Plan B for white collar workers in Turkey

Pınar Öğünç

Uğur was born in 1980 in Turkey. He grew up when liberal president Turgut Özal was in power. He started his life from scratch. His father was a veteran of the “Cyprus Peace operation” and his mother was a civil servant. In that period, the entire world was neoliberal. Social states were eroding. For his family of public employees, the future was somewhat “determined.” This was not only a state of being safe and secure due to regular pay, but also because they had clear job descriptions and a good retirement. The meaning Uğur and his family attributed to their jobs was different from the meaning jobs attributed to their lives. When sociologist Richard Sennett described this generation, he refers to the feeling of “someone needs us” still being valid, the sense of belonging that this brings, a clarity about the future, and that, despite everything, there was consistency in life narratives. One of the destructive effects of late capitalism has been the erosion of consistency in individual narratives.

After graduation, Uğur landed a job shortly at a big bank — without even attending one of the best schools in Turkey. This looks very much like a scene from the past century. Today, he talks about his 16 years at the bank like it was an addiction. He explains how he was able to get rid of this addiction as though he was able to save himself from a cult. There is much anger and disgust in his words. He started his bank career as a teller; he worked at four different banks and was always promoted to better positions. He is proud of his success story. 

“For years, my title came before my name. My last title was corporate expert portfolio manager. Add a long name to it, and we would sound like we were Spanish. This is a state while collar employees end up in: they start to feel like they are ready to die for such titles. You may have a regular salary, insurance, meals, a couple of fringe benefits… This addiction, unfortunately, leads to ultimate submission. In times of uncertainty, these addictions increase even more. You come to a point where you would do anything the boss says without question. This is slavery in modern times. I was a slave, too.”

Today, he is not actually referencing the wisdom like in “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.” He never got very close to the very top of the pyramid. Nevertheless, he was able to buy his dream car and get bank loans for his dream home. He was able to spend money on expensive watches and designer t-shirts — what he calls “nonsense” now. There was an addictive aspect of the social class he was able to enter and the status he had back then.

Making one feel unsuccessful 

We have to use past tense when we are talking about that situation because Uğur was dealing with a ton of stress at the time due to the pressure of performance ratings and targets. He started to take antidepressants. However, it was the bullying that happened a couple of years that increased the dose of his inner darkness. He was intentionally given work that he could not possibly have completed. He was called names. He was discredited. Certain executives constantly questioned his proficiency. This isolating environment in which he and his abilities were not trusted took a toll on his mental health. He gained unwanted weight. He had to go through an angiography. Living like a “zombie” also affected his personal life. They were trying to get him to resign, but he decided to sue the company. The next step was, of course, his dismissal.  

“This system wants to get rid of the white collar worker after a certain age. People like me, born in the ‘80s, ‘75s, and ‘85s, are all now fearing for their lives, waiting for their turn. I have a master’s degree, but nevertheless, the new generation is more highly equipped. The system sees you as an extra load. They could hire a couple of these young people, instead of you, at a lower salary.”

This was not just any turn in the road. After a long work life, he was suddenly unemployed. As if this was not shocking enough, he was also in the middle of a giant period of uncertainty. He was made to feel unsuccessful for years through torturous methods. His pride was hurt. He also had responsibilities as a father of two. If you ask, “Why me?” then you will not be able to go on. If you are sedentary physically and mentally, then you will collapse, Uğur said. He decided to not let this happen and started a new thread in his narrative.

He had to do something, so he took several short-term jobs just to make a living. In the 2000s, work styles changed radically. Uğur personally experienced how “insecurity” was introduced to the presumably more secure corporate environment. He was now a part of the precariat of the insecure “outside” world. He did several project-based jobs as well as odd jobs based on physical labor such as cleaning, couriering and driving. “I think I was able to adjust because I had not climbed to the very top of the business world. I was once wearing top quality suits, but now I was a different man. It was like I was shaking off the rust of the past 16 years. I have already experienced and seen the irregularities of the system,” Uğur said. After that, a new chapter began in his life.

In his website, Uğur lists his new titles as, “Plan B Organizer for white collar employees, professional coach, mentor, writer, and trainer.” He said he “invested” in himself while he was working temporary jobs. He received training to become a certified coach. He started a YouTube channel. He posted videos, some of them informative, some of them mocking the system. He wrote about the experience of bullying and what to do. Meanwhile, he won his case against his company. Another case is in the court of appeals.  

“People used to think that once they had a job in a company with a good reputation, they would retire with that company. That’s not the case anymore. That doesn’t exist anymore. For this reason, you need to have a plan. In 10 years, 75,000 people will lose their jobs in the banking sector. At the same time, the pandemic is changing the style of doing business. By the time it is 2040, there will be nobody left who receives a salary. Even though the situation is like this, people are still not investing in themselves. They have no plan and they are not even aware of the risk. The ones who do have a plan do not have the courage. Right now, everybody is waiting for their turn to be hit. For a one-week vacation, they pay 12-month installments. They pay enormous amounts for a t-shirt. I am very comfortable in saying this because I used to do the same. I had, for instance, 17 watches. All the watches show the same time, right?”

Uğur told me that he did not want to continue in the “slavery system” after he lost his job at the bank. Could it be that the job he does right now is encouraging people to escape from the Planet of the White Collar Workeres? Is his job about looking for a new life? 

“I am a professional coach. A coach does not look down on people; he does not criticize. If one calls a black sweater ‘white,’ we do not say, ‘nonsense.’ We ask why they have called it white. We listen to people.”

“No, nobody should resign from their jobs just like that. I am not directing anyone toward a certain behavior, anyway. What I do is first is see where the person thinks they are stuck. I check their level of awareness and mobility. I try to make them recognize these things. I ask what they want to do with their lives from now on. This can go all the way to the family constellation. I am trained in that also.”  

“Both people with and without jobs come to see us. If the person has a target in their mind, they can also be a coach and a mentor. I also conduct management and executive consultations. If the person wants, we proceed to making business plans, creating a market, and selling products. If they want to earn 10 thousand TL a month, then let’s plan that… I am not only talking about financial accumulation. We need spiritual accumulation also. We are a generation that has been coded incorrectly. The target is explained as a place that should be reached. No, if you are equipped well enough, then you can pull the target towards yourself like a magnet. The codes of your life are in your hands. One should ask oneself if they want to attract this target toward themselves. If they want to, here it will come. I have succeeded. What is holding you back?” 

When he uses phrases like “being the boss of your life, investing in yourself, attracting the target,” then he reminds one of the “success” jargon of the world he likens to slavery. Through neoliberal policies, the middle class is getting poorer; the majority of them cannot make it to the end of the month without taking out more loans. The white-collar crowd is not only made up of an executive class living with the self-indulgence of multi-digit salaries. Being caught by the destruction of this order should not be made to look like the failure of the victim. We discussed that aspect:

“Yes, the future is uncertain,” he said. “We do not know what will happen to us in the long journey ahead. But we’ll take care of our car before we depart, right? Now, the while collar employees do not even know whether the airbag is working.” 

He added, “The bad days are over; next up are even worse days. We have to do something.” He is right — we should be doing something. 

Being your own boss 

Uğur has experienced the insecurity of advanced capitalism alongside bullying. Uğur wants to stand on his feet. He wants to get up right at the spot at which he was wounded.  

A notable aspect of this story and the entire process is that those who have been crushed by the wreckage of the transformation of labor are also responsible for removing the debris.  

In the world of middle-class wage earners, if a sad portion of the salary is not allocated to an individual pension plan and full-fledged health insurance, then they are considered to not have taken the necessary precautions for an uncertain future. The “outside” world is full of self-bosses who do countless jobs (that they are overqualified for) and pay their own social security premiums. 

While business life and all its related social relations are becoming more flexible, the concept of flexible working hours is still sugar coated with the idea of “starting work any time you feel like in the day.” This ecosystem magnifies the entrepreneurial jargon and hopes of early capitalism while only helping enlarge the precariat army. 

The freedom to be your own boss actually means that you apply the concept of being a boss, as taught by this system, to your own life. It results in similar exploitation. The new classes have new rules, and perhaps new wounds as well.

Notes:

Uğur did not see any harm using his name; he especially asked for his name to be used. It was a privilege to write about a certain class through his experiences and open doors for us to think further. I know it is easy after reading this piece to find him through an online search. I would like to thank Uğur Durak for sharing his story. He can be reached at www.hedeftutulmasi.com . 

This piece was inspired by these books: The Hidden Injuries of Class, Richard Sennet-Jonathan Cobb, translated by Mustafa Kemal Coşkun, Heretik Publishing House; The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett, translated by Barış Yıldırım, Metis Publishing House; The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing, translated by Ergin Bulut, İletişim Publishing House. 

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About CHP EU Representation

The CHP was founded on 9 September 1923, about one and half month before the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey. The first President of modern Turkey’s oldest party was M. Kemal Atatürk. Today CHP is a social-democratic party, member of the Socialist International and associate member of the Socialist Group at the European Parliament. The scope of the CHP bureau in Brussels is not limited to the bilateral framework of Turkey's EU accession process. Issues such as the information society, energy policies, social development, climate change, international trade and security are among the different focus areas. The EU-Turkey relations are about integration and need multiple, plural and horizontal channels of communication. The CHP supports and promotes Turkey's EU membership process also by being more present and active in Brussels The CHP's Representative to the EU is Ms Kader Sevinç who previously worked as an MEP advisor at the European Parliament and in the private sector.
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