Welcome to the Low Self-Esteem Economy

Clip Art suited man extending middle finger

"At our company, you're Number One!"

By now you’ve probably heard about this week’s news gossip that some business are now demanding the Facebook passwords of new job applicants so they can snoop around their private lives and approve of their private lives before hiring them. The media is noticeably short on names of specific companies that are actually doing it, but the debate has been opened — if you consider radio-button Internet polls to be debate.

Still, about 10 percent of people who responded to this Detroit Free Press poll said that, sure, they’d be wiling to surrender private password information in order get that elusive job. Granted, this is in Detroit, one of the most arid wastelands of the American employment ecosystem, and where people have lost dignity in a thousand ways long before clicking “vote.”

We’re sacrificing dignity because if we don’t, we won’t eat. Welcome to the new Low Self-Esteem Economy, in which the feeling that we’re lucky to get crumbs is a commodity employers can cash in.

The Huffington Post is building a news empire partly on the back of free labor; it doesn’t pay many of its writers and aggregates stories from other places. (It’s by no means the only publication doing this.) When a strike was called by the Newspaper Guild of America against it last year, its in-house flack said, “nearly all of our bloggers are happy with the arrangement, and happy to access the platform and the huge audience it brings.” Arianna Huffington herself, a famous liberal, blurted out a decidedly un-liberal denigration of a labor dispute, telling the media, ““Go ahead! Go on strike! What does it matter?… [N]o one really notices!” Maybe she was right. Five months later, the boycott was called off.

The message, of course, is that reporters and writers are lucky to get published at all. To accept any of this, you have to first accept that you’re not worth better.

I’m not sticking a knife in these companies for trying to get something out of people. I suppose that testing the limits of exploitation is the American way. It’s the bottom line of the free market system: Try to bleed profit out the other guy to the point where he cries foul — and there you find your market price.

I’m saying, with great concern, that we are happy to go along with it now. We are afraid to cry foul lest we go jobless.

A few people are objecting. There’s the former intern at The Charlie Rose Show who’s suing over alleged wage law violations. Who knows how much traction that’ll get, because as a culture, we accept no-wage situations when we’re beginning our careers. (I myself had two internships in the media when I was starting out; one at The Village Voice was unpaid, which I left the minute I landed a paid one at Entertainment Weekly, which indeed turned into an actual job with benefits.)

The trouble is that more and more of us are being told by powerful businesses that because the economy remains in a muddle, we’re all the equivalent of rank beginners.

Can you imagine if, say, Ernest Hemingway’s publishers refused to pay him for his first book, The Sun Also Rises, because he was “lucky” to see his name on a book at all?

If you have a great job right now, congratulations. Don’t brag too much about it, because many businesses already have us making huge sacrifices to retain our paychecks. We’re doing the work of all those who were fired in recent years. The trouble is that that employers have learned how to squeeze more out of us. While many of us toil to take one for the team, quaking in fear of retrenchment, the reality is that right now, corporations are recording record profit margins.

Economists fear that skeleton crew staffing has become the “new normal,” and that employers have seen they can wring maximum profits from minimum resources by demanded sacrifices from all. The Sword of Damocles, that mythic motivator that feeds on groveling, convinces us to give a lot of things we didn’t have to give up 10 years ago. Since businesses are racking up profits, why sheath the sword and hire more people again? Just as businesses have learned to operate under these lean circumstances, our tolerance as workers may have stretched so far it can never snap back to normal again.

What we’re seeing is a transfer of blue-collar terrors to white-collar résumés. Factory workers lived with oppression for generations, and they struggled with ways to fight back for just as long because often, there were few alternatives in their towns. Now cubicle professionals are being stretched to their hourly limit, losing already dwindling benefits, or donating labor without pay because the employers have convinced them they’re blessed for the privilege. It’s the old story with new middle-class players.

But, just as American factory workers learned long ago, it’s hard not to notice where the fruit of our labors is going.

I can only hope we’re nearing the end of this period an American industry that is underwritten by the low self-esteem of its workers. As the economy firms up, it will be more difficult for employers to hold onto this “new normal” of under-staffing and perennial internships. There comes a point, as people age and see their professional dreams wither, that they refuse to believe the manipulative lie that they’re simply lucky to have a job at all.


Vacation days around the world

Food for thought: Most American businesses only give about 10 days of vacation a year, and they don't even have to do that. Also: When you're dead, you're dead forever. (Source: CNN)