Alternet, reporting on The Disposable American:
Mental health professionals are just beginning to recognize that layoffs chip away at human capital by eating at self-esteem on a mass scale.
Just beginning? They’re slackin’, given what Freud said 75 years ago in Civilization and Its Discontents about mental health being the ability to love and to work.
So I’m thinking today about how our work defines us, which got me thinking about layoffs, and the process of moving down the career ladder from white-collar to unskilled labor, what that process does to a person’s self-definition.
It is like acid rain eroding the environment, according to Dr. Theodore Jacobs, a professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and New York University School of Medicine in New York. He says: “Even if a person is accurate in saying, ‘I did a really good job, and I can see that the company is in a bad way, and they have to lay off a lot of people and it is really not about me,’ there is seldom an escape from the inner sense of ‘Why me?’ In other words, one has some sense that one has failed, and the outside world has made that judgment. And that self-perception dovetails with existing inadequacies that many people feel about themselves.”
The Great Depression was less damaging. Millions of people lost their jobs then, but the majority blamed flaws in the market system, not in themselves. They demanded that government fix the flaws. That collective response, which helped to produce the New Deal, is missing today. Implicit in self-blame is acquiescence to layoffs, now the American condition.
Six months of resumes, work-coach, self-help, 12-Step, Monster.com makeovers later comes the reckoning. You need a goddamn job, anything to keep the groceries coming through the door.
From Waging A Living, a conversation between David Brancaccio and Barbara Ehrenreich:
DB: … Americans tend to blame not the system, not the government or policy, but often themselves for their situation. There is a quote in “Waging a Living”: “God is neglecting me.” That a higher power is at work, perhaps for the person’s own moral failing, is the idea. Sometimes there’s a reluctance to connect what is happening to people with anything besides just bad luck or some sort of moral failing.
BE: Yes, and I could sort of see that when I was working on Bait and Switch, where I was undercover as white-collar job seeker. In all these settings for white-collar job seekers, you go to a career coach and a networking environment and all these sorts of things, you get someone in the front of the room saying, “It is all you, whatever happens is because of your attitude or the thoughts you’re beaming out to the universe, if they’re negative, that’s why you’ve been searching for a job for six months or two years.”
This is amazing, that everybody sat there passively and took it in, but here it is right in front of me, the group leader saying, “No, don’t talk about the market, don’t talk about the economy, let’s talk about you and what’s wrong with you.” So I could be conspiratorial about that, as we almost have a sizeable ideology machine coming from the self-help gurus, the authors of the business books, the life coaches and the career coaches saying, “You have only yourself to blame for your low wages, for your layoff, for anything else that’s happened to you.”
Those self-help gurus are encouraging faulty attributions, a recognized psychological problem. I don’t know how they get away with what they do or why there is such a market for mindfuckers, but I recognize that comforting if misplaced locus of control typical in abuse victims who believe I am responsible for creating my situations therefore I can improve them. To say otherwise changes everything, and is terrifying, at first.
It’s becoming obvious that we are able to work at all in this country because corporations can’t find a way to outsource plumbers, frycooks, maids and nurse’s aids. And because they don’t want to need me, my labor is not a contribution, but a resented 7 dollar an hour expense, they say so constantly in degradation ceremonies that proved for me, unbearable.
It is a racket, to disempower people and call them “team leaders,” infantilize adults and call them “associates”, to assume shiftlessness, and with that turn regular people into spiteful deviants, and then
track, monitor and surveil their compliance with a proles-are-bad foretold conclusion. Undercover informants, hidden video, computer software counting my keystrokes, the hell with wrecking whatever is left of my mental health.
We all know the solution to living in dehumanizing wage-slave conditions. I did that, grew up working poor, got educated, got a degree in radio engineering, spent a decade on a career track, fell on hard times, learned what it means to punch a clock and scrub the toilets. And that I don’t have what it takes to do both kinds of work. Maybe all these white collar Americans flipping sudden burgers will revolutionize the workplace they’ve spiraled into. Orientation comes first, and it can take a long time if this is where you are, my god, this is where you are.
I know this much: coming from white trash took a long learning curve acclimating to the status, expectations and norms of membership in the professions, but it was nothing like getting used to the idea that a working class hero is something to be. Maybe they can change that too.