I spent the summer and fall of 2011 driving across the country and interviewing jobless Americans. Those out of work do not need belated coaching on where to direct their anger. They began pointing fingers long ago — the moment their jobs were taken away against their wishes, through no fault of their own.
Most people I interviewed knew they shouldn’t blame themselves, even if they couldn’t resist. Wendy Hamilton, a 33-year-old with a master’s degree, lost her job at a nonprofit organization in Omaha just weeks before we spoke.
“I believe it doesn’t matter how confident you are, how old you are, what class you’re in,” she told me. “When you get laid off, there will be a moment of, ‘It’s my fault.’ ”
Most emphasized that they did not blame an immediate boss — or, really, anyone they worked with. More often than not, the person delivering the bad news of a layoff did not make the decision.
“It was like this thing out there in the universe had done this to me,” said Sue Whetten, a 55-year-old horticulturist from Fort Collins, Colo. She had worked at the botanic gardens in Cheyenne, Wyo., until she lost her job to budget cuts in 2010.
In the global economy, we accept a brand of capitalism that disconnects corporate leaders from the employees affected by their decisions. This geographic, civic and economic separation is what many unemployed people blame for their joblessness.
In DeWitt, Neb., William Petersen patented Vise-Grip locking pliers in 1924. For 60 years, the Petersens owned and operated the plant that manufactured the pliers. They lived in the town of 500 or so, buying uniforms for the little league team, helping build the ballfield and paying for a five-bay firehouse. When the family made tough business decisions, they knew the people who would be affected by them.
“The Petersen family, basically, they were this town,” said Randy Badman, a 62-year-old former supervisor at the plant who, on the day he was laid off in 2008, received a security escort across the factory floor where he had worked for 36 years. He told me that he and his wife expected the end when, in 2002, the Petersens announced that the company had been sold to a conglomerate headquartered in another state, governed by shareholders scattered across the globe.
“You could hear this sucking sound in the United States,” Badman said. “All these companies going to China and Mexico.”
But Badman did not blame his layoff on Chinese workers. He pointed out that low-wage earners in China would probably seek a better quality of life — higher wages, better living conditions — in return for their hard work. Badman, like most of the unemployed I met, knew that workers overseas did not steal his job. He blamed his unemployment on people “at corporate” he couldn’t name who, on the day after he was laid off, met with his former subordinates to ask what he did every day. Executives were so disconnected that they no longer knew what they had paid Badman to do.