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The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences

The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences

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The Disposable American is an eye-opening account of layoffs in America—their questionable necessity, their overuse, and their devastating impact on individuals at all income levels. Yet despite all this, they are accelerating.

The award-winning New York Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle explains how, in the mid-1970s, the first major layoffs, initiated as a limited response to the inroads of foreign competition, spread and multiplied, in time destroying the notion of job security and the dignity of work. We see how the barriers to layoffs tumbled, and how by the late 1990s the acquiescence was all but complete.

In a compelling narrative, the author traces the rise of job security in the United States to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and then the panicky U-turn. He describes the unraveling through the experiences of both executives and workers: three CEOs who ran the Stanley Works, the tool manufacturer, from 1968 through 2003, who gradually became more willing to engage in layoffs; highly skilled aircraft mechanics in Indianapolis discarded as United Airlines shut down a state-of-the-art maintenance facility, damaging the city as well as the workers; a human resources director at Citigroup, declared nonessential despite excellent performance; a banker in Connecticut lucky to find a lower-paying job in a state tourist office.

Uchitelle makes clear the ways in which layoffs are counterproductive, rarely promoting efficiency or profitability in the long term. He explains how our acquiescence encourages wasteful mergers, outsourcing, the shifting of production abroad, the loss of union protection, and wage stagnation. He argues against our ongoing public policy—inaugurated by Ronald Reagan and embraced by every president since—of subsidizing retraining for jobs that, in fact, do not exist. He breaks new ground in documenting the failure of these policies and in describing the significant psychological damage that the trauma of a layoff invariably inflicts, even on those soon reemployed. It is damage that, multiplied over millions of layoffs, is silently undermining the nation’s mental health.

While recognizing that in today’s global economy some layoffs must occur, the author passionately argues that government must step in with policies that encourage companies to restrict layoffs and must generate jobs to supplement the present shortfall.There are specific recommendations for achieving these goals and persuasive arguments that workers, business, and the nation will benefit as a result.

An urgent, essential book that tells for the first time the story of our long and gradual surrender to layoffs—from a writer who has covered the unwinding for nearly twenty years and who now bears witness.