Out of the Woods / Losing a job and identity
Updated 4:53 pm, Tuesday, March 1, 2011
The movie, "The Company Men," which I saw over the weekend, is a stark reminder that mirrors the experiences of corporate executives in Westport and across the country who have been laid off during the disastrous downturn in the U.S. economy.
I would be willing to bet that one reason the theater was half-empty is precisely because people here don't want to be reminded of the pain and anguish they or one of their friends are experiencing.
Nonetheless, this is the compelling story of the devastating impact of the downsizing of American corporations, especially when it directly affects the higher-paid executives who have taken for granted the "good life" with all its perks -- corporate jets, luxury homes, fancy cars and all that goes with a status they spent decades achieving.
As the New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden wrote: "As depicted in the film the modern corporation is a sterile Darwinian shark tank in which the only thing that matters is the bottom line. The old days of corporate beneficence and loyalty to longtime employees are long gone."
This plot strikes home. In fact, as Holden writes: "The movie is realistic enough to make all corporate climbers, but especially the men over 50, quake in their boots. If you are what you do, what are you if you're no longer doing it?"
This is the very crux of the matter. For so many men, the sudden deprivation of their title, their daily work -- their very essence of self-worth and psychological security -- is a shock. After a sustained search for a job that pays even half their previous earnings fails, they simply give up.
These lifelong white collar workers are humbled beyond imagination, sometimes applying for jobs that require physical labor and using their hands instead of their heads.
They become a cold statistic in the dreary unemployment reports handed out by the government. Many people have had the experience of being reduced to hat-in-hand beggars at the quixotic hands of headhunters who, rightly or wrongly, are looking for younger men who command lower salaries instead of people with years of experience.
(Full disclosure: I retired from a corporate middle-management job nearly two decades ago, and I was fortunate to have worked for IBM, a company that had a lifelong tradition of full employment and had not begun to cut its staff.) Still, this movie made me realize that, as an octogenarian, I was fortunate to have worked at the right time and at the right place.
Many of my friends and acquaintances in Westport were not so fortunate. They had -- and some are still having -- a rough time answering this question: "Who are you when you are no longer who you were?"
Many Westporters have made the difficult adjustment by becoming self-employed consultants in fields in which they have considerable expertise. They have formed "John Jones and Associates" types of businesses, which relieve them of high overhead and enable them to work more efficiently and with less pressure than they had in their corporate lives.
In many families, women who had been homemakers returned to the work force to supplement their husbands' incomes -- in some cases making more -- to keep their lifestyle afloat and remain in Westport. Other families have been forced to move to places where the cost of living -- especially housing -- is less. There can be no doubt about it. The days of a lifetime career with one company -- a financial, educational, government, or even a nonprofit -- appear to have disappeared. Diminishing pensions, higher costs for company-provided health benefits, and an absence of long-range economic security, have become the norm. And, from what I read in the financial pages, they are not likely to return in the near future.
Of course, as President Barack Obama continues to tell us, this trend could be turned into a plus with an increase in the number of small business enterprises that are cropping up all over the country. Hopefully, we could very well see the revival of free enterprise entrepreneurs who, with financial incentives from the federal government, can begin to restore confidence among American workers.
"The Company Men" offers one example of this kind of return to entrepreneurship when one of the laid-off executives decides to start a new business and, as Holden puts it, "embodies the rugged can-do American spirit near the end of its tether but still undefeated."
This movie does not offer any new pathway for survival, but it does emphasize that we can all create new identities after we are no longer who we were. That, in the long run, is the "teachable moment' in this film. For that alone, it has contributed something to the national conversation about what we might do to get the economy back on track.
I am not a film critic, but if I were, I would give this movie a high rating for its sobering and accurate reflection of what is going on all over America and how one might find refuge in taking full responsibility for one's own life in a sea of uncertainty and changing values.