My beautiful wife Keri took me to see Up In The Air last night, the current hit movie where George Clooney plays a consultant hired to fire people. I was disappointed in it, since I’d got into my head that it was going to be as good as Michael Clayton, when in fact it never achieved the intensity or drama of that film.
What Up In The Air did do was re-enforce a familiar tension in our culture, that between the hapless victims of downsizing (“These people are going through one of the worst days of their lives” says Clooney’s character at one point) and the cold-heartedness of big business that would even consider firing someone via computer screen.
It’s good that Clooney’s character, although strangely attracted to a constant life on the road without any apparent need for commitment or ‘roots’, nevertheless seems to have a conscience and clearly comes to believe his own ‘line’ about the ending of a job becoming the start of something new: “This is a rebirth” he says to one of the down-sized.
In the end though, it is a movie about life, and the inevitability of death, and choices we make along the way. And at the heart of it, for me, there’s a choice about how we see our work not being made…
The movie starts and ends with a series of talking heads, the downsized unfortunates reacting to being fired. That they are sad, broken, in tears, in shock, angry, desperate is meant to tug at our heart strings. I can’t see it myself. It’s inevitable that people do and will react like this, but only if we continue to educate people coming into the world of work that having a job = security, self-esteem, and a source of satisfaction and reward. That’s an awful thing to have people believe and trust in, because, as the movie shows, one day you can have a job, the next day you may not. What happens to security and self-esteem then? It is lost.
Why do we continue to ask people to project some of their most powerful qualities into an external, transitory thing like a job? As the movie (inadvertently) shows, people can get very dependent on their job, and having it taken away from them is like the shock of going cold turkey. The old story says that those who can give – and take away – jobs must have the power; and I have found that as soon as people think others have power, they immediately begin to minimize and downplay their own. That’s why those talking heads look so powerless and miserable.
Jobs come and go. But our work – what we are willing and able to create by how we apply our skills and effort – that can never be taken away from us. It is that story that needs reinforcing in our culture.