Dueling Conundrums: Existential, Institutional
“An ‘unemployed’ existence is a worse negation of life than death itself.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, 1930 1
The unemployment rate is 9.2 percent and flat. A few jobs are changing hands, but a paltry number of new jobs is emerging. In the quiet and forgotten arenas of the unemployed there are all kinds of people: n00bz like me, specialists, generalists, the indefatigably loyal, the tirelessly disloyal, careerists, altruists, micromanagers, macromanagers, the fastidiously ethical, petty Eichmanns, the imaginative, the uptight, rule-breakers, innovators, former or future members of the creative class, the incessantly polite, the well-bred and good-mannered, the sociable, the neurotic, rugs that hold the whole room together, natural accounts men, women of substance, the sharply dressed, the sloppy, level-182 wizards, level-6 thieves, bookworms, adrenaline junkies, snooty hipsters, supplicants, heroic entrepreneurs, pot-bellied boomers, the idiosyncratically tattooed, those who are so unobtrusive they might as well not exist from an employer’s perspective, peacemakers and gladiators. Some of these people are waiting to be shuffled into the right job by the invisible Sorting Hat of the market. They believe in the Great American Meritocracy even though this belief strikes against their self-worth.
Belief in meritocracy is part of our culture: it is fundamentally American – that fair, can-do antithesis to the ancien régime we tell ourselves exists in the rest of the world. Belief in meritocracy fosters the hope that we’ll get our just deserts: soon enough we’ll interview and be hired for that perfect job, and finally we’ll have something worthy towards which to direct our worldly efforts. But we think about it a bit, and soon we realize that we’re the ones who lost our jobs to begin with. If the meritocracy exists, we were rejected by it: the bottom 9.2 percent. And so the plight of the unemployed person collapses to either self-loathing or cynicism.
It would have been easy for me to choose cynicism. The self-loathing conundrum passed me over: it was an act of God that rendered me unemployed. Here in America, I am a pilgrim in purgatory, materializing in the middle of things and forced to conclude that luck is often the dominant factor in the success or failure of an individual. From what I’ve seen, there is little evidence to support the existence of a meritocracy. If the Great American Meritocracy ever existed, it’s long since collapsed under the weight of more than 14,000,000 unemployed Americans.
Contrary to their promise, globalization and information technologies have made coordinating qualified people and suitable jobs even more challenging: as soon as a job anywhere is posted, 1000 resumes from the U.S., 1000 resumes from the Philippines, and 1000 resumes from India are sent in electronically. Much of this is spam or its effective equivalent: generalized kluges of keywords that have little to do with the actual position they’re carpet bombing. These resumes come from the uber-cynics: people who have given up on or spurned the meritocratic procedures of judiciously writing cover letters and diligently customizing resumes to specific positions. They have no idea where the Predator is, so they’re just firing blindly into the jungle.
And so these two conundrums – existential and institutional – feed off each other: the existential foments the institutional, and the institutional in turn catalyzes the existential. It’s easy to get caught in the current of it all.
Job applications are an exercise in humility and perseverance. Congrats on getting 17 apps done! It can certainly be depressing. You should set a goal of applying to 100-200 jobs in order to a) get an offer; b) like the offer; and c) get your mind off who happens to not be calling you for an interview. That sounds terrible, but I think it’s realistic these days. Quantity is the ticket. Not only do you have to compete with unemployed advanced degree holders but you also have to compete with annoying people who already have good jobs and spend a little time every Saturday applying to even better ones.
When 2008 happened, human resources was the first sector to get hit with massive layoffs. Once it’s apparent a recession is upon us and there will be no new hiring for some time, (perhaps ironically) people in charge of hiring are let go. HR doesn’t start expanding again until it’s clear the economy as a whole is expanding. So the labor market of 2011 has invented several shortcuts for one hiring manager and two junior assistants to sort through 10,000 resumes. The most common shortcut seems to be to organize resumes in a database by keyword. If the job calls for knowledge of WordPress, only resumes with the word “WordPress” on them will be looked at. The main problem with this strategy is that it tends to reward people who game the system (in all forms a pet peeve of mine). And WordPress can be learned by someone who’s reasonably bright otherwise in ten minutes.
The second way2 for two HR folks to get through 50,000 resumes is to establish some relevant or arbitrary requirement and put it in fine print in the job description (or not). If the requirement is not satisfied, this is indicative of sloppiness or unserious or poor attitude or psychopathy or some other trait that marks the applicant as unfit for employment at Company X. The main problem with this method is that there are lots of legitimate reasons why an applicant may not be aware of the requirement; this strategy also tends to elevate the requirement from mere shibboleth to universal end in itself. This may go a long way towards explaining some of the more ridiculous advice I’ve received:
“Make sure not to put two spaces after periods because all the leading style guides call for only one space, and anyone who sees that there are two spaces after each period will immediately throw out your resume.” / “Don’t use bullet points in your resume. That went out like four years ago. People will think you don’t pay attention to details and don’t care about what your peers are doing, which makes you unattractive.” / “You really need to use the term ‘leader’ three or four times in your resume and twice or more in your cover letter if you want to get a job.” / “Make sure you have a good head-shot of you smiling and keep it with you at all times to give to people you meet along with a copy of your resume.” / “Definitely put two spaces after periods because one space means you consider your manuscript to be fit for publication and this comes off as more than a bit presumptuous.” / “Employers do care about skills and experience, but ‘the culture’ is more important. In Asia, it’s all about maintaining a reputation for professionalism. In Germany they care more about results. In America, landing a job is all about ‘the culture’.”
It’s easy to dismiss such petty pedantry as nothing more than the full expression of the genuinely held beliefs of unwitting idolaters in widespread and perfidious cargo cults of the trivial. Yet, Americans tend to be absolutely certain about things we know nothing about, from driving directions to politics to advice for getting a job – to the point of self-contradiction. To admit to ignorance or fail to stake out a clear position is perhaps to call one’s own seriousness into question. Fear may be the real motivating factor behind the concretions of a long non-existent meritocracy vis-à-vis cover letters, resumes, formatting, formalisms, formalities, et al. which I abstracted in the preceding paragraph, yet some of it has actually turned out to be good advice, particularly the last bit (if I could only figure out what it means).
Despite clear institutional failures, I have no choice but to fight creeping cynicism: I remain convinced that some discernible pattern exists. Perhaps the whole point is that – like hordes of barbarians ravaging decadent Byzantium, Woodstock supplanting the waltz of the Hapsburg Court, the Internet’s meteoric strike against the dinosaurs of print journalism – there are “new”, outside-the-box, and boorish methods which one must employ to master the jobs market.
1 This quotation is often taken out of context. Here it is in its entirety:
“The whole world – nations and individuals – is demoralized. For a time this demoralization rather amuses people, and even causes a vague illusion. The lower ranks think that a weight has been lifted off them. Decalogues retain from the time they were written on stone or bronze their character of heaviness. The etymology of command conveys the notion of putting a load into someone’s hands. He who commands cannot help being a bore. Lower ranks the world over are tired of being ordered and commanded, and with holiday air take advantage of a period freed from burdensome imperatives. But the holiday does not last long. Without commandments, obliging us to live after a certain fashion, our existence is that of the “unemployed.” This is the terrible spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds itself today. By dint of feeling itself free, exempt from restrictions, it feels itself empty. An “unemployed” existence is a worse negation of life than death itself. Because to live means to have something definite to do – a mission to fulfill – and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. Before long there will be heard throughout the planet a formidable cry, rising like the howling of innumerable dogs to the stars, asking for someone or something to take command, to impose an occupation, a duty. This for those people who, with the thoughtlessness of children, announce to us that Europe is no longer in command.”
2 If a hiring manager believes in meritocracy, the third way to cut down applications to a manageable number is to not consider the unemployed. There are other ways as well.