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“Everyone is fungible”: It's not the most uplifting message for college grads, says Carey Goldberg, but it’s the truth. In this photo, Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University on Monday, May 19, 2014. (Neil Redmond/AP)

On Monday, ousted New York Times editor Jill Abramson began her post-firing public life by speaking at the Wake Forest University commencement, and shared her father’s buck-up maxim for when you’re dumped or disappointed: “Show what you’re made of.” Here, Cognoscenti contributor Carey Goldberg adds one other bit of advice: Learn the word “fungible.”

Dear soon-to-be-college grads:

I regret to inform you that at the last minute, we at the University of Hard Knocks have added one additional graduation requirement: You must learn the meaning of the word ‘fungible.’

But not to worry. We’ll help you out with the dictionary definition:

fun·gi·ble [fuhn-juh-buhl]: adjective. being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.

And here’s the deeper meaning: When you enter the working world, you will almost certainly be fungible. That is, no matter how hard you work, you will remain, at base, replaceable. Disposable.

This is not a cynical-making thing. It’s just a hard fact that it’s important to know as you plan your life and make decisions along the way. You might love your work as much as Jill Abramson loved hers, to the point that you wear your love not just on your sleeve but in a tattoo on your shoulder. But your work may not — cannot — love you back the same way.

I use “work” here as a collective noun, and your working-world fate will likely rest in collective hands, just as Jill Abramson’s firing allegedly stemmed from rejection not only by the publisher but by the “masthead” — the newspaper equivalent of nobility. You’ll never know all the structural constraints and financial challenges and personal machinations that could converge into a pink slip for you. You just need to know, deep down, that it’s possible.

What to do with that knowledge?

First, you need to watch for the signs. Is your industry in trouble? Is your company hemorrhaging cash or known as a brutal shucker of staff? Have you noticed that you have no higher-level manager who seems invested in you, who has your back?

Second, live your life accordingly. There are some people for whom you are not fungible. Your parents. Your partner, if you’re lucky. Most of all, your children, if and when you have them. “The currency of love is time,” they say. Work can suck you in and make you forget that. But there are unpaid tasks that only you can perform.

Third, you need to know that you can never fully map your life out in advance. You major in a subject, you land your first job, you may think you’re set. But you must remain ever fast and nimble and flexible, always learning and upgrading your skills. A young Jill Abramson could never have imagined that her chosen profession would implode as it has.

Mainly, if it happens — and it very well may — you can take a page from Abramson’s book. What mattered about her Wake Forest commencement speech was only that she gave it — wryly, candidly, acknowledging that she had just taken a big hit. The fact of her presence before a gigantic crowd said — indeed, shouted — “I am not ashamed. I soldier on.”

Because if you ever meet her fate, you will be prone to feel shame, to feel publicly branded as someone who was found lacking. When I heard recently that some hard-working young people I know had lost their jobs, I found myself writing a fantasy staff memo about their layoff, including this:

“There is no shame in this. Please don’t blame yourselves. Please let us help you find new jobs. And though I know a pink slip may not seem like much of a thank you, I do want to commend you and thank you — in this public form — for the years of your work-lives you gave.”

Grads, if you’re laid off, no boss will ever write you that memo. But you should know now — for the future — that some of the very best professionals I know have lost jobs at some point, from book editors to psychiatrists to other media chiefs. One of the best journalists I know was laid off just this week. It’s not a reflection of your intrinsic value. It just happens, if you’re fungible. And we are.

When you enter the working world, you will almost certainly be fungible. That is, no matter how hard you work, you will remain, at base, replaceable. Disposable.

For many people, particularly older people, being laid off means financial ruin from which they never fully recover. It can be devastating.  But the good news is, for many of us — especially if we have safety nets and resources —  a job loss catalyzes change that leaves us happier than we ever would have been otherwise.

So here’s your post-graduation assignment: Watch Jill Abramson reinvent herself. Watch the social capital that she has built up over the years flow back toward her in the form of support and opportunities. You can bet your tuition that in the not-so-distant future, you’ll hear her say that the only thing better than working at The New York Times is to have worked at The New York Times.

Editor’s note: A similar version of this piece was posted on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Aaron

    I remember in “Rambo” the Asian girl asks John “Rambo, what mean exendable?” He explained that “it’s kinda like if there’s a party and you don’t show up, it doesn’t really matter.” I may be paraphrasing, but anyway, I think it’s wise to give grads this message, because now more than ever, globalization and the corporatocracy has created a workplace where one is very, very fungible or expendable. In most areas of employment, there is no loyalty to the employees, and I believe also, that it will be extremely difficult for most grads to have a nice retirement in the future. Call it tough love or whatever, but it’s more compassionate than filling their heads with false hope. I think the grads should focus on staying mobile and flexible as much as possible. Forget about the dream home with the picket fence, because as soon as one is laid off or forced to ‘relocate’ to another city, it will just be a huge let-down. By all means, I hope these grads will work to change the system for the better, but they should be wary of any help from traditional institutions to take care of them or provide any trustworthy stability as they go out in the world to do whatever.
    And if climate change isn’t dealt with very soon, Mother Nature will show us that our whole species is expendable.

  • X-Ray

    If you meet the requirements of your employer, you will not be fungible. The alternatives are to be self-employed, or to start your own company.

    • django7

      One is always fungible to any employer- this article got it right. You are always an independent contractor whether you know it or not – working for someone or for yourself.

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