Friday, September 5, 2008


The average American woman with at least a bachelor’s degree will have had 11.2 jobs by the time she is 40 years old. My new job as the Readers’ Services Supervisor is my 17th, but I had 11 of those before I graduated from college. (Hey – stop trying to guess my age!). I’ve been reminiscing about all the people I have met at work over the years. Some of them have turned out to be friends for life, but friend or foe, one truth remains; your feelings about your job have less to do with what you do and more to do with whom you do it.

Such is the message of the best fiction book I’ve read all year, Then We Came to the End by newcomer Joshua Ferris. The book is set at a Chicago ad agency in the 1990s when the .com bubble burst. The narrator tells us that he and his fellow employees were “fractious and overpaid”, with portfolios bursting with NASDAQ offerings from the seemingly limitless supply of money made from new internet companies. Then it ended, and the layoffs began. One by one his fellow employees would “walk Spanish down the hall” – an allusion to a Tom Waits song about a man on the way to his execution. They would exit the boss’ office, collect their things and leave the building for the last time. Their fellow employees all had the same reaction, “Thank God it wasn’t me.”

This is a very funny book about a painful (and timely!) subject. Much of the humor arises from the fact that no one ever seems to be doing any work at this agency. The main activity seems to be gathering in each other’s offices and obsessing about who will get fired next. In the meantime, Ferris demonstrates just how dependent we are on our officemates to get us through the work day. And why not? We spend more time with them then we do with our families for five days a week.

This is a clever book whose message sneaks up on you at the end, and which has surprising resonance. I don’t know how many discussions it has spawned in my circles: what was the best job you ever had? the worst job? the best boss? the worst? Were you ever surprised how much you missed people after you changed jobs? And whatever happened to so-and-so? Perhaps Ferris is right – in the end, it is the people and not the job.

You can find more information about Joshua Ferris at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Ferris including links to radio interviews.

By the way, the statistic in the opening sentence was found in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at http://www.bls.gov. Crackerjack reference librarians Gwen L. and Steven G. located it for me. Nice to work with generous people, isn’t it?


Anonymous said...

Oh, I've gotta read this book, if only to say thank heavens that was/is not my job. I don't THINK anyone would give me unconscionable sums of money for showing up in a suit, but hey, I sleep well at night and love my work.

cathy said...

Love the segue even though it may have been unintentional -- Joshua Ferris is an Illinois author -- born in Danville.

Anonymous said...

I've only worked for two companies in my 30+ years of employment so I guess I can be grateful I'm not one of those average women out there. My former job was one of those fractious and overpaid things and I watched many people "walk Spanish down the hall" while the rest of us tried to look busy. I loved the book. It really hit home with me. It's definitely the people, more than the job, that matter.

Anonymous said...

I really loved this book, too. Incredibly funny. And apparently on-target about life in corporate America. I recommended it to a friend who was on the verge of applying for corporate jobs after years at a non-profit. After reading it, she decided to stay in the non-profit world, saying that the book reminded her of many of the aspects she disliked about the corporate world.

Who says literature can't change lives?!

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