What, if anything, will we learn from the recession?

I’m not a regular viewer (a necessary qualifier to retain some semblance of masculinity), but I caught an episode of Oprah one night last week. The theme, the recession’s negative impact on people.

I’ll introduce you to a few of the guests, describe what I think the producers wanted me to conclude from the segment, and explain my actual reaction.

Guest one, a 24 year-old woman, had lost her job with an interior decorating company. Not only had she done three internships in college, she had “done everything right” and still ended up standing in an unemployment line. I was supposed to conclude that’s wrong and sad. Sure it’s sad whenever anyone who really wants to work can’t find a job, but even sadder was the subtext: college graduates are entitled to good jobs.

Robert Reich, whose contributions were underwhelming, was the talking head putting the individual stories into the broader context of a changing economy. With respect to guest one, even I might have done a better job framing her experience.

Here’s the takeaway for her, the other student in the news lately who has sued her college because she can’t find a job, and anyone who thinks a college degree entitles them to a good job. A new day has dawned. Sizeable student loans and a college diploma guarantee little. Increasingly, businesses are more productive with fewer people. Profit margins are shrinking; consequently, the race to eliminate jobs is accelerating. You’re competing with more people for fewer jobs, not just your college classmates, but elderly people who are finding they have to continue working, and highly motivated, ambitious peers from across the globe.  Good grades and the perceived prestige of your institution mean little absent the following: a genuine curiosity; a strong work ethic; well developed communication, critical thinking, team, and problem solving skills; cross cultural knowledge and skills; integrity, and resilience.

Guest two was a couple that had been living large. The X had a successful hair salon and the Y was a successful realtor before both lost their jobs. As their financial situation worsened, their well-to-do friends quit associating with them. It was clear by Oprah’s sadness, that I was supposed to feel similarly, but I didn’t. Oprah kept asking superficial questions like, “So they don’t invite you to their dinner parties anymore?” To which unemployed couple sadly replied, “No they don’t.” Audience members shook their heads in dismay.

I did my best to set aside the obvious irony of one of the wealthier people in the world exploring the sadness of downward mobility, and wondered why and the hell didn’t she ask them why they pursued friendships based upon superficial signs of material wealth in the first place. This was a sad segment, but not at all in the way the producers intended. What was most sad was the couple’s utter lack of self-awareness. They never said what might have made it a socially redeeming case study. “The recession has been an important wake up call. It opened our eyes to the limits of consumerism and materialism, neither of which form a meaningful foundation for friendship.”

In fairness, one of the other segments did convey a “silver lining, now we know what’s most important” moral, but I couldn’t help but wonder how long the guest’s commitment to frugality and meaningful relationships will continue once the recession ends.

Guest three was a former Denver newscaster who was making 250k at the time of his dismissal. He had taken a 30k/year job working as a vet’s assistance because he had always had a genuine love of animals so his resilience was noteworthy. But again, I couldn’t give the producers the “my how sad” reaction they seemingly wanted because he acknowledged making a whole lot of money for the last 10 years of his 30 year career. Oprah and RR seemingly had it on cruise control and couldn’t bring themselves to ask him and his wife the obvious question, “Why didn’t you live more simply and save more of it?”

Have I lost my mind, criticizing Harpo Productions? I will now be entering the witness protection program.

3 thoughts on “What, if anything, will we learn from the recession?

  1. What the heck Ron, I might as well say it, because I almost have nothing more to lose: I dip into Oprah. Yes, the magazine as well as the show. I have attended the Church of Oprah, though officially I am not a member. I eat Oprah sometimes like Communion, in wafers or tablets, but occasionally in chunks, and sometimes even she’s carried me miles, flame flickering, sputtering within, only light to see by on a dark road.

    I’m the only one I know who watches Oprah, even if now it’s only on a semi-regular basis.

    I was 23, mired in academia and stressed out. To unwind I discovered Oprah. Looking back now, I realize this was the year she began her incarnation of the priestess; these new shows always ended with a “Remembering Your Spirit” segment, which I found out later drew the consternation of many a critic.

    And yet, I don’t consider myself a celebrity worshiper, hardly, nor am I in the camp of those who often choose to denigrate them because they exist in stratospheres higher than any they might possibly attain, whether financially, intellectually or creatively— those superficial classifications, you’re right.

    I just happen to have seen the show you talk about, but not in reruns, and I agree that it glossed over many an important issue regarding the recession’s impact on peoples’ lives. College grads today, who are so well versed on the intellectual microorganisms of their degree(s) and hence are for the most part professionally prepared, and are with it in terms of the latest tech gadget, exotic food, party drug, sexual position, or Bali, Majorca or Cancun, and are so modern, whatever that means, insist on holding onto the economic landscape of their parents and grand parents. A bachelor’s degree is pretty ordinary now. Doctorate degree holders were common already a decade ago. I laugh at the combination of degrees law school applicants are coming up with now just to get a leg up in the application process to get into the top schools—but then they were doing that too a decade ago. Let’s face it, globalization has changed the playing field forever—as you pointed out. The increasing sophistication of technology, an increasing global population, an increasing aging population, as well as economies that depend on consumers’ buying power and markets unable to support the rigors of instability mean the jobs are disappearing. I realize the clarion call of doomsayers has reverberated at least once every generation probably since the dawn of man but now it really does seem as if the planet’s been weighted down, stripped bare, suffocated. And of course, China and India who collectively account for a humongous amount of green house emissions don’t see why they are being called on now to curtail the use of the very same fuels that aided Western countries on their path to industrialization.

    I don’t know if I ever see a time when people will stop judging us on our socio-economic status, treating it as if it’s our redeeming value.

    And as to your statement, “The recession has been an important wake up call. It opened our eyes to the limits of consumerism and materialism, neither of which form a meaningful foundation for friendship,” I would submit that alas even friendships and human relationships in all their forms change and maybe Tracy Chapman is right when she tells us that “all that you have is your soul.”

  2. A very well written and thoughtful reply. And in the end, yes, all that you do have is your soul, but so does everyone else and in my opinion those souls need to connect meaning friendship will always be a necessity of meaningful and fulfilling life.

  3. Thanks very much, Lynn, for reading my reply to Ron’s essay, and for “digging it.” I agree with you that friendship is important, even a necessity in our lives; we are social animals after all. I guess I was only attempting to shed a little light on aspects of friendship that give it a mirage-like quality—is it really there?—the fact that we can never really-really know what someone else is thinking, even someone close to us—the fact that those we love have no ultimate responsibility to us in the end. Perhaps accepting its ephemeral nature, we savor it even more, at least in this moment, while it’s still here.

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