(SPOILERS: Contains discussion of major plot points from the movie)
Last night 7abibi and I managed to catch Up in the Air before it left theaters. Despite the presence of the lovely and talented Anna Kendrick of Jessica-in-Twilight-and-New Moon fame I was kind of left feeling meh by the trailer. Guy. Planes. Whatevs. I’m so glad he talked me into it, because I thought it was smart, funny, and full of timely philosophical questions.
Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a corporate downsizer for hire, rolling around the country slashing jobs and dreaming of reaching 10 million frequent flier miles. A new hire at his firm, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), drops in a to rain on his parade with her idea to revolutionize the industry by nixing expensive travel and firing people via videoconference. Through the marvel of modern technology, downsizers like Bingham can now fire anyone anywhere from the comfort of their home office, no travel costs incurred.
Bingham fights for his jet setting lifestyle and the “dignity” of his profession only to have his boss recommend he take Natalie on the road for a quick tutorial in the art of letting people go. The film examines Bingham’s emotional detachment and isolation as well as Natalie’s naive expectations about what life looks like after the comforting structure of college is stripped away.
The most interesting portions for me were those that dealt with the emotional toll of unemployment. In a society when the first thing people ask is “What do you do?,” it is absolutely gut-wrenching to have to work around the issue of underemployment or unemployment. If the latest job stats are any indication, there are a lot of wrenched guts out there.
According to the latest press release from the US Labor Department, unemployment is still hovering around 10% in the US. According to NPR, this number doesn’t include another 17.3% of Americans who are underemployed, working part time instead of full time or working below their education and experience level to stay afloat financially.
Although Up in the Air does touch upon the financial troubles faced by fired employees, its true accomplishment is the poignant portrayal of the identity crisis people go through when they lose their jobs. What do you do when you have no answer to “what do you do”? Who are you in our society when you are not a contractor or administrative assistant or farmer or any other do-er?
At one point in the movie, Bingham says, “When we stop moving, we die.” Taken another way, this could be read as when we stop doing, we die. An unemployed person is drastically de-verbed. They are no longer a do-er. It’s not hard to see how many people can feel a piece of themselves has died when they lose their job. You weren’t let go. You were terminated.
Though I am lucky enough to not be unemployed, I can speak to the awful feelings of underemployment – something felt by zillions of recent grads.
I busted my ass in college. So did a lot of people. I didn’t graduate high school, so I may have endowed graduation with a little more epic significance than is strictly the norm, but on campus people act as though that little piece of paper will be your ticket to the good life. Invest, they tell you. You have to invest your time and effort and (especially) money into your future.
After graduation, I filled out over 200 applications for any and every job I could find. Despite my fairly substantial work experience, near-perfect GPA, and glowing references, I only got called in for one interview. With a temp agency. They didn’t hire me. I got a decent contract position through a friend of a friend of a friend, doing approximately the same thing that I did 5 years ago as a freshman in college. It took me over a year to pick up my diploma.
To quote Tyler Durden in Fight Club:
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
The difference between my generation and the Fight Club generation is that we aren’t living in a world of corporate plenty and we aren’t “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” Many of us are working precarious and dead end jobs and still can’t buy shit we actually do need. Many of us are working no job and find that not only can’t we afford shit, we can’t participate in the world of American personhood.
“What do you do?”
“I do nothing.” The subtext being, “I am no one.”
It doesn’t matter how many times we’re told “a lot of people are going through this too” or “it’s not you, it’s just the recession” or “something will come up – jobs are a lagging indicator”. It feels like it’s you. Just you. You are a failure and you are alone and the life you were promised would be there if you just worked hard enough is gone forever. And you are very, very pissed off.
The corporate downsizers in Up in the Air are full of cloying doublespeak to soothe the newly terminated. “We’re here to talk about your future” and “it’s important to look at this as an opportunity” and even “if not for you, do it for your family.” Clips of the terminated employees are spliced in, depicting fear, grief, anger, and confusion. According to Imdb, these are real people expressing how they felt after they were fired from their real jobs. The juxtaposition of actors playing terminators spouting insincere corporate blather and the honest feelings of the terminated straight from the source is a truly masterful touch.
It is these same people who provide a light at the end of the tunnel – and the movie. Though still struggling to get by, their tone is more hopeful as they talk about how their families and friends rallied around them after they were fired. While the “do it for your family” line has a hollow ring rolling off of Bingham’s silver tongue, family becomes the cornerstone of these real people’s salvation. You take each day one at a time, using your loved ones to stay on course. We are not just our jobs. We are not alone.
So… I guess this is a really long way of saying thanks, 7abibi, for taking me to see Up in the Air.