I read a rather disturbing article today on Ctheory.net titled The Digital Death Rattle of the American Middle Class. What really struck me about this article is that it outlined my last workplace perfectly.

The corporate world is not a friendly place to hang out, and it’s even less so here in China. The goal here, or course, is to show predominance over native-English speaking centers such as India and the Philippines. It’s almost like a battle cry in the workplace, and feels rather slimy. To put things politely, there is also a definite peering down from lofty ideological platforms at the ridiculous American corporate overlords. It is very clear to me that cooperation now in no means relates to cooperation in the future. What it really means is learning how to leech to take away part of the market share later, and all with the support of a big corporation’s funding.

I don’t know how much this happens in the India outsourcing scene, but this is definitely an often-used cookie cutter here in Shanghai. The other really notable thing for me is the knowledge of numbers. We only know as much as we discover or are told. That doesn’t mean that an agent’s figures are accurate. That means that Dell’s impression of their agents may or may not be an accurate reflection of what is actually going on over there. It doesn’t really matter, since the corporation really cares that the agent meets the required metrics without doing anything that could cause a lawsuit.

Part of me wants to say down with the big silly corporations anyway. Still, the other part of me looks at the dim employment situation for college graduates in the US. I meet more and more of them here in Shanghai since they remain jobless for so long in the US. In some ways it seems like getting a better education isn’t necessarily going to get you anything. When I finished high school no one ever talked about the cost-benefit aspects of a degree. It will make your life better, and you get a degree, unless you want to work in fast food. That was just the way of things. Today, with the employment not looking its best, even a really flashy degree isn’t necessarily going to do you any good. Why? Because some guy in Shanghai of Manila or Bangalore probably has a degree or two more than you, can finish the job in less time and for exponentially less money.

To quote one of my favorite college professors, “So what?” I’m not really sure. Part of the issue is that our degrees are economically worth much less than they once were, but we still expect a great salary. Part of me wants to get paid what I’m worth, and part of me says that I should just get paid. I know too many of the unemployed masses to want to take that gamble.

No job I’ve taken up to this point couldn’t be outsourced. That’s fine. I wouldn’t mind hedging in on some keen employment opportunities in Madrid if they’re looking. I’ve used the whole thing in reverse to get myself employment in China. The difference is that they’re much more keen to the game here, and willing to take on foreigners in a way that will eventually be worked out of the system. Every job I’ve had here has been training people how not to need me (a native English speaker with computer capabilities). In that sense it seems like a job in the arts is more dependable, even though the book market in the US is atrocious, and a future in the arts is not exactly a path carved in stone.

Some people say the trick is to be indispensable. I have to be honest here, unless it’s a company I feel willing to sacrifice my life for (and I don’t believe that kind of company exists), there is no way I can be indispensable. Useful, yes. High performer, yes. There is no way to ensure being indispensable in a company today. Most companies are too self-protected to take that kind of risk unless it’s a small business, and in that case the real challenge is surviving in the face of mega-competitors (think of coffee shops, computer retailers, and book stores).

I think the real trick is to make your job one where you need to communicate with people face to face. Telecom is too cheap and can be done from anywhere without you knowing, or with you knowing. It’s pretty difficult to outsource one-on-one communication and work. It doesn’t mean throwing away the computer and becoming a luddite, but it means remembering that those should be tools of an overall business rather than the main thrust of the business. I think that’s the only stronghold left to working folks in the US. A select few hold the purse strings in the US, and I don’t think that’s going to change. Who they dole out money to has already changed. The goal will be to figure out how to force our way into remaining on the payroll.

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