Working-class hero: Steven Slater has become an international icon

Steven Slater had enough. The JetBlue flight attendant was annoyed when a passenger accidentally hit him on the head with a carry-on bag. That was it. He turned on the plane's intercom system, unleashed a tirade against the passenger, announced he was quitting his job, opened the emergency exit and jumped down the chute with a beer in his hand before disappearing. Police later found him in bed, drunk.

His actions were reckless, thieving and unpleasant, so why is Steven Slater a hero? His fame inflated almost as fast as that emergency slide out of the plane. Almost as soon as the story broke, Facebook groups were being set up in his honour and he was being hailed as some kind of working man's demi-god.

There are, of course, slightly less spectacular ways of leaving a job. I once asked my father to tell SuperValu that I had irreparably damaged my legs in some undisclosed accident and therefore could no longer work in the fruit and veg section. If you had spent a week cleaning out rotten vegetables from a gigantic cold store room, then you would understand.

Slater's story seems to resonate with so many people because they can relate to that almost suffocating feeling of being trapped, a feeling so strong that the only way to get rid of it is by doing something drastic. Before our unemployment skyrocketed, it was possible to talk of 'careers' and flitting from job to job, surrounded by an atmosphere of possibilities and opportunities. Now, everyone must just be grateful for a job, whatever job. For many people, there is a stagnancy in being employed. It used to be about bounding forward in progressive leaps, now it's about hanging on in there, weathering cuts, dealing with low morale and the threat of unemployment. Everyone is meant to be obsequiously grateful for just getting a pay cheque at the end of the month, no matter how much of a nightmare those four weeks have been.

For Americans, and indeed for all of us, Slater is the little man, a man with 20 years' experience who no doubt put up with two decades of crap from narky travellers, puking teenagers and crying kids, businessmen smoking in the toilets and troublesome drunks. People get why he did it. People empathise. People think of their own emergency chutes.

In America, the traditional attitude towards progressing professionally has always been a strange mix of overwhelming positivity and a cut-throat attitude to getting ahead. The baby boomer f*** the Man attitude is more ingrained than ever before. There is a resentment towards 'the Man'. The Man in this case is the annoying passenger who hit Slater on the head with her suitcase, the Man is Slater's boss, the Man is the police who cuffed him. In years gone by in the US, Slater would have been looked at as a renegade, but now people think he was right, even though his actions were reckless. As one letter writer to the LA Times put it: "The bankers and fund managers who caused the financial meltdown and subsequent bailout that will be harming the country for years to come are walking free and are basically unaffected by their gross negligence and corruption. Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who after 20 years of service with several airlines found his last straw with an obnoxious passenger, could face seven years in prison for his actions. Legal reform, anyone?"

The consequences of living in a faltering capitalist society are that workers are beginning to realise the mental effects of their alienation. Instead of becoming the fulfilled human beings that employment promised, Slater, and people like him, realise that the idea of job-satisfaction is a lie and they are not even seen as people by their superiors, but as instruments serving a function, cogs in a machine.

It is upon this realisation that a worker flips. They might jump down an escape chute, or do something more rational like take time out only to rejoin the workforce in a similar position after they forget what their initial disgruntlement was, or move away from the city, head for the country, build a house and appear on Grand Designs ("Mark has decided to project manage the build himself"). For those who are either too apprehensive about making this jump, or simply can't afford to, those who cop out become objects of envy, where the kind of batty behaviour of someone like Slater is celebrated and congratulated.

The fact that Slater's story made headlines internationally, and set the internet alight just goes to show how rarely workers give the middle finger to their jobs. For many, Slater was acting out a fantasy that seems so unattainable. The one thing to remember is, we can all jump down the emergency chute whenever we want – just maybe try not to get to that point first.