Years after the technical end of the recession, America is still mired in an unemployment crisis. Each week, we're bringing you true stories from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.
Beginning again at 55
"Near-suicidal despair" you say?
That's a very apt term. And welcome to my world.
So many of us — old AND young —who have been thrown away know that we didn't do anything to cause our unemployment and abandonment. We know that. It still doesn't help. We do feel despair - over the unfairness, over the loss, over the lack of even some small control and power over our lives.
So many of us had very ordinary and average lives with ordinary and average incomes, and even those are just GONE.
Some days I feel awful because we have just thrown away so many people, so much (as the economists and MBAs and HR bots say) "human capital" wasted.
And some days, it's more focused on me and my losses and pain. And as much as I might try to push it away, it comes and sits right there. Because it really, really hurts and is awful to be treated like garbage or roadkill which was just simply scraped to the side of the road and left there.
Despite it all, I am trying to begin again at age 55 —after being laid off 3 times in 3 years — to build a PR consultancy. My 20 years at Stanford as a PR manager (before being laid off the first time in 2009) and time before that as a news reporter and editor should be used for something! Yes?
Some days, I get the profound and horrible feeling that the real answer is NO.
And that I am delusional and an egocentric and a giant annoyance in the cosmos and taking up space and air and it wouldn't matter if I just simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Then I wouldn't feel pain and no one would have to be bothered with another application or proposal from another "old person" who will never, ever get another opportunity out there with anyone or any business.
Yes, some days despair is all over the place and in every molecule.
Three majors, no hope
I graduated in June 2007. I managed to do it in 4 years and graduate with three majors (International Relations- with a focus in Development), History (with a focus in International), and Women's Studies, and minors in Jewish, African, and Religious Studies. I had the quintessential liberal arts-well rounded degree. All my friends used to bring up this 6-major/minor accomplishment as a bragging talking point
during conversations and introductions with new people. I thought it showed how resourceful I was that I was able to choose courses that could satisfy all the requirements of the other majors and minors without having to do extra classes. I was also heavily involved in leadership, clubs, and organizations during college, I worked part-time jobs every semester, was on the dean's list every semester, presented research to a symposium, did independent studies, did four study abroad sessions and taught ESL and pre-college classes at the local community college. I learnt all about theory and learning to synthesize views, and all that great bullshit, but nothing about real-world applicability.
So anyways, I graduated and that's when the trouble began. I could have a conversation and debate on theoretical and abstract issues, but I was not prepared with any working skill-set whatsoever. I moved back home (which, among family drama issues, has caused a depression which has not really abated), and applied to any and all entry-level jobs I could find. One month after graduation, the only jobs I could actually find was a telemarketing job and as a companion for an elderly male. The part-time telemarketing job was for an accountant. I sat in a boiler-room with 10 other employees (all over 70), where we had to go through the phone book to ask people if they needed accountant services. It paid minimum wage/no benefits or job security, and the boss would stand over us during every single phone call and critique and make fun of the way we spoke. It was demoralizing and depressing. I began to wonder why I even went to university. The home-companion job was great, and I really liked the man I had to care for, but it was minimum wage, and I wanted something more stable. I found a substitute teaching job which quickly to my luck turned into a full-time position. I taught at a dangerous school (think Dangerous Minds), but I loved my students and really cared about them. The administration was clueless, and I sometimes cried because some students would threaten to lock me in the closet or kidnap me, but I pressed on. At the end of the year, they had to lay off ten teachers, and of course, since I was the newest I got laid off. That began my spiral into chronic unemployment and this black-hole of ambiguity. I remember thinking that I could do better than teaching, and that I was smarter than that job (ha! was I wrong). That was the only job I ever had where I have had a stable paycheck with benefits. I made $30,000 a year (which at the time, I thought I could do better), but would be ECSTATIC to receive a salary like that now.
Anyways, that was in 2008. Since then, I've found work as a hostess (with high school students, making minimum wage and only being guaranteed 10 hours a week). This job was extremely demoralizing because what I made in wages went directly to the gas to get there, the boss watched us like a hawk and had us doing twenty different tasks for minimum wage. I've also worked at a mall kiosk (which I enjoyed because of the customers, but had to quit due to an unsafe work environment)... Then I had another kiosk job (working with high school students) until I came to work one morning and found the kiosk completely gone and out of business! ...
Right now, I've been unemployed since April. Since 2008, I haven't had health insurance, am living at home (which is a very horrible situation for me- because of my emotionally/verbally abusive parents), I have had about 5 or 6 different jobs that have not had benefits, stable hours, have had reduced pay, and have endured horrible abuse and breaking of labor law at work but have had to keep my mouth shut to get my paychecks which were never more than 700 a month. I honesty don't know what to do with myself and feel like life is not worth living sometimes. I just don't see the point. I wish I had never gone to university in the first place and had just gotten a tech degree at a community college. The entire educational system is a joke and all about making money on ignorant and unsuspecting naive students and their parents. I never envisioned my life this way, and would be so happy with just a steady, stable 9-5 where I made at least 25,000 a year. Is that too much to fucking ask!?! I can't live at home past this month before I'm kicked out, and then I'll really be up shit's creek. I don't blame my parents- I wouldn't want my 27 year old daughter living at home either at their age. Although I try to never be home so I don't set them off, I only come home to sleep.... I live off my savings, and since I can't be home all day, I have to eat out. I can't afford to eat anywhere by the dollar menus at fast food restaurants. Due to this, I've developed insulin resistance, polycystic ovarian syndrome, hyperadrenalism, horrible cholesterol, iodine defiency/hypothryoidusm, and I can't afford the medication I need or the types of food I need to reverse it. The doctor I went to said if I don't do something now, I'll have heart disease and diabetes in ten years. What can I do? I just feel numb. Older people just don't get it. They say I should try harder, send more resumes... it's not so hard, they say. But, it is! If they only knew how I send out about 100 resumes a day (I have 3 different ones for different industries), how I network, smile, shake hands, dress but the hiring
managers don't care... One job I applied to, to answer phones for a grocery store for minimum wage and seven hours a week asked me to writing a two-page essay on why I wanted the job. I couldn't believe it, but begrudgingly wrote the essay only to be told, she was going with someone with more experience! More experience than answering fucking phones! WTF? Another job I applied to for an office manager position for ten hours a week, asked for my desired wage per hour. I said I'd like to make at least 11 an hour. I never heard back! Are these people for real? Should we work just for the gas? How about making sure we have a roof over our head?!! I did everything right in college, I hit all the goals I wanted to hit, but it still isn't enough. Jobs today want your blood, sweat and tears for minimum pay and minimum hours and they'll cut you at the slightest peep. It doesn't matter anyways, I don't know the secret code to getting hired. Hiring managers take their sweet fucking time, and don't give a shit about the predicament the potential employees are in waiting on pins and needles for that one job that will change their lives. I can't understand how it's become this way and people still haven't revolted....
The laid-off attorney
My last day of work was July 1, 2011. I had worked as an attorney for a small 6 attorney law firm in Manhattan for 4.5 years. I won trials and appeals and was generally successful despite some pretty bad working conditions. The partners I worked for were unfortunately horrible managers and bullies. They "forgot" to submit payroll multiple times, my health insurance lapsed at the point my job had driven my to therapy because they "forgot" to pay the premium, etc. In May/June 2011, the firm was in danger of losing a big client, and the partners decided they had to lay someone off. As the highest paid associate (and believe me, it wasn't much - this was not BigLaw), the ax landed on me. They told me they were sorry but were sure I'd bounce back soon.
At first, I was a little bit elated. I hated my job and pretty much hated NYC. I knew it wasn't where I wanted to be long term, so I took the job loss as a sign to move back home to Massachusetts (where I am also admitted to practice). I started collecting unemployment, put my student loans into deferment/forbearance, broke my lease (thankfully my landlord was understanding), and moved myself and my cat back home.
In the past year, despite sending out hundreds of resumes, I've interviewed for 8 positions. Some of these required multiple levels of interviews with no word that I never got the job. The lack of respect for job applicants out there is astounding. I'm currently waiting to hear about two positions - they are both "still deciding." But as time passes I know my chances decrease. I'm 31 years old. I have an Ivy League undergraduate degree and a J.D. from a well respected school. Sometimes I wonder whether the partners at my old firm, who promised to give me good references, were just lying and really couldn't care less what happens to me.
I have no life. I was volunteering at an animal shelter for a while, but they have too many people and didn't need me anymore. I haven't applied for customer service jobs because I don't know how to use a cash register. I have zero waitress experience. I am overqualified for the administrative assistant positions I've applied for. I've recoiled from my friends (who don't understand and don't live here anyway) and can't bring myself to join activities because I'm ashamed of who I am right now. I have two weddings to attend in the fall and am dreading every aspect of them. I can't buy gifts or spend money on travel. This sounds trivial, but the thought of seeing an ex boyfriend at one of them is seriously making me sick.
My parents have been fantastic, but my depression is taking its toll on them. I can see it more every day. I spend my weekdays sending out dwindling numbers of applications and my weekends running errands with my mom. I barely watch what's on the TV during the day but I need it for the sound of voices. When people ask "how everything is going" I just want to punch them in the face. I can't help it.
I will receive unemployment benefits through the end of November. While I'm not paying rent, I am paying for my own food, the storage of most of my belongings, health insurance, and my private student loans (they could only be put in forbearance for a year). Once the unemployment checks stop coming, my savings will run out very quickly. Some days I barely speak at all or just cry.
I'm a pretty serious runner, and on top of the job stuff, I've been dealing with a hip injury since February. It basically took me out of commission, and to have the one thing that made me feel better taken away from me has been devastating. I'm getting better and am building up my running again, but it's a slow process, and I wonder if I'll ever be the person I used to be. Both my brain and my body feel out of shape. I was a borderline anorexic teenager, and while I've been healthy for a long time, the lack of control in my life over the past year has led to old thought patterns. If I can't control anything else, I can control what goes in my mouth.
I thought writing this out would make me feel better since that's what other people have said. But it doesn't. I just feel more pathetic. But I do feel less alone, and that's something.
The stay-at-home mom
My story is probably a little different than most, but just as frustrating. I worked steadily up until I had my children, and then decided to stay home and raise them, while my husband worked. My husband and I arrived at this decision after we found out how expensive child care was, and how most of the salary that I earned would go to child care. Also, we both came from homes where our fathers abandoned us, so we were intent on raising our children ourselves. Also, even though the bank qualified us to buy an expensive home, we instead bought a very modest home, so at that time, it was affordable. Fast forward several years later, and while my husband and I have managed to raise happy and successful children, who get good grades in school, I cannot find any work at all, now that my child rearing responsibilities are nearly over. I am college educated, and have never collected unemployment benefits, yet somehow I am viewed as an unemployed "pariah". I remember a time, not too long ago, when women could re-enter the workforce after raising children without penalty, yet now, we are increasingly viewed with suspicion, and treated as if we had committed a crime and were incarcerated! And yet, I have committed no other "crime" than choosing to raise my children. And just in case, you may think that I have been sitting around watching daytime television and eating bon-bons - in between raising our kids, and teaching them to read and write before kindergarten, I also renovated two houses, and sold them myself. While I continue to look for work, I am currently renovating another house, ( I just put in a hardwood floor in the living room last week) tend a large garden, and cook all of our meals. I am CONSTANTLY busy. In fact, I took a brief job as a nanny for a "work at home mother", and was ironically, shocked by her lack of work ethic! What I think is sorely needed in this country, is a new lexicon that replaces the one that we currently have about the unemployed in this country. Instead of buying into the vicious, readymade narratives and false stereotypes regarding the unemployed, I urge all Americans to read the sobering stories of our current recession, a recession that continues to devastate a broadside a large cross-section of your neighbors and countrymen.
The single mom
In January of 2009, I was laid off by my company. We were in construction, but we were also poorly run. To this day I have a deep and unabiding hatred of BMWs. In September, Boss #1 bought an 80k BWM. In November, Boss #2 bought a 90k BMW because she had to outdo him. The car payments for both (I was the admin assistant) were well over 4k a month. In January, I was let go, as well two others. This was after they told us in December not to worry, they wouldn't be laying anyone off. One of their monthly car payments would have covered my monthly salary. So my services were worth less than the hardtop convertible BWM. I cannot stand BMWs to this day. I know it's ridiculous, but it's there.
Plus I was in school for my masters degree. Had they been honest in December, I could have registered for a few more classes and ended early. However, that didn't happen.
So here I am, single mom. Unemployed. In school. What am I going to school for? Education. Brilliant. In my state we've had about a billion dollars in budget cuts, but in 2009, education looked stable here. Until the year I graduated. Anyway, unemployed for about 9 months. Underemployed for about 3 years. I made less than 10k last year. I worked my tail off. I enjoyed the job, but my company wouldn't let us work more than 29 hours a week, because god forbid they would have to offer us healthcare at 30 hours. I never worked more than 20 hours in my time there, but people who worked 30 hours had their time cut and benefits revoked.
Yes, I am grateful to have had that job, but at the same time I freaking hate that people always say "You should be grateful you have any job". But this is how companies get you by the balls - just be grateful. Take the pay cuts. Loose your benefits. Don't negotiate for anything. Don't stay anything and don't stick up for yourself. Just be grateful. And if you start complaining and you aren't careful - well, maybe this job won't be here. So take the crap because there are hundreds of others to take your place. You are completely expendable. And you have to take it, because this job, because even them taking away everything, is better than no job at all. And that's the truth of it.
9 months of unemployment. Almost 3 years of underemployment. I think the hardest part was I thought I was a grown up. I felt like a grown up... then I had to rely on my parents for everything for me and my son. Any sense of accomplishment I had meant nothing after the first year. Finishing my degrees meant nothing. It just meant I had spent a shitload of money and time into something I couldn't find a freaking job in to save my life. I sunk into a huge depression. Didn't want to get out of bed. Yelled at my boy. Couldn't face my parents because I should be able to support myself. And yet. And yet. And yet.... there I was.
I had just a few interviews, but the question "where do you see yourself in five years?" would sink me into a horrible funk for weeks. Because I couldn't stand to think of the future. I thought of my hopes five years ago and looked at where I was and could have died. The thought of being anywhere in five years was so ridiculously remote I couldn't stand to think of anything. I always pulled some BS out for the interview, but it would sit on my mind for days. Would I still be underemployed? Would I still be wearing out my parents, who at this point will never retire because of me and my son? Would I ever find a job that was full time? Full time employment in anything felt like a unicorn. Something beautiful and fabulous and a complete myth or fantasy.
Three and a half years... long years... and I have finally found full time employment. I am digging myself out of a hole. It's not exactly where I thought I would be, but it's full time and it's a great company and it's remotely in my field. And crazy enough, I'm really liking it. It was an ad in the paper, an accident, something I didn't really even think about but threw my resume together. To be honest, i'd never heard of the position, but they called, I interviewed, and then a month later they offered it to me. And I cried my eyes out when I got off the phone. And I finally feel like something has lifted in me. I still can't face the question "where do you see yourself in five years?" but it doesn't instill a soul-crushing numbness in me anymore. Maybe someday I will be able to look at the future and feel something other than panic and fear, but I haven't quite gotten there yet.
An alumni update
As one of the original contributors of the "Unemployment Series", I wanted to weigh in on what the experience has meant to me.
To be honest, when I wrote in as a "divorced mom", I never expected to be published. I wasn't looking for sympathy or pity. I certainly wasn't looking for financial gain. In fact, when I saw my story, I didn't even read the comments for a few days, figuring that the collective negativity of the internet would be heaped upon me. I have read them before.
The one thing that I gained, though, was a voice. I have lost almost everything in my life. I have no home. I have no car. I carry all of my personal belongings in two Target plastic bags. I have felt like the scum of the earth for the situation I have placed my children in. I have felt like nothing.
But I have a voice.
I can't tell you how much that means when there is nothing else. Sometimes it just seems like everything is so pointless. I work non-stop at two minimum wage jobs just to scrape up enough money to pay for our tiny motel room each night, never able to save enough to get ahead. Applying for job after job, and getting down over and over, even with 2 college degrees in education and culinary arts. (Two fast food restaurants turned me away. This actually happened). Watching the clock go from 3am to 4am to 5am, listening to the kids sleep and knowing things have gone so very wrong and not knowing what else to do to fix it.
But I am not a nothing if I have a voice.
Yes, there are those who will always take advantage of others. I don't think it comes as a surprise to anyone that there are scammers and trolls on the internet. Overwhelmingly, though, I think that by giving those like myself a voice, you are giving us hope.
Whether or not the series continues, do not dismiss its impact on those who have been directly affected by it. I, for one, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
The full archive of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.