talking to yourself.

How long is it possible to remain in a situation like this without starting
to crack?

I don't know. How am I supposed to know? What I do know is that it's damned
difficult to wake up without a job morning after morning for months without
starting to feel at least a little uncertain about how capable you still
are of going out and playing the executive game with the old aplomb. I
suspect that the kind of self-assurance needed in the world of neckties can
be as delicate as the frame of a jet plane: treated properly it will last
forever, but if something subjects it to unusual kinds of stress die
results can be fatal. How long can an ordinary human being survive a steady
diet of being rejected out of hand by most prospective employers and
rejected after due diligence by all the others? Conceivably forever.
Conceivably for another week and a half. I don't know.

What actually happens if you "crack"?

Interesting question. Maybe you burst into tears in the middle of an
interview with a CEO. Maybe you start trembling so convulsively you can't
shake hands with some headhunter. Maybe you stop bathing, or start
screaming at strangers. Maybe your left eyelid starts twitching and never
stops. I don't know anybody who has actually broken down under the strain
of this in any dramatic way. I've seen some of my fellow outplacement
inmates grow more and more silent and strange and show up less and less
often to make their calls. I've seen some of them gradually fade away. But
a bona fide breakdown?Not yet. People are tough.

Is there a way to come out of this mess with a good job but without having
had to lie to get it?

Without having had to lie about who I am and what I want and what really
interests me, I mean. My definition of a "good" job has become, by now,
nastily confused. On one level I mean a job with an impressive title, a
fine office, plenty of minions, plenty of good travel, and plenty of
pay--things that I've had and lost and would like to have again. On another
level I mean, or want to mean, a job that seems worth doing. A job in
which, once I get it, I can be myself a good part of the time. Is it
possible to go to interviews and spout the requisite rubbish about how what
I want most is to be "challenged" and to have the opportunity to make a
"contribution" and be a "team player" ... is it possible to get a job in
this way and not have the job itself turn out in the end to be ridiculous?

There's a world of trouble packed into this one little question. It's a
question, I'm afraid, that probably answers itself. It's probably the kind
of question that, when answered honestly and the answer becomes a basis for
action, can get you into a lot of trouble.

I'm not up to dealing with that just now.

Later. Later.

So . .. Am I washed up?

Sometimes I try to ask people this, but always in an indirect way. Not in
job interviews, certainly, and not with people I can't afford to expose my
weaknesses to--people I might later need to use as references, for example.
But sometimes when I'm with somebody who has reasonably good judgment,
somebody who knows me and knows something of the world and is a person to
be trusted, sometimes when I'm talking with such a person I'll sort of
half-jokingly say that I'm beginning to worry that maybe I'm not going to
find another corporate job, that maybe that part of life is over for me. To
this I invariably get a pooh-poohing kind of answer, a quick mention of how
fabulous my credentials are and how it's natural to feel discouraged from
time to time but utterly unnecessary in a case like mine.

I never find these assurances helpful. What I see--what I've been seeing
for years--is the circle formed by the people in this country who have
money and security and status getting steadily smaller. At the center of
that circle are the people with inherited money, inherited connections,
inherited "advantages." Out near the perimeter are people like me, or
people like who I used to be, people with good jobs and not much else.
What's different today from a few months ago or twenty years ago is that
instead of
being just inside the circle I'm now just outside it--out here on the same
side of the barricades with the people in "service jobs" and the people
with no jobs at all and even the people with no address. Many of us are
finding ourselves on the outside for the first time. A recession, they call
it. But I can't stop wondering if it isn't more than that, if it isn't in
fact part of something bigger and worse, an unusually steep part of a long
slope down which the American economy has been sliding for a good many
years now.

Is it normal to be as afraid as I am?

Am I an ordinarily capable human being coping as well as can be expected
with a difficult and painful situation? Or am I a whining weenie?

I care a lot about the answers to questions like these. Who wouldn't? But I
don't know where to look for them.

I don't even know who's entitled to answer such questions. A psychiatrist?
Not any of the psychiatrists I know. A priest? I would have thought so
once, but at this stage in- life I don't know any priests who seem to know
more than I do. My grandma? Possibly. But my grandma has been dead a long time.

Even if this kind of fear is normal, should I keep it to myself?

What about family? Friends? What's fair to them? Is it brave to keep
everything inside like some John Wayne, or is it better to let everything
out like a good specimen of the New Age? What's healthy? What's authentic?

What's right?

Who can say?

In the history of the world has there ever been a society with so few answers?

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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