ON THE PHONE, EDITH, my re-employment dominatrix, was emphatic: “Wear a tie, Mr. Looper, and don’t be late.”
Let go, and “out-placed” as a senior design engineer at 58 years of age, I am about to enter a building that resembles a tall, mirrored box. I walk past a fountain that sprays streams of water into the breeze of a Southern California afternoon. The spring poppies, our official state flower, stand golden on green stems as they wave in the roiling Pacific air. Eucalyptus trees partially hide the large chrome numbers of what I will call “University Colony Court,” “colony” being a favored real estate descriptor here on the West Coast — it sounds exclusive yet cohesive —denial in the face of a substantially fragmented society.
This building is to be the locus penitentia of my out-placement, my halfway house to poverty. I have never been out-placed before. I am that strange mixture of humiliation and curiosity characteristic of all cooperating victims. Will the out-placers ask me to remove my clothes? Will aliens appear and probe my nasal passages with fiber-optic wands? My speculations are cut short, as an elevator, its interior stainless steel scratched with graffiti and smelling of stale perfume, decants me on the second-floor landing opposite my destination, which I will incorrectly name here as Pacific Career Strategies. I have been told to arrive promptly at 2:00 p.m. for my intake session.
I push down on the brass offset handles of paneled doors that open inward. And there, in the marble-floored nave of this mighty out-placement service, stands Edith, amid a background of brocade drapes and Louis XIV wing chairs, upholstered in moiré silk.
With age, I am learning to pay attention to my gut: our first impressions are not just important, they may be crucial. With heightened perception I see that Edith is hard in the face, and her hair is dyed. She looks like the product of a hostile makeover. But beneath the slick professional façade is a middle-aged woman, sagging beneath her makeup, one quite properly mad as hell about having to stand on hard floors all day and fake enthusiasm.
Edith tells me that my first objective of the day is a “personal inventory.” This takes two hours and consists of a large battery of written tests with hundreds of Procrustean choices such as “I have occasionally wanted to strike a child — (yes) or (no).” Where are the pseudo-scientists who devise this junk? Here is a better query: “I have occasionally wanted to strike a smart-ass psychologist — (yes) or (yes).”
After my inventory, I am coached by Edith in her office. We discuss the tactical fundamentals of re-employment for aging males in a collapsing world economy. I can see that to Edith, rhetoric is important. I am a “job candidate,” not an unemployed engineer who is ready for the immense bone pile created by the surgical removal of middle-class workers from the 21st-century corporate body. I attempt humor, but Edith is not amused when I inquire if, as a candidate, I will be required to shake a lot of hands and kiss babies.
Business activity, ultimately derived from prehistoric hunting, has retained the metaphors of hunters, stalkers, and warriors. Edith is at some pains to educate me in the vocabulary. On the one hand I am to “penetrate” the corporate culture; on the other hand I am to (ominously) “reposition” myself for, uh, re-employment. Question, readers: Exactly what “position” is this? Am I, in street metaphor, being asked to “assume the position”? Further, I am to “target” potential employers and to “impact” (now a transitive commercial verb) them. I am to “attack” my midcareer deficits with extensive retraining, which is, regrettably, not offered by Edith or her organization.
Edith appears serious about all of this. In her let’s-pretend atmosphere, I am to arrive on site every morning wearing a coat and tie, since “getting re-employed is your new job, Mr. Looper.” I am to sign in — and out — at the front desk, as if I were the CEO of some mega-corporation, so that the front-office secretary can keep track of me in my important comings and goings. Yeah, I can see that this regimen is to accommodate those frantic potential employers who, calling in, have just seen my résumé on the Internet and are doubtless fretting at the likelihood that I may already have been snapped up by a competitor!
After my coaching by Edith, she takes me on a tour of the facilities. Like Galileo under house arrest, I am shown the instruments of torture. My office is a small cubicle holding only a telephone on the faux-grained veneer of a Fourier desk with scrolled feet. I berate myself silently and can hear the Psalmist softly proclaim in my head, “Behold how the mighty are fallen!”
But, good news — my phone is my own private line to the world, not an extension of the company phone line. Wilma, our solitary girl Friday at the front desk, will answer my incoming calls as I sit at my particle-board desk. She will say something like “I’m sorry, Mr. Looper is in conference now, can I schedule a time for him to return your call?”
Edith sells intangibles, and I have noticed that people who sell intangibles love words like “resources” and “tools” — anything that sounds materially substantial in their smoke-and-mirrors world of hand-waving and endless, endless talk. The mouth must be the most overused organ in America.
Edith next takes me to the cerebral cortex of our facility, the all-important Communications Center, a kind of Enron-style war room, utilized, I see, by a few of those faithful re-employment candidates.
The balding pates of older men predominate here in the Communications Center, reflecting the glare from fluorescent lights, as they fax and email résumés to employment databases that few employers actually search. These older job candidates are clearly in denial. I see men in their late 50s or early 60s who are essentially the managerial Living Dead, who just don’t have the good Darwinian sense to lie down. They are evincing instead, to quote our previous Great Father at the Federal Reserve, “irrational exuberance.” There is one pathetic fellow, in frayed Armani slacks and polished Gucci loafers, who has that same skin-taut, manic look on his face as those desperate people on crutches who attend tent revivals. They want to believe. They stay busy. There is no fanatic like a convert.
Design engineers like me, in case you haven’t heard, have become technological grape-pickers who follow the contract crops and evanescent product niches (last year it was wireless communications). Increasingly, we are migrant technical workers without the sunburn. César Chávez, where the hell are you now that we need you?
Engineering careers are varied. There is a popular misconception that most engineers design things, but this is often not the case, and to become a good design engineer usually requires that one gets mentored in a specialty early on. Despite the best academic laboratory regimens, most engineers graduate lacking vital pragmatic knowledge. In short, they know enough theory to be either pragmatically dangerous or functionally impotent.
By contrast, this kind of naïveté is not an encumbrance to attorneys or politicians, who often go on to brilliant careers in legislatures and the Congress, performing as scientific and business illiterates who design legislation to regulate other peoples’ lives. It is a commonplace among engineers that “politics is show business for ugly people.”
Engineers who do not go into design work often get shunted into the backwaters of technical bureaucracies in aerospace firms and government bureaus, becoming the equivalent of clerks, keeping laborious track of design change notices, of document trees, and scheduling charts.
I was fortunate enough to have fallen under the mentoring of a brilliant design engineer who was the chief engineer for a San Diego electronic-instrument corporation. In about 36 months of intense guided effort, which often involved working until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. (I was an unmarried gunslinger in my 20s and had no one to go home to), I learned enough practical electronic-design technique to put me way ahead of contemporaries in the following years of my profession.
In America, gray hair is an even greater liability than no hair in the job market. But younger businessmen-on-the-make both berate and desperately need the experience of seasoned colleagues and consultants, mimicking as they do so our prevailing cultural attitudes toward age in general. These success-obsessed business guys come in two varieties: those poor souls who believe they know everything; and those who have found out that they don’t but must pretend omniscience while they learn things from older men indirectly, on the sly. For many men in business, having to admit that one simply does not know something is the business equivalent of saying one cannot get an erection.
Edith guides me through the library and conference rooms of the facility. I can’t for the life of me figure out what a library filled with employment statistics and motivational pap, like “Taking Charge of the Interview” by Cecil Limpwick, has to do with getting a job in the Internet Age.
Thinking back on 30 years of job experiences, I cannot recall obtaining a single job by mailing my résumé anywhere — indeed, mailing my résumé was a concession to the human resources department after I had already obtained the position by routing myself through my own buddy network and then selling myself to my future boss. The HR people simply filled out the paperwork. It saddens me to see young people put so much hope in their résumés.
Human resource departments were first created from personnel-administration functions back in the early ’70s, at the urging of corporate attorneys, to shield corporations from lawsuits for wrongful termination. Professional employees had become more assertive, and the job of a new human resources department was to create and maintain a dossier on anyone who had ever worked for the corporation, in any capacity, for any period of time. “Joost sign zee paypuhs!”
As the finale to my tour, Edith tells me about the faculty here at Pacific Career Strategies. Surprisingly, it consists of only two young women named Darcy and Anika. No men. I find this curious, until Edith opens a seminar room door and gestures me in along the wall of a crowded space, where Darcy is about to begin one of her seminars.
Darcy is that promise to male sexuality that almost every middle-aged male feels has never quite been fulfilled. She is the high school cheerleader we never nailed in the backseat of the borrowed family Chevy. She is the college Homecoming Queen who only dated the college quarterback. She is the trophy girl you take to the opera.
Nature is ruthless, and sexuality is often a disappointment to guys like us, seldom delivering the promised orgasmic goods. Now, in our 50s and 60s, our bodies have become an affront. Facing the morning shaving mirror with unseen enlarged prostates, we lament that even if the Darcys of this world did “reposition” (see previous business term) themselves in some receptive posture, our once-spontaneous response might be problematic.
As Darcy walks crisply forward to the front lectern, her inner thighs, in their audible chaffing of her fleur-de-lis hose, issue false promissory notes to male true-believers. She wears a short, trim gray business suit, has short-cut blond hair, and smells great: the classic California Girl with a flawless tan that runs down along the eyelet-lace border of her linen bodice, fading deliriously into the whiteness of her beach-bunny breasts. Her subterranean message to bereft males is clearly the gospel according to Napoleon Hill: “See what kind of trophy babe can be yours with success? Stay the course, guys!”
Darcy’s ostensible subject for this master class of wannabe Alpha Males is “Salary Negotiating Strategies.” This assumes that we will actually have salaries again, instead of hourly wages. But Edith tugs on my shirtsleeve and won’t let me stay to hear Darcy’s strategic details. This lecture is only for that select upper echelon of hopefuls who have indeed stayed the out-placement course these past two weeks and who are now playing out their re-employment fantasy to its final flaccid droop.
Having properly completed my indoctrination, Edith now abandons me to my office so I can start revising my résumé. I sit for a time, fingers interlocked on my fake desk. In the ensuing silence I conceive that this whole out-placement operation could actually be a way to assuage the managerial guilt of my prior employer. Over my career I have seen downward empathy, and then upward loyalty, drain away from salaried positions.
No, giving the Devil his due. I conclude instead that out-placement is a ploy thought up by my former employer’s corporate legal, to protect the company to which I have given four hard years of my life. First, we have a delaying tactic — distract and anesthetize the poor bastard with re-employment fictions for just long enough to blunt his rage at being let go. This will prevent him from suing the hell out of the corporation for wrongful termination. Then create a failure-to-perform if he does sue. Thus, in this courtroom drama the attorney for the defense will ask, “...and so, Mr. Looper, am I to understand that although your previous employer generously provided you with expensive, highly professional out-placement services, you failed to pursue re-employment through that service for more than one day?”
In the last ten years I have seen many of my engineering colleagues leave the profession. One of them, after looking for engineering re-employment for two years, went out and started a bakery. He now makes several hundred thousand dollars a year and tells me that for the first time in his life he has sustainable job stress. Another acquaintance, a displaced machine designer, could only find work selling wireless burglar alarms for homes under a pyramid marketing scheme. He became deeply depressed, developed a brain tumor, and died.
Perhaps I lack the imagination to try something outside my profession. I do not realize as I sit here at my cheap desk that I am on the threshold of starting my own company, designing and selling industrial process controls.
What I do realize is that I am very angry. I unlock my entwined fingers and slam one hand down on the table. I rise and walk out of Pacific Career Strategies, ignoring Wilma at the front desk, who chides me to sign out. I rather despise the man I see reflected in the mirrored elevator doors as I await the down arrow — a lined, stressed-out designer of products that have made other people rich.
The elevator arrives, and I ride down to the lobby. I exit the smoke-gray glass doors of the building, knowing in my angry stride that I am never coming back. Constructive anger is vital and energizing — why are we so afraid of it? I march past the tattered poppies waving in the breeze, past the goofy fountain with its fans of water, past the pretentious architecture that has no historical reference, and out into the angular sun, starting my car, and entering, once more, the clogged vehicular arteries of the dying California Dream. ■