For the twelve million Americans who are officially unemployed, life's problems run much deeper than the fact that their friends may be uncomfortable talking to them about job stuff. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.
The sports writer
In 2006 I had a job I was proud of. It wasn't flashy, high-paying or filled with upward mobility. It was doing what I loved doing, writing and editing at my hometown newspaper. Ask any former or current journalist, being on the desk, especially in sports, is the best-worst-job you'll ever have.
Things had been bad for a while. They quickly began to get much, much worse. The constant meetings with the theme of "the internet is the future" and "new ways to multi-task" became a weekly occurrence.
The end came in phases; layoffs, move, layoffs, move, layoffs and another move.
I escaped the first round of layoffs due to my ability to design and edit in both departments. I had spent equal time in News and Sports, if not for that I would have been out the door sooner. After that round of layoffs, the survivors were sent to work at a non-union site about 10 miles away. We were then handed the privilege of putting together two newspapers with a staff that barely managed to put together one just a few days earlier.
Things settled down for a short while and we all became accustomed to being unable to put out the same quality product that we did in years past. At least we still had jobs in sports, right?
Just as things had started to get normal-ish, there was a sudden round of layoffs again that caught everyone off guard. There were no rumblings of layoffs coming like in previous instances. Just a sudden cut in the work force during prep season, when we could afford it least and then another move to new building since ownership sold off land again.
The new building had none of the character that newspapers normally have and need. It was just a row of cubes in an office with too many windows and no segregation between the various departments and the noise from the different deadlines. By this time, I was more than annoyed with my situation and looking for a way out; either by buyout or by layoff. I wanted an escape and a chance to do something different.
That chance came in early 2008. We had another ‘tightening the belt' meeting in which it was announced that there would be a trimming of staff and a move from a beautiful area into the hood that was 30+ miles from our current location. The EIC announced that buyouts would be offered to those who didn't want to make the move. Before he finished the sentence, I had raised my hand and shouted out that I would take it.
Many of my co-workers looked at me like I was crazy but, I knew it was my best bet. I couldn't afford to take another pay cut and triple my commute. There were a few others who joined my in taking the buyouts. All the people that chose the buyout were like me; young, designer-editor hybrids who are without kids and willing to gamble that there was something better out there.
We were all completely wrong at first. Things were shitty everywhere, not just in our little journalism world.
My unemployment time started off nice; there was buyout money, vacation accrual money and unemployment checks. I am not going to lie, the first week was amazing. It was a total decompression from all the crap you deal with at a bad job in a dying industry. I loved not having to think and being able to watch sports for enjoyment again.
After that first week off I got back to work looking for a new gig because I had to support not only myself but, my alcoholic father who was unwilling to take care of himself. That's when reality began to set in. My budget and safety net was built up to take care of my expenses for a good while, adding his to mine just caused things to go FUBAR. If I was a smarter man, I would have left that man to fend for himself back then and not so much later on.
To occupy my time and to feel at least a little productive, I took to babysitting my twin nieces for my brother. It was easily the best time I would have on any given day for a few years. The twins provided me with a couple hours a day of happy times to cancel out the constant failures on the job-hunting front. No matter what I applied for I didn't get it. I scored in the top 1% on numerous county job tests and could barely manage an interview or two from those.
Luckily for me, my brother landed a new job with different hours and greater pay. He offered me up the extra room in his place in exchange for becoming a full-time "Manny" while looking for work. More importantly than that, it gave me the chance to make a clean break from taking care of my dad and start off in a better direction.
Life didn't start getting better quickly. Outside of my time being Kuncle and having princess parties with the twins I was essentially alone and cut off from the world. The worst part of unemployment isn't being poor; it is the isolation that comes from it. You are slowly erased from the lives of your friends and most of your family.
The isolation became worse when the twins started preschool. On the days I didn't watch them I might not say more than 10 words aloud and those words would have been to my dog, not a person. The world shrinks quickly during your time being jobless to the point that you're cut off from everything except your depressing thoughts.
Thankfully for me, those times didn't last forever. I was able to land a contract job through a family connection. I was hired to fix and transfer documentation for an IT/IS organization and unbeknownst to me, I began to thrive in this environment. I volunteered for every menial task that the others were tired of doing and started collecting my "IT tool belt" and had my contract extended out. I was essentially moved to a contract-to-hire path that was based on being able to learn specific skills that no longer exist in workers under 50.
It was also during that time that I met my future wife and actually started to feel good about my life and about my new direction. Finally, good things were happening.
After learning the new skills I was finally hired permanently early last year as a systems analyst. The skills I learned in getting this job have had a weird effect; I now get cold job offers via LinkedIn to go work on HP3000 systems all over the place. It is nice to be wanted.
I'm sure it will be a while before I've got my savings rebuilt and until I am out of bad debt and all the other crap that comes from being unemployed for almost two years. But, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I am fairly certain that it isn't a train coming to smash me.
I've been reading this series for a while and noticed that there were not enough happy-ish endings. I want the others out there who are struggling out there to know that it is possible to escape.
I was the CEO of a small private-held company. In many ways I was just a glorified Office Manager and Company Consultant packaged up with a fancy title. According to the owner of the company I was the one responsible for doubling the size of the company in a couple short years of work. It was a blow when I was "downsized" to a lesser position, but the pay stayed the same and I managed to get the company to pay for another Bachelor's Degree in order to pick up some more outside consulting work. The new position was degrading, but I assumed things would get better. When I discovered that the owner was violating the industry's ethical standards and my knowledge could make me complicit, I had to quit.
The company fought me for unemployment and even though the State said I was entitled to it, the fact I had quit on ethical grounds hadn't been challenged in court so they were going to deny me coverage. I would have to take it up with the State Supreme Court and I didn't have the excess funds to afford a $300 an hour attorney. Instead I finished out my last semester of college, got my certification, and started looking for work. All this was in the spring of 2011. I've exhausted my 401K, thoroughly enjoying the nice withdrawal penalties, borrowed from family, and managed to get by. I estimate I get one interview for every 50 applications I submit. Not just any applications, but appropriate work. My new career, the one I hold the low-level certification in, changed their certification rules a few years ago and nobody seems to know about it. I've applied for plenty of entry-level positions that want a certification that is now only given after two years of exempt-level experience and a comprehensive examination.
Frustrating is being told you are under-qualified and over-qualified in the same interview. Frustrating is when the interviewer's first comment is that I'm over dressed for an interview. A sport coat and tie shouldn't be over-dressed for any job. I've been asked why I would "settle" for an entry level job when I could apply for a higher position. Odds are if they hired me I'd eventually get that other job, but they aren't hiring for it now and when they do, they are going to pick someone that already works for them. There aren't lesser jobs, just lesser people and I'm not one of them. At this point I'd just be happy to work.
I know that compared to some I'm lucky. Just as I was on my last dime a government program opened up that let me go back to college. Sure, I'm earning a degree I'll never use, but I'm getting just enough to pay for school and living expenses. When I graduate this spring I'll get some sort of assistance looking for work. I'm still looking for work, but the longer I'm out of work the less desirable I become. I'm hoping that my time in school will make it look like I was doing something other than not working.
The MIT Grad
My story: earned a graduate degree in a humanist field from MIT in 2002 and wasn't able to find a job for six months thanks to a recession at that point. Worked that Halloween in a costume shop, TAed a class at Harvard. The following January, I found a full-time position — a job I'd previously held in 1994 and was the type of position I'd gone to graduate school to move away from. I cried most nights. A few years later I was offered a part-time project management job on an academic, one-year grant-funded project, and I thought, Yippee! Finally! and if it doesn't work out, I can find something else. The job went to full-time, and two years in I was offered another PM, grant-funded job elsewhere with a leader in the field. He also turned out to be the kind of tyrant you read about in fairy tales. I lasted there three years, at which point they cited the classic academic excuse of "no money," which I know wasn't true. The tyrant liked to surround himself with scared women; not being one, I didn't really fit in.
That started over a year of unemployment for me, during which I applied for over a hundred jobs, had a few interviews but never did manage to score a full-time position. I started contracting for a book publisher a few months in, a terrible gig led by a pleasant but extremely dysfunctional team suffering under the management of a private equity firm. That and unemployment insurance helped me financially through that period.
The job I finally did score was part-time and (wait for it) a grant-funded position for two years. That was in August 2011; I've just gotten word that project renewal doesn't look good. I continued to work for full-time work throughout this period and have come close a few times to getting hired, but no cigar. I am of mixed feelings, as I hate this job more than any job I've ever held in my life. I share a cramped office with two coworkers, the executive director is, I think, having an affair and/or is in love with my supervisor, who kisses her ass and then spends his days working on his other consulting work while pushing difficult tasks for which I get no credit onto me. I offer to take on extra projects but am rebuffed. I head into the office most days chanting, "health insurance, health insurance" (the job comes with a good plan that my husband and I are both on).
So now I'm in the position of having to look for another job, entirely fed up with grant-funded work, and too far removed from my earlier career to return to it. I'm in my late 40s and take great pains to impersonate someone in their late thirties for as long as I can. I figure that way I at least have a fighting chance of finding something, eventually. Maybe? I'm currently working on two books. Ha ha.
The worst decision of my life
In this economy, there are plenty of stories about people that are unemployed. If you're reading this, you're probably unemployed too. Cause really, we're the only people that listen to each other.
The second someone finds a job, they quickly forget the tribulations of being unemployed. I remember when I was in high school and my brother was in college. When I would talk to him about my problems, he would shrug them off as trivial. I understood when adult with completely different lives scoffed at my teenage issues, but I was amazed that someone who was just recently stopped being a teenager easily forgot what it's like to be a teenager.
That's the same dynamic between the unemployed and the employed. It seems like everyone has a solution. "Have you looked at…" or "You should look at…" Believe me, I've tried. I've looked everywhere, I've talked to anyone, I've done everything. I spend my days applying for jobs or networking. I spend my nights hoping I'll never wake up.
Even worse are the pep talks. "The right thing will come eventually." Really? How do you know that? What indication do you have that would suggest that anything would get better. "Don't get down, employers will see that." Maybe, if they even look at my resume. I just want some to tell me it sucks.
There is no science to job hunting. I did everything I was supposed to do. I started doing internships my sophomore year of college. I never wasted a summer. In fact, one school year I held down an internship and worked two part time jobs while going to school full time. Then I worked full time at a real job. Then I went to grad school for my Master's. Now I'm back in school for a certificate program because really, I didn't have anything else to do. Because being unemployed for too long makes you look lazy or incompetent. Why is being eager and desperate so easily confused with being lazy?
So here I am. Eight years of experience, a Master's degree, and an Ivy League school. You'd think I could at least get an entry-level position. You'd think I'd at least be able to make the same amount that I made before I got my Master's. But instead, I've been unemployed for a year and a half. I'm working part-time at an internship that pays minimum wage. I've applied to over two hundred positions. Sometimes I feel like the best thing that I could do is jump in front of a car and have all my organs donated. Maybe then, I would be useful.
There are plenty of poor decisions I made. The first is going back to school when I already had a job. It wasn't the best job and it didn't pay much, but I was doing something I cared about. I let everyone convince me that I wasn't good enough and that I had to go back to school. Then there were the multitude of unpaid internships. Internships where my supervisors raved about my performance and said they might hire me if something opens up. Well, I've done four unpaid internships, twice a position opened up and I wasn't hired. Unpaid internships, even at nonprofits, are merely ways to extort cheap labor out of desperate students. And then there's living in New York City. In NYC, maybe means no. Possibly means never. I'm not picky about where I live, but I'm currently attending Columbia so I have to live here. A New York City subway runs every four to ten minutes. Every four to ten minutes is an opportunity to kill myself.
If you're still reading, you have to be wondering what I do. It's sick really, I work in nonprofits. My Bachelor's is in social work, my Master's is in public administration. I always accepted that I would make less than my business school counterparts, but I didn't realize I wouldn't be employed. I didn't realize I wouldn't get the opportunity to help people in need. I didn't realize I would be the person that needs help.
My advice is that if you have a job, don't go to grad school. It has been the worst decision of my life. And now, it has become my only choice. If you don't have a job, just know you aren't alone. Your friends and family may not sympathize, be we will, even if we are your competition.
The environmental scientist
I've been following the unemployment stories for a while now, and figured I might as well post my own. I almost feel bad sharing this, because so many stories I've read are way worse than mine, but here goes.
My fiance and I both graduated with M.S. Degrees in Environmental Science in May 2012. We did everything that our parents and teachers led us to believe was what we were supposed to do to become productive members of society- We both did very well in school, graduated cum laude in highscool and undergrad. We didn't go for liberal arts degrees, having been warned that only science and engineering type degrees would eventually lead to jobs.
We participated in undergraduate and graduate research, worked all throughout college, and I even managed to receive a graduate assistantship (which helped to cut costs a bit). We both held leadership positions in graduate school, and led undergraduate students on research projects. We conducted and helped to design real grant funded studies, with real results that we compiled and helped organize into final reports for stakeholders. We participated and presented scientific findings to environmental professionals and peers in statewide conferences, and are even in the process of publishing our first manuscripts (with another scientific article in the works). We literally did just about everything we could to make the most of our degrees and earn as much professional experience as possible.
While I managed to land a temporary summer position in my field as a wetland technician in Alaska, this took me away from my soon to be husband for nearly four months. Since I returned home after a very long summer, neither of us have landed a single full time job, even though we have both been sending hundreds of resumes, cover letters, and applications to positions all over the country for nearly a year, and networking with contacts from school. We both make due on mind numbing, low-wage, part time work, no job satisfaction, and barely make enough to keep going.
Despite our best efforts, we haven't even been able to land service positions- voluntary positions with a minimal monthly stipend and an award at the end of the service term. Without the help of our parents, we wouldn't be able to afford to live (we can only afford rent because we rent from my parents- who charge us much less than they could) and we are mired down by student loan debt and the depression of underemployment after working so hard to find anything, and failing time and time again. For the first time in my life, I feel like I've let my parents down- it was always so easy to please them while I was in school, but now I can't help but think that they see me as a failure- and even worse, I can't help but start to think of myself that way as well.
I can't even count the amount of interviews I've received this year on a single hand, and I feel like my life is trickling by without me. I'm 24, and I can't afford to have children, much less continue paying rent, car payments, insurance, and student loans. If I don't find anything better by the time I'm 26, I'll be out of health insurance as well. I feel like I've fallen into a deep hole and every time I try to dig myself out, the walls just start caving in further around me.
The full archives of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I am taking a sabbatical next month, and this series will take a sabbatical with me. It will return in May. In the meantime, you can still send your own unemployment stories here.]