Working Downstream: Downsized Soul

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Back when corporations had enough money to reward favored managers with their choice of seasoned hires with degrees, books, and credentials, I was a dazzly thing on a hook and they couldn’t resist gobbling. In my first corporate job interview, we had talked about capabilities and vision.

We should have talked about the Chicago Haymarket Square Riot. In May, 1886, workers went on strike to demand an eight-hour day. People on all sides gave their lives when a bomb was lobbed into a group of policemen and the police fired into the crowd. As a result, workers formed unions to protect their rights. In a bygone era in which the economy depended on manufacturing products, the collective bargaining power of workers held real power in American business.

But we’ve now shifted from manufacturing to a service-based economy. For the most part, things went all right for workers through the early 1980s as a result of the paternalistic view corporations had of their relationship with workers. Companies paid attention to things like pensions, health care, and balanced workloads. Workers, in exchange, were to provide the company with loyalty and dedicated service.

The recession of the early 1980s changed everything. Companies downsized their workforces, a process accelerated by the growing number of mergers and acquisitions. If you were lucky enough to keep your job, you also had to take on the duties of those who departed. As the years rolled along, technological innovation, coupled with the growing global marketplace, put pressure on individuals to work 24/7 for increasingly less security and fewer benefits.

The economic meltdown that began in 2007, the one that made the recession 25 years earlier look like kid stuff, officially ratified the trend: there would be no turning back to the good old days when companies had to give a hoot in order to compete. In its place was a new emphasis on billability, profitability numbers, and better income-to-expense ratios. Suddenly it didn’t matter what the industry was, much less the corporation. More and more of my friends who still had jobs talked about tensions with fellow employees, who were increasingly pitted against one another, competing to be part of the shrinking pool of the working elite “fortunate” enough to have health care insurance.

When rumors of the first pink slips started circulating at my company, my more politically adept colleagues knew how to make themselves invaluable. They appropriated successes and delegated failures. They championed work that promised high visibility and returns, whereas just about everything else trickled downstream, usually to the person with the chair that lurched most. A friend of mine, approaching the holy grail of a fully vested retirement at a competitive firm, once confessed the secret of her corporate longevity to me: “If I’m just tearing up, I stay at my desk. If I’m sobbing, I get up and close the door. But I never let them see me wobble.”


Chapter 4 from The Year I Saved My (downsized) Soul by Carol Orsborn
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