Friday, July 11, 2014

Who Are You?


Last week I read  with my students an excerpt from Marilu Hurt McCarty's book Dollars And Sense: An Introduction to Economics (1985) about the connection between work and identity. The author claims that in western society most of us derive our sense of identity from our work: “we do therefore we are.” I feel that this statement is especially true about men. Quite often when we ask a man “who are you?” he will state his profession –“I am a dentist, ” or “I am an engineer.”

To explain the effect of work on one's identity Hurt McCarty gives the example of factory workers in the last century.With  modern manufacturing jobs became simplified, and workers began to lose some of their self-identity associated with their job. This loss is what Karl Marx calls alienation: the separation of a worker from the product of his work. The passage concludes with a change,  in order  to combat this alienation  some companies have started to introduce complexity back into the job.

As I approach my 59th birthday next month, I meet many men my age who no longer have a job, yet  they still identify themselves as architects, programmers, engineers and so on. As long as a man works in his profession this identification is relevant and even helpful  but when he doesn’t, it just adds to his frustration. This type of disconnection is not different from what Marx diagnosed as alienation and the effects are similar: it diminishes self- worth, reduces the sense of pride and leads to boredom, listlessness and even in some cases to depression.

Moreover, as if losing a job isn't traumatic enough, many men feel embarrassed bout being unemployed. We could see the tragic effects of alienation combined with shame in the poignant film  Tokyo Sonata (2008) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The film portrays the life of "salary men" in Tokyo  who  have lost their job. As they are too ashamed to tell anyone, even their family, about their plight, they get up every morning and leave the house dressed in a suit pretending to go to work. It is clear that these men have derived their identity solely from their job and once they stop working, it is as though  they have ceased to exist. The film shows the disastrous consequences of holding on to what is no longer there. Without going into all the cultural aspects, we could see that those Tokyo men were  paralysed and unable make a change. Thus they  have become ghosts-like, invisible and with no identity.

 Luckily in the west we haven't got to that point yet, but as life expectancy increases the ability to change is exactly what men need.  Hurt McCarty mentions companies which attempted to over come alienation by bringing back more complexity to the job. I suggest that,  in a similar fashion, men should bring in additional dimensions to their life. They should become proactive, reinvent themselves and find  new directions. This is the time to leave behind  past identifications which were only connected to what they did, and  find new meanings which are connected to who they are now . 

I suspect that Alexander  Graham Bell had his male friends in mind when he came up with this beautiful aphorism:  When one door closes another opens but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed one that we do not see the one which has opened for us. 

It's time to make an entrance.

NYT article on unemployed Japanese men, Howard French 2000
Invisible Man; The Pretenders

By Howard French, Published: Sunday, December 3, 2000, NYT

1) Walking down a crowded street in Tokyo, it is impossible to know if that well-dressed man you just passed actually has a job or is just pretending to go to work. When Japan's economy collapsed in 1989, unemployment, unheard of in the country's postwar boom, hit hard, jumping from 1 percent then to 5 percent today. Though the saddest effect of the cataclysm is Japan's rising suicide rate, its strangest is the number of former salary men who haunt the business districts of downtown Tokyo, unable to stay home or in their neighborhoods between the morning and evening rush hours. These men -- and they are all men -- are the newly unemployed. They are as elusive as body snatchers, rising early every day, donning white shirts and knotting their ties before setting out for jobs they no longer have. Some have not yet found a way to tell their wives and families the bad news. Others are afraid their neighbors will find out. Nearly all have given up hope of a better future: they are middle-aged in a country that hires young and, until recently, for life. This is not the land of second chances.

2) Invisible men are hard to find. But if you ask around enough, you inevitably find yourself in a small library on the edge of Tokyo's lush and tranquil Hibiya Park, a place of gurgling fountains, manicured formal gardens and beds of perfect tulips and crocuses. The library, a neat four-story brick structure vaguely reminiscent of an American public school building circa 1960, has become an air-conditioned asylum for the out-of-work, a resting place for the decommissioned foot soldiers of Japan's economic boom.

3) When I enter the building, I am struck by the number of men who sit, bowed, in the large, brightly lit reading rooms or secluded amid musty stacks. On the third floor, I pause to admire the newspaper racks, gorgeous wooden A-frames set up on the open, polished floor. A largish man in a blue suit and shiny black shoes stands nearby, savoring the Tokyo broadsheets, as unhurried as if he were enjoying a Sunday brunch. The morning's papers capture Japan's free fall in cinematic slow motion with headlines about an accidental mass food poisoning by a milk company; two deaths as a result of malpractice at a major hospital; and a raid on the construction ministry by prosecutors investigating kickbacks.

5) Slowly easing up to him, I excuse myself for disturbing his reading, and then pose the question. There is no other way. ''Yes, I am out of work,'' he answers matter-of-factly. When I ask if he might spare a few minutes to talk about it, he suddenly grows jumpy, but then, almost hurriedly, accepts. ''I'll meet you downstairs,'' he says. ''There is a cafeteria in the basement.'' The library has a spiral staircase, and as I round the bend, I glance back at him. He looks up as he collects his belongings and says calmly, reassuringly, ''Don't worry, I won't run away.''

6) A score of other men at Hibiya Library were never willing to talk for more than an uncomfortable minute or two; the newspaper reader, though comparatively forthcoming, is nevertheless guarded -- speaking only on condition of anonymity and refusing to say with precision even where he lives. Still, in the stark cafeteria, he tells a story he has kept secret for two years.

7) In 1998, the huge commercial real estate firm the man worked for as a property appraiser announced that it was making some changes. ''One day we came to work and learned that they had reshuffled all of the personnel and changed our pay system,'' he says. The moves, he adds in a monotone, ''were intended to make sure that you never got another pay raise again. They began replacing experienced people with cheap hires. And they told us, 'If you don't like it, you can simply leave.'''

8) At the same time this was happening, the appraiser learned that he was ill. ''I was hospitalized for colon cancer,'' he says, taking a sip of tea. ''And after I was discharged, I was told by my superiors that if your health is not good, that will be a problem. Finally, it seemed as if they had found a good enough reason to get rid of me. They said it would take too long for me to recover and return to work in good condition.''

9) The man and the real estate firm parted ways. He stayed at home, where his mother cooked and cleaned for him. But the uneasiness began to mount. He was 48. He had no wife and no children. He had no hobbies and played no sports. He had few friends outside work, and no friends, like him, who were unemployed. Career and company had been everything. ''Suddenly, I couldn't imagine what I would do next,'' he says, running his fingers through his thinning hair. ''Income was not the problem. The question was, What could a company man like me in his 40's do with the rest of his life?''

10) Even worse was the reality of the man's neighborhood at the western edge of Tokyo -- a place of tiny homes and suffocating proximity; a world of such closeness that privacy evaporates through paper-thin walls. In places like this, so common to this city, neighbors know what you watch on TV and eat for dinner. The smiles and bows that accompany their daily greetings only feign to be about an exchange of news. Because the appraiser's 78-year-old mother was firmly of this world, she could not bear the possibility of being known as the parent of an unemployed man. She asked him to swear that he would maintain the illusion of being employed, that he would tell no one but his younger sister and her husband. He agreed.

11) And so, with little preparation or forethought, the appraiser began a life of make-believe and disguise. ''No one in my family has told anyone that I've been let go,'' he says. ''We would prefer that they not know anything. There is no need.'' The words are exquisitely Japanese in their indirectness. The reality, though, is much more stark. He has gone to the government unemployment agency only once; bumping into an acquaintance would be too hard to explain. Even the possibility of travel seems foreclosed. ''I have the money,'' he says. ''That is not the problem. But if I start going away a lot, the neighbors will grow suspicious.'' Instead, he has settled into a fixed routine, as regular and confining as a prisoner's. Tuesday's destination, he explains, is Hibiya Library. Exactly what he does on other days he will not say. ''If you think that is strange,'' he says before leaving with the promise to meet me at the library in a week, an appointment he never keeps, ''well then, maybe it is.''

Howard French is the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times

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