For the first time since 2008, no state in the union has a double-digit unemployment rate. That's some kind of progress, at least. There are still 12 million officially unemployed Americans. Every week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.
I've been out of work for over a year now. I'm in my 40's, I've been in the tech field for many years, and I've had jobs with "progressively greater responsibility" with some relatively high-profile employers. I'm starting to realize that I may have to leave my profession because nobody wants to hire someone whose career is on the downslope, and I guess "on the downslope" describes me now.
Last year I let myself get forced out of my job when my department head made it clear he didn't like me personally and I'd be miserable every moment I tried to stay. I thought I could make a go of the consulting/freelancing route but haven't found any clients. I'd built up a lot of savings so I haven't gone into debt yet, and I have no spouse or dependents, and I know how good I have it compared to most of the people trying to find work, but I can't live on my savings forever. For the last year I've been applying and interviewing for full-time work at all sorts of places, and I routinely get "you are probably overqualified for this job".
They might be right. The jobs at my previous "director" level are very rare, and I apply for them when they come up, but I'd been better and happier doing hands-on tech and leading small projects anyway. Usually those hands-on jobs are what I'm interviewing for, usually with people who are younger than me and have worked at lower-profile jobs than I have, and I often get the feeling that they're going to be uncomfortable managing somebody older and more experienced than they are.
There's an age bias in tech and I can't do anything about that, but I do try to reassure them that I'm trying to be more a doer than a director now, but that gets to the worst catch-22 — who wants to hire somebody who isn't that ambitious? When you're asked "what do you see yourself doing in 5 years?" the only real acceptable response is "your job" but my answer is more likely to be a long variation on "this job." I've hired plenty of people, and I always wanted to hire people with an "upside". I look at me through those eyes, and I see someone who has already peaked.
I've thought about downplaying some of the things on my resume to make myself look less overqualified. I haven't done that yet, because just like lying about your age on a dating site it'll come out. I get interviews, and even second or third interviews, and that's another thing where its like online dating — no call back after the first date isn't so bad, but getting dumped after the third or fourth date, when you've gotten your hopes up, is painful. I've been on dozens of first-round interviews, and had maybe eight go to second-round, and four go to third or more rounds of interviews where I was told I was a finalist, and the rejection, again and again, is making me not want to try anymore. It's almost a relief that the interviews are coming less often as that hole in my work history gets bigger.
And I'm staring at the recognition that the field of work I've spent my life in may no longer be viable for me. Besides that, I'm in touch with so many people who I've worked with that are flying really high now, and if I go back to working retail or in food service like I did before I got my diploma, the humiliation I'll feel will be pretty horrible. I know "humiliation" is stupid prideful vanity but it is painful and I'm tearing up even writing about it. I made my career happen from not much once, and I don't know if I have it in me to start from scratch again.
I'm too young to retire, and I'm already a college graduate with technical skills, so I'm not sure what "retraining" could do for me. There aren't many entry-level jobs available for middle-aged people with extensive work experience. And I don't know if I can stand much longer not knowing where I fit. I've always tried to contribute to society, but I'm just a drain now. I'll keep going through the rejection and pain of applying and interviewing. I'm going to go cash in more of my retirement in a few days, and I'll probably keep doing that until I run out in a few months, then I'll sell my home and hope I get enough out of it to live on for a few more months, and then I don't know what. I can't even feel justified in feeling sorry for myself.
The mature worker
I worked for 31 years as a manager for one of the top publicly held telecommunication companies in Canada when I was laid off in march 2012 to help the company bottom line. i was almost happy at the time as the industry now sucks to be in and so does senior management. i was confident that i could get another good paying job...and would find a company that would have a better culture that wouldn't probably kill me. On the flip side, If you take 2 years severance into account that I received, I was 2 lousy years away from a full early retirement package that would have allowed me to do everything I needed and wanted to do.
Almost a year into being jobless at 51, my optimism for the future is....gone. I took a mature workers course, expanded my network, did a great résumé, custom cover letters, but between my age, the specialization of the industry I was in and no degree, I can't get an interview for any job. I'm working 4 days a week running a computer repair shop for a non profit to keep busy and have something current on my résumé. I love the work, but it's never going to pay a bill or lead to real work. I hate it when people ask me...did you get a job? I have black periods that come upon me that I don't see coming..like sitting in a mall during Xmas, seeing all the happy people with their packages. I could barely keep myself from running out of the mall. Tightness in chest, feelings of sadness, hard to breathe. Panic attack I'm sure.
Some will criticize me for saying this I'm sure, but I won't take a job simply to survive. I am prepared to earn way less than I did, to not earn enough to own a home anymore...but I won't take a job that simply provides enough to survive. I was homeless at 17 for 3 months and promised myself I would die before I lived in poverty again. I have a bad back, severe carpal tunnel in both hands (both from work but I was a loyal employee so never made a claim and can't now) and I will not..I repeat, will not, be a burden on anyone when the money runs out. Once my severance is gone next year, I either am "happily" employed by that time..or I move forward with the backup plan.. Leave what money I have left for my kids and girlfriend to help them to have a better life and I will "go away". Its enough to make a difference for them..not enough for me to retire on. you know, I actually get some measure of comfort having a plan in any case rather than leaving my life to fate..or having false hope for the future
The retail manager
My junior year of college, I was in an honors program and doing well. Then I got a call from my father. My mother had collapse, was rushed into surgery. It was cancer, surgeries would follow, she needed round the clock care, and no one was able to provide it.
I left college that day.
I nursed her back through another two surgeries, then, still living at home, picked up a part time job and did a semester locally. By this point, I would have graduated a year prior. I decided to seek some friends who had been in my degree program. I figured it was the best way to find my prospects post-graduation.
Two were unemployed, three had part time jobs, one excitedly told me she had just gone to full time—at the grocery store. One had merely gotten his CDL and taken to driving cross country. Another three had taken call center jobs, which did not require a degree for the position. Only one had gone onto graduate school, the rest bemoaned lack of scholarships and grants. Only one had managed a professional level job, and it was in his father's company. We talked about there being no paid internships, leaving them with the choice of in field experience or paying rent. We discussed crippling student loan payments and the high cost of furthering education.
I didn't enroll for the next semester.
I took a retail job, worked my way from part time to full time to management. There were three tiers of management at this job, mine was the lowest, but the pay was good. Then, after a few years we were asked on a conference call, with 300 other people who held the same job position as me. Our position was being "phased out" in the company, and no one in the position was eligible for promotions elsewhere in the company.
I got another part time job almost immediately. Again I worked my way to full time and was offered a management position. They moved me for a while, store to store. I lived out of suitcases and uncompensated hotel rooms, burning through money faster than I could make it. Finally, they decided to settle me. I was told at the time that the manager at the store closest to my hometown was about to retire. They would position me in a store in another state, see how I did, and relocate me when he retired. I accepted the relocation.
Two years into the relocation, and I had turned the store around. Sales were up 120%, customer satisfaction had doubled, and I had managed to cut huge amounts of wasteful spending from the previous manager, increasing profits. I inherited a store with a 12% rating and brought it up to 94%. It was hard work. My average work week was between 60 and 70 hours, mandatory 6 day weeks with only Sunday off. As the location I was managing was a joint warehouse/storefront, it also involved a lot of physical labor. I believed I should work with my crew, so I hauled 50 lb boxes around the warehouse, shipped and packed the daily tuck. I'd come home from work exhausted, but my store was winning awards in the company.
At some point, I started to have health problems. My childhood asthma, which hadn't acted up since puberty, suddenly was kicking into overdrive. I visited a doctor who was concerned, and scheduled follow up tests. I struggled to make an appointment. Corporate needed six weeks notice to schedule someone to watch the store while I was gone. Additionally, I only was getting 6 days off per calender year, and the appointment would take up one of these days. Then I got my bill from the doctor. Insurance refused it, citing pre existing condition. It was over $2,000.
In the meantime, my condition was worsening. I was lethargic, dizzy, constantly feeling I was out of breath. The day before my doctor's appointment, corporate called to say my replacement wasn't able to make it. I rescheduled my doctor's appointment another month out.
I didn't make it to the appointment. I collapsed, was rushed to the hospital. My blood oxygen was 81% when I was brought in. I spent two weeks in ICU, another three weeks hospitalized.
I got back to angry emails that I hadn't given corporate any warning about my leave. My medical documents were questioned, a higher up told me on the phone that if she could, she would fire me for being out so long. They complained that I had to take breaks for nebulizer treatments.
A month out, I had a partial relapse. The doctor told me the dusty conditions, heavy fumes and heavy physical level of the warehouse work was causing the issue. He put me on light duty, and I was put on oxygen.
At this point, the manager at the first store announced he'd be retiring. As that location did not have the warehouse making it a mostly seated job, I requested to be transferred to better suit my restrictions. I was denied, citing my "frequent days off" as the reason. Around the same time, I got my bill from the hospital. All total, it was over a quarter of a million dollars, almost entirely denied by insurance.
My third relapse the doctor informed me that if I did not change my daily environment, I would probably not survive the next attack. I begged for a transfer anywhere within the company, but was denied. I felt I had no choice but to quit.
At this point, I stand disillusioned with the corporate world. They don't care about their employees, and I don't see myself being able to care about the company I work for. I have made a partial recovery since changing my daily environment, but may need to declare bankruptcy to handle the medical expenses. Meanwhile, I find that my retail experience means nothing while searching for a desk job. Plus, the city my old company transferred me to is poor for job seekers, but I am trapped here unable to afford to move. I interview at least once a week, all to no end.
I explored going back to school, but my huge medical debt makes me unable to seek out financing or grants. In the meantime, I've taken small jobs that last a week or two, just to make ends meet.
Hamster on a wheel
I'm nothing but a hamster on a wheel. Day in and day out, it's the same grind. Like the hamster, I keep pushing but get nowhere. I have worked for 14 years in the field of journalism and publishing, doing everything from copy editing and proofreading, to production editing, technical editing and even being the editor of a business digest. I have edited everything from feature stories to highly technical journal articles, sports round-ups to novels. Over the last 5.5 years, I have been laid off four times. Each and every layoff came as a part of a restructuring or change in strategic direction for that particular company. One company even laid me off twice! I thought I was safe going back, given that they had just undergone a significant restructuring that eliminated an entire editorial group (you guessed it, the one I worked for). I was, however, mistaken.
I've been able to eke out a bit of freelance work here or there, but the jobs are few and far between. Not for lack of trying, given that I have been burning up the job boards, as well as the freelance and contract job boards. No love, or at least not consistent love. And this wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the wife and four kids. Our 401ks? Gone. Savings? Gone. Bonds we could cash in? Gone. Assets that could be liquidated? So very, very gone.
Here's the kicker for me: Journalism is not the only field I have worked in. I also (concurrently, even) worked in food service, managing stores for local and national chains. I was even pretty successful, doubling the volume of one store, and taking a store that was perennially not profitable to a nearly 20% growth, year over year. So, it feels especially amazing when I can't even get hired on to work in a food service job. Sure, I'm not 20 anymore, or even 25, but I know what I'm doing and do it well. Lot of applications, lots of resumes, but no calls and no interviews.
So, I'm on the wheel, grinding away. The sawdust looks like it needs changing and could someone top up the water bottle?
I'm not sure where to really start. Feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place doesn't really quite summarize it. For me, it's like being in tunnel that is completely and totally pitch black. I don't know which way I'm going or if I'm wandering around in circles. I keep looking for some kind of light that would point to a way out. So far, it's all been my eyes playing tricks on me. There is no light.
Anyway, I got a late start to college. I worked for several years after high school and then went part time while I still worked. When I got into a really good public university, I focused on that and didn't worry about working until I was getting ready to graduate. Even then, I worked in a lab on campus for one of my professors. I graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in geology (Yeah, I know, but trust me, jobs that utilize my degree exist; there just aren't many). Unfortunately, that has been worth nothing so far. All of the hours that I spent writing papers, studying, and working out equations more complex than I care to think about; all of that makes me wonder what it was all for. I finished my last class in August 2008, almost exactly one month before everything went to hell. I spent the downtime in that class sending out my resume and applying for every job that I could find. It makes me chuckle now how optimistic I used to be.
Here I am, four years later wondering if the life that I once envisioned for myself will ever get started. I'm a few months away from turning 32 and I'm stuck in my parent's house. I've learned more about rejection than I ever wanted to learn. Aside from a brief few months at the Census Bureau and working on projects for family, I haven't had anything close to a regular job. Every time a family member asks how things are going, I know that their look of disappointment isn't far from appearing. I can hear in their voice sometimes that they just want to ask "What the fuck is wrong with you? How can you not find anything?"
I've asked for the help of friends and have gotten a couple of interviews that way, but nothing. I've offered to work for free as an unpaid intern just to get some experience, but I have yet to receive a reply with that offer. My most common rejection reason (in the outside chance that I get a reason): because I lack experience. No one has explained to me how I'm supposed to get experience without a job. Some other awesome reasons that I've been rejected: I wasn't excited enough about the job (In my defense, I flew across the country to an area that I've never been and didn't get to the hotel until near 2 AM and then didn't get much sleep. The only thing I would have been excited for in that interview was a pillow.), I didn't do well in the performance evaluation that they did for me, the interviewer didn't receive the voice mail that I left in reply to scheduling an interview and hired someone else, and because my referrals didn't respond to inquiries about me in a timely fashion several days before Thanksgiving. I'm an amazing combination of over-educated and under-qualified. I apply for entry level jobs, but so are people that have several years of experience. Where does that leave me?
It isn't much, but all that I have is hope and belief in myself. Both have been worth has much as my degree so far, but I still need both. I'd be completely lost without them. It's hard to maintain both though. Sometimes, I feel like a total burden and a waste of life. Those worst days, I just try to remember one of Andy's quotes from The Shawshank Redemption, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." I try to remember, but son of a bitch is it hard.
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.]