Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archives to propel you into the weekend.
The word “downsizing” seems to have been downsized.
Looking back in the newspaper archives, there is a steep climb from 1990 to 1996 in the use of the word “downsizing” in stories. Then, it levels off—much higher than before, but well below its peak—and it plods along from there. Personally, I haven’t heard it in a few years. (Except for that Alexander Payne movie, which I reviewed long ago.) We have other terms for the horror of losing your job: laid off, fired, let go. Downsizing now might even refer more often to empty nesters scaling down to a smaller house as the nuclear family cools its reactors with kids off to college. (My personal formative experience with downsizing was Office Space.)
Downsizing refers to slashing jobs in a more permanent sense. It means restructuring and cutting the assumed fat; it would lead to some slim, slick world of only real jobs. These marks of efficiency seem to fit a certain era we’ve passed. (Sorry…that I hope we’ve passed.) It certainly makes sense it would congeal with Democrats saying the era of big government is “over.” And as the free trade consensus under President Bill Clinton implemented neoliberal reforms that fundamentally changed the market—and welcomed globalization with too little discussions of labor—perhaps downsizing fit the moment: a bit of fancy speak for the idea that it was a good thing to be losing jobs. It’s funny to think it became about the empty nesters. The irony of a generation throwing away what was necessary even if the kids were still in the house.
In 1996, at the peak, Mother Jones wrote about “The Wages of Downsizing.” A small piece, it begins with a scene of the author bemoaning those calling the middle of the 1990s a boom time for jobs (including a dig at economist Joseph Stiglitz, who would later win a Nobel Prize). And then it turns, unexpectedly, into a small parody piece. It gives you a list of questions to ask if you’re worried about being downsized. And I think we can just end with reprinting them:
Is a corporate layoff lurking in your future? Ask yourself these 10 questions:
1. When you get up the guts to say “promote me or lose me,” does your boss show concern, or a sudden fondness for counting ceiling dots?
2. Does your paycheck remind you of that old Led Zeppelin album The Song Remains the Same?
3. Has your boss asked, “What kind of future do you see for yourself here?”
4. Do you feel your company’s product is an eight-track cassette in a CD world?
5. Are you merging with another company whose CEO is nicknamed “The Guillotine”?
6. Did you get a memo saying your performance review has been “canceled until further notice”?
7. Does your Christmas bonus give you visions of Bob Cratchit?
8. Are you the highest-paid person in a department where business isn’t exactly booming?
9. Have your job responsibilities been trimmed back to the point where you’ve got time to rearrange your desk accessories—daily?
10. Do executives repeatedly cancel meetings you’ve scheduled because of “time constraints”? Do you then see them outside, playing lawn volleyball instead?
If you answered yes to several of these questions, your job may be headed for the chopping block.