Peter Pringle's America: The Cold War is over and the bosses won

Related Topics
In television sitcoms, popular characters go through the argument-homily-hug routine always to emerge more or less intact. They are never dropped unless the actor playing the role dies, or leaves for a career in the movies or asks for too much mon ey. But not so in The Larry Sanders Show, about the backstage world of the late-night talk show.

Alone among the sitcoms, the show depicts the unhappy world of the American workplace. Important characters can be fired (Jerry, the show's head writer was replaced by an underling) and other harassed employees are carpeted by department heads if they spend too much time on the phone trying to make their virtually non-existent private lives mesh with their ludicrously long working hours. Paula, for example, the show's talent booker, took time off to sort out problems with her boyfriend who was demandingthat she choose between him and her work. Work won.

There is nothing but work and ruthless bosses in Larry Sanders' frantic office - a familar enough theme for Americans these days. Despite good-looking economic indicators, we read about workers, young and old, who have been laid off, who are worried about their jobs or who are working harder for less pay and fewer benefits.

Employment is up, inflation down - a mere 3 per cent. But the pay for new jobs is lousy. Over the past six years inflation has increased almost 27 per cent against a 19 per cent rise in wages.

Americans are working longer hours to make up the difference. Manufacturing employees work 320 more hours a year than their European counterparts. In the past decade they have added 17 days to the work year. Many are burnt out as well as disillusioned. And when Americans can no longer see the "dream" around the corner, they panic. Last November, they threw a bunch of old rascals out of Congress and brought in a raft of new ones.

Some panicky liberal Americans think the underlying reason for all this is the end of the Cold War. In the era of Communism, a key element of the ideological divide was for American managers to declare proudly that the United States had the highest standard of living and the lowest level of unemployment. Company budgets bloated by the Cold War economy encouraged bosses to inflate their payrolls and boast about how many people they had working for them.

With the increase in global competition for jobs, first from China and now from Russia, Americans are hard-pressed. Automation has cut jobs in banking and construction. And all companies are being "downsized", "right-sized" or "re-engineered".

In today's America, bosses boast about how many people they have fired, laid off, retired in advance of vested pensions, and how they have turned full-time staff into contract employees with no benefits at all. In the boardroom, to be a master of downsizing brings a badge of honour. The writer Nicholas von Hoffman has dubbed today's new boss the "bizbrute".

At the McDonnell Douglas aerospace corporation, one of the foremost profiteers of cold warfare, the recent cutting of retirees' health insurance benefits received wide coverage in the media and provoked shock and outrage on the editorial pages. But such summary slicing of the workforce or the workers' budget continues in the most ingenious ways the lawyers can invent to avoid lawsuits. The CEOs close down plants and chop and cut and slice away at jobs, leaving millions who had good jobs scrambling for poor ones.

The blue-collar workers and their unions are big losers. During the Cold War, countervailing was a word used correctly by the military planners to describe the Pentagon's intercontinental missile strategy. It could also have been applied to the trade unions' power to get a fair deal, or more, for their members. During the height of the Cold War the United Automobile Workers, for example, was rarely defeated, or even forced to compromise. But no longer.

Today, white-collar workers are being bounced from job to job. In a December issue, the Wall Street Journal portrayed the problem for white-collar workers going through their second lay-off with a drawing of a man in a business suit balancing on the blade of an axe. To keep up your confidence, the Journal advised, ask your employer why you lost your job. In many cases the answer is not poor performance but the high costs of employer health insurance, pension plans and the fact that young people will do the job at half the price. But lawyers won't allow bosses to say so, of course.

President Clinton and others urge workers to keep competing: competition is the way forward in a world of low tariffs. Americans must grab the hi-tech jobs. But it's not happening. Edith Holleman, counsel for the House of Represenatatives' committee on science, space and technology, told a meeting of American technicians that, "as international corporations move their facilities to cheaper locations, jobs in the field such as product design, process engineering and software development are moving with them".

No one feels this trend more than the young, especially the science PhDs. In the 1980s they could expect to move instantly into one of the 7 million new affluent households with incomes over $50,000 created during that decade. The government said the nation could not have enough scientists. But it was a cruel myth. With the defence industry being melted down and health care reform looming, these scientists and technicians can barely find a job washing test tubes, let alone using them for experiments.

It turns out they would have been no better off had they become airline flight crew, doctors, nurses - or lawyers. Prospects for law graduates are the bleakest for a decade. One out of six new attorneys were unemployed six months after graduating in the summer of 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Perhaps they can all get jobs as bond traders. One thing they should avoid, obviously, is aspiring to high salaries like those of earlier generations. The key to protecting your job during downsizing is to keep your income low, refuse all raises and other forms of additional compensation. Also, if you're over 40, lie about it.

In life, as in The Larry Sanders Show, the Cold War is over and the bosses won.

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum