By now—unless you've been prospecting for zinc in Siberia—you've probably read and heard about Steven Slater and his dramatic last day at work.
The JetBlue flight attendant literally pulled the chute on his career during a heated confrontation with a passenger who Slater says was acting rudely. After Slater used the jet's PA system to curse the passenger, he grabbed a couple of beers, popped open the emergency exit, waved goodbye, and swooshed down the inflatable slide into unemployment and jail. His meltdown became the stuff of legend and created a throng of admirers for a man who—for many—has become the living embodiment of a Johnny Paycheck song.
Some scolds have noted that Slater's actions were unprofessional and irresponsible. In fact, the blow back for Slater—always predictable in the media saturation cycle—has already started with investigators questioning passengers on the flight and the flight attendants about their versions of the events.
Was he irresponsible? Of course! That's why his stunt reverberates with so many working and middle class Americans who've had their fill of being responsible and playing by the rules their whole lives, and who still find themselves living one paycheck off the street. Is Slater's version of events the truth? I don't know. It almost doesn't matter. The specifics of the stunt are not as important as the symbolism.
This recession is taking its toll on the psyche of the American worker, and the frayed edges are showing. About 14.6 million people are unemployed, and there is no indication that their prospects are going to improve any time soon.
Many people who've been fortunate enough to keep their jobs have seen their life's savings diminish or disappear, or their home values plummet. Many haven't received a pay raise of any size in years. Some employers have stopped their match on already-battered 401(k) plans, and are using the recession as a worker retention strategy. Health insurance premiums continue to increase at a rate well above inflation, along with co-pays and deductibles, even as health insurance companies post record profits and shower their top executives with what some would argue is obscene compensation.