Hey Dilbert: Don’t make fun of the unemployed.

Disclaimer: I take comic strips very seriously. Just ask my wife.

Dilbert (character)

Dilbert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fan of the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams. Last year, it provided some much needed humor during an awful work situation. But yesterday and the day before, Adams decided to turn his mockery toward the long-term unemployed. He has introduced an unnamed character who has been “out of work for such a long time.” First, he’s depicted as falling out of a chair, because he can’t figure out how it works. In the second strip, he’s told that the corporate policy manual is kept “in the cloud,” so he looks up to the sky to find it. Basically, the guy is stupid, incompetent, and ignorant of anything resembling recent technology (if “the cloud” can still be considered “recent.”)

Hilarious. Adams manages to reinforce all of the worst stereotypes about long-term unemployment through a couple of not-very-funny jokes.

Recently, I was underemployed for about six months, working part time for a former employer and doing several freelance projects to make ends meet. During this period, I met many people who had been unemployed or underemployed for far longer. Several of them had been actively searching for work for years. I met most of them at a local organization called the Job Search Focus Group, which I highly recommend for anyone in Greater Cincinnati looking for a new job.

The long-term unemployed fell into a few different groups:

  1. The largest, by far, were people in their 50s and 60s who were far OVERqualified for the positions they were applying for. They kept losing out to folks in their 20s and 30s who, because they had much less experience, were much less expensive to hire.
  2. For others, their entire industry had imploded because of structural changes in the economy. They were struggling, not to learn new skills, but to communicate how their already-polished skills transferred to other fields.
  3. Finally, there were those who had been out of the workforce because of non-job-related issues, such as taking care of their family or dealing with an illness. In a few cases, illness had left the person unable to continue in their former line of work, so they were in the midst of reinventing their entire career. It takes most of us 20 or so years to prepare for our first career, so you might see how starting a second career might take some time.

According to Adams, such people can’t even be trusted to sit in a chair.

Most of Adams’ humor is directed toward people in power, such as managers and CEOs, toward annoying office habits that all of us encounter (and have been guilt of), or towards absurd figures like talking animals who want to take over the world. Here, Adams has chosen to laugh at someone facing an extremely difficult personal transition, one which our society regards as shameful, and emphasize that his shame is deserved because he is too stupid to hold down a job.

Adams began Dilbert while working at Pacific Bell in the 80s and early 90s, and he’s had a long relationship with United Media. Telecom and journalism have both been through major upheavals since the 1980s. How many people has Adams worked with who have faced long-term unemployment?

You might reply that Dilbert is a comic strip and that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I’m not so sure about that latter part. One of the strengths of humor is its ability to “speak truth to power.” Dilbert’s caricatures of clueless manager and selfish CEOs have resonated with millions because those are the people with the power. Posting a Dilbert comic on your office cubicle is a small, harmless way to coping with the absurdities of American office life. Humor exposes truths that are too difficult to talk about with a straight face.

In this case, instead of “speaking truth to power,” Adams has chosen to “speak mockery to the powerless.” And that’s not funny.

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