Time magazine names Ben Bernanke, head of the US Federal Reserve, as person of the year. After the storm, the old sage acknowledges the first puny signs of growth. This year was all about the masters of the universe, and they were wonderful material for writers. The story that has not been told is the poignant and fearful one of unemployment in the real economy. The sorrows of the boss class have little in common with the stomach-gnawing anxiety of the rank and file. For the former, hurt pride can be soothed by lawyers and socking great pay-offs. For the rest, it can mean losing everything.
My film of 2010 is Up in the Air, which was the lauded by the Golden Globes last week. Directed by Jason Reitman, of Thank You for Smoking and Juno, it finds the real pulse of the recession. It's the jobs, stupid. After all the family and fantasy films, it is bracing to find one intelligently aimed at adults.
It begins with real people, bewildered, angry, stoic, vulnerable, as they describe their responses to being fired. Then the fictional boss of a company which "restructures" other organisations explains that these are the bleakest times for the economy and therefore, happily, "this is our moment". George Clooney, with deadpan black humour, plays the star employment consultant leading a blissfully detached and ordered existence, always in flight, as he sacks employees across America. The language and art of firing are perfectly realised. Do not apologise or explain – for legal reasons and to prevent conversation. It is bad taste to show emotion yourself, since it is incomparably harder for the employee. The prescribed form of words is that this is a beginning, not an end.
People who change the world, or build empires, have all been fired. It is a glib truth. Many people do come to see that a forced departure turns out to be a liberation. I was chatting to a former colleague last week, and we agreed that life became far more interesting after we had been fired. One becomes both tougher and more relaxed about risk. But you cannot apply blanket self-help business philosophy. What of those who are older or unwell or who have simply had the stuffing knocked out of them? What happens when a whole industry has gone under?
I have also noticed that the less senior members of an organisation often display the greatest sense of loyalty to it. The careworn people who appeared in Up in the Air spoke of lifelong commitment to their companies. One said that this was his family. All wanted to assert themselves as human beings rather than cogs. They asked: "What shall I tell my wife, my children?"
Clooney's character detaches himself from these human connections by travelling light. He gives motivational speeches about packing life in a rucksack. It is the weight of human relationships that pulls you down. Yet he discovers that it is family and friendship that give a life purpose. When his in-flight existence is threatened by an ambitious graduate who invents a system for sacking employees by video link, Clooney sets out to prove that human beings do not behave predictably and need to be told face to face. HR departments have had a very busy year this year.
The coming year may be worse. Yet whether one is thrown out of a building with bin bags or counselled through it, the facts are the same. The dignity of work is a great thing, but one should never confuse a company with family.
Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening StandardReuse content