I only just now got around to reading a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times that has received a lot of (mostly negative) attention back in May. The piece, titled "How to Get a Job," is written in the typically forthright and optimistic/naïve style I've come to associate with Friedman. One has to assume that there's no irony involved, that he means what he says, and that everything here is in earnest. In the column, he interviews a couple of young recruiters and concludes: the world doesn't care what you know, only what you can do; resumes don't really matter; job seekers don't have the right skills and employers are hunting for unicorns—i.e., a "perfect fit," which may not in fact exist. He concludes with this observation:
People get rejected for jobs for two main reasons, said Sharef. One, "you're not showing the employer how you will help them add value," and, two, "you don't know what you want, and it comes through because you have not learned the skills that are needed." The most successful job candidates, she added, are "inventors and solution-finders," who are relentlessly "entrepreneurial" because they understand that many employers today don't care about your résumé, degree or how you got your knowledge, but only what you can do and what you can continuously reinvent yourself to do.
Despite what his critics say, Friedman's column does teach us something. Perhaps the best way of illuminating what that something is, however, is by turning to the wonderful but incredibly difficult art of satire. If I were a satirist of the top order—someone like George Saunders for example, or Ian Frazier in his early works—my inclination would be to write a column like Friedman's: same title, same avuncular thrust, same pragmatic tone, same jaw-dropping sense of naïveté. Instead of giving advice to today's job-seeker, though, I would address it to an imaginary audience of workers in an industrial city of the nineteenth century: Manchester around 1820, for example, or Lowell in 1840. Find yourself out of a job? No worries: simply convey your willingness to work sixteen hours seven days a week "adding value" in a textile mill. Only ten years old and hungry? Convert that hunger into an appetite for work! And so on.
We look back on the "dark Satanic mills" of the nineteenth century with fear and pity. We realize that the men, women, and children of that time had few choices. And yet the same market forces are at play in our world. Workers are laid off, people's homes are foreclosed, families disintegrate. The solutions that Friedman offers? Advertise your capacity to add value! Be entrepreneurial! Everything is about the individual, everything represents a competitive struggle to beat another worker to a job, and no one pays attention to structure. Such satire might not seem fair, but it emphasizes a brutally obvious fact: We need attention to economic forces and political solutions. We don't need more individualized advice on "how to get ahead" any more than an imaginary nineteenth-century millworker does.