I feel absolutely livid that I should even have to write this article. Seriously. The biggest lie ever sold by the image of modern society was that modern people weren’t petty; long gone are the days of caste systems where class and the uppity opinions of those sitting higher than you served the sole function of keeping you down. We live in an age of science, of empirical vision where emotions and ego are known well enough for their ability to screw things up. Lord knows, neither have ever underperformed in that department. But that’s why I’m baffled by how thin-skinned people have become. It used to be that people were impressed by—even sought after—others who projected a healthy sense if self-confidence; now people run from it. There seems to be an emerging trend growing out of the deep divisions of the American population. Fueled by the economic crisis, the massive income gap between the wealthy and middle class, and increased cynicism for both government and big business in light of banking and political scandals, egos are as guarded as they’ve ever been.
The real telling signs aren’t even what you’d expect. It’s not that people can’t take a joke at their own expense—in fact comedians often build their entire careers around self-deprecation (yet another indicator of how we Americans love when people lower themselves relative to our position—its feeds our egos and keeps threats at bay). The truth is that people have trouble even being in the presence of those who value themselves, people who exude some power over others. This is an allusion to the bloodsport nature that has become socialization within American culture. Competition is everywhere. We don’y just work hard, we play hard too. We’re the best boyfriends, mothers, drinkers, and lovers. And, we never skip a beat. Ever. All of this becomes confirmed by the parade of endless “good times” photos cascading the faces of social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. In this way, competition has infiltrated every aspect of our culture—not just our work culture. The prevailing message desperately conveyed across many media outlets is: look how awesome my life is in EVERY way. The implicit exclamations are, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. We’re saying: not only do I have the best job, I also have the best friends, the best sex, the best parties, and I never age. So, in light of such a deeply competitive climate, and the increasing pressure that has permeated nearly minute of our lives, our egos find ever more opportunities to be hurt. That is, we find ourselves presented with many more situations than ever before to which we attach and evaluate our self worth.
This elusive trend is best revealed within our work culture. For so long American work culture has heralded a loud and boisterous call for the “best and the brightest”, an affinity for the most competent workers. But those in the driver’s seat, Generation X and the Baby Boomers, having developed a hyper sense of individualism and cynicism bred by the post war failings of Reganomics, and in turn, are reluctant to hand over the keys. In the time after WWII, becoming most apparent in the 1970’s and 80’s, there came a cultural atmosphere that increasingly emphasized the value of wealth over civic virtue. As a result, in the wake of a flagging economy that threatened the very jobs which sustain that wealth, those who lead in business and politics have become more determined to stifle anyone looking for a shot at status or prosperity (and especially those who deserve them).
The bottom line is, the American job market isn’t actually looking for those dynamic and skillful employees they continually bitch about having a shortage of; they aren’t really looking for people who understand their own value and wish to challenge the established order in the name of innovation; they don’t want to hear about skills and competence, or dreams about a better future that might be forged with great effort and a sense of civic duty for America. Instead, older generations in the driver’s seat just want to be left alone to their wealth. They want to stay right where they are to retire with status and a fat pension, and no one’s going to take that away from them—especially not some up and coming wiz kid who knows more about using a computer than they could ever hope to fathom. No, no.
The established order in both the private and public sectors want employees who understand the value in playing down their skills and denying themselves of respect, while placing unfounded value in their superiors. They want us to accept ridiculously low paychecks, not because they can’t afford to pay us a little more (that would be a healthy sense of civic virtue), but rather because they refuse to take a pay cut themselves. They want workers who concede to the idea that their talents are “normal” and “expected”, just “part of the job”, to insure that we won’t notice when we’re being exploited, when our unique skills are being extracted for maximum profits at a steal that keeps their bonuses coming. Why do you think so many younger people have taken to the internet in hopes of creating their own business solutions through portals like YouTube and Fashion blogs? It’s because, intuitively, many realize that the established work culture is not so much about paying people a fair living wage and creating opportunities for everyone, it’s about keeping everyone in line to feed the top few percent.
Look, people may see this description as an extreme exaggeration. And while, of course, there are good people out there who generally do look for talent, this trend is real. More and more I hear stories from my friends about workplace conditions and politics that are a complete insult to our intelligence: minimal materials and support for a job that requires a lot of both; expectations of “miracle working” responsibilities for shit pay; management that refuses to offer real support or listen to logic about what improvements might be made.
This need to protect one’s ego for fear of seeing others as being equally competent and valuable is a serious issue. The implications about what impact this trend has on society is best illustrated in examples of work culture, where the advancement of others is often blocked by those few in charge who feel threatened by younger competence and knowledge. This fear distorts reality and judgement in significantly warped ways. There’s a subtle, but HUGE difference between someone who doesn’t hire a job applicant who had been fired from a previous job due to some disciplinary action or violation of policy, and, someone who doesn’t hire an applicant because they speak with a sense of knowledge and confidence that’s perceived as a natural resistance to criticism. This is no joke. Check out these brief stories for further ridiculousness.
The Not so Mindful Counselor.
So, a friend of mine hooked me up with an interview at her work place about a week ago. I was excited because the pay and benefits were actually in line with my expectations and those of the field. However, after the 2nd interview I hit a brick wall. In the first interview I dazzled my the two proctors, fielding their questions with tremendous insight, and all while exhibiting a relaxed sense of confidence in myself and comfort with the pressure I was under. This isn’t just my assessment; they actually told me this afterward. Having had such a positive interview experience, you can imagine just how excited I was when the director messaged me and invited me for a second interview only 3 days later. In order to maybe get an edge on this guy who’d be interviewing me, I called my friend who had referred me and asked her about what kind of person he is. Her reply was less than encouraging.
“With him, see, he likes to hear himself talk. He’s very clinical. He likes to be right, and needs people to value his advice and listen to his experience. Like, don’t act like you know too much, you know what I mean? ‘Cause if you talk too much and act like you know a lot, he probably won’t hire you. There was a girl here that stood up to him and challenged him, and he made her life a living hell. She quit. So, just you know, make it seem like you really value his experience and that you’re open to criticism, and you’re not going to, like, fight him on stuff. You know what I mean?”
More than anything, this was the information I wanted to know. I wanted to know what kind of PERSON this guy was, and my friend had made it perfectly clear. Please be mindful that this is a counseling position, a job field in which people are supposed to be mindful of their own thoughts, feelings, and the distortions of both. So, I got in there and played it perfectly: I didn’t talk too much; I answered his questions thoroughly; I emphasized my openness to criticism and the high regard I had for teamwork; I even made him laugh a bit. He asked me difficult questions and I could tell he was trying to make me feel uncomfortable, but I never flinched, and throughout the session I could tell he was very impressed. And now, here I am. A week later and I’m nervous because I feel like I should have heard back by now. Sent him an e-mail. No response. Then my friend called and mentioned:
“Well, he did ask me, like, ‘Do you think he can take criticism?’ the other day. I said, ‘Oh definitely’. You see what I mean? Like, did you make it seem like you knew everything in the interview?”
Let me just say that being confident and exhibiting knowledge is not necessarily an indication of inflexibility. There’s a severe mistake in the extreme dichotomic nature of American thinking, which often functions on the faculty of assumption and leaves little room for any middle ground. It’s completely possible to be a knowledgable and confident person while ALSO being open to criticism. Yet, someone with a weak ego can’t see this. They imagine themselves being threatened in conversations with competent people, as they mistake confidence for arrogance and intransigence. The man who interviewed me isn’t worried about whether or not I’ll be a good employee; he’s worried about how he’s going to handle being in the presence of someone who has the knowledge and confidence to stand up for himself with tough arguments that he might be forced to answer to. Here’s the real shit of it though: I can’t control how he perceives me through his warped sense of protection for his ego. If he even has the slightest fear about my ability to match his knowledge and rhetoric, he’ll pass on hiring me.
The Fashion Queen of NYC.
Another friend of mine, who’s been designing jewelry and clothes in New York City, met with me a couple of weeks back over some juice and the worst salmon wrap I’ve ever tasted. After 7 years in the industry, and getting paid a measly 45k a year, she decided to take a leap into a higher pay bracket by applying for a position with more responsibility. She landed a great interview. During the interview she was drilled by a snarky woman who nearly had a heart attack and fell off her chair when she noticed my friend’s salary requirement—somewhere around 60k-65k.
“…You are asking for waaaaayyyyyy too much money. That’s the salary of an experienced designer…”
What the f*ck is 7 years? That’s not an absence of experience, it’s 7 years experience. Do you know how long 7 years is? Think of all the shit you did in the past 7 years. Seven years ago I thought true love was letting my miserable girlfriend destroy my life. In the past 3 years alone, I’ve lived in another country, learned to speak Japanese, and have written enough material for an entire book (which I’m still trying to figure out a title for). Just four years ago I had never stepped foot outside of the United States. The point is, I’m a completely different person now. 7 years—that’s almost as much schooling as a doctor goes through. What balls this lady must be packing between her legs to suggest that 7 years isn’t an “experienced designer”. She continued with some other absurdity after my friend had tried to point out one of her expert skills.
“Ohh… well I already have a person for that job. She’s excellent. What I need is someone like….(vague description of some crap job that was NOT mentioned in the job posting)”
My friend was livid, as was I just listening to her tell the story. You’ve seen my friend’s resume, you know what job she’s applying for, you know her skills, why the hell did you call her in? Not to mention, my friend saw the work of this “excellent” employee and concluded that it was absolutely horrid. The reason this lady called her in is that she probably thought my friend was some desperate person (she is) who would accept crap pay for a crap job just because she was invited to an interview. F*ck you.
In yet another story, one of my friends went for a photography job at what seemed to her at the time, a successful establishment. Upon going through the interview process and reviewing the working space, it was clear that the business was ill-equipped, lacking even the most basic and necessary materials for any photography operation. When it came time to talk about money, they offered her 28k a year. If anyone is having trouble translating that number, in the Metropolitan area of New York City, that’s right near the poverty line. My friend has years of experience and countless hours of time behind the shutter.
THE BOTTOM LINE.
Do you get it now? This isn’t a rant about how everyone should get a good job in a shitty economy. This is about how fragile egos have a significant impact on the delicate infrastructure of American society, namely, the adverse impact it has on an entire generation that continues to get shoved under the carpet while the big boys collect. This article illustrates the serious dilemma presented by a subtle cultural phenomenon that doesn’t just affect a few individuals, but rather the macro-scope of American work culture, relationships, communities, and politics. For so long we’ve received mixed messages from our predecessors. They’ve told us: “Don’t settle”, “Everyone is special”, “You can be anything you want”, “If you work hard and do the right things, you’ll succeed”. Yet, increasingly, the defensive tactics of weak egos have pushed American minds further and further into a state of isolation. We went so quickly from “you can’t trust the communists”, to “you can’t trust the government”, to “you can’t trust big business”, and finally, where we are today, “you can’t trust anyone”. Well, if you can’t trust anyone and you can only trust yourself, and a society requires the cooperative effort of the entire population to survive, then we’re pretty screwed. I think this issue is a huge part of what’s going wrong in America today. When commitments made to the self, isolationism, wealth, and greed, are greater than those commitments we make to country, community, justice, and civil virtue, everyone loses. Civilization doesn’t exist to serve the individual; the individual exists to serve civilization.