In a real world, when you look for work, identity politics doesn’t help

On Thursday, December 13, 2001 at precisely 9 AM CST a Netware message flashed across my computer monitor as I assisted an internal user with a production problem at work (at ING in Minneapolis). It read “Your account has been disabled, please logoff now.”

I completed the call, then logged off, and have never logged on to a work computer in a similar salaried professional job since that moment.  Moments later, my manager was herding me into a conference room where I learned my severance agreement.  It was very generous, because I was over 55 (actually 58) and could retire.  In some scenarios, given how my life went, I could be much better off, even financially, with this outcome than if I stayed.

Still, I would need to find some work.  It turned out, as I have documented in my DADT III book, that family circumstances intervened and I eventually “landed” rather well at the end of 2010.  That gets beyond the point for the moment.

The traditional I.T. job market was tumbling after Y2K (and then 9/11).  Back in the 70s and 80s, mainframe computer programming had tended to provide stable salaried employment, and had that reputation, compared to other occupations. It had the advantage of not requiring formal licensing. It had a disadvantage, as with most salaried jobs, that employers could demand unpaid overtime to complete projects on time and for production “Nightcall” support. Since programmers tended to be somewhat introverted and individualistic (I could go off track and mention James Damore now), they were less likely to organize than workers in manufacturing occupations.

In the 1990s, countervailing forces came into play.  The sudden emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web, as well as client-server programming (especially object-oriented), which has a cryptic-looking style compared to procedural programming in older mainframe languages) tended to fracture the market. Employers needed to keep older mainframe programmers around until Y2K was completed to do all the conversions.  Older programmers found the newer stuff, while opportunistic, difficult to master in an ad-hoc manner;  it’s easier to master something if you develop it yourself and put it into production and are responsible for supporting it.  Newer workplace environments made this harder to do with the new web-based applications.

So after Y2K, the mainframe market tended to break into short term gigs, where staffing companies produced the people and paid them hourly and per diem.  Employers with older systems, especially state government departments, needed contractors with very specific experience, in terms of languages, packages, and end-user interfaces.  The same group of contractors tended to rotate among these positions as they gradually withered.

Now I have seen an uptick in old-fashioned mainframe jobs in the past two years or so, mostly because of all the problems in health care.  When the Obama administration tried to develop the Affordable Care Act, contractors found that professionals with the maturity required to put together systems like this properly were in short supply as they had dwindled and “retired” like me.  That is one reason why Obamacare has had so many problems.  This observation does not bode well for other systems, especially those that support critical infrastructure like power grids, and this could evolve into a critical national security problem as I have already explained here.

In my own case, I did have a few interviews for these positions. Often the interview with the end-user client (like a state government agency or a health care PPO, implementing HIPAA, for example) was by phone only.  I never quite scored to get back in.  There were a few curious problems, and I do wonder if my online reputation (pre-Facebook) could have made me more or less unemployable, because I had demonstrated a propensity to write publicly (journalistically) about all that had happened in my past once I had departed from a particular job or situation.

So that left me with the “proletarian” market (that is, becoming a “Prole”). There were three big issues:  (1) low starting pay (sometimes augmented with commissions); (2) personal regimentation; and (3) manipulative salesmanship.   You can get a sense of this by looking at a resume table of the jobs that I had or “almost had” after 2001.

I actually did find a job “telemarketing” (or “telefunding”) for the Minnesota Orchestra, from spring 2002 to summer 2003. Though part time and starting at $6 an hour plus commissions (which did start to work out in time), the job provided a sense of stability and daily anchoring, and I could still walk to it on the Minneapolis Skyway.  There was a tendency for any job you had to become your “universe” and blunt some of the focus of the world’s outside turmoils, although 9/11 tended to start to fracture this complacency.

The ”regimentation” is literally a way to “pay your dues”, as test of “whether you can work”, like in a fast food place.  It sounds rather Marxist.

But the sales culture is about whether you can play ball (rather than spectate) and manipulate others to buy things.  One of the most troubling interviews happened in 2002 with PrimeVest, about contacting potential leads to convert whole life policies to term. That might be a good idea for a lot of people.  But the interviewer became defensive about all the analytical questions I asked of his presentation, as if I could play the role of “The Good Doctor” just a little and find all the perils and flaws.  (It is relevant that I had worked 12 years in life insurance IT and was not going to be fooled.) On 2005 I would get calls about becoming a life insurance agent or financial planner from at least two other life companies.  But it seems that what people do for leads is troll Internet logs to find contacts.  Yet, there is a culture out there saying that cold calling and manipulation is legitimate, necessary for a functioning (or maybe “functionable”) economy.  But one other thing that I found was that many of the “sales” jobs were related to helping low income people stretch their money.  These jobs could have occurred in industries like title loans, payday loans, credit counseling (I would work as a debt collector), and distributing telephone cards or fixed debit cards.

I even looked at a job as a uniformed gate agent for Atlantic Coast Airlines at a job fair in 2004 at Dulles Airport. ($9.85 and hour then.)   I didn’t get the job, but (for the effort of a thirty minute public speech on how the workplace was changing, basically right out of my first book) I got two free (except for about $10 fee( roundtrips that year (to Atlanta and then to Tampa)   I still use the large inventory of Florida photos I made then on blogs.

But other applications really were for grunt work –  retail clerk in a video store (no longer there), or a movie theater (Landmark could have been interesting).

I covered a key point that came up in substitute teaching in the previous post.

Here is my point:  I had to deal with things, myself, as they were.  I had to “pay my dues”.  There was no thought of falling back on membership in some oppressed class and appealing to intersectionality or gay identity politics.  It could just as easily argued that I had worn my privilege too much at various points in my life (my parents had money and financial and personal stability, my student deferments during the Vietnam era which kept me out of combat when I finally went in, my “whiteness”.  A lot of people do have to take more risks than I do just to get by.  And having kids changes things.  I did not.

Furthermore, even if I joined a “movement” to protect me, I would have to “perform” according to the norms of the movement and “take orders” anyway.

This all builds up to something as the world turns.  I don’t want to become an elderly male Scarlet O’Hara.

(Posted: Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 10:19 PM EST)

2 thoughts on “In a real world, when you look for work, identity politics doesn’t help”

  1. Two essays seem relevant: “Taking the Long Way” by Yuval Levin (2014) https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/10/taking-the-long-way and “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It” by David Brooks, emphasizing the fact that individuals have to relate to the “unchosen” as a social foundation https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/16/opinion/elites-taxes-republicans-congress.html Note also Brooks weighs in on the Masterpiece Cake case on “religious freedom” of expression (or choice of expression) v. discrimination https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/opinion/gay-marriage-cake-case.html

  2. I also nearly had an offer to become a letter carrier at the end of 2004. It fell through because we couldn’t get the medical records for my 1998 hip fracture from Minnesota. That would have paid about $17 an hour start. But it would have been very “physical” and regimented.

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