Death of a Skill Set

Media274Over the weekend, I attended an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman. It was all the more impressive for the fact that the actor who was to play the lead character, Willy Loman, took ill two weeks ago, and the new actor had only that much time to get up to speed. After a lukewarm start, he did a terrific job.

I’ve always had a problem with Death of a Salesman: I’ve never had much patience with the Willy Lomans of the world. Willy is all style and no substance, a man who places great importance on the number of people who know his name and recognize him. He is hugely proud of how easily he circumvents the executive assistant/gatekeepers and gets in to speak with the buyers who might be interested in his product (nylon stockings). These are the values he instills in his sons, and they grow up in a family fantasyland filled with an overblown sense of their own importance and destinies. When those destinies don’t pan out as expected and Willy’s own career founders (partially because of Willy’s inability to adapt to modern ways), the family melts down with tragic results. In the past, I’ve always sort of shrugged and thought, “Why do these people think they’re something special? They’re all style and no substance.”

But that wasn’t my reaction this time. Maybe age has made me more sympathetic, maybe the performance was so strong it evoked the emotions Miller was seeking. But I keenly felt how eviscerating it must be to realize that the world no longer has a use for someone with your skill set. It ultimately breaks Willy Loman. It would probably break most people. And with so many people unemployed or underemployed today, this play – written in the 1940s – is still hugely relevant. I have listened to a number of interviews on NPR with people who have been out of work for an extended period of time, and the erosion of their sense of self-worth is painfully apparent.

The question is whether the Great Recession is a pothole in the road (a deep pothole, but a pothole), or whether something fundamental has changed. The only time in history that blue collar work has ever provided a middle-class lifestyle has been during the decades following World War II – and the global economy at the end of WWII was extremely unbalanced, with the U.S. directly or indirectly controlling something close to 40% of the world’s GDP. It is possible that the erosion of lifestyle quality for blue collar workers in recent decades is simply a reversion to the historical norm.

My audiences at the SPE luncheons and dinners in the coming months are unlikely to have to deal with these kinds of problems. Engineers and scientists are filled with good substance (although some may lack in style…). But the world of energy is changing fast – faster, I believe, than many people realize (which will be a topic for future blogs). One of the most critical decisions facing individuals and corporations is how to change or face irrelevancy. Those people who adapt and learn will thrive; those who cling to the past may very well struggle.

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