“Don’t forget. Everyone is replaceable.”
I was seventeen the first time I heard those words. My teenage ego had swollen predictably as the weekend shift (scrubbing grease off floor-mats at the local deli) transitioned into something a bit more dignified.
Promotions were rolling in at regular intervals – from grease-scraper to dish-washer, to cashier to line cook to shift manager. At $9.25, my hourly wages had surged at a rate of 38 percent a year over my first eighteen months of employment. My hours, too, reflected a rapidly rising status – from a once-a-week charity shift offered to the child of loyal customers to a dependable part-time worker’s thirty hours per week, just under the benefits threshold.
This phrase about our imminent replaceability was repeated by my father in various conversations throughout the early years of my engagement with the market economy. It wasn’t a mean-spirited remark, but a mantra that had clearly served as a stabilizing reminder over the course of his own often unpredictable career. I heard it about me, about himself, and about others who might somehow have forgotten the contingent nature of their employment.
As I left the safety net of a relatively wealthy home in which my teenage labor existed merely for character development and pocket money, these words stayed with me. I soon began to hear them from other voices as well. I found that one could be replaced for myriad reasons. Technology could render a role redundant. Political winds could leave a position out in the cold in a restructure. Budget cuts could reduce the number of available jobs, leading to a zero-sum competition to demonstrate value.
And there, perhaps, was the core of the message: value. The unspoken instruction for successfully navigating the disorienting world of market-based human interchangeability was to identify opportunities for maximizing one’s value to the system.