In the workplace, crisis was G.J. Meyer's savior. Climbing the ladder through unfulfilling but lucrative public relations jobs with McDonnell Douglas Corp. in St. Louis, he was delivered from the torpor of the place--not once but twice--by catastrophes involving the company's DC-10 jetliners. Having to plan the corporate reaction to the crashes stirred his professional juices, much as being assigned to cover the day's hot story had inspired him in his days as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter.
So it is fitting that his personal unemployment crises of the past few years bring out the best in Meyer, providing the tablet for a poignant, wise and occasionally hilarious look at the life lessons--and repeated humiliations--involved with being a displaced forty- or fifty-something executive.
The theme of "Executive Blues" is daily more relevant, as companies find ingenious new ways to thin out the ranks of their highest-paid workers. I should know; during a nationwide layoff of senior editors and reporters on Dec. 31, the newspaper I worked for cut me loose three months short of my 24th anniversary there. That event has initiated a bewildering trek through the networking jungles that shockingly resembles Meyer's.
What he encounters after being unexpectedly dismissed from two vice president positions--at Wisconsin-based farm-equipment maker J. I. Case Co. in 1991 and McDonnell Douglas in 1988--is an Alice-in-Wonderland world of doublespeak and downright deceit among outside headhunters and company officials charged with hiring and firing.
There's a seemingly endless chain of headhunters telling him things like how their searches are "not going to go ahead without you in it; I'll be back to you soon--in hours, not days." Of course, that's the last he hears from them.
Here, too, is a colorful cast of devious corporate antagonists. One standout: the psychologist at a seed company called Pioneer Hi-Bred International, whose bizarre behavior sabotages an otherwise perfectly normal, even intelligent interview. As the Pioneer psychologist studies him silently for nearly an hour, Meyer writes, with each glance her way he finds her "a little more hunched over in her chair, staring at me a little more intently," so that eventually the "end of the ballpoint pen she grips so ferociously is nearly in her nostril." Meyer--suspecting this may be a test of his ability to respond to a nut case--requires a superhuman act of restraint not to break in and suggest that perhaps a doctor should be called for the psychologist. And that's before she even starts her bizarre line of questioning.
While most of us now going from prospect to prospect must sit back and cower at the abuse we encounter, Meyer gleefully uses his book to deflate such operatives of "rightsizing," and the absurdist world they infect. There's the same kind of vicarious satisfaction we felt when Woody Allen punctured that pompous college teacher in "Annie Hall" by bringing him face-to-face with Marshall McLuhan.
It's hard to describe in analytical terms the complex feelings that plague out-of-work executives, especially those of us who have been ousted from long careers that we worked hard to build the way our parents before us may have built theirs out of the Depression. Indeed, the inability of many friends and relatives to understand the jumble of emotions inside--fear, shame, resentment, envy, loss of control--is one of the more difficult things about being in such a position.
But the blend of crisp common sense, pathos and wit in this account by Meyer--whose search for a new start begins at the age of 50, after 38 years of continuous employment--offers solace to the multitudes who are similarly afflicted, but who lack the ability to fight back, or even cry out in anguish. We even learn from his real-life stumbles, such as when he haltingly interprets his layoff to his no-nonsense Midwestern parents, who reward him with all the sensitivity and support they can muster. " 'There's no such thing as job security anymore,' says my father. 'No, and there's no such thing as loyalty either. Naw.' "
Familiar, too, are the numerous tricks Meyer employs to convince himself the situation isn't so bad. At one point he pins a list of his top five job prospects to the bulletin board over his desk and tells himself: "I couldn't possibly lose out on all of these. Couldn't possibly. Not on all of them."
Perhaps most reflective of the unemployed executive's malaise, though, is the tendency to use all that unaccustomed free time to philosophize, something Meyer engages in frequently and delightfully--if not always very productively.
He visualizes himself as the fatted calf, whose every advantage in moving seamlessly from success to success in school, the military, and corporate life now looms as a prelude to this ultimate workplace sacrifice. And he muses on the vacuous nature of most jobs that society exalts for their titles and high salaries. In retrospect, he observes, his own best employment was a stint in Alaska as a "blubberer" scraping fat from sealskins for a fur company. "Physically this was the hardest work I've ever done, bloody and greasy and foul. Five hours of it would exhaust the best of us," he writes. But he delighted in the absence of pretense and politics, so that "when we were finished nobody expected us to hang around pretending to be working or pretending to be eager for more."
The seduction of such cosmic thoughts, while on another level he's just trying to find somebody to give him a paycheck, often leaves him in a confused state. Is a good job one "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?" Yes, but he's torn by the contrast with that other definition: "a job that seems worth doing."
The first two-thirds of "Executive Blues" tours the frustrations that Meyer recorded in a diary after losing the J. I. Case job in 1991, when he first began to notice he was being treated as damaged goods. Nationally, of course, the ranks of these walking wounded have swollen since then, as mergers and management machinations have led more and more big companies to set career employees adrift. But the book then shifts into a discussion of what went wrong at McDonnell Douglas and Case--interesting tales of corporate abuse, yet less compelling than his job-hunting saga.
Any minor organizational shortcomings, though, shouldn't prevent "Executive Blues" from being treasured by anyone so dislocated after a long career--or wanting to empathize with a loved one's unemployment predicament.
There's a hint of a happy ending here, though Meyer doesn't mention the name of the Ohio utility where he finally, serendipitously lands a public relations vice presidency. (It's Centerior Energy, near Cleveland.)
Taking the lumps along with Meyer, we are more prepared for them ourselves, and bouncing back with his sense of humor enhances our own ability to lighten up when the horizon looks bleakest.