Every week, we're bringing you true stories from those caught in the unemployment crisis. The official U.S. unemployment rate is 8.3 percent; the true rate of hopelessness is much higher. This week: cops, businessmen, lawyers, students, academics, and other fellow Americans. This is what's happening out there.
The former cop
I quit my job in August of 2011. I was a cop and after ten years I had decided I had enough. I worked with corrupt, racist officers and for even more racist and corrupt bosses. I tried to stick it out best I could. I went to IAD. I got promoted so I could maybe make changes myself when my request for assistance with IAD went ignored. The harassment only got worse. It's bad enough being a woman in a man's world, but try being one who won't go help steal personal property or let you beat up that black man. Every day was emotional warfare. It was tough, but I was tough. For a while. There comes a point when you just can't stomach it anymore. So, for the sake of my sanity and to keep me from actually driving off the bridge on the way to work like I had envisioned myself doing many times over the past decade, I quit and decided to finish my Master's degree. I thought I would have no problem finding another job, after all I have a BS and a BA, not to mention I'm a decorated veteran and have a diverse resume. Boy, was I wrong.
I've been looking for work for almost a year now. I've been surviving on my GI Bill, I have been denied unemployment and I've watched my credit sink as the credit card bills pile up. Just last month my car was repo'd. Inside was everything I owned since I was partly living out of it. I have no f family to turn to, and I don't want to burden the few close friends I have, but I've been doing my best to keep a positive outlook. but it's hard. The few people I've talked to about this seem to not understand how soul crushing it can be to not be able to contribute to society. The GI Bill is alright, but it's not enough to live off of. In a few weeks, I will be homeless. I've been working since I was 14. I'm 32 now. I'm 32 and go to bed every night hoping I won't wake up in the morning. I thought I was depressed before, well I hadn't seen anything yet. I've researched on the internet, looking for ways to kill myself painlessly, but so far I've come up with nothing. So here I am.
I've been applying to anything and everything. From McDonald's to places I'm not even qualified for. I get told I'm either overqualified or unqualified. No one is willing to give me a chance. I try not to come off desperate in interviews (the half dozen I have been able to snag in these long 12 months), but I'm sure they can smell it on me. I'm willing to do anything forever if I need to. I won't bail at the next best thing because mainly, I'm serious about finishing my Masters and then getting my law degree. I've moved four times in the past year in search of work, and so far nothing. I can't go back into law enforcement because my credit is shit. I may have a job prospect in Ithaca, NY, but I need to finish out the semester here in Los Angeles before I can move. And then I need to figure out how to get out there.
And you know what doesn't help? Being told it will get better. For a while, I believed it. Then I lost everything. I don't even know if it will get better. I don't know how I can make it back from here. All my life I wanted to be a lawyer helping out the poorest in my native Detroit. I want to make this happen, but how can I when I don't even know if I can make it through tomorrow? Coming back from an interview a few weeks ago (when I still had my car), while driving past some construction, I thought about how easy it would be to just jerk the wheel and careen into a Jersey barrier. I thought about how quick my death would be with that sudden impact at 85MPH. I even took off my seatbelt in anticipation, but in the end, I was too fucking scared to do it. I was scared it would hurt. Sitting here tonight, writing this, I wish I would have done it.
Thanks for listening to my story.
The experienced businessman
I was the marketing manager for a fast-growing IT consulting firm in a Chicago suburb. It was a good job with good people, and I was good at it. But then, at the end of 2011, the firm was acquired by a bigger IT consulting firm in Dallas.
The new management decided (without meeting me, looking at my resume or evaluating my performance) that I was redundant. And they decided that their newly hired marketing specialist (a former inside salesperson or HR staffer, I can't remember) could handle marketing for three specialized verticals and a practice 950 miles away...
So I'm looking for work. But companies don't seem interested in "experienced" workers (I'm 52 years old). A well-known Chicago-area recruiter in the marketing/communications field told me that I was too old for a position I wanted to discuss – and too old for all her open positions. "It doesn't matter if you're a perfect match for the requirements," she told me, "my clients don't want me to bring them ‘experienced' candidates." Which sucks. (And sounds kind of discriminatory.)
That no-Olds specification might be trending, unfortunately. I've had a dozen conversations with potential employers that ended with a euphemism for "We want a younger, cheaper person." My favorite: "You're an excellent candidate. But we're looking for a fresh perspective." (The perspective of someone who knows less and is not as good at the job?)
It's a bad time for my expertise to be under-valued. Demographics should be working in my favor, as Baby Boomers (who have clogged up organizations for decades) reach the age where they will retire, open a Jamba Juice franchise or die. But no. The Boomers won't leave, and I'm being squeezed out by Gen-Xers, many of whom believe, apparently, that the experience of workers of my generation has little value. (Payback, I suppose, for our disdain for their sense of entitlement.)
I'm too young and too poor to retire. And because I've got a house, cars, a wife and children, I can't say "fuck it." So I have to keep trying to find a job with an organization that will appreciate – and utilize – the skills and knowledge I've acquired over the past 30 years.
I'm frustrated. And worried that I've aged-out of my career.
The aspiring librarian
I just recently graduated from a very expensive private university in the Pacific Northwest. I entered college in 2008, just as the economy was tanking, but somehow we were all still convinced that a college degree would mean something. I was determined to study a (useless) subject that I loved, and, knowing that my job prospects weren't great and graduation approaching, I began applying for everything back in November. So far, I've gotten one interview which I blew completely - because unlike a lot of people I have a significant disatvantage. I'm a female with Asperger's - ligit, shrink-diagnosed, on-record Asperger's Syndrome. I have a hard time making eye contact and trouble socializing, and it seems like now the only way to get a job is to network until you know someone who knows someone who knows someone else's dog's ass. The worthlessness and depression that surrounds being an unemployed college graduate is made a million times worse when you have poor social skills, and a trillion times worse when you can't control when you make eye contact. I have always been employed at least part-time since I was a teenager, so it's not as if I'm not a good worker. As soon as I got out of school I started volunteering (read: I went back to my old place of employment and am now doing my old job for free) so I've been keeping busy. Problem is these so-called volunteers don't even get paid. With my bank account dwindling I decided finally go down to the state-run unemployment office for some state help in finding a job. When I got to the receptionist's desk I began to explain why I was there, but started getting nervous when she started looking at me funny. She began talking to me like I was a fucking three year old and suddenly began snapping at me, saying "I'm over here" pointing to her eyes.
I burst into tears right there.
I just want a job. Any job. I can type, I can file, I can answer phones, I know four different library classification systems, I'm quick on my feet, and can read and write in three languages! Need someone to do a boring, repetitive job? I fucking thrive on the repetitive and the predictable! It's not as if I'm ambitious - I don't want to be a CEO or a manager or anything - my fucking dream job is to be a librarian, for Christ's sake! (Unfortunately, as I've found, good luck getting any paid employment in a library if you don't have your MLS. I can't afford to get my MLS until I get a job. So...I can pretty much kiss that dream goodbye). but I would settle for literally anything else. I'm trying and trying and trying but I feel like I'm about to break. I'm a good little worker monkey and can be a very valuable employee if someone will just give me a fucking chance! And yet everywhere I go the door is slammed in my face because I'm "weird" or because I don't have a good handshake or because I didn't look the manager in the eye long enough. All the paranoia about what I'm doing wrong in my job search is magnified - was it my resume or was it because of one of my nervous tics? Was it my cover letter or was it because I was speaking too quietly while my eyes drifted to the table without my realizing it? Sometimes I feel like if I were in a wheelchair things would be easier. It's like that immortal line from Scrubs: If I'd wanted sympathy (or, in this case, due consideration when applying for a job) I should've been born with a problem people could see.
I go to sleep at night crying, repeating to myself over and over again "I just want a job. Any job. I just want a job..." My bank account is dwindling to nothing - my last paycheck came and went already. I'm living in the middle of nowhere with my parents who love to remind me how much it's costing them to support me. I drive a shitty car that keeps breaking down and gets lousy gas mileage. I have very few friends and most of them found jobs almost immediately. But, then again, they're neurologically typical. I can barely get out of bed in the morning now. I mean, I did everything right. Straight-A's, volunteer work, part-time jobs, a college degree. I did everything everyone told me to do, and I did right. But it was all a fucking lie. I feel so sorry for all those college freshman who are going into it now, thinking, like I did freshman year, that all the money they're spending will produce something that means something.
Worse, yet - that expensive education? The one that spat out my worthless degree? I have to pay for it. My parents can't afford to help me out with student loan payments, and I'm one grocery-run away from a negative balance. I feel like I've got the Sword of Fucking Damocles hanging over my head, 24/7, and it's being held up by a piece of used dental-floss. If I don't find a job before my loans come up...I don't know what will happen to me. I'm terrified. Absolutely terrified.
In short: autism spectrum disorder + shitty economy + Damoclean Student Loans = one terrified college grad.
The successful lawyer
I am a lawyer. I was employed for 32 years (until April 2011) in three very high-profile places and I am reasonably well known in my profession. I'm a longtime board member of my professional association, I get invited to speak at conferences, etc. I have an Ivy League education. I've always been well liked and even popular in the places I've worked. And I have not changed jobs lightly - I've never worked less than 8 years in any one place.
I worked at my last employer, a Fortune 500 company in the western US and a very successful brand, for almost 14 years, in the legal department. I came from a VP position in a much smaller company. I started there in 1997.
We had some layoffs in 2009 and my former position was abolished but the General Counsel and his deputy told me that because they considered me a major contributor to the legal department and they appreciated my strong passion for the brand, they wanted me to stay on and move to another practice group (where several lawyers were being laid off). I had very little experience in that practice area but I had changed practice areas once before when the company needed someone to take on a challenge, and was very successful, so I wasn't worried...
Then the general counsel retired and we got a new one. Then another couple of reorgs in the legal department and I got a new manager, who'd been there ten years, not a close friend but we had always had a cordial relationship. We worked together for a few months and everything seemed fine. She scheduled my midyear review several weeks in advance and on a Friday at 4 pm which should have been a dead giveaway but I had no indication that anything was amiss. Then at 3:40 pm on the appointed day I got an email from her saying I should meet her in a conference room on another floor instead of in her office. This was really alarming but again, I had no warnings, no major mistakes, nothing I felt guilty about. So I showed up. She wasn't alone. She had the deputy general counsel with her and she had a white folder on the table. Hell, I saw "Up in the Air." I knew what that was. I walked in and she fired me. She said the job required a lawyer with a lot of experience in the specialty and I was not such a person and so my employment had to end, blah blah blah, all the stuff HR coached her to say.
I was dumbstruck...
Because I'm a lawyer I knew I had no rights. In America those of us lucky enough to have jobs but unlucky enough not to have contracts or unions are all employees at-will, who can get fired at any moment for no reason or any reason (unless it's illegal discrimination like age, sex, religion, race). I was almost 55 but I didn't think I could make out a case of age discrimination, and in any event, I couldn't really afford to fight them for more than a few months. They could easily wait me out, and most of the best law firms in town couldn't represent me anyway because they'd represented my company and it would be a conflict of interest. So I was well and truly fucked.
You see, when you're a lawyer, you wear your client's leverage and negotiating power like a cloak on your shoulders in everything that you do, every deal you negotiate, every problem that you solve. It was so very, very weird, in that moment, to feel the cloak slip off my shoulders and onto the shoulders of the people across the table, people I'd been on the same side with for ten years, people I thought I knew.
I did hire a lawyer to review my severance agreement etc. and negotiated some additional benefits but the whole process was surreal.
I made a new resume and immediately started looking for jobs. Mostly not in my current city — it's not very big and my former employer is almost the only place here I could work — but I started looking all up and down the west coast, plus New York, Chicago, Philly, Boston, and Denver, and got a couple of phone interviews but that was it. I did scores of online applications and eventually figured out that nobody wanted to hire a 55 year old lawyer. I met some guys who were working on a startup locally and who wanted to hire me, but they couldn't get funded and so they never got off the ground.
Having said all that, I'm one of the lucky ones. I worry about money but I'm not in financial crisis. The maximum unemployment benefit here is between $400 and $500 a week, and I'll be able to keep collecting that till sometime in December. In addition to my severance I had some stock and options, and so long as the stock market doesn't crash again I have enough saved that I will never lose my house. My spouse has a good job so as long as that continues we'll be OK. But I am beyond discouraged. In order to collect unemployment I have to document that I've made a certain number of job applications every week, and some weeks that's really hard — there isn't much for someone with my experience. Even job postings for "senior" lawyers are typically looking for someone with ten to fifteen fewer years of experience than I have. I apply for the more junior jobs because I have to, but I have no illusions that I will ever get them, and I live in fear that somebody I know, or somebody who has heard of me, will see me applying for these junior positions, and wonder how desperate I must be. But at least that would mean that someone knew I was applying. Because right now I feel as if all my applications are just shooting off into the ether, into dev/null somewhere.
I've taken training in another specialty field and hung out a virtual shingle for my own practice, from home, but that's hard too, scrambling for business. I'm not a natural born entrepreneur. I still apply for jobs every week that I don't have any other work so I can collect unemployment, but I'm going to have to start tapping my retirement account soon, and that comes with a 10% tax penalty for every dollar I take out before the age of 59.5, which will add up to be pretty significant, because that's 3.5 more years. My parents are 90 and 82 years old, and they have enough money to live on, but I don't want to take money from them, and I hate not being able to do more to help them, as I used to do. My brother is a successful accountant and lives near them and tells me not to worry about it, but I can't help myself.
Just last week I made some progress on two different leads - one in consulting and one potentially to become a headhunter in my field, which I think I'd be good at, as I do know a lot of people. The headhunting firm seemed very eager to recruit me to join them, which felt good. It would be yet another new specialty to learn, but I'm up for it. My spouse is very encouraging, So I haven't given up hope. But it's scary out here, Hamilton. Really fucking scary. All my life I worked hard and played nicely with others. I drank a lot of the Kool-Aid in 14 years with my last employer. I felt they were fair and always tried to do the right thing. I was delusional. Of course they would say that they did the right thing by paying me a lot of money to go away in recognition of my many years of service, and I know I had no entitlement to a job there forever, but to lose my job for basically no reason less than two years after having all that smoke blown up my ass, well, it was really painful.
The way unemployment insurance works is that if you go out of town for more than three days in any week, even if your job search is 100% online and national, like mine, you don't get benefits, because the law says you have to be in town and ready to present yourself for work at any moment. I was denied benefits for the week I went to my professional association's annual conference, because even though it is by far the best networking opportunity available to me, I did not actually apply for work in the city where the conference was held.
I didn't used to be someone who fretted about $400 or $500, but I am that person today. So when I went to visit my parents for a week, and then my spouse and I went to visit my mother-in-law for a week, those two trips cost me almost $1000 in addition to the actual costs of airfare, etc. Also when you have taken even one week off claiming benefits you have to reactivate your claim by calling in and speaking with a person, unlike the routine claims which are done online. I know I'm unemployed but to sit on hold for 30 or 45 minutes still feels very disrespectful of my time. But it's churlish to complain about it. I'm just tired of wondering if I'll ever have a reliable income ever again. I hate not working and I am still bitterly angry and resentful about what how it all went down, even though I know I need to let it go. But I don't think I'll be able to until I have new work to get excited about. I just don't know when or whether that will be.
The academic life
I'm unemployed. I graduated with a MA in comparative literature (scoff if you will, once upon a time it meant something) and moved with my husband to a new city so he could do his PhD. I applied for jobs like crazy but couldn't find anything, anywhere, in my field or out until a family we were acquainted with hired me as a part-time nanny. We were making enough, had a reasonable savings cushion, and have wanted to start a family for a while so we decided to take the plunge and get pregnant. I worked it out with my employer, who consented to let me bring the kid when I came back to work after the birth. Our plans were solid.
All that changed when, in my 8th month of pregnancy, the husband of that family lost his job. No longer in need of a nanny, his unemployment ricocheted to me and there I was with no job, no prospects ("I'd be a great fit for your company and I need 3 months of maternity leave starting next week" isn't a great interview line), a nearly born child, and no childcare lined up in the unlikely scenario I DID get a job.
One year later, still living in Foodstamps-ville. Population: 1 adorable baby, 1 student dad, and me, 1 lady/mother/wife. Still unemployed.
Thanks for asking.
How did you become unemployed? A coworker stalked me until I left my job in disgrace and fear. He was sentenced for harassing me, but I left my home and disappeared. It's been a year and a half since I simply stopped being able to work in safety.
How is the search for work? It was hard before, but after this long, it's just degrading. Nobody calls back, nobody new is hiring, and nobody wants me. I've had one real interview, which I blew. That job, coincidentally, was with a DHR program that helps the unemployed find work.
How has your life changed? In a word, permanently. I have lost dreams, people, hard work and safety that I will never recover. Every day I have to make myself feel valuable enough to keep going, so I can maintain the energy to keep offering myself up for rejection. To keep explaining my traumatic job loss to strangers in words that make it sound benign. To keep saying "Yes, I will work any position, any shift" when I don't even feel safe on my front porch at noon. To keep putting my address online, and answering unknown calls. To tell myself I should use my skills, while I still navigate through the rubble of my last attempt at working.
What is it like? The unemployment? Humiliating when I budget. Aggravating when I need a favor that I genuinely can't repay. A non-issue when I'm with real friends. Strangely comforting when I would have needed a sick day. It's like being in a tomb and hoping it's a cocoon.
How do you feel about your future prospects? I feel afraid for my relationship with my fiancé. I can't seem to put words to it, but it's about stability, identity, love and contribution.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. All submissions are being read. If you'd like to submit your own unemployment story, or to contact someone you read about here, email me. Image by Jim Cooke.]