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The Inconvenient Truth of Competition

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We are all supposed to find jobs in the competitive job market. But how can we do so when competition, by its very nature, creates losers as well as winners?

In the recently concluded BCS title game in college football, the top two teams in the rankings went head-to-head for the chance to state that they were the No. 1 team in the nation for the 2010 season. Before the game began, everyone knew that one of the teams was going to lose. It did not matter how skilled they were or how hard they tried, one of those teams would come up short. It turned out to be Oregon that lost to Auburn by a score of 22-19. The victor was decided at the very end of the game, when Auburn kicked a field goal.

As sports fans, we enjoy a close game. A contest between two teams that are well matched in skill, effort, and managerial or coaching strategy is exciting to watch and to play. Pitching duels, close plays at the plate, extra innings all add to the fun of baseball. What baseball fan doesn't love the 7th Game of the World Series? Most fans feel short-changed if it doesn't go seven. The same excitement of close competition exists in all sports: playoff holes in golf, shoot outs in hockey or soccer, buzzer-beaters in basketball, the tiebreaker in tennis, sudden-death overtime in football. The best contests are the ones in which the announcer says, "It's a shame someone has to lose this game."

But someone does. 50% of the teams in any league, from your neighborhood bowling league to the pros, will lose on any given day. We know this before any of the games start. The entertainment for the fans comes in finding out who the winners and losers will be, because, as fans of the 7-9 NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks know, on any given day, anyone can win. But the fact that, on any given day, half the teams will lose, is immutable.

There is nothing wrong with people exercising their competitive urges in sports and games in which someone will lose, or having fun by watching such competition. But when you are talking about using competition to decide whether someone can get the materials he or she needs to live, that's another story. No doubt you have seen, at some time or another, a film in which Roman gladiators fight in the Coliseum. The victor stands over his vanquished opponent, ready to slay him unless the Emperor signals "thumbs up" to spare the loser's life for a valiant effort. Most of us would disclaim any desire to live in a society that engaged in human blood sport. Yet, how different are we from the Ancient Romans when our society withholds the stuff of life from people who are barred entry or thrown out of the work force? The fact that the "loser" dies slowly, out of the Emperor's and public's sight, and sometimes by his own hand, does not make the end any less cruel or final.

The social imperative that everyone who is able will work in gainful employment, and the demands of the Social Darwinists that those who are unable to work, or who are full-time homemakers, be supported by family or private charity, and not be a burden on society, are forever and inexorably at odds with the true nature of an employment system based on competition.

Skill and effort are not always the answer

Let's use baseball to strike a blow at the myth that skill and hard work always get you to your goal.

It is possible that a team loses a game through some element beyond its control such as a bad hop on a ground ball in the infield, or a fly ball caught in the wind and carried beyond the outfielder's reach, or an umpire's blown call. An individual who had a stellar day at the plate and on the field is nonetheless part of the losing team because of something a teammate did or failed to do, or because of an ill-advised strategy by the manager. Bench players on the winning and losing teams are credited with the win or the loss even though their own skill or effort played no part in the event at all!

Think for a moment about the scene in front of the Enron headquarters in Houston when the jig was up and people were laid off en masse. They were standing around stunned and crying. Houston police, like police everywhere, were sent to protect the executives and send away distraught workers, when they should have marched into the building to arrest the executives. Those people outside, who just saw their jobs and retirements go up in smoke, played no part in the crimes; they were victims of them. But according to the philosophy of some right wingers, they are losers in a personal sense that lays a person's misfortunes at his own doorstep, no matter what the cause.

Now expand the results of competition from a game to a season. There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball. At the end of the year, the team that wins the World Series is the champion. At the beginning of the season, the bookies in Vegas will make you odds on which team it will be, as the teams are not all of equal ability. But at the end of each year, 29 of 30 teams are losers. That's a 96.66% (29/30) failure rate with respect to the goal of winning the championship.

Competing in the job market is a losing proposition

So you want a job! You have completed whatever apprenticeships, certifications or degrees you need. Your knowledge is as up-to-date as it can be. You know how to sell yourself on a resume, using all the computer-driven keywords that make sure your resume passes the initial robotic screening and is seen by a human being. There are no typos or bad grammar in your cover letter. You know how to dress for success, smile, shake hands and otherwise acquit yourself admirably at an interview, and still there are no offers forthcoming. If there is one job and only two applicants, the chances of getting the position are 50-50. But nowadays, you often hear that there are an average of five applicants for every job. One winner and four losers (4/5) is an 80% failure rate.

The odds of getting a job can be worse that those for a team to win the World Series. I recall a rejection letter I received in the mid-80's for a job for which, according to the letter, 59 people had applied. That was a competition that had one winner and 58 losers. That's a failure rate of 98.30%. (58/59).

Last summer, I applied for a part-time job that had a multi-step application procedure. Part of the way through, I was dropped from consideration. I was told at that time that they had more than 80 applicants for this one position. Since I was not told the exact number but I know there were at least 80, let's look at the failure rate for exactly 80; 79/80 equals 98.75%. These figures have nothing to do with the moral qualities of the employer. If an employer wants to hire one person and 80 people apply, the failure rate is 98.75% before any value judgments, fair or unfair, are made on the individual applicants.

It is neither the employer's nor the workers' "fault" that things are this way. It is just simple math. The more applicants there are for a job, the closer the failure rate for getting hired gets to 100%. Of course, if the employer takes the option of selecting no one from the current pool of applicants, the failure rate is 100%. This happens from time to time. I have seen ads on Craigs List that tell people who have already applied not to re-apply.

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Kellia is a freelance journalist in Oakland, CA who left the Pacifica Radio Network in July, 2010 after 11+ years in the KPFA news department and over 10 years with Free Speech Radio News. She is now in the odd position of needing a paid job while (more...)
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