Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Even Though She Didn't Deign to Speak To Me, at Least She Didn't Laugh at Me When I Asked What Her Writing Hours Were.

I went to the Margaret Mitchell House last night to see this woman: Barbara Ehrenreich. It wasn't actually at the house itself, but rather a building/museum adjacent to the MM House. (Even the MM House isn't really the MM House anymore -- it's burned down twice, once in 94 and again in 96 -- what stands now is a replica/restoration). Anyway. She signed books BEFORE and after the reading, which was a first for me. I got my book, Nickel and Dimed, signed before the signing. Since I like to describe my interactions with famous authors at signings, (as they are often pretty ridiculous) I'll describe this one, too, even though it is not ridiculous.

(It is my turn at the signing table. I stand in front of Barbara Ehrenreich. I slide the book across to her.)
Me: Hi.
Barb: (looks at me expectantly)
Me: Oh. Just your name is fine. (For those who aren't book-signing whores, when you get to the table, the authors mostly just want to know whether you want the book inscribed or just signed -- I always go for just signed -- having a book inscribed seems a little needy to me, as though one is hoping someone else will happen on the book in their house, see it's TO you, FROM the author him or herself, and think you and the author go way back. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that though.)
Barb: (nods, finds the title page, signs, slides the book back across the table)
Me: Thanks a lot.
Barb: (bored, casually appraising nod)

There you have it. Another celebrity interaction where the celebrity manages to get through the entire experience without uttering so much as a syllable. (The others being Shatner and Brad Pitt).

Anyway. So at 7PM (more like 7:08PM), Ehrenreich is introduced and takes the lectern in front of a pretty crowded room. She told us that for her new book, Bait and Switch, which is about being a white collar worker trying to find a job in the corporate world, she did much of her research here in Atlanta. She said she did not have a pleasant experience in our fair city, she said. She was rejected often. Even though Bait and Switch has gotten, seemingly, universally bad reviews, I kind of want to read it now to see what Atlanta did to her. Might make me feel better. She told us about the age discrimination she experienced during her immersion journalism. She was told by many a "career coach" (a profession she eagerly scorned) that she shouldn't put anything on her resume that went back farther than 10 years. She was given personality tests galore, all of them, she's discovered, based in absolute nonsense. The most famous, the Miers-Briggs test, has essentially been debunked, she said, because a person can take a test and present one personality on Tuesday, and a completely different personality on Thursday. But corporations absolutely rely on this stuff to decide who to hire. Her central charge against America's corporations, particularly as it relates to the hiring of its employees, is that part of the reason employers demand applicants do personality tests, is because they're looking for exactly ONE kind of personality. A personality that is happy, ever-perky, optimistic and, most of all, obedient. If you are outside this personality type in any way, the modern American corporation wants nothing to do with you. If you are over 45 (in some industries, if you are over 35), they want nothing to do with you. Based on her experiences trying to find a job as a PR person, she believes that likability has taken over competence as the primary reason companies hire people. If you "fit in" with the corporate culture, you're essentially in. She cited Bush, the self-proclaimed CEO president, as evidence of how pervasive the new corporate culture is in America. He hired Mike Brown to head FEMA, not because he was qualified, but because he was a nice guy. He nominated Harriet Miers for Associate Justice not because she was qualified, but because she's a nice lady.

I like Barbara Ehrenreich. I agree with a lot of what she says. Sometimes, though, I get the sense that part of the reason she's so popular is because she's essentially flattering all the snipy ne'er do'ells out there (like me) who believe it's not their fault they're without employment, but rather it's the corporations's fault that people haven't found work. It's the SYSTEM! And, maybe like a dope, I do often believe that. But! Do I believe that interviewing employers would rather see a smiling newbie who won't say no to unpaid overtime and massive projects they'll never get credit for doing, than someone who doesn't seem like too funny a guy but has exactly the qualifications they're looking for? I kind of doubt it. I think they'll take the qualified guy almost every time. Maybe that's more the case in jobs that require a lot of technical expertise or a very specific skill-set, and not so much the case with something more nebulous like PR, but it seems to me that most jobs posted out there want quite a lot of experience, and would probably hire it if they found it. Maybe that's not true anymore, I don't know.

She talked about a growing culture of incompetence in corporate America. Seeing the plight of Delta Airlines, with its top execs, each with an MBA from a top school under thier arm, unable to find a way to be profiitable like Southwest or Jet Blue for going on 5 YEARS, you might think there's something to that idea.

She said that the middle class is shrinking in this country. That much is undeniable. 25% of the US are essentially the working poor, she said, and the figure is growing. The percentage of the nation's wealth in the hands of the top 1% is growing. She said without a national will to fight the current policy in Washington, which is "give the corporations whatever they want", then nothing will change. HP, was an example she cited. Billions of dollars were given to HP in the form of tax breaks, explicitly for "job creation". HP never added any jobs, but they sure as hell cut 15,000 of them. Why don't the taxpayers get their money back? She asks these questions and others.

Even though Barbara Ehrenreich is really left (nearly as left as me), I think a lot of what she writes speaks to people on both sides of the political spectrum because what she writes and speaks about is true. Discrimination in hiring is rampant in the working world, age discrimination being one of the worst kinds and one of the least talked about. Even conservatives have experienced age discrimination when trying to find a job and know it's not fair and that thier party's representatives have zero interest in doing anything about it. Anyway. She talked for about half an hour and then turned it into a Q&A for the second half-hour, and the she was done at 8PM on the dot. Though it was brief, it was informative and interesting. Russell Banks is going to be there at the beginning of next month, so I shall return to MM House. I'll have to call ahead to find out how many books he'll sign. Cause I'll bring 'em all. I don't care.

I worked today for a friend of my father-in-law named Mike Ryan. He runs his company, a franchise of ITEX (a bartering company), out of his home. I folded 1,000 8" X 11" pieces of paper in half, sealed them with clear stickers, and tomorrow I'll put mailing labels and stamps on them. My back's killing me. And yes, this is what I'm qualified for.

And below: the Margaret Mitchell House. Until tomorrow.

1 comment:

blankfist said...

"She said she did not have a pleasant experience in our fair city, she said."

You might want to change that, huh? Anyhow, great post, dude. This is probably my favorite post to date. It's spoken from an honest perspective, it's a subject that is clear you care about, and you add a twinge of humility in there for good measure. Good stuff! This Ehrenreich lady sounds insightful, and yeah I think she is right, this country is squeezing the life out of the poor.

I think that maybe the middle class isn't shrinking as much as it's becoming specialized, therefore a smaller section of the working class can do them (or rather needs to do them). Whereas in the past it might've taken an entire team to create, say, a tv spot, well, that same team can be reduced thanks to digital technology and effects. The end result is greater quality and the costs are down. This is probably not the best analogy, but a really good one escapes me right now.

I do think companies want eager people, too. They want cannon fodder to line their cubicles who will work for long hours and low wages. Most "straight out of college" kids get paid crap, but the companies know they will take it. It's a trade off, really. It's a give and take. The companies are giving you a lower wage and expecting long hours from you, but in exchange they are taking a risk by hiring someone who is untrained in the area. They are also offering the opportunity to be trained, on the job, which is better than anything anyone will ever learn by reading about it in a book. The promise is, eventually, the employee will gain an advanced knowledge of the job, hence they will be eligable for the high salary jobs years later.

The key is (at least it seemed to work for my aunt who is now CEO of a pretty large company) to jump around. You take the crummy job, learn what you can, then leap to a higher position. Never jump laterally unless the company holds credentials (or a client roster) that will look great on your resume. Never stay at a company longer than five years, however you should be leaping at around three years. But, never leap before you've been there for a year unless the working conditions are horrible OR the leap is for a considerably better position. That's how I see it, according to my aunt's success.

I, of course, work in an industry that I cannot wait to get out of. I hate it. I don't like building websites and programming and... I hate it all, actually. The only thing that inspires me to lift my fat butt from my bed in the morning and go to work is the decent paycheck. A lot of people in my industry would kill for the client base and experience I have, and in a weird way I wish I could just pass that section of my brain onto them. But, being that I have the experience and client base, I will always win out and get the first pick of the jobs, and they will always get sloppy seconds. What's really sad, is that they really want to be doing this job, and I do not. Ha ha. Sweet, sweet irony.

Oh well, great post, dude. Keep it up. I think these are the sort of posts that are most interesting.

Later, nerd.