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Great Review for an Interesting Book

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The Disposable American : Layoffs and Their Consequences

In the New York Times, Thomas Geoghegan presents a thoroughly interesting review of Louis Uchitelle’s new book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. This piece does what good book reviews should do: interest you in the review as much as it interests you in the book.

“The layoff, Mr. Uchitelle argues, has transformed the nation,” Geoghegan writes. “At least 30 million full-time American employees have gotten pink slips since the Labor Department belatedly started to count them in 1984. But add in the early retirees, the ‘quits’ who saw the layoffs coming, and the number is much higher — a whole ghost nation trekking into what for most will be lower-wage work. This is the Dust Bowl in our Golden Bowl, and to Mr. Uchitelle, layoffs in one way are worse than the unemployment of the 1930’s. At least then, most of the jobless came back to better-paid, more secure jobs. Those laid off in our time almost never will.”

Sounds like a book that should definitely be added to your reading list. I might find time to crack it open this weekend, however, I must admit that books like this scare the shit out of me. As someone who works in the cubicle farms of the technology sector, I’ve been lucky enough to survive a few layoffs, always frantically knocking on wood, saying prayers, and digging out incriminating photos of management while my colleagues box up their desks. I managed to hang on, but I always dreaded the techie version of a pink slip.

Most of the time, companies try to handle layoffs with respect and dignity. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Technology workers sometimes learn they are laid-off (lay, lie, laid, layed, lei-d, le-d, or whatever) through a variety of means. You go into work and suddenly your passcode into the garage doesn’t work. Your ID badge doesn’t open the elevator. Or, as Max Barry humorously described in Company: A Novel, emails addressed to you start bouncing back to the senders.  

On rare occasions, the separated employee does manage to get the last laugh. Back in early 2000, when the technology bubble first began to wobble, a colleague of mine was struggling with her current assignment. This was a time when we began to get hints that the technology party was over, but our host had not completely shoved everyone out into the street yet. Some companies were already puking up their financial hangovers, but others continued knocking ’em back and partying hard. Historically, my friend, we’ll call her Helen, had been a strong performer, but an assignment that was the tech equivalent of digging ditches and a boss worthy of a Johnny Paycheck song had pushed her into probation. We all knew Helen was stinking up the place and we all understood why. But we also wondered when her time was going to come.

One Thursday at lunch, Helen told me that she accepted another job. The new gig was at a higher salary, better working conditions, and even a signing bonus. She had written her resignation letter and was prepared to give her two week notice. “But my asshole team leader is on vacation,” she said. “I can’t give it to him until Monday.” We finished our sandwiches, headed back to the cubes, and I saw her put the resignation letter in her top desk drawer.

Twenty-four hours later, early Friday afternoon, Helen got the dreaded call from HR. She later strolled into my cube smiling. She had been laid off, while her resignation letter quietly rested in her desk drawer. Back then, tech companies eager to maintain their reputations as cool places to work. Those of us still employed got to continue wearing sandals and jeans to the office and those separated souls were given healthy severance packages. Within about six months, severance packages had been reduced to an RC Cola and a Moonpie, but at that time, the payouts remained healthy.  So Helen, who desperately wanted to quit on Thursday, was given a lump sum payment for $9,000 as her severance on Friday. She deposited that final paycheck into her bank alongside the signing bonus her new company had given her. And she started her new job on Monday.

Unfortunately, those types of stories are far, far too rare.