Early in the first episode of the new CBS reality show "The Job," after you've been told that 12 million Americans are looking for work, an off-screen voice says: "Tonight, everything changes."
Spoiler alert: Everything does not change.
The show puts together five people who are looking for jobs, though three of them in the first episode already had jobs and were just looking for better ones. The point is, these folks get a chance to earn a "dream job" (assistant manager at a fancy New York restaurant) by competing against one another and engaging in things that have as much in common with most job interviews as I have with a halibut.
This program troubles me on a number of levels, foremost among them the very idea that this country's woeful unemployment situation has become a suitable subject around which to build a game. Rather than painting an honest picture of the struggles Americans face finding work, it trivializes the situation, creating an environment where qualified people's fates can be changed only if they can perform well under the klieg lights of a television soundstage.
Through this column, I have met, spoken with and given presentations to hundreds of people who are unemployed. There is nothing trivial about their situations, and nothing that is easily fixed, even if a job comes along.
Consider a few facts from a recently released Economic Policy Institute book, "The State of Working America."
Americans who lost a full-time job from 2007 to 2009 and were hired into a full- or part-time position in 2010 found their weekly earnings had dropped by 21.8 percent.
And the harm stretches beyond the worker. The study notes the trickle-down effect on children: "Parental job loss is associated with reduced academic performance and higher rates of grade repetition. Even grimmer: The children of parents who lose work have substantially lower earnings as adults than children from otherwise-similar families that didn't face job loss."
This reality is missing from CBS's show. I contacted the network, and a spokeswoman referred me to the transcript of a news conference the show's producers had in January. At that time, creator and executive producer Michael Davies said: "I'm proud to say over the course of eight episodes we offered more than 16 jobs to 40 candidates. I believe that the other 24 candidates, by the time this is finished airing, will all receive job offers of their own. And I think, more importantly, to a watching audience, people are going to learn about interviewing, about preparing their resumes, about the things that they need to know. And I'm really proud of what we have done in the series, producing such an authentic series."
Whatever its good intentions, "The Job" is frivolity at a time when we need good ideas and serious reflection. Unemployment is a painful reality millions of Americans face each day, a reality that has nothing to do with excitement or dream jobs.
It's about finding work - period. And it sure isn't something to be set forth for our entertainment.
Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune workplace columnist. email@example.com