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.