Sisyphus and war at work

Once upon a time, when life expectancy was much shorter, everything was far simpler. The slightest infection could lead to death; war, famine and all manner of violence meant that death was omnipresent and the individual was unprotected. Death was swift and final. It visited us once. Today, following great advances in technology and medicine, and the safety net of complex societies, we live for many more years than our ancestors. But we also lead lives that they would not recognize. And in these complicated lives we experience many types of loss – each a «little death» – in the space of a single lifetime. Major challenges of transition include divorce, the death of a loved one, physical disability and the loss of a job. As our societies develop, we shed old habits, customs and traditions. Once, divorce was a rare exception. Once, workers would seldom change jobs. Today nothing is stable. But even though these great changes in life are frequent, they still constitute a kind of amputation – violent and bloody – and it takes skill to survive them. In advanced societies with high-risk economies, social development depends on the profits of private companies. The worker is simply a unit of production and his or her future depends on the company’s profits. (And social benefits, such as those received by the unemployed, also depend on company profits, in a neat part of the overall equation). Now many companies belong to faceless funds whose only reason for existence is to maximize profits at any cost. The workplace – where profits and the worker come into contact – is the fulcrum of today’s society. It is the point where the intangible (equity fund profits) meets and clashes with the tangible, with the flesh and bones of the worker. And sometimes job losses are reminiscent of wartime massacres. The slaughter has become routine. When the banking giant Citigroup announced a 5 percent reduction in its work force last Wednesday, this was duly reported but did not cause any great stir. It was basically business as usual. And yet it meant the dismissal of 17,000 people. Airbus plans to fire 10,000 over the next four years. This decision, unlike others, has caused a political storm because it entails the loss of jobs in France (4,300), Germany (3,700), Britain and Spain. (In Europe, high-profile loss of jobs still has a strong impact on politics.) In 2005, General Motors announced the dismissal of 30,000 workers by 2008. Last year Ford said it would lay off 30,000 by 2012. This year, DaimlerChrysler said it would dismiss 13,000 American workers over the next three years. These are just some of the more impressive numbers. And the American auto industry is perhaps the most dramatic example of how industries in the West are trying to survive in the face of massive gains made by competing companies in the Far East. Similar dramas are being played out all over the world as local economies try to balance the challenges, failures and opportunities that globalization brings. With populations aging quickly and economies depending on greater productivity (in other words, on less or cheaper labor), many societies have to find ways to pay ever-increasing welfare benefits to retirees and the unemployed while fewer and fewer people work. It may be something of an oversimplification, but this could mean that one day machines or cheap foreign workers will do all the work while governments redistribute the profits of companies to keep people fed, entertained and intellectually neutered (if they want to avoid rebellion). What we see in every physical separation of the individual from his or her workplace and colleagues, and from the security of the monthly paycheck, is that life remains an endless battle – a war in which no matter how many times you fall, you have no choice but to resurrect yourself and fight another day.

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