The official US unemployment rate fell to 7.7% last month, its lowest in four years. For the long-term unemployed, however, the outlook is still extraordinarily grim. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed. Thirty volumes deep and still coming. This is what's happening out there.
There are so many of us out there
I've been a reader of Gawker for a long time and I was also unemployed for almost 6 months. I can't imagine how anyone who was unemployed longer than that could have anything left to give. I don't want people to know my email address because it contains my real last name and I pretended for months to my family and friends that I was optimistic and that everything was fine and that I would get a job soon. In reality, I wanted to die almost every day. My one year long job ended in June and my parents had to pay my rent because I couldn't get out of my lease and no one wanted a bedroom that would only fit a twin sized bed and a dresser for $600 a month. My mom and dad aren't rich, my dad works overtime so they can afford their mortgage, and I ended up causing my mom and dad to overcharge their balances on their bank accounts multiple times so I could pay my rent. I got food stamps, but I almost stopped eating because I was worried about not having enough money. Instead I started visiting my parents, paying for some of their groceries and then asking for cash so I could buy alcohol. I was drinking to forget how absolutely miserable I felt every day that I interviewed and got the "Sorry, we found someone more qualified" email or phone call. I applied to local Subways and gas stations, but they all said I was too qualified for the position. I seriously considered just ending it multiple times. Finally my parents' sat me down and told me that they wanted me to go to a local outpatient rehab clinic because they knew I was drinking a lot because I was exhibiting some of the same behaviors as my parents' alcoholic friends. I never went, but I finally found a temp position and have stopped drinking because I want to be the best I can be, even if I am just doing mailings and answering phones. Some temps are very chatty and get yelled at for talking too much during their shifts, I like them, but they scare me; I'm afraid if I do the same that I will wind up back where I was, unemployed and feeling like I failed everyone who ever believed in me. I try to work as hard as I can to get as much done as possible so I can keep getting positive reviews from the companies I am sent to. I can't face unemployment again. Every day I pray and wish upon stars (things I never believed in) that I will get a permanent job or that I will continue being called for temp jobs, because I have never felt so inhuman as I felt when I couldn't get a job and was a burden to everyone who knew me. I felt like everyone secretly knew what I felt and was pitying me. It was the worst feeling in the world and I wish no one would ever have to go through it for a minute.
I just want people to know that there are so many of us out there, and it sucks, and it turns us into people we never thought we would become. I hope everyone else who is unemployed and has told you their story finds a job, because I know what it it like to deal with so much you never thought would happen and to then still constantly worry that nothing is permanent and that you could be back where you were in a matter of moments. Thanks for listening if you happen to read this. I'm sure you get tons of stories exactly like mine, but it helps a little to read the stories, know there are people going through the same thing as me, and to put my own story into words.
The IT specialist
I've had a long and successful career in IT. Between 1988 and 2010, I was unemployed for about 10 months — yes 10 months in 22 years. I don't know why I tell you this, except so that you can note that I'm not some slacker.
In 2009, the company I worked for (which is large and successful, and was so even in 2009) went through a round of layoffs. On my team, half were laid off. I was not laid off, but my position was eliminated and I was moved to a new team. I am not kidding here: in the first meeting with my manager, he said "You haven't had a promotion in three years. That raises all sorts of red flags." He then spent the next 18 months getting ready to fire me, which he did, for underperformance. It was a classic set-up, i.e., make it impossible for me to succeed. So I went on unemployment for seven months, looked for a new job, and finally landed a contract gig, from which I was laid off after three months due to a reorganization.
Now, fifteen months later, I've run out of unemployment benefits and still have no job. I've interviewed for many, averaging one or two a month. For some openings I've been invited back for multiple interviews, which probably means I was a finalist, but I invariably lose out, often to the dreaded "internal candidate". Sometimes I get feedback from a potential employer. I'm told I interview well and have a good skill set. But apparently that's no longer enough. At other times, I've been told I'm overqualified or underqualified. "We don't hire people who aren't employed" is my favorite.
Did I mention I'm 59 years old? Too old to go back to school and have any hope of recovering the expense of that. I could try to get a teaching certificate, but I don't know if degrees earned in the '70s are still valid.
I had an interview for a contract position last Thursday. It pays less than half of what I typically have earned over the last decade, but that's fine with me. It is income. I haven't heard back from them yet. I dread calling the contract agency to see what the status is.
And then there is the matter of my now year-long employment gap. Just what have I been doing? They invariably ask. At a certain point, one begins to feel toxic.
Look, I'm more fortunate than most. We have savings to get us through a year or so. My wife has a job, but her income doesn't even cover the mortgage payment, so savings it is.
And I keep applying, and keep interviewing, and try to stave off depression.
Chasing a dream
I've read a couple of these unemployed stories, and the prevailing theme of "Nobody's Fault But Mine" strikes well with me too.
I majored in non-profit management, graduated in 2008, and then decided to "follow my dreams" and move to LA to become an actor. I was young, single, and figured you only live once. Let me say that I did not have a hard belief in being an overnight success. Of course I dreamed of being in the movies and winning an Oscar by 25, but I was also realistic. After research, I realized that I would have to spend a good five years, if not more, of unpaid, low paid acting gigs before I would even think of trying to make it my full time job. I immediately looked for non-profit work when I moved. But alas, we were just starting to hit the market crash. People weren't donating, places weren't hiring. I worked at Starbucks part time.
I found a job at a non profit, but we had to close down due to lack of funding. Alas began my first long term stretch of unemployment. Because the non-profit was small, I didn't pay into the unemployment program, and therefore, didn't qualify for benefits. The next year that followed was one of asking my parents for rent money, using gas station gift cards to buy eggs, and a four month stint of sleeping on friend's couches. The most humiliating was asking my parents for money. Hadn't they raised me right? But they never brought the hammer down on me. They were stern but gracious. There were nights where, cuddled up in my sleeping bag, on my friend's floor, I would ask myself "What went wrong?". And I know looking back I could have worked harder to find a job. This is nobodies fault but mine.
I got hired by a different non-profit some time after that, only to be let go after around six months. I did receive unemployment benefits, and was living in a much cheaper area, which helped immensely. What followed was a year long stretch of no work, with some occasional temping.
I had friends tell me to go on food stamps but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I had friends get promotions and I thought "WHY?". I had one or two people tell me to move back home. I stopped talking to those people. I even had one person tell me that I was in a better position than they were in, because I didn't have to deal with the stress of the office. I WILL GLADLY TAKE THE STRESS OF PUTTING OUT PETTY OFFICE FIRES OVER THE STRESS OF NOT KNOWING HOW I WILL EAT THIS WEEKEND, THANK YOU. Please, if you've never been long term unemployed, do not try to relate to your friends who are. You do not know what we're going through. "Hey man, find anything this week? Ahh that's ok man. This one time in college when I was backpacking in Europe I was really low on cash, for like a week. I washed my clothes in my hostel's sink! Duuuuuuuuddddeeee, being unemployed is like an adventure, right?!"
And if you have been unemployed, please don't try to relate either. Being unemployed makes you question everything about yourself- your skills, your choices, your dreams, your values. The best thing you can do is take us out for lunch on the weekend and talk about anything that is not related to jobs, resumes, or money.
I've had friends take me on vacations, though, too. Life is too short, it helps to have some fun. And that's so important when you're unemployed. You think that you can't have fun. That you don't deserve fun. "Man, this DVD is a great deal at $5. But I didn't get any interviews this week. No- I don't deserve this small sliver of happiness. I am a rat." (Goes home, eats chocolate and feels sorry for self).
I've read a lot of self help books from the 50's to keep me positive- Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peele stuff. I've developed little voice in my head that tells me to Believe to Achieve and Count Your Blessings, Not Your Hardships.
The thing I worry about the most is wasted time. I feel like the past four years have been a waste, more or less, career wise. But at the same time, I'm still able to chase my dream. Had my 9- 5 job been my main source of pride, I don't know what I would have done. It helps to have ourselves attached to multiple things. When one fails, we have other options.
I still do theater and have been steadily since I moved. It does take time, but not so much that I can't look for or keep a job. And I work out. I believe those two things have kept me sane.
I dated a couple of girls. That was the most surprising thing- that girls would want to date an umemployed actor. Like, well adjusted girls. Who have jobs. Good jobs. But it happened. So thank you, ladies.
Being unemployed hasn't made me humble. I still want cars. Lots of cars. And houses. And new computers. I think it has made me more patient. And more afraid to stand up for myself. Your self confidence slowly erodes away. But I know that I can build myself up. Believe to Achieve.
Attempting a career
It's been almost six months.
Over a year and a half ago, I moved back to California while finishing up an MA in a social science that skews more toward science. I wasn't done yet with my degree and therefore wasn't employable in my field yet (they want to see a finished degree or better yet, a PhD) but I could finish up the non-classroom work and get a full-time job elsewhere. My reasoning at the time was that my large metropolitan hometown was a better job market than all of the fly over state I had been living in and I really needed to be back among friends and family again just for my sanity. Within a month of being back, I landed a contract job with a nationally recognized retail corporation. I had put myself through my BA and MA working office jobs in accounting and finance roles, so I had experience and the recruiter who headhunted me assured me that though I was starting as a contractor- I would be hired on. The company was growing and they needed staff and the details would be worked out and it would all be fine.
And for nine months, it was. The goalposts on when I'd be made permanent kept moving but I was constantly assured that I would be hired. Just give it a little more time, they said, and I was willing to do that because I liked my job. My job was interesting and sometimes challenging. I liked my co-workers. The pay wasn't amazing but it was better than average. Then two things happened: We switched software programs and our manager quit and they hired a new one...
Our formerly happy department had people in tears at their desks all the time because the new manager had few people skills as she alienated everyone left and right. I didn't get the worst of it but I wasn't spared, either. I was very good at my job and tended to finish projects way ahead of deadline. Instead of being given more responsibility as I asked, the new manager decided that my role should be part time because I was 'too good' at my job. My hours were cut from 40 to 28 a week. I knew the writing was on the wall but I was holding out hope that I could move into another department in the company since I'd made friends with other managers before I was cut. And it was some hours vs. no hours. My budget didn't have time to adjust anyway because it all went to shit overnight. All the goodwill towards these consultants finally dried up, the company execs canned the huge software conversion, rolled everything back to the former platform, and sent the consultants packing. To make up for all this lost money and time, they announced that they were going to be cutting our department in at least half and they were likely going to outsource the actual work on top of that. From that day, it was over.
Since then, my life is a daily grind of applying to anything that I sound remotely qualified for down to things I know I'll be straight up passed over for because I'm too overqualified by education or experience. I don't mention my advanced degree unless it might help but I don't think it ever has. I still haven't finished my degree anyway. I'm too depressed at the prospect of finishing up my thesis only to have another thing that I worked so hard for not really matter and pointing out that I wasted precious time I could have been working elsewhere attempting a career.
I wake up every morning and faithfully check every job list and employment lead I know of and crop dust the Internet with cover letters and resumes. The worst part of that process is the hope you feel at the beginning of the day and week that wanes into despair by the end of the day and the end of the week when you don't get a single response. Filling out my bi-weekly unemployment census for my next check makes me feel like I'm completely worthless but I need the money, so I fill it out. Most of my friends who lost their jobs early in this recession are all back working again; I'm the only person who doesn't have a job. I don't see them much because I can't afford to do what they want to do. I mostly watch a lot of TV and eat microwave popcorn and cry as the only social outlet I have anymore.
I've started to look for jobs out of state hoping that my chances might be better outside of California. Plus, I want to feel like my life isn't forever dangling at the end of a string waiting for something to happen- this includes being able to move forward in my relationship. My boyfriend has been very lucky, he's in a secure job in a secure field and his star continues to rise. The economy seems better in his state and the cost of living at least is a lot better. Even there I feel trapped. I don't have a job so securing an apartment is going to be nightmare and I can't move without a job. I refuse to take help from my boyfriend and he doesn't have a lot of help to give anyway. I don't want to move out-of-state and move in with him only to sit there and apply and apply and apply to jobs, come up short, and have him grow to resent my freeloading. He's the only good thing in my life and I refuse to ruin the only good thing in my life so I just can't - won't- do it.
I keep hoping it'll get better but for the first time in my life, I don't know that it will. I've never felt so hopeless or worthless.
Divorce and unemployment
My story is a result of possessing a lot of drive but not a whole lot of a concept of what to do with it and, as well as being cursed with the problem of thinking I should enjoy whatever it was I ended up doing. I started off well enough – I graduated fifth in my high school class, went to an excellent liberal arts school in the northeast, spent a semester studying abroad, and graduated with honors. Then I found myself – in the summer of 2003, not a devastating time for the economy but not the boom of the late ‘90s either – living back at home, working in retail, and not knowing what to do next. What I did know was this: that I liked the idea of marketing and communications but had tried to intern in advertising one summer and didn't like it and didn't really know what else to do, that I'd always wanted to move from my hometown to a bigger city, and that I'd just started dating a guy who had no plans to leave that hometown. I ended up staying at home for a year, until he realized he wanted to leave too, but by that point I felt like everyone else had gotten a head start on me.
We eventually found our way to Washington, DC. I got a job in the legal world, which wasn't what I wanted to do, but paid the bills for a few years… I loved everything about DC – my friends, the city, our social life, our apartment – except for my job, and I thought I needed to fix that one thing to make myself completely happy. I started applying to graduate school and decided to change career paths. I'd married the guy by this point, and he was incredibly supportive. He knew (or at least I know he knew) that finding a career I loved was really important to me, and so he agreed to uproot our life and move to New England.
So I went back to school, to a prestigious program in a field where I could really see myself making a career. I knew that leaving the work force for two full years and ultimately taking a pay cut when I returned was a risk, but one I felt was worth it for the opportunity to say I actually liked my job. I loved school and did well in year one. I found an internship right in my wheelhouse for the summer, and I really felt like things were coming together. Then, right at the start of my second year of grad school, I found out my husband was cheating on me, and my entire world collapsed. I couldn't quit school or postpone classes, and so I fought through the year, determined to finish my masters degree and move to New York. It was the only thing on my mind for months – I got through all of the pain and the process of filing for divorce while far away from home by concentrating on New York.
I'd wanted to live in New York since I was 16 years old. When I was in college, I did a summer internship there, and I always expected to be back. But my ex hated the city, and once we started dating seriously, I came to give up on that dream. I had accepted it and made peace with it, but as soon as split up, it became an all-encompassing goal, almost an obsession. The only reason I made it through those months – besides the consumption of a lot of alcohol – was by channeling all of my energy into finding a job that would take me to New York. I was going to start over in a huge city where no one knew me, and I was going to show him by doing something he'd never have agreed to let me do.
I spent two years and almost four months in New York before losing my job. The company I was working for was having a rough year, and I was just one of several casualties. I knew we were having a rough year, but I still didn't see it coming, not until a few hours before it happened when I got a meeting request from someone I typically didn't meet with. At first, I was strangely ok with the situation… I had a terrible commute, which I wasn't sad about giving up. I spent a few weeks traveling up and down the eastern seaboard and took the opportunity to use my free time to see friends. I took long walks through Central Park and watched the entire first season of Homeland in three days.
Then the money started to run out.
New York isn't an easy place to live even when you have an income; it's nearly impossible when your severance runs out and you know unemployment won't cover your expenses. I made the decision to move back home two months after losing my job, justifying the decision with the reasoning that it was the holidays, and that I'd be going home anyway, and I could easily get out of my lease. I thought being back home without rent and groceries and the everyday struggles of being a Manhattanite would be relaxing.
There are a few things I love about being home. I love rediscovering a city I haven't lived in in eight years. I love being close to old friends, even if it's tough to see them with jobs and babies and life in the way. I love being able to go to football games. But I'm on the verge of losing my mind.
I went from living in the middle of the biggest, busiest city in the world to living on a secluded street in a suburb where the biggest news is that an Applebees just opened. I had sold my car when I moved to New York, and both of my parents work, so I'm trapped inside this house all day, every day. I could take one of my parents to work and use their car, but I don't even know what I'd do with it, since almost all of my friends are working like normal people do. I went from having complete freedom to come and go as I please to having to ask my mom or dad if I can use their car. I feel like I'm back in high school again.
The worst part, though, is thinking back five years to what my life was like – I had a husband, an apartment I liked, a job that paid me pretty well, and an active social life. I went on vacations and out to dinner without counting pennies. I thought I had most of my life figured out, and if I had just sucked it up and dealt with a job that wasn't ideal, maybe I'd still have all of that.
The way I think about it is that I gave up everything – literally everything – to pursue this career, and karma kicked me down and told me it wasn't enough. I drained my savings going through school, divorce, and a move to New York, and I lost my husband because I had ambition and drive and wanted to further my education and my career. He never actually said any of those things, but that's how I read it… that if I'd just sucked it up and never moved us to that town for that school, that he wouldn't have met that other woman, and he wouldn't have cheated, and we'd still be married. I ask the universe every single day why, on top of taking my husband away from me and putting me through that hell, why I couldn't just have kept the job I liked, in the city I loved.
I'm bitter and angry. I look around me and I see people who aren't as smart or talented as I am who have great jobs. I recall people who didn't like working for the company I was with and wonder why they couldn't have lost their jobs instead of me. I have wonderful friends who I'm irrationally angry with, because they have a well-paying job and a house and a seemingly happy relationship. I haven't let myself get too close to the guy I'm currently seeing, because sometimes talking to him – with his house and his job and his disposable income – just amplifies everything I'm unhappy about in my life. I know I'm fortunate to have a family who was willing to take me back in, and I've had interviews and meetings, and all in all, it's only been three months. That's a nanosecond in these sorts of things. But with everything that's happened in the past few years, I don't know how much more I can take. I'm sick of feeling worthless. I want to leave the house and accomplish something during the day. I want to wear something other than sweatpants. I want to stop feeling like everyone pities me. I want to feel like it was worth it to go through a contentious divorce – that despite the hurt I still feel, that it was necessary to get to where I was supposed to be.
I spent years telling myself that karma existed and that everything happened for a reason. I'm not sure I believe that anymore.
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 AP.]