Advice to the jobless: Keep smiling

Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune writes a column called “I Just Work Here. ” His latest on how to survive a layoff  (August 22, 2011) offers the advice of two supposed experts on employment and interviews with a couple of people who got lucky following their advice. It prompted me to write to Rex with a comment on their advice and a request that he do a little more reporting. That letter and a link to his column follow:

Dear Rex:

Please allow me to offer a different perspective than the one in your column, “After layoff, stick with job search, stay positive.”

I understand your goal was to present helpful advice, and the standard format is to interview people who should know the broader issues and a few who got lucky.

Their advice is the conventional wisdom. It has changed not an iota in decades, despite the enormous differences between unemployment now and at any other time in our history except the Great Depression. It’s no more useful now than it would have been then, when it would have been obtuse and insensitive to tell people lined up for free soup that to get a job they just have to stay positive and not give up. In reality, it took federal programs, government regulations and a war to resurrect the job market.

The theme of stick-to-it-and-keep-smiling advice, although not true, is clear: “Your employability is in your hands,” “…you’re responsible for your employability.”

The message? If you can’t get a job, it’s because you as an individual didn’t successfully overcome the massive systemic hurdles of outsourcing, consolidation, mechanization by technology, corporate dominance of politics and global economic malaise. You, as an individual, failed to hang on to your tiny piece of a rapidly shrinking pie as business giants gobbled it up and hoarded their huge shares for multimillion-dollar executive salaries.

“Individual situations differ.”  This discourages people from looking at the big picture and realizing they may not be to blame.

“Stay positive.” This is almost impossible emotionally and an unreasonable demand to make of people who’ve been ejected from the job market despite their experience and skills, even after accepting subsistence wages, long hours and few if any benefits.

I understand you are obliged to present the views of sources deemed to be experts. But aren’t you also obliged to examine their statements critically, to see whether their comments fit with reality? Imagine, for example, telling any of the former journalists you know that they must simply “steel themselves” after countless rejections. How will it help for them to keep believing in and chasing after the one-in-a-million chance of landing a job that offers pay commensurate with their skills?

When people use that stay positive, keep-trying approach at the casino, where the odds aren’t much different than on the job market, they’re considered to be impaired.

Tweaks such as a focused cover letter, informational interviews and networking will work for a few people in a few situations. Change that results in good jobs for millions of people requires organized action ranging from voting blocs to disruptive protest.

You hold a privileged position as someone with a platform that can influence many people. I ask that you consider reporting on a different approach to joblessness, one that depends on people getting angry, getting together and acting against the causes of joblessness.

This might require expanding your database of sources. You can find plenty of them at the website www.bad-influence.org.

Although I disagree with the views presented in this particular column, I enjoy “I Just Work Here” and wish you much continued success with it.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/tribu/ct-biz-0822-work-advice-huppke-20110822,0,3012354.column

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