Sarah Sands: Blessed are the sacked, for they shall change the world

Related Topics

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 Standard

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'