The Excluded Middle

Posted on 27 August, 2012


If you’ve looked for employment in the last week, year, or pretty much ever, you know what companies are looking for: Someone who is “excellent” at pretty much anything the company might ask you to do.  Someone who is willing and able, with no stress or hesitation, to conform to whatever demands are made by your workplace.  Someone who loves people, even angry and abusive people.  A person whose number one passion in life is to fulfill the goals the company sets for itself and its employees, to the exclusion of all other unapproved interests, hobbies, or vocations.  A bottomless well of joy, cheer, energy, patience, and motivation to topple any task the employer sets before them.

Stolen From

Hello, Statistics! For most measured traits, most people fall within one standard deviation of the mean, and half of those fall BELOW the mean! How much do you want to bet you’re not at that far right tail end of the distribution that employers are requiring you to be?

Firstly, and unfortunately, if you’re even passingly familiar with any kind of social science, you will know that all human traits are “normally” distributed across the whole population, meaning they roughly conform to the distribution of the bell curve, with half falling below the mean, the other half falling above the mean, and the substantial majority falling somewhere in the middle (between one standard deviation above and below the mean) in terms of scoring on whatever trait is being measured.  The upshot of this is that as job seekers, we know that, all other things being equal, there is a fair chance that we possess the traits employers claim they are looking for in great enough amounts to outperform at least half of all other potential applicants.

Another consequence of this statistical reality is that, all things being equal, you are likely to score in the midst of the rest of the average schlubs, with as much chance of being below as above average.  What this means is, since you are not an exceptional, perfectly balanced, infinite source of creativity and enthusiasm, you are not right for pretty much any job that is hiring.

Of course, you are a sophisticated adult job-seeker, and not naive enough to actually believe that any but the most successful businesses offering the greatest benefit to its employees would seriously only consider employing these exceptional mutants, regardless of what the ad copy says.  However, in the current economy, a veritable buyers market for employers, the most tin-pot, barely-stable businesses have drunk the Kool-Aid, and job-seekers are forced to comply with increasingly incredible or impossible expectations, or face the unemployment line.  More than 15 million (more, if you count those underemployed seeking full-time employment or a second job) are standing behind you, desperate, hat-in-hand, willing to do whatever the master asks in order to stave off poverty.

This also extends into unrealistic or exceptional pre-employment demands made upon job-seekers.  This isn’t limited to the well-documented practice of discriminating against the unemployed, but includes making hiring decisions based on employment gaps or the length of unemployment (during one of the worst recessions in history), and forced personality tests.  The personality tests, and the loathsome HR outsourcing firms who mainly perpetrate them, are probably worthy of their own treatment.

All of these requirements combine to create a situation in which those of average ability, temperament, and personability are excluded from the job market.  Technically, they must be fulfilling roles somewhere, or the unemployment rate would be unsustainably high, but the reality is that of the 8 or-so percent of the population currently seeking employment, those who meet most employment qualifications can only represent a vanishingly thin slice of the employable population.

The rest represent an excluded class of people of average talent; capable, semi-skilled, or poorly skilled, but trainable in the kinds of unskilled jobs that anyone is capable of but whose job requirements inexplicably require or recommend experience.  Many move from job to job, or place to place, degraded and helpless in a job market that cynically caters to the thin margin of exceptional people on the outside of society and treats the rest as disposable, trapping them in the cycle of disposability by cluttering their resumes with too many turnovers and long employment gaps.

There are no easy answers to the employment problem, but the answer isn’t employers exploiting desperation in a weak job market, and then using the results of that desperation as a further excuse to grind people down until they internalize the feeling of worthlessness and are willing to tolerate any insult or injustice for jobs that barely pay rent, let alone afford the kinds of skill or resume building opportunities necessary to reestablish themselves into less degrading positions.  But the situation will remain unchanged, as long as companies continue to find profit in the creation and exploitation of the middle majority of marginally employable workers they have endeavored to create.