Jackie Brown is right. The only way out is to take a chance

the one-shot society
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Last week, a cunning, feisty fortysomething, name of Brown, walked away with a fat wad of other people's money to the cheers of the assembled press. No, not Gordon: Jackie. As the Chancellor ushered us into his paradise of toil-for-all, the British opening of Quentin Tarantino's new film, Jackie Brown, directed us to the emergency exit.

Work - any work - confers dignity and value, runs the social-democratic mantra of our times. If that labour can be clean, indoors, endowed with a white collar and open to women as easily - or more easily - than men (this litany goes on), so much the better. In his surprisingly tender and affecting film, the scabrous wunderkind of Hollywood tells another tale. He portrays a middle-aged women stripped of respect and ground down by the burden of professional niceness who brilliantly takes the single chance she gets to dump the job, the pose - and the fixed smile - for ever.

It strikes a resounding chord, even if you have no plans to stage a heist that relieves a small-time arms smuggler of his ill-gotten loot. The rest of us simply play our legalised numbers racket (70 per cent of British adults buy Lottery tickets). Or else we cash in building-society windfalls, and hope for a plump redundancy pay-off. Meanwhile, the more up-market gambler can turn share-options liquid or pick up some battered hovel for a song and flog it for half-a-million once the area has up and came. Even the hi-tech entrepreneurs of recent years have grown rich not from long- term management but from selling their breakthroughs in software or pharmaceuticals on to global firms. Forget the long-haul bourgeois prudence extolled by Brown (G). Emotionally, we now live in the one-shot society so cannily exploited by Brown (J).

Played with a mesmerising slow-burn strength by the former blaxploitation star Pam Grier, Jackie Brown is a flight attendant on the airline from hell. She shuttles pointlessly between LA and Mexico for a salary of $16,000 "with retirement benefits". At 44, time and hope are running out, "and I've been waitin' on people now almost 20 years". In the credit sequence, her commanding pride and poise on the airport travelator give way to the flustered hurry of the wage-slave as she runs to catch her flight. Before our eyes, the princess turns back into a pauper.

Later, a Federal agent taunts her with a sneer that will open the wounds of less-than-youthful drudges everywhere: "Didn't exactly set the world on fire, did ya, Jackie?" Eventually, she does, thanks to the protocols of Hollywood wish-fulfilment. But Tarantino's take on the mortifying dead- end that looms in most service-sector "careers" is bleakly convincing. These jobs ("McJobs" as the writer Douglas Coupland labelled them) don't develop and they don't improve. Some one younger and cheaper can always do them just as well. They can deteriorate, of course, as managers crank up the expected output in a sinister form of assembly-line psychology.

Recent reports of epidemic stress among the telephonic skivvies of the banking and insurance business yield a dismaying glimpse into the future of low-grade, labour-intensive work. At least the horny hands of rustbelt factories were permitted their stroppy moments of insubordination. In the new mills of finance, your mental disposition needs to be as neat and tidy as your clothes.

Still, this must be preferable to the dole or fretting at home? No one would consciously dispute that. Yet the prevalence of gambling culture at every level of society - from elderly pools addicts to yuppy real-estate investors - shows how shaky is our faith in the postwar ideal of a rung- to-rung career, from apprenticeship to carriage-clock. The market pressures that have flattened, downsized and destabilised workplaces in the West have bred a silent resistance. In place of the outlawed strike, we dissent invisibly in dreams and plans for exit strategies.

At the simplest level, the Lottery beckons from every corner shop. But each trade boasts its version of the Jackie Brown coup. To us poor hacks, of course, it often takes the form of idle fantasies about six-figure advances for bestselling books. It can happen, once in a blue moon (the Tube carriages are still awash, I note, with Bridget Jones's followers). A few people do hit the Lottery jackpot. And some home-owners really can bore their dinner guests rigid with accurate reports of triple-digit percentage gains.

Yet this charting of escape-routes looms larger in the collective mind than it should, if you believe we have entered a sustainable long boom. Whatever the Treasury forecasters claim, many of us plainly don't. Plenty of voters have privately begun to anticipate the Millennium Recession of 2000. Of course, traditional peasant wisdom everywhere has never trusted that the good times will go on rolling. The difference now is that we don't hoard; we punt. And we gamble for an exit on the basis that even employment may offer nothing more than the corrosive monotony of Jackie Brown's shuttle. The future of work no longer glows; it grinds.

Hence seven times as many Britons play the Lottery as bother to attend a Christian church. Time-travellers from Imperial Rome would instantly spot where our allegiance lay. They would identify the ruling deity as the goddess Fortuna, with a few declining Middle Eastern cults still worshipped on the side.

Ordinary toilers have paid close attention to the casino capitalism of the past decades, with its roulette spin of one-off riches for the few and sudden wipe-outs for entire communities. We have watched, marked and inwardly digested its bitter lessons. And, as always, popular culture will register its impact more sharply than the guarded responses given to pollsters and focus-groups. Perhaps the rune-readers at the Treasury should spend less time with computer-generated models and more time at the movies. As a small start, someone could take Gordon Brown to Jackie Brown.