All fired up

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream" and "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."

In most parts of the world, from Paris to Beijing, mass unemployment brings the specter of mass social unrest. Not here, though, where 13 million people have accepted joblessness with nary a peep of protest.

Many reasons -- from Prozac to Pentecostalism -- have been cited to explain American passivity in the face of economic violence. But the truth may be far simpler: In America, being unemployed doesn’t mean you have nothing to do but run around burning police cars. Unemployment has been reconfigured as a new form of work.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the white-collar world, where the laid-off are constantly advised to see job searching as a full-time job. As business self-help guru Harvey Mackay advises: “Once you’re fired, you already have a job. The job you have is tougher than the last one. It’s more demanding.” How demanding? He says you need to “plan on 12 to 16 hours a day.”

Picture it: People across America rising at the usual time, suiting up in full corporate regalia and setting themselves down at their laptops to fiddle with resumes, peruse and pester everyone on their address lists for leads.


Some people have no doubt found jobs in this manner, but there have been no scientific comparisons of the technique with, say, printing a resume on a sandwich board and parading around Times Square.

If there is something familiar in the image of laid-off workers soldiering on, it may be because of films like “Tokyo Sonata” and the 2002 French film, “Time Out,” in which the heroes -- laid-off executives -- conceal their status from their families and continue to mime the daily commute to work. In the movies, this behavior seems pathetic -- a case of terminal denial -- but it’s exactly what the American “transition industry” of career coaches and outplacement firms recommends: If you don’t have a job, fake one.

In real life, it’s OK for a man to tell his wife he’s lost his job; he should just never reveal that he has time on his hands. A February article in the New York Times featured a laid-off Illinois man who justified his refusal to do more around the house by saying, “As one of the people who runs one of the career centers I’ve been to told me: ‘You’re out of a job, but it’s not your time to paint the house and fix the car. Your job is about finding the next job.’ ”

At the kinky extreme, laid-off white-collar people are advised to further simulate the office environment by finding someone to play the part of a “boss” -- a spouse, a friend, a paid career coach -- to whom you report every few days on your progress.

Is it any wonder there’s no time left over for lobbying for universal health insurance or reading Marxist tracts on the “reserve army of the unemployed”? It’s all a person can do to keep up with the relentless pressures of an imaginary job.

The blue-collar unemployed are subjected to gerbil-like exercises of their own. While white-collar layoff victims are encouraged to polish the “brand called you,” blue-collar people are told they have nothing to offer unless they start all over with “retraining.” Hence, in part, the current surge in community college enrollments.

But in his 2006 book, “The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences,” Louis Uchitelle raised the obvious question: “Retraining for what?” At the beginning of the decade, computer skills were all the rage; then the low-level computer work vanished to India. Air-conditioner repairing is popular right now, and big-rig truck driving is a perennial favorite. There are no guarantees, of course, of eventual jobs. In a recent report for the organization Food AND Medicine on laid-off manufacturing workers in Maine, Steve Husson, who himself had been laid off as a DHL driver, found paper mill workers stuck with intermittent seasonal work and low-paid service-sector jobs despite their stints of retraining.

Even two or three years ago, when the economy was apparently healthy, average layoff victims “landed” in new jobs paying 17% less than the old ones -- if they landed at all. Today, with the country losing more than half a million jobs a month, both white-collar job searching and blue-collar retraining are becoming surreal exercises in futility. No matter how smart you are -- how flexible, personable and skilled -- you can’t find a job that isn’t there. At least until the unemployment benefits run out and the credit cards are canceled, you might as well devote yourself to Madden and “Minesweeper.”


Of course, there are a few constructive, work-like alternatives. You could join one of the emerging efforts to organize the unemployed, like Food AND Medicine in Maine, the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Assn. of Allen County, Ind., or the nationwide group United Professionals, which I helped start. Or you could pitch in with one of the several organizations fighting for single-payer health insurance, or at least a huge expansion of public health insurance for the unemployed. You could get together with laid-off friends and co-workers to discuss how you would design an economy that made use of people’s precious skills instead of periodically tossing them out like so much trash.

But the first step, as in any 12-step program, is to overcome denial. Job searching is not a job; retraining is not a panacea. You may be poorer than you’ve ever been, but you are also freer -- to express anger and urgency, to dream and create, to get together with others and conspire to build a better world.