Do the “Salariat” Experience Survivor Guilt?

It’s harder to be happy if you’re carrying around the feeling that you are experiencing good things at the expense of others.

Most people have not heard the word “salariat.” From my (very cursory) research, it appears to be French in origin, used to describe the professional/managerial classes who work for a salary rather than a wage. I first encountered word in Will Hutton’s The State We’re In. The author described a “30-30-40” society in which only 40% of workers fell in to the category of securely employed and earning well enough to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. More recently, labour economist Guy Standing has described this fortunate forty per cent as the “salariat.” I use the term, as Standing does, to describe the class of workers who are securely employed, salaried, and have pensions and benefits as part of their employment package.[1]

The salariat walk among us. Because I am well-educated and tend to travel among the same, many of the people I know occupy or are retired from secure, well-paying full-time positions like those just described. As someone who theoretically “did all the right things” in terms of education, but remains insecurely employed, I sometimes find myself among my “salariat” colleagues and friends wrestling to keep my regard for them as decent people separate from my feelings of hostility about our different positions in the labour market. I try to remember that this fortunes-in-life thing cuts both ways. There are others out there who have it a whole lot worse than I do. And, I try to forgive myself for these occasional bouts of social comparison, which are unfortunate by-products of being human.[2]

Recently I was talking about the challenges of the labour market with a retired friend, and expressed some frustration about being unable to find permanent work. My usual coping mechanism for unpleasant feelings is analysis: this is how academics self-soothe. So, I whipped out my statistics and readings about precarious labour, in full on researcher mode. That is, until I realized my friend was feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps even a little bit guilty. She looked down as she essentially apologized for having a pension, and enough of a family inheritance to be able to buy herself and her partner a nice condo in the pricey Toronto GTA. I felt bad for my moment of lamenting my work situation, and hastened to ask her not to apologize for having a decent life. “This,” I thought, “is why my WASP-y, well-mannered partner advises against talking religion, politics, and money.”

The conversation also got me wondering, however, whether some members of the “salariat” experience survivor guilt. The concept of work-related “survivor guilt” cropped up in the 1980s when layoffs began to be used in earnest to manage corporate bottom-lines.[3] Prior to this, it was used primarily to account for war-related trauma: surviving concentration camps in the WW2 Holocaust being the exemplary case. The crux of it is that one feels guilty relative to the fate of others when he or she, literally or metaphorically “survives.”[4] The negative psychological consequences of survivor guilt include stress and depression. Basically, it’s hard to be happy if you’re carrying around the feeling that you are “experiencing good things at the expense of others, and that [your] success will make others feel bad by comparison.”[5]

winnerSurvivor guilt is closely related to our sense of what is fair, and this in turn is related to whether people (I’m being a bit reductive here) are driven by a sense of competition, or altruism. If you hold more of a “dog-eat-dog” worldview, you probably don’t dwell a lot on how other folks are getting on, and make no apologies for what you have.

On the other hand, if you’re not convinced that “the way it is” in the world of work is the way it ought to be, you may feel a bit uneasy. I hear traces of survivor guilt, like that expressed by my friend, above, in other colleagues and friends who know they are damn lucky to have their jobs. They express a sense of helplessness: Sure it’s a social problem that there aren’t enough good jobs to go around, but what can any of us do but try to get one anyway, and feel grateful to succeed? Some of us vote for political parties with stronger sympathies for the working poor, but still lack the conviction that this is a route to any meaningful change.

So that helplessness I feel sometimes doesn’t affect only me. I’d still rather have the problems of the “salariat” over my own precarity any day of the week, but it’s important to recognize that the “survivor guilt” experienced by labour market “haves” can generate its own kind of suffering. If the precariat feel ripped off, and the salariat feel guilty, its hard to talk past these difficult feelings and come together to seek solutions. In other words, the social awkwardness of conversations in which we directly confront our unequal positions in the labour market holds us back from talking about how the shrinking pool of secure, well-paying jobs hurts us all.

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References and Endnotes

[1] It’s important to clarify that this figure lowballs those who are employed full time and reasonably securely, as I’ve included pensions and benefits in my definition of the “salariat.” Vosko (2006) pegged full time employment permanent employment in Canada at 63% of the workforce.

[2] cf. Sayer, A. (2005). Class, moral worth and recognition. Sociology, 39(5), 947–963. de Botton, A. (2005). Status Anxiety. London: Penguin Books.

[3] Aaaand this of course created an awesome new market for consultants to sell workshops and books to help managers fix “survivors” so all can get over their pesky humanity and get back to being “productive.”

[4] Connor, L., Weiss, J., Bush, M. & Sampson, H. (1997). Interpersonal guilt: The development of a new measure. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 73-89.

[5] Connor et al. (1997) again, p. 76.

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