Faking your way into a working-class job

Laid-off professionals are “dumbing down” their resumes to avoid being rejected as overqualified when applying for jobs outside their former field, reported the Boston Globe. Job seekers are deleting graduate degrees and high-level jobs, and revising titles (for example, from Marketing Director to Marketing Manager).

It was Globe reporter Katie Johnston Chase who chose the classist phrase “dumbing down,” not one of the jobseekers she interviewed. I understand that the pain of endless recession has even hit highly educated professionals who suddenly become financially insecure and have to scramble for work outside their familiar fields. But what makes them or this reporter presume that intelligence is what distinguishes people in working-class jobs from those in professional managerial jobs? Some of these PhDs-turned-waiters may be surprised to find that their memories aren’t up to the task of remembering all the diners’ requests.

The article cites a supposedly famous “20 percent rule” that bosses should be 20 percent smarter than their employees. In what universe is that true? I remember that when my mom was a smart nurse working for a dumb doctor, whenever she would catch his errors, he would say, “I knew that. I was just testing you.” Human stupidity doesn’t stop at any class borders; managers as a group probably have about the same mix of sharp and dull as everyone else. Or maybe not, since privilege tends to make people oblivious – or even amoral: a behavioral science study cited in another Boston Globe article found that highly competent white male managers tended to score very high on a test of psychopathology.

Some downward mobility wannabes went beyond deleting their Fullbrights from their resumes. A former website developer said he changed his way of speaking during an interview at Econo Lube ‘N Tune. “I deliberately hesitated a quarter second before every answer,” he said, and at one point he faked a “faint look of panic.” He got the job. The implied assumption is that not only the formal aspects of cultural capital such as degrees must be shed to break into the working-class labor force, but also the intangible cultural capital as well, such as the air of confident entitlement.

How many professional-middle-class job seekers do you imagine are trying to pose as working class? I would love to be a fly on the wall for some of those performances. I wonder if they use those awful, fake-working-class accents, with “dese” and “dose” and “ain’t gotta,” that elite-educated left sectarians used in the 70s to try to blend in (usually unsuccessfully) with the “proletariat”? Those posers always wore plaid flannel shirts; what part of their closet do you think today’s slumming job-seekers are dressing from for these job interviews they think are beneath them?

The other classist aspect to this article is that it’s part of the mainstream media’s voluminous coverage about laid-off professionals and the working-class jobs they’ve been reduced to seeking – in contrast with the pathetically skimpy coverage of how this Great Recession has affected working-class and chronically poor unemployed people. How are they affected when laid-off professionals stoop to taking the jobs they need?

High unemployment rates are dragging on and on, changing the lives of Americans at all class levels. But since the impact on the formerly working poor is the most devastating, shouldn’t it be the biggest news?

3 Responses

  1. Amy

    I agree, I’m tired of seeing articles on how dad’s cut back on his golf games, and mom’s cut out her yoga class, without interviewing the caddy and the yoga instructor! So far I’ve seen ONE program that did anything close to that, but even it wasn’t going for the working-class angle, so much as the “local economy” angle: they interviewed a woman who was saving money by reducing the number of visits to the salon, putting off having her oil changed, etc. then interviewing the owner of the hair salon and service station, and asking what cuts they’ve made, then highlighting those local businesses.

    I’m curious about your experience with “elite-educated left sectarians… in the 70s to try[ing] to blend in.” What was the circumstances involved in that case? (Speaking of mechanics and styles of speech, I was disappointed in myself the other day when I reacted shocked when a local mechanic in a greasy jumpsuit came over and spoke to me in a thick British accent of “queen’s English.” I guess we all fall victim to stereotypes even when we actively try to avoid it.)

  2. CP

    Funny. Back before the crash, I couldn’t get a job at Starbucks, Borders or Barnes and Noble because I was competing with PhDs who actually got those jobs while I didn’t have even an undergrad degree. Now that I have a degree I can’t get a job with those places because I have a degree. Either that or I can’t figure out how to play the game properly. Mostly I’m jut confused by my 483 job applications and only two interviews in two years failed to produce a job (Jiffy Lube declined because my Spanish was “too broken”) and have taken this a message my other three jobs I have are better than having one that pays more.

    The flip side is, I’m “promoted” in volunteer organizations very quickly to board level or higher level staff “jobs” but when I try to get a middle class job, either my age or my lower-class “aura” seems to have consistently kept me unqualified.

    I just don’t get it.

  3. YES.

    I was a software engineer for thirty years. Starting out in “high level corporate jobs” including “member of the scientific staff” I discovered that most software engineers, who have a reputation for being smart, were in it only to be able to buy Silicon Valley real estate and were remarkably ignorant about computer science….and that they masked this ignorance with curious CEO-influenced rhetoric about the “academic” versus a presumably deeper knowledge of the “real world”.

    It wasn’t until I read a short essay by Kant entitled “On the Old Saw” that I realized what was going on. Many of Kant’s colleagues sagely advised him that his philosophical theories about international peace were just “theories” that wouldn’t work well in “practice”.

    Kant points out that that’s just another … theory.

    Basically, managers in my experience were insisting on forced “death march” schedules in Silicon Valley in order to please CEOs. When advised by software engineers that the schedule was killing their family lives, the managers would tell the software engineers that if they were “smarter” (of the managerial rather than technical class) they would not waste time on “details”…this of course in computer software, where the tiniest mistake can have disastrous ramifications.

    I was to receive stunning confirmation of my suspicions that the emperor had no clothes first in 1986, for the language of NASA managers (“think like a manager and not an engineer”) was, as anthropologist Diane Vaughan showed in her study “The Challenger Launch Decision” an implication that “true” intelligence would factor in the need of the Reagan administration to show that “America is great again”.

    Later I found that managers and CEOs, despite the myth of higher intelligence, did not know in 2008 that computers now allow financial contracts to be interlinked (as in “credit default insurance”) in ways that are insanely complex and prone to failure; the interlocking dependencies of companies being based on collections of “securitized mortgages” caused the crisis of that year.

    I left the software field in disgust to become a teacher in a private, for-profit educational firm in Hong Kong and worked with enthusiasm and diligence in this new career…only to be laid off with no notice and illegally last year with no reason given.

    What’s interesting is that when I made twice as much as a teacher my job was one-tenth the difficulty of my present job as peripatetic substitute English teacher. Today, I am responsible for juggling my schedule and finding obscure schools in neighborhoods where Cantonese is universally spoken.

    As you probably know, Barbara Ehrenreich took “dumb” working class jobs and wrote about it in Nickel and Dimed. She found that working as a “maid” was brutally demanding.

    On the island off Hong Kong where I live, editors, lawyers and professors discard their crap next to dumpsters. It is the Hakka women, indigenous folk looked down upon by the Chinese, who have to figure out what to do with this crap.

    It seems to me a general law that the more difficult your job is, and perhaps the higher its real value (when undertaken by many like you), the less you are paid.

    Only in truly professional jobs, where standards are upheld rigorously and by law that creates an exception to market rules, notably medicine and law, are their truly exacting intellectual standards. Most other trades that self-dignify as “professions” are conspiracies to hold down intellectual standards so their members can cash in.

Leave a Reply