Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Growing Irrelevance of the American Worker

I recently got around to seeing the movie "Up In the Air". In this film, George Clooney plays the role of Ryan Bingham, a "terminator". Bingham travels around the country in behalf of companies who apparently don't have the balls to fire workers to their faces themselves and instead hire his employer's services to deliver the news to their sacked employees. Bingham informs the workers that "their positions are no longer available",  and  then tries to  conduct a cliche ridden pep talk/ termination interview. Naturally, all the workers hear is that they have been let go. Nothing else that he says afterwards registers because at the moment  nothing else matters. (I know that feeling from personal experience).
The dismissed employees were portrayed as loyal, long term workers who had no idea that their jobs had been in jeopardy in the first place.  So naturally their response was shocked disbelief, and they invariably protested that they had invested years of service to their company, that they had mortgages to pay and families to feed. Of course, all this made no difference.  Even when  a company offers a severance package, which is not always the case, fired is still fired.

The lesson to be learned here is that as a source of income, usually the chief one for most people, employment really is an investment, and a high risk one at that.  As such, it can collapse and become worthless at any time.  So it behooves workers not to become complacent or get emotionally attached to their jobs and worst of all define their worth by them. No matter how secure an employee thinks that his /her  position is, the rug can be pulled out  from him at any time, especially under an "at will"condition of employment as is the case for most parts of the U.S .

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, millions of Americans— more than at any time since the 1930's— have learned this the hard way.   But looking at job loss in the large sense of the American capitalist /corporate system, this mass unemployment is an inevitable phenomenon.  Private companies are not in business to manufacture goods and create jobs in the process. They are in business to make money. period.  In order to turn a profit, businesses will pare whatever expenses that they can, including and especially labor.  If, for example, they can cut their work force in half and shove off the duties of the terminated staff onto the remaining employees without increasing the latter's pay, (which is typically an option in a non-union environment)  they will do so in a heartbeat. This is why America has a very productive work force. People here may resent being required to assume additional responsibilities  without a commensurate boost in wages (a practice known as "offloading"), but in the current economy, they will accept the situation and be thankful that they have a job at all. (Also see "Twelve Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil")

Alternately of course, management may decide that the best way to slash in house payroll costs is to do away with them altogether, such as by outsourcing the work overseas.  Did you know that U.S. based companies actually get a tax break for shipping jobs abroad? There is a bill inow in Congress to revoke this incentive, but passage is not a slam dunk as various lobbies and interests are sure to fight it.

On a side note, in other parts of the world, such as Europe and increasingly the Middle East of all places, disenfranchised workers regularly take to the streets in mass protests. But that's not the American way.   For the most part people in the U.S. seem to have been brainwashed into considering such demonstrations as unamerican. If that's the case, they obviously don't know their history.  The labor movement at one time was one of committed activism in which people gave up their lives for the right to join unions and demand the end to inhumane working conditions.  But that was then and this is now.  

So what can workers do to protect their interests while they still have jobs?  Here are a few suggestions. Acquire as little debt as possible relative to your income and pay off or down whatever financial obligations you currently have as quickly as possible.  This way, if you lose your job, you will be able to weather the storm of unemployment from a much more advantageous position and are less likely to make rash decisions due to financial desperation that you may later regret.

While you're employed, scan and save the want ads and Internet postings regularly for recurring job opportunities that sit your employment profile and goals.  Keep your references and resumè updated. Network with people in the same line of work at other companies.  Keep your feelings about your work private,i.e. avoid posting any displeasure that you might have about your job on social media; ranting on Facebook for example can backfire.  Follow the economic news about your employer, especially their financial condition, and whether they're involved in buy-outs or mergers.

Above all, don't assume that  you're safe just because you're performing well and your future with the company looks solid. It's that very complacency that can come back to haunt you when you are unexpectedly summoned to a meeting and are greeted by the real life counterpart of Ryan Bingham.

For further ideas on dealing with workplace stress and on controlling personal finances, click here for a link to my website "Green Monday".  (Disclosure: that page also includes promotional material for my e-book of the same name.)


Andy said...

"Acquire as little debt as possible relative to your income and pay off or down whatever financial obligations you currently have as quickly as possible."

Good point, debt is slavery.

Secular Guy said...


Thanks for your response. While it's true that some debt occurs from event beyond one's control such as from a catastrophic incident, most people who are in over their head became that way due to poor budget management and /or lack of self control in their spending habits.

Barkha Dhar said...

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Barkha Dhar

Secular Guy said...


Thanks for your support. I checked out your video. It really does give an insight into a tragic aspect of Indian culture with which most non-Indians, especially Westerners, are most likely unfamiliar. The musical accompaniment is hauntingly beautiful.

The Christian said...

Thank you for leaving a post at my blog (Well, my boyfriend's blog as well), The Christian and The Atheist. I thought I'd return the favor.

Just from this one post, I can see that you are thoughtful and more intelligent than quite a few people I know, and I know some darn knowledgeable people. Your ideas on unemployment and what to do in the case of unemployment is very helpful, considering that quite a bit of my family is facing unemployment from the government, partially because Minnesota hasn't agreed on a state budget. There are probably more reasons than that, but I haven't had time to research them yet.

As a student who is looking to be employed by a major corporation in a few years, I am looking for all the information I can find to safeguard myself from disaster. Unlike some my age, I prefer to learn from the past.

So, thank you for making this blog. I'll be watching you and learning more from you in the future.

Secular Guy said...

Thanks so much for your generous compliments.

I have one more bit of advice to you as a student which I didn't include in my post in order to make my suggestions therein as broadly applicable as possible: Upon graduation, consider emigration to Canada or Australia. These two countries are in better shape than the U.S. and from what I've read especially about the former are welcoming qualified foreigners with open arms. I would think that as a young college educated person, you would certainly fit that description.

You and your boyfriend's economic opportunities will likely be limited in America as you and your contemporaries face the likelihood of a financial future inferior to that of your parents' generation--the first such large-scale downward mobility in decades, maybe in all of American history.

Best of luck to both of you.

The Christian said...

Thank you. Good luck to you as well.

Secular Guy said...

My pleasure.