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Unemployed, and Not Getting a Job Anytime Soon? Why Not Build a Better World?

You may be poorer than you've ever been, but you have more free time to express anger and urgency.

In most parts of the world, mass unemployment brings the specter of mass social unrest. Not in the U.S., though, where 13 million people have accepted joblessness with nary a peep of protest.

Many reasons -- from Prozac to Pentecostalism -- have been cited to explain American passivity in the face of economic violence. But the truth might be far simpler: In America, being unemployed doesn't mean you have nothing to do but run around burning police cars. Unemployment has been reconfigured as a new form of work.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the white-collar world, where the laid-off are constantly advised to see job searching as a full-time job. As business self-help guru Harvey Mackay advises: "Once you're fired, you already have a job. The job you have is tougher than the last one. It's more demanding." How demanding? He says you need to "plan on 12 to 16 hours a day."

Picture it: People across America rising at the usual time, suiting up in full corporate regalia and setting themselves down at their laptops to fiddle with resumes, peruse and pester everyone on their address lists for leads.

Some people no doubt have found jobs in this manner, but there have been no scientific comparisons of the technique with, say, printing a resume on a sandwich board and parading around Times Square.

If there is something familiar in the image of laid-off workers soldiering on, it may be because of films such as "Tokyo Sonata" and the 2001 French film, "Time Out," in which the heroes -- laid-off executives -- conceal their status from their families and continue to mime the daily ritual of going to work. In the movies, this behavior seems pathetic -- a case of terminal denial -- but it's exactly what the American "transition industry" of career coaches and outplacement companies recommends: If you don't have a job, fake one.

In real life, it's OK for a man to tell his wife he's lost his job; he should just never reveal that he has time on his hands. A February article in The New York Times featured a laid-off Illinois man who justified his refusal to do more around the house by saying, "As one of the people who runs one of the career centers I've been to told me: 'You're out of a job, but it's not your time to paint the house and fix the car. Your job is about finding the next job.' "

At the kinky extreme, laid-off white-collar people are advised to simulate the office environment further by finding someone to play the part of a "boss" -- a spouse, a friend, a paid career coach -- to whom you report every few days on your progress.

Is it any wonder there's no time left for lobbying for universal health insurance or reading Marxist tracts on the "reserve army of the unemployed"? It's all a person can do to keep up with the relentless pressures of an imaginary job.

The blue-collar unemployed are subjected to gerbil-like exercises of their own. While white-collar layoff victims are encouraged to polish the "brand called you," blue-collar people are told they have nothing to offer unless they start all over with "retraining." Hence, in part, the current surge in community college enrollments.

But in his 2006 book "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences," Louis Uchitelle raised the obvious question: "Retraining for what?" At the beginning of the decade, computer skills were all the rage; then the low-level computer work vanished to India. Air-conditioner repairing is popular right now, and big-rig truck driving is a perennial favorite. There are no guarantees, of course, of eventual jobs. In a recent report for the organization Food AND Medicine on laid-off manufacturing workers in Maine, Steve Husson, who himself was laid off as a DHL driver, found paper-mill workers stuck with intermittent seasonal work and low-paid service-sector jobs despite stints of retraining.

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