The Myth of Upper Middle-Class Security
What I’ll remember most about that day was the eerie quietude that permeated the entire office. People staring at their computer screens with paralyzed hands and wandering thoughts. Whispers jumping from person to person until an unspoken tension bore down on everything and everyone.
For an entire morning, the world seemed to stand still. Everyone at Snap, of course, knew this was coming. The news of the layoffs had leaked to TechCrunch and ReCode the day before, and the following evening, necessitated by the leaks, the entire company had received an email from the C-levels waxing poetic about shedding the crutches of the past and looking forward to the great beyond.
It wasn’t about saving money, they said. It was about trimming the fat: about turning Snapchat into something that could more effectively compete against the imposing giants it stood against. It was a life or death struggle, they said, and, if we weren’t lean and agile, if we weren’t aligning talent with our most central strategic priorities, we’d fall before the coming onslaught.
The dulcet days of open hiring, free spending, and rapid expansion were over, they said, to be replaced with responsibility, incremental innovation, and formal performance tracking. It was a new epoch.
It certainly didn’t feel like a new epoch. People that I’d worked with for months were now gone, given an immediate severance in exchange for their surrender of all personal grievances. Entire teams were gutted, their functions deprioritized, their projects de-scoped, their work discarded. Laptops were wiped and desks were cleared, and the assembly lines of newly-unowned glossy monitor screens reflected the anxiety of those that remained.
Every ten minutes, I’d turn around to see another emptied chair, another person walking up to the third floor. I tried to code, but no amount of stoic fortitude could return me to App Engine timeout errors. My mind flashed with visions of that fateful email from HR, the horrible realization that all I had given could be for naught, and I sat frozen to my desk.
And then, it was over. At 1:30, they called us all into the center common area, and told us that we’d survived. The layoffs had finished, and we had been chosen for the tremendous privilege of continued employment.
My first thought was relief. But that relief quickly turned back into fear. How disposable I was, I thought. How bound I was to the whims of others. So much of my life and wellbeing was in the hands of people who could easily and uncaringly take it all from me. And as I stood there listening to the propaganda blitz that those above had come up with to placate us survivors, I couldn’t stop thinking about how completely hollow my conception of my career and life was.
Because my entire life has been spent chasing after this exact goal. I spent most of high school sitting in my room reading and studying and programming, because I needed to get into Berkeley. I spent most of Berkeley doing problem sets and going to tech events and networking, and I spent every summer interning at a new place, slowly pulling myself up the cursus honorum of software engineering.
Every fall semester devolved into a mad race of interviewing and studying and anxiety and inferiority. I told myself that software engineering wasn’t a zero-sum game while secretly resenting everyone that looked to have made it, getting offers and passing interviews that I was seemingly incapable of.
Finally, at the end of the October of my senior year, I’d “made it.” I got an offer at Snap, with what seemed to me like a lot of money, and then spent the last month of senior year decompressing. I went home in December, endured four months of boredom and guilt from my family for moving away, and left for Los Angeles in April, knowing nothing and no one, buoyed only by the fact that this nervousness was the nervousness of the “successful.”
And after all that, there I was, listening to some executive tell me about how hard it was for them to let so many good people go. I shouldn’t be here, I thought. I had done everything right to inoculate myself from this. I’d joined the right team, ingratiated myself with the right people, chosen the right projects, justified every decision in the context of our larger “strategic initiatives.” I’d been promoted from L1 to L2 in six months, and I was on track to hit the next level by the end of the year.
And yet, I had to stand there in fear, because to the people that made these cuts, none of this mattered. I could’ve had a bad week when performance reviews had gone through, nullifying everything I’d done, or my manager could have not adequately justified my existence to the directors above. I could’ve fallen victim to one of the many internal political struggles that so engross the string-pullers.
None of this had happened, but the point was, it could have. None of the above things are under my control, but they could’ve sealed my fate at any time over the past year, and if they did, neither my by-the-book background, my personal contributions, nor my sustained effort, would have mattered at all.
I would’ve been axed and replaced, and the world would have kept on turning.
But there’s a deeper meaning here beyond just the inherent futility of my own personal ambitions. I, as someone coming from a privileged family of upper middle-class immigrants, have been conditioned to the view the world as a struggle between “us” and “them.” My parents, who dragged themselves to success, identify heavily with the wealthy and powerful in America, as do many other self-made people. Choosing to believe in their personal agency justifies their own success as something of effort and perseverance, and gives the prospect of their approaching retirement a sense of narrative purpose: their lives’ natural prophecy coming to fruition.
For most of my life, I’ve believed the same. But walking home, blessed by the mercy of the decision-makers, the cracks in that worldview began to show. I had no power, I realized. I worked on a small part of a small part of a massive machine. I was replaceable. I didn’t do anything particularly unique, I didn’t have my name attached to something big, I wasn’t a member of that protected class of engineers that’ll always be guaranteed “Staff Software Engineer” titles and speaking invitations. I was, in short, a 22 year-old with ambitions that outstripped his achievements.
And in that sense, I was as trapped as every other person who’s forced to work for an income. My job offered shallow perks and self-affirmation, and that gave me the feeling that somehow I deserved anything I’d achieved: that I was, in any sense of the word, “successful,” and that working at a tech company was something more than just a paycheck. I was nothing, I realized, and in my hopes of actually accomplishing something, I’d deluded myself into thinking I already had.
Becoming upper middle-class in America is an achievement against adversity. It’s a triumph over the many established and growing forces aligning themselves against social mobility. And understandably, then, those that achieve prosperity construct narratives that encourage a gulf between those who’ve made it and those who haven’t. It’s a fantasy born of our human impulse to feel justified in our actions and secure in our livelihood.
And this feeling compounds in today’s America, as the once numerous paths to prosperity are narrowing to a select few. Fewer and fewer careers offer a stable path to the financial and personal security that underwrote the Baby Boomers’ “American Dream.” Technology is the one career that has an optimistic future, isn’t beholden by regulation and credential inflation, and actually attempts to create some sort of meritocracy, and so, those that are fortunate enough to be in it want to preserve the one island of paradise left.
But in doing so, we forget that while we’ve prospered, we haven’t achieved real security. Getting promoted in a white-collar job provides, but it’s a mistake to think it does anything more. Except for a very few, the security we strive for, and indeed, believe that we have, is denied to us. The upper middle-class, the professional class, that venerable example of American wealth and mobility, is as vulnerable to disenfranchisement as everyone else is.
Because you do not have power. Remember that, always. When you get promoted, when you enter management, when you get a stellar performance review, you are simply fulfilling the whims of someone else. Subscribing to the belief that there is some sort of power in being a well-ground cog is exactly what sustains our machine of systemic oppression, benefiting no one but those above.