Unforeseen Job Hardships In A 'Booming' Economy
You might have noticed there's a disconnect in America where we're told we're in the middle of a decade-long economic boom and yet there is an epidemic of "Deaths of Despair." It kind of seems like that "booming" economy is built on a system intended to terrify people into working themselves to death. As it turns out, there's a few reasons why job stability is a far off dream for, well, everyone.
Sudden Unemployment Looms Around Every Corner
To see how the world of work is terrifying in ways that it didn't used to be, just look at the word "layoff." A layoff used to mean that you were actually "laid off," meaning you were idle while the shop was idle. When the shop got going again, they'd call you back up. When the word was coined, it meant a worker taking the pedal off the gas. Now it means crashing over the median and smacking into oncoming traffic.
So tens of millions of us live in fear of that sudden unscheduled meeting ("Can I see you in my office?") or just showing up to work one day and finding out your keycard doesn't unlock the door anymore. It's not like it's an unreasonable fear to have -- unemployment is a killer. And I mean that literally. You're twice as likely to experience a stroke, have a heart attack, and experience that ultimate life event (dying) when you're laid off. It's why recessions even make it more likely for people to die, full stop.
In America, unions have all but disappeared and that means that the vast majority of workers are functioning under the rules of "at will employment", which means you can be fired at any time, for any reason, without warning, with no recourse (unless you can somehow prove it was due to discrimination against one of the few specific protected classes). And even if you think you can prove that, the layoff thing can make it hard to consider paying a lawyer to help you take legal recourse.
That insecurity can be lethal because it's not just about the paycheck and health insurance; we define ourselves by labor. It's the first question we get asked by strangers, it's the first thing mentioned in any news story about us ("Local Elementary School Teacher Arrested After Nude Food Fight At Country Kitchen Buffet"). Even if we take long breaks in the stockroom and are just biding time until we can use the copier to make our sweet zine, we still spend half of our waking hours at the workplace. It's likely where we have most of our social connections. And it can all be yanked away at any moment.
And if you're working in the gig economy, it's even more tenuous -- Uber doesn't have to fire you, they just "deactivate" your account. "You weren't fired", it implies, "you never worked for us at all."
"Learn To Code" Isn't An Answer
Joe Biden, famous anti-malarkey presidential candidate, recently got up on a stage and basically said "Learn to code!" to a bunch of coal miners facing the death of their industry. These people spent their whole lives mining coal, worrying about black lung, and fighting wars with mine bosses. But coal is going out of style (something about how it's slowly rendering the earth uninhabitable) so time to shift gears, right? It's just that simple!
If you're young, it's not just Joe telling you to learn to code. Everybody's telling you to code, or to major in business, or to suddenly learn all sorts of practical things. "Well, don't major in Literature, you big doofus! Do something useful like business!" It turns out, though, that students are doing just that, putting on their big-boy ties and majoring in business. It's the most popular major by a long shot. The second most popular? Health sciences. That wave of unemployable scarf-wearing writer kids we keep hearing so much about? Yeah, Business majors outnumber them by about ten to one.
But doing the practical thing and majoring in something marketable, like business, often leads you to finding yourself drowning in the hundreds of thousands of people who did the same thing. What'll set you apart? And with all the debt you'll incur, should you even go to college? Should you try to find a co-op school? A boot camp? An apprenticeship? A plumber can't make more than a coder, right? Wait, they can? And we'll need more of them, going forward?
Speaking of coders, will we need as many as we used to? No? Wait, isn't a coder the same thing as a software developer? Ok, so I should be a developer then? Can I become one doing an income sharing program? Man that sounds great. Wait, do income sharing colleges that teach you to code suck too? Goddammit.
Therein lies the second terror of modern work: finding out what work is going to be viable ten years down the road is as hard as trying to keep your work once you get it. You have to make a ton of decisions about the kind of work to do and you'll never be able to stop asking those questions so long as you live.
Everyone Has To Be A Jack-Of-All Trades
There's a bit that the brilliant comedian Mitch Hedberg used to do where he talks about being a comedian in Hollywood. He said:
When you're in Hollywood and you're a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. All right, you're a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That's not fair. That's like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I'm a really good cook, they'd say, "OK, you're a cook. Can you farm?"
And he's right. This isn't fair. But it is a brilliantly accurate picture of what the world expects of you. Take someone like Rachel Bloom, who got her start making videos for the Internet. She's a poster child for odd skill sets, combining acting, songwriting, singing, producing, and musical theater nerdom, all of which were on display when she started creating those aforementioned weird videos for the Internet (and Cracked). That's what makes her unique, and dangerous, and why she's set to write the Broadway musical of The Nanny.
Even the dreamboat that played Poe Dameron only got a chance because he'd played guitar before at a high level before going into acting. It was that skill that snagged Oscar Isaac the role in his breakout hit.
Those people are celebrated because it almost seems unfair that they're that talented at so many different things. But we're expected to be the working class equivalent of that. So, thus the guy who's spent decades learning how to operate various heavy machines in a coal mine, adjusting to the danger, noise and physical strain, is asked to pivot to a job that means sitting perfectly still in front of a monitor, in dead silence, for hours on end.
The laid off assembly line worker is now asked to go to work in a nursing home and suddenly develop a sympathetic bedside manner. The expert sales person who has always hated reading is casually told to go back to school and get a Master's Degree in something.
Successful people love to give inspirational quotes about trying new things and going out of your comfort zone, but it's one thing to do it willingly, out of a desire for self-improvement. It's something else entirely when you're told that everything within your comfort zone leads to homelessness.
The Only Long-Term Answer Is Relentless (And Exhausting) Curiosity
What used to be a particular personality type -- the person who is constantly learning, and constantly curious about others and how they live their lives -- is apparently now a requirement. You need that person's restlessness and addiction to novelty, their confidence to always be trying new things in spite of failure.
In the old world, confidence came from knowing your shit. Learn enough about the dingleberries and the gimbalhoppers of your line of work and you could speak on it with authority. But that authority is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Things we thought were solid are now amorphous, and at any moment your entire knowledge base can suddenly become useless. "Everything you spent thirty years learning how to do? This robot has it built-in from Day 1. Your severance is this commemorative coffee mug. The handle broke off."
It seems like from here on out, confidence comes from being able to ask the right questions and being able to interrogate why and how we do things. It comes from realizing that you don't know anything, or that what you know might become meaningless by this time tomorrow. For those of you who are already locked into the Industry of the Future, just understand that it's a rough goddamn world out there for the vast majority of us. So have a little mercy for everybody putting in a day's work. Especially those coal miners trying to become coders, proverbially or otherwise.