Every new crisis leads to its own movements, whether it drives people to leave careers they thought would last their whole lives, forces them to abandon one city or country for another, or lines them up against the figures responsible for their pain. An economic downturn plays through a script of collapse in its own peculiar fashion. Nobody knows at the start of a crisis just how bad it will get, but everybody knows the poor will suffer and the rich will find shelter, somehow. I remember, when I saw The New York Times ask the graduating class of 2009 if the 2008 recession had ruined our lives up to that point, wondering how many readers, like me, had gone through a series of flashbacks, after which they answered, simply and finally: “Of course it did! Thank you for asking!”
Back then—of course—there were no jobs, but what really made everyone miserable was the surfeit of fake jobs, gigs that extracted your labor for the promise of “experience,” or less. I remember, in 2010, getting paid $10 an hour to write a newsletter, full-time, until my boss revealed there wasn’t enough money to keep paying me. Could I work 12 hours a week, he asked? I did, making less than $100 a week once you factored in taxes, after which I got hired at a travel company to run their social media “on contract,” which meant working full-time with no sick days, vacation time, or benefits. I worked there until the company shut down my branch a year later. After that, I got interviewed at a publishing company for a job as an editorial assistant, a very prestigious position that involved, I was told, working 12 hours a day—all to be near a prestigious Boomer editor—for a salary of $26,000 a year. (I did not get the job, as it happens.) Over time, what I learned is that jobs don’t grant you security, that our economy itself is built on a series of lies. Your work ethic barely factors in—if anything, it can make you more vulnerable. What matters is whether a rich person thinks you can help. If you’re lucky, you’ll save enough money to survive when they inevitably change their mind.
It’s pretty common for people my age to nurse this sort of cynicism. Raw numerical evidence bears this out. Last year, a Deloitte study found that Americans under 40 hold dim views of corporate motivation, with around two-thirds agreeing that profit is the only real motivator in business. It was also revealed, in this study, that half of younger Americans plan to quit their jobs in the next two years, with low compensation cited as the primary driver. A similar percentage expected to grow poorer than they were at the time in the future. And several years before this, in 2014, a Pew Research study found that Millennials had by far the lowest levels of social trust among the generations, with a measly 19 percent believing “most people can be trusted.” Altogether, these numbers depict a bleak portrait of our age, when a vast majority of young adults feel that success is out of reach.
Naturally, these views coincide with a broader shift to the left. By now there are too many studies to count that reveal that younger Americans are much more progressive than their elders. And while there are lots of ways to interpret or contextualize this fact, I’ve found it helpful to think of this shift in terms of modern regime theory. First developed in the early ‘90s by the scholar Stephen Skowronek, regime theory parcels American history into a number of multi-decade eras, defined by their overarching structures of thought, reaction, and belief. In short, a regime is not a particular administration but instead a set of ideas that govern the country’s elites. What Skowronek called the New Deal regime, for example, governed American life from the ‘30s through the ‘70s, imbuing legitimacy and authority to Keynesian economics. Ever since the Reagan era, we’ve been living through a right-wing regime, in which a supermajority of those with power in this country have believed and acted upon a notably different set of ideas. These ideas and assumptions have driven our leaders, including Democratic ones, to cut public spending, privatize basic goods, and metastasize the carceral state, among other things. Many leftwing inclinations of younger people can be seen as a reaction to this drift. How can anyone, the thinking goes, support things continuing as they have?
Part of what makes this theory attractive is that it has an element of hope. It suggests, after all, that a better regime is poised to overthrow the one we’re living through, and that this period of collapse will lead to a period of renewal. It also provides a diagnosis of the mindset that’s caused our current rot. For more on that mindset, I’ve found immense value in The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, whose articles from the early days of the Trump presidency helped frame our current movement in Skowronekian terms. The book places Trump and his movement in a centuries-old right-wing framework, one that ties stupidity and hatred into a broader ideology. The conservative, in Robin’s formulation, is a feudalist for a democratic age, a person who wants to hold a vaunted place in a rigid and brutal social hierarchy. The cruelty of someone like Trump fits neatly with this hypothesis—by relentlessly demonizing vulnerable groups, Trump reenforces the hierarchy. Here’s how Robin describes the ur-conservative:
The conservative does not defend the Old regime: he speaks on behalf of old regimes – in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of conservatism becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, and descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future. (191)
To put this another way, the conservative wants the freedom to dominate the people in this own life, even if it means being dominated by those higher up on the social hierarchy. Inevitably, this stands in direct opposition to democracy, as the conservative sees equality itself as a threat to his ideal arrangement. He wants, at base, a land of private fiefdoms, where those with power maintain their positions through violence, coercion, and penury. Inequality isn’t a side effect—it’s one of the chief aims of his movement.
Characterizing the right in this way helps illuminate a number of things. In part, it explains why the GOP is hellbent on repealing taxes, no matter how disastrous its short- or long-term effects. It explains why a small group of tech companies have monopolized everyday life. It explains why, for decades, parental wealth and pedigree have grown more important in finding success, why the costs of higher education have risen into the stratosphere. It explains why so many people blame poverty on character and not circumstance. It explains why Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman once declared, infamously, that raising taxes on private equity firms is akin to the Nazis invading Poland. It explains why millions of people feel that our healthcare system is working precisely as intended when it forces immiserating debt on people for the crime of being sick. It explains why “greed is good” was a signifying phrase of the ‘80s. It explains why many rich people interpret the slightest criticism as a form of “punishing success.” It explains why the right is so focused on punishing society’s most vulnerable. And—as younger Americans overwhelmingly align themselves in opposition to these forces—it explains why the left has grown fiercer in its attacks on concentrated power.
Inevitably, these changes have shown up in the fiction of the past 10 years. By now enough books have come out to form a post-Recession canon. Arguably the most prescient of these is Severance, the 2018 novel by Ling Ma, which has gotten more attention in recent months not only for its eerily accurate portrait of a modern pandemic but also for its portrayal of a numbing, dead-end career. Daniel Torday’s 2015 novel Boomer1 takes Millennial resentment to a violent extreme, depicting a nascent movement of terrorists who attack wealthy Boomers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a 2015 novel by Helen Phillips, follows a young woman employed at a shadowy bureaucracy, giving us a comical play-by-play as she keeps getting evicted from apartments. And Halle Butler’s The New Me, a harrowing novel that cuts extraordinarily close to the bone for somebody with my employment history, is a tale of a destitute, 30-something temp worker, a woman whose opportunities have dried up. All of these novels—in addition to being meticulously crafted and observed—are clear-eyed glimpses of our new, unbearable economy.
Last year, another book took its place within that canon, partly by dealing explicitly with the hardening of social hierarchy. Paradoxically, it’s a fabulist work, entirely whimsical and weird. Yet it provides commentary on the present day that has the weight of the very best parables. For readers who see the outlines of an emerging feudal society in the cruelties of recent years, Temporary by Hilary Leichter is a necessary read.
In brief, the plot of Temporary is this: a young woman works through a series of fantastical, short-lived jobs, none of which give her a clear path to long-term stability. In her world, pirates and witches are employers with their own staffs and jargon, and people known as temporaries are given the status of permanent temp workers at birth. Our protagonist, who goes unnamed, is attempting to gain her “steadiness,” a euphemistic term for having a stable career. The fundamental question hanging over the plot is: will she attain it in her lifetime? This is a poignant question for her, because her mother, a temp worker herself, died without gaining her steadiness, and she raised her daughter to know exactly what it means to be a temporary.
“We work,” she tells her daughter, repeatedly, “but then we leave.” From this, a number of rules follow. It’s a bad idea to make friends at work, because you may have to say goodbye to them—forever—at any time, for any reason. It’s also a bad idea to ask your manager for a raise, or for anything, really, because doing so will likely get you fired. After all, the role of the temp is to do the work without complaint and leave—why should any of them hope to earn money or respect? It’s also the case that you can ask, sometimes, what you need to do to gain your steadiness, aware that nobody will give you the real answer, thanks to a kind of noblesse oblige. You’ll get your steadiness when a wealthy person decides you should have it, and that’s that. Everything you’re striving for depends on their caprice.
Not coincidentally, caprice is also why temporaries most often get fired. No matter your innocence, your boss can blame you for any little thing that goes wrong, or you could simply be the victim of one of their transient bad moods. Even if they like you, bosses can go bankrupt or get arrested, or they could come to the conclusion one day that they don’t like working anymore. The only person with no choice in the matter is you, the unfortunate temporary, who needs your boss to speak well of you so your agency can find you new jobs. This locks the temp into endless cycles of sucking up to their superiors, trapping them in a hierarchy in which their bosses are glorified nobles, the temporaries are serfs in nicer clothes, and the best the temporaries can hope for an act of mercy, as in a fairy tale.
Not all the jobs the narrator holds are patently absurd, but most are, and it’s a testament to this novel how eerily her struggles echo real-world conditions. On a pirate ship, the narrator ends up being forced to walk the plank, not because she did anything wrong but because, instead, the woman she’s replacing decided to return a month early. A rich man dies and wills the narrator to carry his ashes in a necklace, all so he can continue to be a “man about town.” In her role as apprentice to a murderer, the narrator takes pride in evil work, an Arendtian dynamic familiar to anyone who’s worked for bad people. Her jobs are impossible creations, in other words, but her struggles are real, and mundane.
While she gets exploited, of course, she also gets treacly advice. Her contact at the temp agency tells her, falsely, that she’s in “high demand,” and that her care in filling out time sheets means she’s “bound” for the steadiness. The phrase “just doing my job” appears, as it does in real life, so often it becomes hypnotic, and means (depending on context) some combination of “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” and “I’m being forced to do this unconscionable thing.” When her murderous boss “goes public,” he says, the narrator will surely get rich, and he might be able to give her a raise when crime spikes in “the busy season.” The act of handing out pamphlets is called “disseminating information.” And when the narrator, meeting an old friend, learns that her friend has not only gained her steadiness but has done so well for herself that she can afford to hire a woman to clean her house, the old friend says, defending herself: “We need to treat ourselves kindly!”
There’s another hypnotic phrase that appears throughout the book. In the prologue, we get a short abstract for the story that follows, alongside a hodgepodge of objects, conditions, jobs. And this: “What happened exactly, specifically, in detail, While You Were Out.” The narrator hears this phrase as a child, tucked into her mother’s bedtime stories, often as part of a laundry list of items in an unnamed office. (Later on, the narrator informs us that she makes sure to write things down so that she can tell her mother, now dead, what happened while she was out.) A passage near the end of the book gives a prophecy of the last temp in history, who is also (conveniently) the last person on Earth. Why does this Last Temp record what’s happening? “It’s the least I can do while you are out.” No matter what happens in the world around her, the temp is a kind of placeholder, dutifully recording the calls and emails and notifications intended for their superiors, who (of course) remain superior to the temp eternally, long after their deaths. “While you are out” is a qualifier, a phrase that reduces the temp’s work to something irreducibly less-than. a substitute for a person with real and lasting power. Even as the world ends, the temp answers calls that she knows are never meant for her.
To be a temp, in other words, is to be an interim human being. It means having almost no rights and begging for scraps to survive. It means hearing, from comfortable superiors, that the world is reasonable and fair, that all you have to do to earn your grace is work hard, always work hard. It means understanding that you can’t have a full identity, not even when it comes to basic things. (As is customary, temps don’t have their own birthdays—instead, they adopt them from people they’re required to fill in for.) Temps don’t have stable housing, they can barely hold on to their possessions, and they can’t depend on anyone in their lives, for anything, as they all discover. Their one hope lies in being rescued.
In true medieval fashion, the hierarchy that rules this world stretches all the way to gods. The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break. This woman, this Eve of the Temporaries, is told what her role entails, that she was created not to ask for more but to be grateful, hard-working. Obedient.
She lived in the space between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.
For a couple of months in 2009, I was a temp myself, though my agency managed to place me in two full-time positions, total. (Each one lasted a week.) Eventually, I got an unpaid, part-time internship at a fledgling literary agency, which ended abruptly four months in when the agency shut down its office. I moved on to the newsletter job, and then from there to the travel company, where I hoped to settle in for a while, build up “experience.” A year later, I was back to applying to 10 jobs a day. A month or so into this, I got an interview at a “content producer,” a murky place with a legal theme.
Inside their office, 50 or so people typed furiously at bare, spotless desks. There were no personal items in sight, no pictures of family, no coffee mugs. Everybody seemed to be wearing nice clothes and they all looked supremely unhappy. My interviewer, in contrast, worked comfortably in a sunlit office.
Without looking over at me, she went through a checklist of anodyne questions, asking me about my past jobs and what I hoped to achieve. At some point, she got to what mattered. This role, she told me, required writing 10 pieces a day, all of which had to be fact-checked and had to run at least 1,500 words. These were summaries of on-the-books laws, and writers had to be their own fact-checkers. They paid $11 an hour. Did I think I had what it takes?
With embarrassing slowness, I did the math. That’s 15,000 words a day.
“No,” I answered. I hadn’t planned this. I’d never sabotaged an interview. But sitting in that office, I saw immediately that I couldn’t do what she wanted. I’m not that fast a writer. I knew I’d be fired within a week if I accepted the job.
Puzzled, my interviewer stared at me. I don’t think she’d ever heard that answer. Nevertheless, she knew what to say. “Everyone else here is doing it.”