Rise of the Zombies in a Tough Job Market: ‘The Walking Dead’ as (Un)Employment Model
Find the “Walking Dead” zombie craze puzzling? But, have you not noticed that zombies are not only unemployed, but also unemployable?
Or that, like the living who become unemployed in a widening recession featuring spiraling unemployment, undead zombies create more of their kind in a vicious geometric progression?
Could there be a connection between a zombie apocalypse and recessionary unemployment dynamics as troubling “things on our minds”?
Why was “zombie apocalypse” in June 2012 the third most popular Google search term (only because of several isolated crazed zombie-like attacks on strangers)?
Why, also in June 2012, did Bangor, Maine emergency officials stage a serious zombie-themed training exercise, despite an earlier weird denial by the U.S. Center for Disease Control that zombies do or are likely to exist?
Are you worried that massive Homeland Security orders for and purchases of hollow-point ammunition, a DHS-sponsored San Diego Halloween “zombie drill” and the (“tongue-in-cheek”) CDC PDF “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” have something to do with contingency planning for marauding zombie hordes?
Why the popularity of zombie-themed movies and TV series, such as “Zombieland” (2010), “The Walking Dead”? (2010) and 42 more zombie films scheduled for production and release in the 2012-2013 period or foreseeably thereafter (including zombie-strewn “World War Z”, with Brad Pitt, to be released this year)?
Answer: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Zombie-Job Seeker Dynamics in a Half-Dead Economy
A background in employment economics—especially Keynesian—really helps in understanding the reasons for the continuing pop-culture zombie craze, preoccupations, concerns and “Geistzeit” (“Ghost Age”, to reverse and coin a phrase). This insight dawned (of the dead) on me as I tried to get some writing done, despite the zombie growls and victim screams in the background that I had to endure while stuck in the middle of a zombie-flick marathon (screened in the Stirling, Scotland hostel lounge I was recently in).
Problems of a Zombie Economy
The relevance of employment economics to the zombie craze and zombie mobs is fascinating: Besides resembling a frenzied stampede of thousands of job applicants for the only job posted at a factory gate or cash-strapped Walmart hordes clawing their way through Boxing Day sales bins and each other, the lurching zombie mobs in zombie-themed “entertainment” productions, such as “The Walking Dead”, exemplify, illustrate, symbolize, create and deal with the kinds of employment problems the living face in our all-too real world.
What problems? Consider these, as common to both a zombie apocalypse and an economy in terminal meltdown:
- An exploding population of the unemployed, unemployable, desperate, survival-focused and therefore potentially dangerous (Note: As mentioned above, roaming zombies are decidedly unemployable, as well as unemployed, a drain on the economy—or what is left of it—and dangerous.)
- A catastrophic “multiplier” effect, as the contagion spreads, with each newly unemployed and unemployable (laid-out zombie or laid-off worker) creating more of the same—through a kind of Keynesian-multiplier, deflationary collapse of the job market and the economy, as the loss of one more productive worker’s output of goods, services and job income causes a decrease in consumption, investment and government revenues, accumulation of excess inventory (before the looting begins) and more unemployment
- Irrelevance of middle and upper class professional credentials in a savage struggle for survival, with “blue-collar” or “no-collar” skills, such as hunting, fishing, automobile repair, metallurgy, farming and thievery being in high human-demand. This is the phenomenon of the “vanishing (and sinking) middle class”.
- Decaying and collapsed infrastructure
- Collapse of essential services
- Out-of-reach food and fuel supplies
- Collapse or irrelevance of currencies (since there’s nothing to buy with money)
- Reversion to barter, where possible
- Class warfare between the zombie have-nots, the working-class specialists with survival skills (e.g., hunters, farmers, mechanics) and the now useless pencil-pushing intelligentsia and white-collar professionals.
White-Collar and Other Apocalypse Angst
After first noting the similarities between a zombie-afflicted society and recession-smacked economy/deteriorating society, I discovered the thought was not original with me.
For example, “Zombies are a manifestation of our anxieties about survival, infectious diseases, over-population and general mass mindlessness,” said Michael Delahoyde, clinical associate professor of English at Washington State University, who has taught undergraduate classes about monsters and culture for more than two decades.
A Slate.com article picks up where Delahoyde leaves off; in her analysis, “First, Eat All the Lawyers: Why the Zombie Boom is Really about the Economic Fears of White-Collar Workers”, Torie Bosch seems to nail our unconscious fears to the front door of our minds:
”I can’t help but believe that this current Era of the Dead draws its power from our economic malaise. If you work in the many white-collar fields that have suffered in this recession, zombies are the perfect representation of the fiscal horror show.
The zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers—they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world. (The exception to this rule, of course, is doctors.)
In ‘The Walking Dead’, the strongest survivors come from blue-collar backgrounds—cops, hunters, mechanics…In the zombie apocalypse, your J.D. [law degree] is worthless—which is actually not so different from the real world of recent years.”
With easily inferred resonances with Marxist class warfare between the “proletariat” and the “bourgeoisie”, she adds,
“…our white-collar skills become worthless not through technical advance, but through total system collapse. For blue-collar workers, the zombie stories are tales of comeuppance, of triumph: skills in auto maintenance, farming, plumbing, and electrical work—not to mention marksmanship—land blue-collar folks at the top of the new social order.
This is not a bad thing, but it’s nevertheless deeply disorienting to anyone who thought a college degree would mean never having to fix a generator.”
If Marx doesn’t resonate with you, try Freud. The subliminally-embedded psychoanalytic theme of the zombie genre seems to me to be clear.
Blue-collar do-what-it-takes survivors (skilled hunters, warriors, scavengers) display successful ego-survival functioning rather than failed super-ego (refined arts and conscience-driven conventional morality of the less adaptable merchant and priestly castes) or out-of-control id (of blasted zombies who pay for poor impulse control).
Hence, all that survival-challenged white-collar angst manifested as immersion in the zombie entertainment genre. But rapidly replicating zombies bode ill for all of us, paralleling our fear of the other three potentially uncontrollable replicators—GMOs, robots and nano-machines, the unholy techno-trinity Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy warned us of back in 2000.
Zombies resonate with fears we all have, white collar or not, in the same way that widespread unemployment, economic collapse, epidemics, class warfare, flash mobs, bankrupt welfare and crony capitalist states, failing education and its attendant decline in literacy and critical thinking frighten us.
That’s because zombies are parallel icons of
- An eroding work ethic: abandoned loyalty and vanishing job diligence (as zombified friends and relatives quit their jobs and try to eat their nearest and dearest)
- The dumbed-down mob-minded “brain-dead”, economically and otherwise parasitically bleeding the smarter “job creators” and “job doers”
- Infectious diseases (with epidemic, spreading unemployment mimicking wildfire infection dynamics)
- Homelessness (since zombies, like many of the unemployed, are uprooted and roaming)
- Collapse of social, political and legal order: a blueprint for anarchy
- Pure ego states of survivors pitted against pure id of zombies (lessons about impulse control), with super-ego testing and redemption (being unlikely, but greatly admired)
- A paranoid/prudent “prepper” mentality and survival training
- Runaway deflation as the marginal propensity to gnaw and feed increases with exponential decay of the employed population
- Failed impulse and fear control that are essential to sustain the economy if the zombie or economic apocalypse is to be thwarted
- A communist apocalypse as “workers of the world unite” (tacitly with the zombies, the unemployed) in violent revolt against the “unproductive” bourgeoisie and ruling class
- Sexual suppression under economic stress (It’s worth noting that unlike the vampire, icon of the other recent undead craze, the modern zombie seems to have no sexual designs on its victims.)
An Important Difference
There is, however, currently one conspicuous disanalogy between a zombie apocalypse and a complete job-market/economic meltdown.
In the current tough job-market and limping economy, and unlike the brain-dead zombies, nobody out “hunting” is eating brains to feed themselves or to level the job-hunter playing field….
…at least not yet.