The Unbelievably Weird Reaction to Europe's Stagnant Jobs Market -- Virtual Workplace Therapy

As the economy in Europe festers the New York Times reports that the ranks of the Eurozone’s unemployed are finding solace in a curious parallel economy populated by thousands of counterfeit businesses known as “practice firms.” This alternate universe doesn’t actually produce tangible goods or services, rather it offers people with unpaid positions that foster a sense of routine, structure, and personal connection. And while participating in this bogus job market may offer some relief on a superficial level the tendrils of social control are visible to those who know where to look.   


Originally designed to offer job training in the aftermath of World War II, this massive commercial simulation is now being leveraged to address the problem of long term unemployment, which accounts for more than half of those who are currently out of a job in the EU. The basic idea is to keep sidelined people from feeling isolated and depressed by giving them a place where they can at least go through the motions of a normal job.  

Such is the comfort of familiar patterns. If you can’t scrape together a living through low-paid temporary contract work in the real world you can always keep up appearances and work for an employer that pretends to pay you while your stomach growls. At one point in the article the Times describes a scenario that borders on Orwellian doublethink as a woman asks her colleagues “What’s our strategy to improve profitability?”  

Though advocates contend that this vast make-believe workplace garners professionalism and confidence it’s important to recognize that this strategy only treats symptoms. Most people don’t start asking hard questions until catastrophe strikes and the world stops making sense. By keeping the unemployed occupied with what’s essentially vocational hoop-jumping they’re distracted from pondering deeper topics and questioning more fundamental assumptions about the society they live in.   

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed, accurately calls out fake job therapy as an exercise in denial

“The first step, as in any 12-step program, is to overcome denial. Job searching is not a job; retraining is not a panacea. You may be poorer than you've ever been, but you are also freer -- to express anger and urgency, to dream and create, to get together with others and conspire to build a better world.”

Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey preach a myopic gospel of self-improvement, a narrative which advocates personal change while almost entirely ignoring larger institutional issues. Plutocrats sanctimoniously bray that "my wealth is my virtue" in the wake of the 2008 collapse and other unprecedented massive transfers of wealth. They have the nerve to stigmatize the victims of the ensuing economic implosion for their own unemployment and then demand austerity as a remedy. Never mind the billionaires moving the goal posts in the background or the aging Greek man named Dimitris Christoulas who chose suicide over penury. 

Faced with the threat of a political uprising the ruling class would prefer that the unemployed dutifully remain on the job treadmill, keep their nose to the grindstone, and stay with the program. Because in doing so workers offer tacit acquiescence to existing political, economic, and social arrangements. To do otherwise might give the unwashed masses a chance to organize and consider alternatives. For the moneyed gentry of the 0.1% that could be truly dangerous.   

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