How is this New Economy? The pull of the old economy is still very strong and will, at many points, act on us as we live our lives. This is brilliantly explored in writer and lawyer Henry Hamilton’s cautionary fable, The Mask.
The Student enters the University for the first time. Transparent doors slide open automatically, revealing tasteful modern art and cool, conditioned air. The Student feels awed by this place and themselves for being allowed to enter it. They step through the open doors, and with this step they feel that their future is assured, a future of brave and beautiful things.
But those things are not going to pay for themselves, the Student realises, having talked to peers and listened to lecturers and attended a number of sponsored careers fairs, some time after the first time they enter the University. They require a job. A job that is not brave, nor beautiful, nor desirable in itself, but which will pay, and could be interesting, and that will serve as a springboard to the heights. A job at a Firm. Applications are opening soon.
The Student looks in the mirror. They must apply for Internships, audition for those jobs that are neither brave nor beautiful but which will be of use in getting to the jobs that are. And before that audition is another audition, an Interview, and before that is an Application made up of a Resume, Cover Letter and Firm-Specific-Questions. The person they see in the mirror will fail though, fail at it all, cannot be trusted even to write a cover letter. This person, they see, is unprofessional, passive, a little too independent, lacking in initiative, too much of a dreamer for brave and beautiful things and very seriously lacking in Teamwork, Responsiveness, and Goal-Orientation. Unsuitable. The Student ponders whether there is a path to those heights without these jobs, internships, interviews, resumes, cover letters and firm-specific-questions, in vain. A ragged exhale fills the room. The Student’s eyes drop to the floor.
At their feet they see the mask. It is a mask of their own face in every detail, every wrinkle and every pore, and even without picking it up the Student knows that it fits perfectly. It is them and they are it. There is something else about it though, something in the eyes, or the curve of the smile — here is a professional, an initiative-taker and team-player. Here is a gaze ever-focused on present opportunities, a gaze that does not stray upwards towards brave and beautiful things. This face is very different from that of the person in the mirror. Here is the face of a winner.
The Student picks up the mask. It is much heavier than it looks, but the surface is supple and soft. Hesitating for a few moments, weighing it in their hands, they place it over their face. This feels bad, wrong. The Student almost takes off there and then. Yet one glance at the computer screen is enough to keep it on a little longer. Through these new eyes the keyboard beckons, and key selection criteria snap into focus. A resume is written, then a few cover letters, then a dozen applications. More work in a few hours than the past month. And, after they’re done for the night, the Student makes sure to lift their hands to either side of their face, feel the seam where the mask ends, and take it off.
The applications go well. The Firms are satisfied that the Student is professional, and a team player, and does not pine for the brave and/or beautiful to such an extent that would jeopardise professionalism or team player-hood, or that could not be channelled into an appropriate corporate-social-responsibility-program. Interviews land like rain.
The day of the first interview arrives. In a newly purchased jacket and university bathroom mirror the Student looks at themself. New clothes, new job, new uni, new face — is there anything left of you in there, they wonder. After an appropriate pause it is decided: the mask stays off. The Student walks into the interview room with their own face, head dead high, but the Firm does not seem to connect the Student sitting before them with the one they were expecting, the one described in the cover letter and resume arranged neatly on the table. Who is this person? How did they manage to walk in off the street? Hiring practices will have to be reviewed. Guidelines reissued. In 15 minutes the 1-hour interview is over and the student, dejected, is shown to the lifts. The mask goes on next time. It is only an hour, after all, and this one really does go for the whole hour, a little bit longer even, as discussion of the fantastic international opportunities available at the Firm spills overtime. It’s on for a few cocktail evenings too, so the Student can be seen to make engaging but uncontroversial small talk with other so-far-successful Students over a few but not too many drinks. Just a few hours. Here and there.
The Student puts the mask on and enters the Firm, not for the first time but for the first time as an Intern. It is heavier than before, and they wear it for longer than ever: in the morning at the Firm, at lunch in the Firm’s built-in cafeteria, in the Firm during the afternoon at work, in the evening at Firm drinks. The Intern has a few friends here from the University and with them, sometimes, they let it slightly slip. But those moments are few, and outside them it remains firmly in place. The Intern still gets home every night though and, facing the mirror, feeling for the seam, they take the mask off.
There are other interns too, all competing to manifest the most team-oriented working styles and interpersonal communication skills. The Intern wonders sometimes whether they too are wearing masks. They must be — some are finding them too heavy, it seems, casting them aside and finding themselves cast aside in turn. The memory of that first interview looms, largely. The Intern suspects that some of the interns do not need to wear masks at all, that they have never felt more fully and utterly themselves than here in the Firm. It is hard to say whether they should be envied for this. They are all themselves, more, or less. Regardless, the mask stays on. There are brave and beautiful things to be done after this internship secures a job that will be a springboard to the heights, you’ll recall.
The Intern secures a job in the Firm. Years go by. The mask feels lighter and is worn for longer. They make friends at the Firm, friends whom they meet while wearing the mask and who are accustomed to it. They meet their partner at the Firm too. They get together at the Christmas party, 8 glasses of corporate-sponsored champagne accomplishing what 9 months of awkward office conversations could not. And to these friends and that partner the Employee is not just an impressive professional and stand-up colleague and hard worker but also a great person to get along with, someone on whom they depend, with whom they can finally relax and have a beer and just chat. Sometimes the words almost surface, on the Employees lips, that this person they love is but a mask, and that behind this mask lies someone else, screaming silently behind a thin facade. Sometimes it is unbearable, this tension. Yet always it is borne. Anyhow, there’s little time for angst with work being so busy these days. Hours get longer, leisure time dwindles, and non-Firm friendships start to wither on the vine. It gets harder to find times where the mask is unnecessary, harder to find the company of people unaccustomed to it. Sometimes it stays on at night.
A promotion comes, and then another, followed by a lateral transfer to an exciting new team with excellent upward mobility. The Employee is making quite good money now. But there’s also the mortgage, on a property in a part of the city described as ‘leafy’ and ‘quiet’, yet still neither so quiet nor so leafy that it will not still yield a solid return on investment 20 years from now, when the bank is paid their due. Until then though they will be thrifty. Not so thrifty that they can’t eat out constantly — there’s no time left in the day to cook at home, after all. Nor so thrifty that they don’t drink in bars decorated with polished concrete and qualified mixologists — in such bars lie important networking opportunities with likeminded professionals. Nor does this thrift extend to the bespoke furniture, inner-city-gym memberships or to biannual iPhone acquisitions. And these expenses all add up. Then, one day, the Employee opens a message from a friend they haven’t seen in way too long and should catch up with for a drink sometime. Inside this message is a link to a job application at a well-funded, high-profile community organisation. The job looks challenging yet interesting, rewarding yet community minded, yet still prestigious, and perfectly tailored to the Employee’s experience. It’s a job that they dreamt of, that surely is dreamt of still, and for a moment the Employee hears the clarion call of the heights commanding brave and beautiful things. They scroll a little further down, though, and identify the problem. The pay won’t cover the mortgage, they’re afraid to say. And it certainly won’t cover the kids planned at appropriate 2-year intervals, to be sent to good schools in the area. It is easy to close the tab. It feels good, even. They are mature now, a real adult with real, adult responsibilities and cannot afford a reckless decision like this. They open another message, from another friend who they caught up for a drink with quite recently, a message that links to an article explaining the capital-gains implications should Labour win the next election. The Employee reads with interest. Unanswered, the call fades slowly to silence.
20 years later they are home from the Firm, to a nicer house in a leafier, quieter suburb than before. They look in the mirror. Deep down, maybe, perhaps, something is wrong, something ever so subtly off-centre. Their hands move absentmindedly to the sides of their face, but there is no seam to be felt. Nor do they even really know what their hands were searching for. It would make no difference if they did — there is no longer a mask to feel anyway, or, alternatively, there is a mask but it can no longer be taken off. The Mask looks in the mirror and the Mask looks back. A thought almost surfaces. Something about brave and beautiful things, maybe, was that really the phrase you used, really, they think with a rueful shake of the head and a laugh at the naiveté of youth.
The switch is flipped. The light goes out.