As both political parties are reminding us right now, America is in an unemployment crisis. The latest sunny news: a new report says that even if you land a new job, it's likely to pay low wages.) Each week, we're bringing you true stories from the unemployed. "Just to be clear, the day before you graduate, you are the future of America. The day after, you're on your own." This is what's happening out there.
The small businesswoman
At fourteen I got paid under the table-like $4 an hour- to work at a Baskin Robbins, because I really wanted to have a job. After that, I went from waiting tables to babysitting, guitar gigs in coffee houses, bartending, acting, retail, I was never fired, I never quit without another job lined up, and I generally left every place I worked on good terms with everyone; in fact I often had two jobs plus some kind of profit-making hobby. I decided early that as long as I was happy being creative and doing what I loved, I could forego big paychecks- and it always worked that way. Now I look back and think, maybe I was prettier, or thinner, or just more favorable in some way that I'm not now. I was an independent contractor for years, working as a certified massage therapist, then later as a custom seamstress, and a even few times at professional acting and freelance writing.
At thirty, I got married had a baby, and found out that I work even when I don't get paid- I treated pregnancy like a research thesis, and I gardened like a mule. I sewed for extra money, with my husband picking up the slack, and made the leap to a storefront location when my son went to pre-school. In 2009, I realized that the job I had created was not going to support me. I really loved making custom, luxury draperies all day, and I had plenty of customers- but manufacturing custom items by hand for clients who could refuse the end result carried too much risk- my dream of small business ownership crashed on the rocks of risk management when my husband and I decided that we would not use unsecured credit to float the business, and I couldn't keep the lights on during the lean times without it. I closed the business soon after the day my six-year-old son said, "I hate your work, Mommy. It makes you mean."
After a year of clinical episodic (life-event-caused) depression, complete with anxiety and OCD tendencies, I got out of the bed, and rallied. I decided I needed a college education, so at 40 I went back to college. I guess it is important to point out at this time that years earlier, I was a gifted high-school student who was interested in business and the arts. I felt selfish because I did not want to work at a discount store or go to a trade school, and wait for the first opportunity I could to get married. Instead, I paid my own way through three miserable years of college, flunking out twice before I was 20 and accumulating about $17k in debt in the process. In my early 20s, I moved to a metropolitan area from rural Mississippi to find work and culture, a period my mother referred to once as the time I spent "with the circus." So I got my Bachelor's, with my husband paying the bills and doing practically everything else while I studied. I got a job- my first "real" job! squee!- working part time as a grant writer for an arts agency, which lasted exactly nine months. I was told the funding was cut for my position, but I later learned that I was replaced by a grad student after I set up the program, which is ironic since before long I ended up being a grad student myself.
Now I have a Master's in Economic Development. I have sent three resumes to my local (only) economic development office; they have yet to respond, despite the fact that I carried a 3.8 grade point average and meet every qualification they claim to seek. Because my background includes "varied work experience" I can do almost anything- I find I almost always have to edit my resume to play up the skills that are relevant for the position for which I'm applying. In 3 1/2 years, I have sent out 77+ versions of my resume- of course I have applied for many more than 77 positions. Fun fact: in theory, Economic Development is the practice of doing all kinds of things to build economic stability in your community- but in reality, it is an artificial game of strategy full of inauthentic professional ladder climbers who move to a "better opportunity" every two years.
I'm 43- responsible, experienced, perhaps wise, but also creative, youthful, personable and reasonably attractive. I also have a charming disposition, a husband I love, a kid who thinks I'm not mean now, a community I never want to leave, a broad circle of friends- and no job. I seriously can't get hired anywhere. I'm a stable, married small business/economic development professional/musician/seamstress/coordinator/writer/communicator in a two college town where I am now overqualified (and therefore not even considered) for most of the jobs that are available. I've actually had decision-makers- people I know personally- at places where I've applied say to me, "Oh you would be so unhappy in that job-that's for someone with far less ability than you have." Yeah... because you know what really makes me unhappy? Groceries, bank deposits and retirement. Ugh! Please, let those with far less ability than mine eat that miserable cake.
Sad fact: I have never gotten one payment of unemployment benefits or disability, despite my history of hard work and a valid chronic depression diagnosis, which, believe, is hard to manage in my situation- but I do. Both unemployment and disability benefits are based on your recent wage history (nine years, I think?); I have been a stay-home mother, a small business owner who reinvested my pay, a full-time student, a part-time employee or a community volunteer for over twelve years. Despite my skills, my education, my intestinal fortitude and an entire lifetime spent doing everything above selling drugs or my body to provide for myself, I don't qualify- the safety net was not meant to provide assistance for losers like me.
Thank goodness I like my husband, who is a government worker, so I am grateful that we have health insurance. We would drive hybrids for the environment instead of 15 year old cars, or eat organic for our health instead of buying cheap groceries, but we can't. We live simply so that we can afford our one non-negotiable extravagance- tuition at a parochial school, so that our son can have the best education we feel we can provide for him, which he will need of course, if he expects to have a good job one day. I have an interview at 8:30 in the morning. I refuse to be pessimistic, but I can't even get nervous anymore. I just hope for the best, and expect... nothing.
The college grad adrift
It's been a year and half since I graduated from college and the only things of note I've done since then is publishing several articles in the calendar section of a major newspaper and a couple of extension classes. I graduated from a top liberal arts school with a BA in Economics aka the major thats supposed to be a sure thing when acquiring job but I'm writing this email to you right now so I guess not. Since I graduated I've only had four interviews requests. The first job I was out of town and the prospective employer wouldn't reschedule the interview so it didn't happen. The interview for the second job was a phone interview that ended after five minutes after the interviewer and I both awkwardly realized this job wasn't for me. For the third interview I never got a follow up even though the interviewer said he would follow up. And in the fourth interview I somehow ended up asking more questions than the interviewer and for some reason the interviewer thought that since I went to fancy liberal arts school and just moved to town I was gonna bolt from that job after a couple months even though I tried to stressed I really wanted this job. Whats more painful than these shitty interview experiences are the hundreds of unrequited emails and job applications (the majority of my job apps get no response). It's more defeating to be ignored than to be rejected and in some cases rejected four or five or six months after the fact (this has happened on several occasions). I've had my resume and cover letters looked at and edited dozens of times (not to brag but my resume has a A for appearance and structure). I used to hate doing cover letters but I've reached the point where I have so many that it only takes five minutes of copying, pasting and some light editing to churn out a new one. And all my resumes and cover letters have impeccable language, punctuation and grammar, it's the just the content thats sucks. Sometimes when I go on craigslist or indeed.com or some other job sites the sight of available jobs triggers my anxiety because what I really see is "Rejection, Ignored, Ignored, Rejection, Ignored, Ignored". In addition I've given up on applying to jobs that interest me, that require college degrees and that are full-time.
Almost everyday I wish I could go back in time and kick my own ass for being a fuck up, for not taking advantage of the opportunities in school and for working shitty internships instead of rewarding ones. I wished I had more motivation, ambition and discipline. People close to me tell me that the economy is to blame for my bad situation, but I don't believe that because a lot of my peers have jobs/doing important things so it has to be me right?
When I look to my past I see chains, when I look to my future I see a wall and when I look at my present I see quicksand. After six-eight months of unemployment I was experiencing what you call a "quarter-life crisis" but now I'm currently embroiled in a trench war with full-on nihilism that just may reach a tipping point soon. Some days I march to the nearest coffee shop at 8am and bang out 5-8 job applications. Some days I just lie on my bed staring at the ceiling for some eight hours just doing nothing. Every time I talk to my parents and girlfriend about my situation tears and/or fighting usually ensue. I just don't know what to do at this point.
The Madoff victim
It started in 2008. Actually, it was December 11, 2008 and I will never forget that because it was actually the day of our office holiday party. I worked for a privately owned real estate development group whose name I won't share so they can't sue me (because I worked for them long enough to know that they would if they could), a real estate company that was heavily invested with Madoff Investments. Maybe you've heard of them, I don't know. Anyway, because of our very tight relationship with Madoff Investments the second one person in the office read online that he had just been arrested by the FBI for masterminding a ponzi scheme with, presumably, a whole lot of our money, word spread like rapid wild fire. Within minutes the office was buzzing, phones were ringing off the hook, and suddenly all of the head honchos were behind closed doors. The kicker about that is that our office was made pretty much entirely of glass, so one walk down executive alley and a glance in the right (wrong?) direction told us all we needed to know: We. Were. Fucked.
Our office party went off as planned but ended up being more depressing than a funeral's after pass. Madoff was all anyone could talk about, and at one point a group of us decided to get white girl wasted at the open bar because it would probably be our last company sponsored boozefest for a while. In the last hour of the soiree the head honchos decided to put on a brave face and show up, but there was no 'we are family' speech or last dance to end the night as there had been in the past.
Closer to Christmas we got a 'memo' from the head honcho's telling us everything was going to be fine, more or less. Around the same time there was a company meeting in the common area where they gave us a speech about how we were a family and we were going to get through this together and that no one needed to worry about anything, especially losing their jobs.
I was let go in the SECOND batch of lay-off's on January 21st, 2009. No severance. No vacation pay. Just unemployment and a $500/month COBRA bill, if I wanted it. So much for family.
I remained on unemployment until June of that year where I was offered a full-time temp position at a fashion company.. March 2010, over a year after being let go from my job if you're keeping track, my unemployment was coming to an end. I got a letter from NY State telling me that it had been revoked because I missed an appointment set up for me at the Unemployment Office - even though I had missed the appointment because my aunt had passed away and I was out of town for her funeral. Thankfully the following week I got a call from the fashion company I had temp'ed at the previous summer because they needed me to come temp for them again full-time...
A year and a half later I was let go as part of a round of lay-off's, after spending the three months prior to the company saving them six figures in manufacturing costs. I was even sending weekly reports showing the head of my department how much money was being saved thanks to my negotiations with our overseas vendors, and yet somehow my position was still justified in being terminated. At least this time I got severance (one month) and two weeks vacation pay. That was in November 2011.
It has been eight months, and I am still unemployed. Calling what I am 'discouraged' is an understatement. I have received a total of three phone calls and one actual in-person interview in the eight months I have been unemployed. I am someone who has worked consistently since I was in high school - my first job was a part time office assistant in a trucking company for four years in high school, then I quit to work at Target part-time while I was in college, then I was forced to quit college in my second semester in order to work full time so that my family wouldn't lose everything. I've worked all sorts of office jobs since (reception, assistant, etc) and this is the first time in my life I have been told that I was not eligible for an administrative position due to the fact I don't have a degree. I can't go back to school because I don't have the money or the credit to pay for it. This is also the first time in my life I am already in my first extension - what NY Unemployment likes to call 'emergency benefits' - and I have no idea what I will do when the money runs out, because unlike all of my friends I do not live at home, my parents do not pay my bills (they can barely pay their own now that my brother is in college), and moving back in with them is no longer an option. The depression that comes from being unemployed has affected all aspects of my life: I no longer want to go out with friends, my apartment is a disaster, and my sleep habits are completely out of control.
The previously unemployed staffing manager
I was only unemployed for two months, and it was horrible. I read all the stories you posted today and completely understood.
The worst part is the shame. Even though my parents and friends were non-judgmental, you still shame yourself. You still feel like you have failed because you can't find a job. You feel worthless. I couldn't talk to most of my friends just because of the crippling self-loathing - I felt like, as an unemployed person, I wasn't contributing to society and had nothing to contribute to the people around me. I thought of suicide often. Getting out of bed, showering, brushing my teeth, even eating were chores I often couldn't muster the strength to do.
I graduated with a good GPA from a university considered a public Ivy. I had some decent marketing experience before being laid off due to my company closing down the office in my city. I sent dozens or hundreds of resumes out per day and couldn't get a single response. No phone calls, no interviews, just silence. It really fucks with your self esteem. You think you did everything right all through high school and college, and then suddenly in the real world, nobody wants anything to do with you. Like others have said, I wasn't demanding a job that could let me live like royalty, just one that paid my rent, bills, food, and let me enjoy an occasional night out.
I was lucky enough that I didn't burn through my savings, despite developing a pretty bad drinking habit I still haven't been able to kick, even after being steadily employed since then. I would drink a bottle and a half of wine every night, and I still do. Just to shut up the self-critical inner monologue, to anesthetize the pain that shame and depression cause, and to calm my nerves enough to fall asleep. I have insurance but I'm afraid to go to the doctor now because I'm afraid he'll tell me to stop drinking and I'm afraid I won't be able to. I wasn't like this before getting laid off.
I now do staffing for clerical and administrative positions in support of several Fortune 500 companies. It's horrible. I want to hire everyone, but I can't. However, I would like to maybe pass along a maybe hopeful message: when I am given sole hiring authority, which happens often, I always hire the long-term unemployed first. I nearly cracked after two months. I can't imagine what two+ years feel like. Even if it's just for shitty temp positions, I try to hire them first. They need the resume update, they need the money. When they let me hire who I please, I go in order of length of unemployment from longest to shortest.
I'm just one person, and staffing is a shady business, but I try to make things a little better, as best I can.
The Ivy Leaguer from the barrio
8.2% unemployment rate. I suppose I take comfort in numbers, knowing that I do have peers that are also a part of this number. I'm used to being around others who are proudly represent a minority. I'm a recent Ivy-league grad, looking for work.
4 years ago, numbers were my opponents. I proudly checked "Latina" on my college and scholarship applications and used my free school lunch status to get fee waivers for standardized tests. Straight A's and top scores were my way of beating statistics already being attached to my peers that I saw as unfair and depressing. I had already grown up hovering around the poverty line all my life. Although my single mother worked her hardest to keep my sisters and I clothed and fed, there were a lot of nights where I didn't know where we would be sleeping the next. Living paycheck to paycheck was not the kind of cliché I wanted to live anymore, so I gathered up my lady cajones and did things differently.
Fast forward, the "kid who made it out" is back and jobless like everyone else in urban SoCal. My friends back East talk about the recession being over. The other day one of my cousins I moved in with suggested I apply for unemployment. This is not what I expected my life would be like when I first added my alma mater as one of my facebook networks...
"It's a numbers game!" is something I read from my optimistic and employed classmates as they sneak in a gchat conversation with me from their cubicles. This may be true, but it still makes me cringe. This is not what I signed up for. My job search started my first semester of senior year. 11 months, dozens and dozens of applications, 3 interviews, 0 offers. Can I just start my life, start paying back my loans and save for retirement already? That kid from the barrio is all grown up, and all she wants is an entry-level office job on the East Coast.
I'm no stranger to competition, but I've never experienced so much rejection in my life. My college career counselors really can't tell me why I land so few interviews. As for my other unemployed peers, talking to them makes me feel inadequate. We used to compare test scores and summer plans, now we compare job offers and networking successes. Many don't even call themselves "unemployed". Whether they are bar hopping from NYC to DC with the employed for visits or living in an apartment all-expenses paid by mom and dad so they can volunteer three times a week at a prison (What?), some of my ivy classmates really don't have to deal with the stress of the economy as they "figure out what they want to do".
I have to point out that I don't feel jealous of my ivy-friends' success, nor can I change the fact that I come from a low-income family. Although I can't deny that Ivies aren't full of legacies and privileged children, my classmates were hard workers and intelligent people who deserve the successes they're experiencing. But coming from my background, my current feelings are more of guilt and disappointment. Guilty that I didn't come home with news other than a piece of paper to hang on the wall. Disappointed that a name to put on my resume that I thought would render me competitive simply has not.
The future of America
I had no idea what to do when I didn't get into a PhD. I applied to a dozen, and none accepted me. At the time I was crushed. This was part of my plan, which had, until that moment, gone perfectly. College, grad school, PhD, profit. It was a solid plan!
I got a job and immediately lost it when the real estate market failed once again. I moved back home and looked for another job. And looked. And looked. And nothing...
Okay so internships! Except most internships only allow students to apply because they want to invest in the future of America. I can't remember how many times I saw that exact wording. Just to be clear, the day before you graduate, you are the future of America. The day after, you're on your own.
One afternoon I took a break from stalking HR departments and sat in the park to read. A man strolled by and stopped. He looked at my book. "Are you reading that for class?" He asked.
Of course I told him no, I wasn't in school. "A shame." He said. "A smart girl like you should be in school."
And there it was, the reason behind all my frustration. No one had any idea what to do with an intelligent, creative young person beyond school. School was where we put smart young people so they can prove they're smart. The rest of the world doesn't know what to do with us.