To Prosper We Need More Than Jobs

I’m always thrown by attempts to measure prosperity purely in terms of economic growth or high employment figures. Those measures are too restrictive, and they are also disorienting. Politicians who offer jobs leave me cold, and do us all a disservice. As I’ve written several times, the country is, or ought to be, more than a workcamp.

There’s an opportunity to reflect on that last point in Close to Home, the documentary Ofra Bickel made for Frontline about the 2008 financial crisis. In Chapter 4, we see Rob, a human resources executive who has “been out of work for a year,” attending a series of “networking functions.” He has found the job search an “insurmountable” challenge, and he hopes – in vain – that these networking events will help him get over the hurdle.

We see Rob and his fellow networkers – all of them out-of-work middle management types — exchanging business cards, practicing their pitches, learning how to introduce and present themselves. It’s an endless rehearsal for a debut that never comes, and Bikel finally decides to give up on Rob and on the networkers: it’s pretty clear none of this is going to pay off.

As Bikel realizes, there is something pathetic in their efforts. There is something ridiculous — and telling — here as well: a gathering of able-bodied, educated, smart American adults, all in dire economic straits, and all they can think to do is to practice for their next job interview. It never occurs to Rob or any of his fellow networkers to do something together, to join efforts and start something, to create something where there is nothing. In a word, they never really build a network. They simply want to get back on the corporate payroll. It’s disturbing to think that that’s all they know how to do.

What happened to that can-do spirit? American gumption? Bootstraps? Independence? Entrepreneurialism? Nowadays, over 90 percent of adult Americans are regular employees (as opposed to self-employed people); whether they have jobs or not, most Americans can think of themselves only as employees. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time, before the industrial era and the great waves of immigration it brought, when the majority of Americans did not have a “job” and wouldn’t take one unless they had to. “Being an employee was considered a form of bondage, only a step above indentured servitude,” as John Curl puts it in his history of American cooperative movements. “One submitted to it due to economic hardship, for as short a time as possible, then became free once more, independent, one’s own boss.”

We still like to pay tribute to the freedom from wage slavery we once enjoyed, or lament its loss. Take another film, this one from 1961: The Misfits, directed by John Huston, written by Arthur Miller and starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Gable plays Gay, an aging cowboy who thinks that most anything beats “working for wages” and sees employment for what it is – a loss of freedom.

Gay’s tragedy is that he has outlived the possibility of that freedom. The Wild West has become nothing more than a rodeo show; the cowboy life Gay leads is “like roping a dream. I just gotta find another way to be alive, that’s all,” he realizes, “if there is one anymore.” In the film’s closing scene, Gay, bloodied and defeated, drives off toward a new life, or at least what’s left of his life, with his friend Guido yelling after him: “Where’ll you be? Some gas station polishin’ windshields? Makin’ change in a supermarket? Try the Laundromat! They need a fella there to load the machines!” That’s all that’s left for cowboys in Miller’s postwar America.

The most important thing to realize is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to succumb to the despair of another networking meeting or turn in your cowboy hat for a Walmart greeter’s cap. And you don’t have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Few people can or ever have. Throughout our early frontier history and well into the industrial era, independent Americans relied on altruism, mutual-aid societies and cooperative working arrangements to build houses and raise barns, protect one another from fires or other losses, or “to accomplish their liberation from wage slavery.” That’s the story Curl’s book tells — a side of the American story we don’t usually acknowledge, but ought to understand and appreciate if we hope to prosper, together, with or without jobs.

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