You Can Take That to the Bank...Not!

A Kick In the Career: In this week's column, humorist and career expert Tom Stern takes a stab at the banking industry, but promises there's light at the end of the tunnel.

Are we nuts? Why do we continue to put such effort into our careers when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are tanking faster than Ron Paul at a charisma contest? And the very names of these institutions don't exactly inspire confidence in their economic acumen. Smith-Barney, now that sounds like two jowly old Bluebloods in a wood-paneled room swirling brandy snifters and taking caviar intravenously as they discuss the horror and hardship of anyone making less than five million dollars a year. These guys know what to do with your money. Now, Fannie and Freddie sound more like the overweight couple in the sleeveless Monster Truck t-shirts who invest the profits from their Death Valley trailer park into an Ecuadorian alpaca farm.

We all know that none of us are safe. With China owning so much of our debt, my financial institution just changed its name to "Bank of What Was Formerly Known As America." They're definitely going downhill. Last week, the ATM gave me an I.O.U., and I could have sworn that when I was waiting in line for a teller to become available, they were calling out "next sucker, please!"

Meanwhile, more and more companies have to find ways to cut back on employee benefits just to stay afloat. I heard about one firm where they're combining catastrophic health coverage with a dental plan. So if you lose your arm and two thirds of your left nostril after playing Guitar Hero with your McCulloch Chain Saw and a Makita Power Drill as a microphone, your HMO provider will refuse you coverage claiming the accident never would have happened if you'd remembered to floss.

Every indicator seems to be pointing to the fact that no matter how much we try to specialize and make our skills competitive, the market is only going to find more ways to devalue us. And you thought you were being strategic about your career by seeking out niche skills, like the time you took up your evenings and weekends taking that adult education class in 18th Century spoon burnishing, I know that if I had a nickel for every time I took a skill-set building Webinar, I'd have enough money to sign up for another skill-set building Webinar. Or maybe that $29.95 DVD on how to set up your own Starbucks. Of course, this might be the wrong time, since they just closed six hundred franchises. Was it a good job? Sure, but the only marketable skill you needed was being able to write a customer's first name on a heat-treated paper cup with a Sharpie, and the ability to differentiate between 2%, low-fat, lactose-free, soy and organic rice milk.

When even this modest skill can no longer guarantee success in the workforce, where does that leave the rest of us? You know, the ones who constantly strive for something better, who continually listen to Deepak Chopra's latest audio book "The Power of Giving Me Your Money And How It Helps Me Reach A Broader Demographic Increasing My Wealth and Sense Of Self-Empowerment By Exploiting Yours." [The Unabridged Version.] Although, in my own defense, that's a little better than the guy in my office whose idea of a life's lesson is usually delivered by Larry the Cable Guy.

I don't know about you, but in my lifetime I certainly don't remember hearing about a run on a bank. And yet, here we are. We're all George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life, clinging to our core values and trying to finally get a little down time to go on a honeymoon with Donna Reed, only to look through the back window of the cab and see our irate clientele storming our place of business, frantically demanding their life savings even if it means you end up waiting on freeway off-ramps trying to clean people's windshields with old copies of the USA Today Lifestyle section and what's left of the heel of your shoe. And then you find out that your partner Uncle Billy (who looks, in this version, suspiciously like Alan Greenspan after Lasik surgery) lost what little money you did have to get yourself out of the hole, so you can come up with no better solution than to jump off the nearest bridge, wishing the glimmer in your father's eye had sent your mother screaming from the room instead of producing you.

But, luckily, there's an angel named Clarence (we're trying to get Warren Buffet for the role) who fishes you out of the water and gets you to see that your pathetic little life was actually part of an intricate Rube Goldbergian intelligent design of the universe, in which the removal of one domino irrevocably changes the course of history, as well as paving the way for stuffed-crust pizza. In fact, if you hadn't been born, the doctor would have had to attend to Siamese twins delivered in a breach birth, making him late for an appointment, thus causing him to drive recklessly and seriously injure a passing pedestrian named Lee Harvey Oswald, who, as a result of not making it to the book depository on time, was unable to assassinate President Kennedy. This not only would have spared our nation a hellacious tragedy, but also spared us the agony of having to sit through a three-hour film rife with conspiracy theories, written, directed and produced by Oliver Stone. (Speaking of conspiracy theories, do you think just one guy could have done all three things?)

So, I guess that is why we continue to try and better ourselves in this world; that is why we take the seminars and contribute to the Monday meetings: because as ineffectual as we sometimes feel, it is really the collective force of our (admittedly often false) optimism that keeps the engine of commerce going, and reminds us of our irrefutable inter-dependence on one another. We truly do all contribute to each other's mutual fates and destinies and we must cling to that sanguine notion as banks go under and most employers are looking for ways to reengineer us into obsolescence. Who knows, maybe in this cost-cutting world where airlines are flying with less fuel and a new motto ("Sit Down, Shut Up and Pay For Your Sandwich!"), the next indignity we will have to endure will be an automated fire department ("For a ground floor engulfed in flames, please press one. For a kitten up a tree, press two....")

In the end, it doesn't matter. Somehow, it all keeps churning along, very possibly held aloft by the mere fact that we naive fools just keep believing everything is going to turn out for the best eventually. And that's why we should not take a header off that bridge. In fact, we shouldn't even be on any of our bridges, since ninety percent of their trusses have more cracks than Joan Rivers' face between collagen injections. The truth is, no matter how many dips the economy takes, or how impotent we may feel about the euro sending the dollar to the canvas, hope is our only true currency.

I wanted to leave you with those few inspiring words, because I'm confident that deep down you know they are true. Just as true as the house you don't own, the health care you don't have and the sanity that isn't yours unless you've had the foresight to pop a Zoloft with your orange juice this morning. Ultimately, the trick is to put a smile on your face and laugh all the way to the bank, even if there's no money in it.

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