Working Stiff: I Was a Post-Graduate Cog of Capitalism

"The average male gets his living by such depressing devices that boredom becomes a sort of natural state to him."
-H.L. Mencken, In Defence of Women

I was a gear in the well oiled machinery of capitalism.

Yes, it's true. I am not ashamed. Despite my four years of college chanting pseudo-Marxist catchphrases and subverting dominant paradigms, I forsaw the day when I would have to escape that ideal little bubble world and get a job in the real world.

That's why I moved to London instead.

I figured I could delay the inevitable a good six months and get some crap job in the UK as an excuse to travel and see the world. However, I confronted head-on that which I was trying to escape, as sans cubicle walls or wacky curled tie, I became the British equivalent of Dilbert.

It was enough to make me want to go to graduate school.

Working in the financial world was an accident in the first place. Having quit my job at the Great American Bagel Factory, I was planning on moving to Edinburgh after Y2K meltdown. I was looking for a temporary job for a few weeks during the orgiastic height of Christmas time shopping to save up some dough for my relocation to the land of medieval castles, men in skirts and even less sunshine than London. Instead, I decided to go to a job interview at Euromoney Institutional Investor PLC, even though I had no intention of staying in London for another month.

I got offered the job on the spot and it seemed pretty cake (as in piece of), so I figured it couldn't hurt to try it out. Keep in mind, I had just finished a two month stint at a bagel kiosk off the Thames river, so an indoor job, with my own computer and telephone was like moving from Baltic Avenue to Park Place on the Monopoly board of job luxury. Thus, I went to work as a "researcher" for the Directory of European Fund Management Companies 2000. Never mind I didn't know what a fund management company was.

There's nothing more frustrating than working blindly in a job whose ends and means you don't even fully understand. Surely I wasn't as abominable as Adolph Eichmann making sure the trains run on time, but I assumed my pathetic little task as a capitalist cog was somehow helping to screw the world a little more, even if I didn't know how. Was ignorance bliss? Not really, because I asked my boss repeatedly for more information on what exactly a fund management company was, but all she said was that they were companies that managed funds. Thanks for the tip, Professor Keynes.

It was absurd to call fund management companies when I didn't even know what the hell they were. Especially troublesome was when they'd ask me questions about which types of fund managers we liste. I would get questions like "Are you looking for portfolio based, top-down managed, multi-lateral institutional clients, or equity managed, chromium plated, non-asset driven, hedge fund investors?" To which I would usually reply noncommittally, "Sure." The nerve of these people, expecting me to actually know what the hell I was talking about. I never had this problem in college.

Luckily, the so-called "research" aspect of the job was pretty simple. It was a borderline telemarketing job, with all the perks of annoying and pestering others, only without ever trying to sell anything. I was supposed to get fund management companies to give us information about them so we could put it, free of charge, into our behemoth annual directory, which doubled as a great paperweight. The directory was quite a page turner, let me tell you. Right up there with the Who's Who Among Swedish Sausage Importers and 800 Ways to Cook Squid Testicle.

I was given a list of fund management companies, some of which had been listed in last year's directory, some of which had told us to toss off last year, and others who were completely irrelevant but somehow on the list anyway. (I spent fifteen minutes trying to get information on a company only to later get a fax from them saying they weren't interested because they were a Norwegian cheese company) It was my job to call each company within an allocated country to find a contact person to send a twelve page questionnaire to. This questionnaire would be theoretically returned to us whereupon we would enter their data into our computers and publish their information.

This wasn't quite as easy as it seemed.

Firstly, there was one hell of a language barrier. I should have tape recorded some of the more memorable telephone conversations as they turned absurdity into an artform. Imagine spending all day on the phone trying to get a Slovenian receptionist to spell the name of their managing director when they don't speak a word of English or trying to translate the word "questionnaire" to a Belgium banker who hiccups inbetween every syllable. Some countries, particularly Denmark and Germany, had secretaries and public relations people who spoke better English than me, but for most, it was a struggle. I would call hundreds of times day and ask in a desperate voice, "Hello, do you speak English?" If they spoke English, they would say "Of course," as if I had the audacity to assume anything else. Others would say "no" as if I had the audacity to assume they did. I even had one person say "Of course I don't speak English. This is Austria, so why would I speak English?" Those Austrians have a great sense of humor.

Still others would say yes, even though they didn't. These were my favorite. They'd keep saying yes to everything I asked or said. I could spend five minutes on the phone explaining what I was trying to do and still have no idea if they understood a solitary word.

"Are you a fund management company?"


"Would you be the right person to fax a questionnaire to get information on your company?"


"Are you the father of fifteen illegitimate children in Helsinki with a criminal record not limited to bestiality, destruction of parking meters and rubber cement trafficking?"


Either this guy had no idea what I was saying, or the Finnish have a thing about goats, meter maids, and glue sniffing.

My favorite was when they put me on hold. The different types of elevator music I was subjected to ranged from classical to baroque to pop to carnival music. Sometimes soothing New Age waves crashing against a shore would lower my blood pressure, but the next call, after spending fifteen minutes trying to get someone to understand the word "marketing department," I would be subjected to beeping bells chiming Wagner just three decibels shy of shattering my eardrums.

Secretaries and receptionists seemed to sadistically enjoy playing hot potato with my call. I don't know how many times I would have to say my same spiel at least nine times to the same company before I would finally find some schmuck nice enough to say, "Yes, you can send the fax to me." This was probably their rough translation of saying, "Yes, send it to my attention, even though I will put it straight in the trash bin before the ink even dries."

I wasn't alone in my torture. Misery loves company and Euromoney loved hiring Yank temps. Since we only had a six month visa anyhow and the jobs were project oriented, the researchers would be made redundant (Brit slang for downsized, don't you love it?) at the end of a six month project anyhow. Thus, ridiculous conversations could be overheard, mocked and laughed at by everyone in the office. The time passed much quicker when you could commiserate with fellow Yanks, laughing at Murat Tasciolglu who was never in his office, even though you could hear his secretary whispering to him on the other end of the phone whenever someone called asking for him, or sharing the pathos of having to call a Hungarian fund manager whose secretary would tell you that he was gone, never making it clear whether that mean mortally or just on lunch break. Most of them were just permanently out to lunch, in more ways than one, though. Although if I was a fund manager, I would be too.

The best thing about the job was that we had to bother people that weren't interested in this directory anyhow. It was lots of fun to chase down a questionnaire sent ten weeks ago to a company that obviously wasn't interested in the first place. But it was our job. Imagine the joy of saying, "Sorry to bother you sir, but even though the questionnaire is a month overdue, would you be interested in returning it anyway?" To which they would snootily respond, "We didn't respond because we're not interested," and hang up. I wanted to call back and say, "Neither am I, but this beats a bagel slicing job." But I figured something would be lost in the translation. Do they even have cream cheese and lox in Estonia?

Most of these companies thought we were trying to sell them something. Even after we'd insist that it was a free service, many would be suspicious anyway. This made me wonder exactly what use this directory served. We sold this economy sized fly swatter for almost 600 British pounds to interested parties although I don't know who the hell would want to buy it. I figured it must be used in a grandiose capitalist ploy to take over smaller financial companies of Europe to create one big mega-global corporation. As it was, a lot of our work was difficult because there were so many mergers and acquisitions that I figured in three years the directory would be about three pages big. (Speaking of corporate structure, I love that companies referred to subsidiaries as brother or parent companies. I would have preferred red-headed stepson or abusive alcoholic ex-husband personally.)

But other companies were eager to give us all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, these were usually companies that had replied last year and their information this year was identical. Can you say waste of time? But that's what a job in the corporate world is all about. Inefficiency, paperwork and lots of staring at a glowing computer screen with a phone slumped on your shoulder and an itchy butt. It's no wonder there's an obesity problem in the world. If your only daily exercise consists of walking over the fax machine to kick it when it gets uppity, is it any wonder this is a Weight Watchers world?

The job had its perks. There was no dress code, so I could show up for my nine to five job in jeans and a Superman T-shirt. I was the only bloke on the morning commute to work on the tube not in a suit and tie ; I felt appropriately out of place and glad to be that way. Also great was the opportunity to sneak in free international phone calls. Of course with the time difference, this consisted mostly of waking up friends and family members at three in the morning to say, "Hey, I'm at work and really bored. What's up with you?" Under such circumstances, they were always thrilled to hear from me.

But the most important fringe benefit was the wonderful world of the internet. I used to hate chain letters and stupid forwards, but now that I've worked in an office, I understand why they're great. If you're stuck with the same mind numbing task five days a week, seven hours a day, you're going to try to find solace anyway you can. If that means that suddenly forwards paraphrasing Dave Barry's jokes about why hemorrhoid cream is better than tapioca pudding are the key to sanity, more power to you.

We also downloaded AOL's instant messenger. This is in no way an advertisement for AOL, (not that they need it since they own most of the free world) but it is a great invention. You can be sitting inches away from someone but be unable to procrastinate, gossip or chat aloud since your boss is within an earshot. But if you have instant messenger, you can spend all day shooting the shit without getting caught and you'll actually look like you're doing work. Some days I don't think I did more than five minutes worth of work thanks to this wonderful toy. God bless technology. It makes life easier for everyone.

But most importantly, through this job I realized that if you want to find the true source of power in this world, seek not politics or government. As the old adage goes, money makes the world go round. Ignore the fact that our major financial systems operate on a completely illogical system of chance and unpredictability somewhat akin to the chance of Vegas roulette wheel. Even if the markets ebb and flow on psychosomatic wave of speculation, foresay and sheer chaos, to truly be close to the realms of power in this world, one must find a job in the financial sector.

I was a beached seashell idly listening to the crashing waves of power. Fortunately, I was too busy laughing over pornographic forwards, and making bad fart jokes over instant messenger to either take a dip or fight the tidal waves.

Forget subverting dominant paradigms. I was fighting a more dreadful foe. Boredom.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.