The Chuck E. Cheese Ticket Blaster

In today's job market, you're either a winner or a stupid loser fartface.

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Who is worthy of having a job?

The despair of being passed over for a job is gut-wrenching.

It’s a one-sided breakup. A swipe left on your goals when you emphatically swiped right. You’re stuck asking a question most frequently dealt with in song, from Robyn’s melancholic anthem about the moment she sees her crush dancing with someone else to Rick Springfield’s longing for what his buddy has: “Why me?” Or, better yet, “Why not me?”

In her piece, “Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over,” published earlier this year in The Paris Review, Sabrina Orah Mark describes attending a series of academic job interviews. Lyrically intertwining those stories with themes from fairy tales, she contemplates the idea of worth. “What does it mean to be worth something?” she asks. “Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go?”

In fairy tales, there’s always a victor and, let’s face it, a stupid loser fartface. The victor is worthy of our love and praise. A virtuous hero. The person we root for. The narrator of every fairy tale instructs us, dear readers, that we are to side with this person—and that the happily ever after they’re endowed with is deserved.

Throughout her piece, Mark shares the questions she’s been asked during job interviews. They come from deans of universities, most of whom are aiming to fill a shrinking number of departmental positions. Some questions are patently ridiculous (“Who is watching your sons right now?” one interviewer asks, as if a mother spending any time away from her children has simply abandoned them) while others set rhetorical traps. “On the third day of the interview, the head of the creative department asks me if the courses I would be expected to teach should even exist. ‘No,’ I wish I had said as I made my body gently vanish.”

The language of hiring, of job interviews, of crafting resumes, is based on determining our value. That value is highly specific. Rather than a number, it’s more like Cinderella’s slipper, passed from person to person until it slides onto the foot of the chosen candidate. But when, according to official figures, 14.7% of Americans were unemployed in May because of the coronavirus—that’s about one in seven people—talking about who has the right to work has become even more nonsensical.

(Note: as of this writing, the unemployment rate is about 6.7% or one in every 15 people. The May marker here is to denote a peak in unemployment due to the coronavirus.)

I’ve been a manager before. I’ve hired people before. I’ve read resumes I considered weak after a quick scan, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by employees whose cover letters I almost tossed aside. I’ve sat with hundreds of people, wondering if the responses to my questions were genuine, knowing that all the other person wanted was to answer correctly.

In interviews, I tried to ask every applicant the same questions, and I tried to stay open-minded—but every question has an answer, and as an interviewer, it was my job to make judgments on those answers. Am I inherently good at that? I don’t know. And yet, as the person in charge of hiring, I was saddled with the responsibility of deciding, of listening to answers and sifting through their value. Who answered better? Who seemed most prepared? Who handled the curveball question best? Who seemed like their answer was canned, practiced?

I’ve already revealed my cards. I’ve given away that I value genuine answers from a person who is well-researched but not overly coached. I can only use the benchmarks I’ve established in my own life to make decisions about what I deem “genuine” or “well-researched,” so even the markers I’ve designated as valuable are only true in the reality I exist in. As the interviewer, I become the creator of value and worth. And that’s fucked up.

Sometimes, I think it’d be a better hiring strategy to just throw a bunch of resumes in the air and grab them haphazardly. As I read Mark’s piece, I reflected that I should have just loaded resumes into a Chuck E. Cheese ticket blaster and kept only the ones I could grab. At least then I wouldn’t have been making value judgments on people’s lives.

This is the part of my essay where I hedge—where I make sure someone doesn’t misinterpret my intention as, “Well, that means you want to give terrible people jobs as CEOs, and award million-dollar salaries at random.” I don’t—but it’s a problem worth unpicking, that worth and employment are so inexorably linked. We depend on selling our labor in exchange for money to live, and our society has conditioned us to believe that being unemployed equates to being unworthy of living.

This is language we’ve all heard before. “So-and-so is a great fit,” or “This person was my best hire.” Websites like ZipRecruiter promise to find employers the best candidates, weeding out anyone their algorithm finds unworthy. We call having a job “earning a living.” But we don’t use that language for other needs. We don’t “earn” food, we eat it. We don’t “earn” housing. While the politics of both food and shelter are replete with their own disparities and inequities, work steps out of the realm of necessity and into the world of morality. We only get to work if we deserve it.

This system has always been broken. But in a world where scores of workers have lost their jobs because of the pandemic—not because of anything inherent to themselves or their job performances—its malignant absurdity is unignorable. Some of the folks you might describe as “your best hires” are now unemployed.

For the amount of value we place on finding a job, keeping a job, getting promoted, being praised, I have to wonder what that does to our collective morale when we are let go, arbitrarily and en masse. We can’t help that the hospitality industry is being disproportionally affected. We can’t help that the safest thing for many of us to do is to stay home. We can’t help that our jobs are impossible to do within those confines.

In her essay, Mark descends into stories of third, fourth, fifteenth, sixteenth job interviews. If we’re to believe the fairy tales, she is made to go through a barrage of interviews because she’s not worthy. In fairy tales, the virtuous person always wins. The righteous path is clear and linear. Those who are unsuccessful are flawed by nature; they deserve their defeat.

Just as the storyteller designates which characters are just and kind and which are cruel and wicked, our employers endow us all with value. Only Cinderella’s foot can fit into the glass slipper. Only she deserves to marry a prince, a figurative marker of value personified. And only those who distinguish themselves deserve their work.

For employers: Is it important to find the candidate who fits like a glass slipper, or is it more important to invest in local residents and hire within your community? Would you ever consider hiring randomly—perhaps setting a required baseline of skills and then picking arbitrarily from that group (many local colleges and universities do this to determine admission and scholarship aid)? Perhaps we have to narrow our scope. Perhaps that scope should become as narrow as an eight-foot, clear box that blasts tickets in your face.

I’m not sure what all of these ideas would look like in practice, or if any of them are the answer to our current conundrum. But as a thought exercise, they go a long way towards unbraiding our understandings of worth and work. Even the phrase, “Have a job to give,” implies that the simple fact of having a job is worth something, and encourages a paternalistic relationship between employer and employee.

I’d like to see workplaces move beyond the fairy tales. I’d like to see more ticket blasters at job interviews.

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash.

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