When Barack Obama was inaugurated in January of 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate was 7.8%. Today, as Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term, the U.S. unemployment rate is 7.8%. Hope, but no change. Each week, we're bringing you true stories of unemployment, from the unemployed themselves. This is what's happening out there.
The good son
In 2009, I was laid off from my job as an admin asst. with a small construction firm after 11 years. Filed for unemployment, started looking for work. One month later, my mom's husband had a severe stroke. He has since recovered somewhat although his left arm and hand are useless and walking is difficult. He has also been hospitalized three times since the stroke due to seizures. He needs assistance bathing and dressing and is pretty much relegated to sitting in front of the TV all day.
He and my mom are nearly 80. She cannot take care of him by herself...so, I quit looking for work and moved in with them to help out, even though he and I cannot stand one another. I do the driving, take care of the lawn, the dogs, minor house maintenance issues, house cleaning, etc. Don't mind doing it, she's my mom after all. Problem is, we thought this would be short-term, assuming the man's health would continue to deteriorate (he also has CHF), but he is a tough old bird. I am now 56 years old, with nothing more than a high school diploma who hasn't worked in over three years now. On top of that, my own health is starting to become suspect, nothing major or debilitating, but things that need to be addressed. Unemployment benefits ran out a while back, but do get some government assistance with SNAP. I am grateful to have a roof over my head, food to eat, things to do and still having my mom around. Frankly, the future frightens the crap out of me and only my own cowardice and the thought of how it would affect mom has kept me from ending it all. It may come to that eventually though.
The corporate drone
I'm writing this after drinking several beers and some sneaked-in (alone) shots by myself. Because what else do I have to do except drink alone?
I've been unemployed for nearly a year and I'm at my wits end here.
The reality of it is that I was laid off in November 2011 and at that moment, I was elated. I had been in a "dead-end" corporate job for six years, and for three of those years, I longed for unemployment. I hated the corporate bureaucracy and the lack of internal mobility. I only enjoyed my great coworkers and good pay at a top financial firm. So when I was called into that nameless/faceless conference room (in-the-know, by the way… I had packed up my stuff days beforehand), my heart was racing but my brain knew what was up. And as I was driving home, I felt elated, like I was freed from a cubicle prison that I willingly entered into all those years beforehand.
The first few weeks were bliss. I could do whatever I wanted to do, all those years of me sitting in a cube, wishing I was somewhere else. I enjoyed sleeping late. I reveled in going to the park on a random Tuesday, walking laps around a peaceful lake and listening to my favorite songs on my iPod. First world troubles, right? I actually enjoyed being able to go and spend time with my mother on a weekday. And beyond anything else, I loved being able to see my husband, who worked evenings as long as we had been married (and even longer).
Thankfully I received a great unemployment "payout". My severance lump sum was enough to free me from crazy debt. I was making pretty good money as a corporate drone, so I was able to get the max allotment — $500+ a week. I'd be more specific except I'm pretty much buzzed right now… because what else do I have to do except watch Netflix movies starring Taylor Lautner at 2:30am and drink booze? By the way, I'm 30.
At this point, I'm starting to get desperate. I've been out of work for nearly a year. My qualifications are solid — BA from a good university and 7+ years experience in my field. I tried my hand at freelance writing/editing (my true passion), but that isn't paying my bills. I'm ready for another soulless role in the corporate rat race, in NYC no less… and only time will tell.
The bottom line is—and the sentiment that I hope will reach your readers—is that being unemployed makes you feel worthless. Despite having a great social support system and a solid employment history, times are hard. I think to myself, "What are you contributing?" And beyond that, I'm at a point in my life where yeah, it'd be nice to own a home and have kids. That isn't happening without a job, my friend.
What's the point in waking up at a reasonable hour anymore? What do you really need to do in a day that actually makes a difference? Why not just give up and watch TV and drink?
I never thought I would be here… and yet, here I am. An overqualified piece of shit (in my mind). And I bet there are dozens of other people out there who think the same way as me.
The young attorney
I'm a young attorney out of a job. I graduated law school at age 22 in 2011, passing the bar that same July. Throughout law school I worked for a single employer; a solo practioner who promised me from hire that I would be kept on as an associate upon graduation. I took classes full-time and worked 45+ hours a week to help support myself. I didn't intern because I "knew" I had a sure-thing with my current boss. I worked with the guy for four years and he treated me well during that time. I couldn't imagine what would happen next.
I took two months off to study for the bar exam, working an odd day here and there. Three days before my test I called my boss to confirm that I would be coming back the following Monday at which point he replied, "Yeah, I don't know how to tell you this, but we don't really need you here anymore. I make plenty of money by myself; I don't need to pay another attorney salary. I made up my mind about 3 weeks ago, but didn't know how to tell you." And that was it. Perhaps I was naive and I should have hammered on the extra-curriculars, knowing the job environment was bad, but I needed a full-time salary to pay my bills; I didn't have Mom or Dad pay my way through school like others did. I had loan repayments ($130,000 of them) starting in a few months, an apartment to pay rent on, and no job. I immediately terminated my lease, and moved back home with my father.
Since then (August 2011) I have essentially been unemployed. I took a 3 month temp job at another firm, but they decided they didn't have the budget to justify another associate at that time and my contract was terminated. I've applied to, quite literally, hundreds of jobs, gone to seminars and job fairs, and have had no luck whatsoever. I've applied for secretarial positions, but they just say I am "over-qualified" because of my J.D. I've applied for attorney position, but they say I am "under-qualified" because I am entry-level with no courtroom experience. I've applied for jobs as a Park Ranger, an Admin. Assistant, and a Cashier, just to name a few. USAJobs, I'm convinced, is just a graveyard of resumes.
I now live in a rural state where I can afford the rent, for now. My unemployment runs out in a few weeks and I'm sure I will be moving home, yet again. I guess the upside to this is that my student loan repayment is deferred until I have some measurable income. There is not a day that goes by that I don't wish I had skipped college and law school altogether and gotten a tech degree of some sort. Every night I sit in bed with severe anxieties about whether I will be able to pay my bills, if I will have to borrow more money from family members, if I will have to move for the fourth time in a year. I've pretty much lost hope of becoming an attorney. I will take any job that can pay the rent and get me to a point where I am finally completely independent. I hope things turn around soon.
Dealing with this bullshit
I've been out of work off & on for 3 yrs. When I graduated from college, I tried to join the military so I would have something going. After 2 attempts at Officer Candidate School that resulted in injuries I didn't commission. I feel cheated. But I guess its not in the cards for me. So I worked some retail jobs and bartending at a few places, all of which were fucking nightmares. The one bar that took a chance on me that I loved fucked me over because I didn't have a penis. Seriously. My regulars that I run into from time to time still tell me how much they miss me and I do miss them and the work, but who's gonna go back to work at place that thinks you're disposable when they are running themselves into the ground? I'm not crazy, maybe desperate but definitely not fucking stupid. I decided to go get a certificate in medical coding. I even passed the national certification exam, that most coders don't even have. Still no job. Maybe an internship. I would be worse off it if weren't for my husband. We got married before he left for Afghanistan and he returned safe but if it weren't for him I would be completely fucked. I still have to find something soon because I have student loans up to my eyeballs. I've been through some rough shit with him by my side the last few years and I can't ask for anyone better. I'll be 29 this year. I didn't think this is where I would be at 29. My husband jokes with me saying girls go to school to meet their husbands and I know he's not serious but damn I want to prove him wrong. I just want to work for fucks sake.
Thank you for running these stories. Usually when I read them I cry but its also reassuring because I know I'm not the only one dealing with this bullshit.
Back to square one
It's only been a month and thirteen days since I've been unemployed. But I'm profoundly afraid of entering the "endless time of never coming back" that is long term joblessness.
When I graduated in December 2008 with a B.A. in Literature and B.Sc in Journalism (yes, two separate degrees in under four years) from a public research university, I lived in one of the cities most affected by the housing bubble. For six months I languished in an unemployment hell I never thought I would experience. I had internship hours at an international media company. I had done two PAID journalism internships, one in Florida and one in Mexico City, and I had worked on a series of webisodes that got published in a major newspaper. Throughout these internships, I had also worked part-time waitressing and receptionist jobs to save money. I thought I would have enough to move to a better city and maybe do those amazing, albeit expensive unpaid internships so many of my top-tier j-school friends could afford thanks to the amazing resources provided by their institutions (and the International Bank of Dad, for which I had no more credit extensions).
But there I was. Stuck and broke. Because my mother was a real-estate agent making $0 yet paying exorbitant realtor association fees plus other bills, I had to help out while living with her. My savings whittled away. I'd like to say I spent the six months between December 2008 to June 2009 working on the short-fiction book I always wanted to write, but I was applying for everything under the sun using up any and all connections I had. Fortunately, I was able to waitress for a few months and make enough cash to cover my medications and other living expenses. Meanwhile, my half-sister thought my resume might be the problem, so I took it to be edited by professional resume writers. I had no idea I could look so douchey on paper-full of typos, overstuffed, and *gasp* Cambria.
Friends would move to New York City and Washington, D.C. without jobs to literally starve on the street while interning for publications and NGOs they thought would hire them. Disgustingly enough, I thought this was a luxury. Finally, after interviews in late June, I got into an Americorps program. With no savings and nothing else really hiring in my city, I stayed with the program for two years, during which time I was placed at two different organizations. The qualifiers that come to mind: Exhilarating, exhausting, demanding, taxing, thankful to be among the ranks of the underemployed and underpaid.
Think of the program like an underpaid apprenticeship at non-profits that squeezes you for all you're worth. In order to receive the much-coveted ~$5,000 Education Award at the end of your service, you need to fulfill 1700 hours of service within a 9 month period. Meaning that 40 hours a week won't cut it. But who in the non-profit world only works 40 hours a week? My second year my weeks averaged 60 to 70 hours, with plenty of state-wide travel. I was dealing with the press, winning a legislative campaign with my co-workers, and writing like a madwoman, so I didn't mind that my monthly stipend was $1250 after taxes, about $7.00 per hour...
I started a Master's degree at an Ivy League in 2011 with a partial scholarship from the school (added to the two Education awards racked up during my Americorps service). I got into all of the schools I applied to, but only the Ivy offered me money. When I crunched the numbers, going into first-time debt for a caliber education seemed ideal, especially when the price tag seemed so small. I kept working in communications at my school, hoping that my time in academia would help put enough ironic distance between myself, a somewhat activist inclination, and a less-than-impressive Undergraduate institution. It seemed to be working. I received a grant to do field research in Mexico, and I even published two articles on the experience-for free, of course. I thought, maybe, I could finally jump back in the journalism game, even if I used the savings I'd painstakingly accumulated over 3 years. But my partner of 4 years, a web developer who had been gainfully employed throughout my ‘problems', enrolled in a PhD. We moved to North Carolina and it's been one month and thirteen days.
How am I back to square one? No one understands the paranoia, the fear that I experience every day that I don't receive an email, an interview confirmation, a phone call. My friends say I've paid my dues and something will definitely come, that I should relax and enjoy the time off. I can't relax. I'm tired of living a professional 'whac-a-mole' existence that pays a meager amount for the hours I put in. I never expected a six-figure salary. My financial goals maxed out between a $40k to $50k pay check because to me, that was too much money.
Now, no one understands when I panic, when I see my loan interest increase, when I apply to $8.00 per hour jobs. I have a mother who is insolvent who will need significant amounts of care which she cannot afford. In 6 years, she frittered away all $75,000 of her retirement fund on realtor association fees, rent, etc. believing that the American Dream would work for her as quickly as it had for so many other people. Now she wants to go back home, but can't afford the move and keeps paying the bills on her credit card and borrowing from my grandmother. Culturally, I am required to care for her when the time comes and I'm ashamed to say I jumped ship when I realized I could only, barely help myself. My health, my broken—sometimes abscessing-teeth, my swiss-cheese of a ‘career' keeps getting in the way. I'm lucky my dad, a Vietnam War veteran, gets a military stipend and did the right thing-move to Latin America where living costs and health care are cheap. Something which I might have to consider soon. One month and thirteen days.
Comparatively, I've been lucky to scrape by the way I have. I have a somewhat solid resume, I've (indirectly) worked in my field. But I see the stories, and I'm terrified. I've fought fang and claw to make the best of an economic situation that wasn't my fault. It took me years to see that it wasn't MY fault. At 26, I'm starting to hear things like "overqualified" or "not sure if you'd be the right fit" and "too much office work for someone like you, don't know if you'll be ok with that?" Again, I'm resenting people who do have work and who make a decent wage. Again, I'm applying for work at Starbucks and local restaurants. Again, I'm looking at job postings overseas hating myself for preferring jobs over relationships. I should seek strength in solidarity, but I'm obsessing over the details with a sinister calculus: they hired this less qualified person for this position because her B.A. is from a better school, because her daddy knew X administrator, because she was prettier, because she was a he, and so on. I see everyone as my competition and I don't expect others to feel differently.
So I check my inbox and nothing. It seems cruel to have tasted underemployment stability, however minimal the wages were. Some of the strip clubs I've started looking into are the droney-bass stuff of Lynchean legend. They certainly pay better than any of my ‘waste of life' tier dreams do. One month and…fourteen?
The full archive of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. You can send your own unemployment story here. Image via Getty.]