Men Talk About Being Unemployed in Their Prime

"More than one in six men ages 25 to 54, prime working years, don't have jobs—a total of 10.4 million." That portion of the male population has almost tripled in the past 40 years. What is life like for these unemployed men? Let's hear from a few of them.

We've pulled a few emails from our folder of unpublished "Unemployment Stories." These stories are individual, not definitive. They provide a glimpse into the experience of long-term unemployment during what should be the most lucrative period of a man's career.

No more tears

I'm a 52 year old man and I just celebrated my 6th year of unemployment. 6 years. Can you believe that? I can't. It blows my mind. It would be laughable if it weren't so tragic.

I moved out on my own right after I graduated from college the first time at the age of 22. And, except for an odd month here and there, continued to live on my own for the next 24 years. It was a good run. It's more than what some people get and I am thankful for it. So when I got canned from my last job at age 46, I wasn't terribly concerned or worried. I've been unemployed before. And I always found work again in a short time. And I live in a "right-to-work" state where the boss can fire you for no reason at all. While getting fired is never good, it doesn't carry quite the stigma in right-to-work states that it does in others. Lots of people have been fired here for totally frivolous reasons.

I have 2 Bachelor of Science degrees; one in computer science and one in health care administration. Add to that years of talent, skills and experience in a multitude of different positions. I am the proverbial "Jack-of-all-trades". And don't forget the 24 years of uninterrupted work history. I can do any type of office work, although my goal is to work in a medical office. I was working in a medical office until I got canned. The doctor decided to replace me with my own intern for less money. How's that for a kick in the teeth? And they fired me over the phone. Gutless POS.

Little did I know that some nasty new truths were about to rear their ugly heads. At some point, I passed from being "unemployed" to being "unemployed for too long". And it doesn't take long to pass that threshold. It only takes a couple of weeks. Recruiters have told me that if your employment gap is longer than 3 or 4 weeks, you are now unemployable. Your resume goes right into the trash no matter what it says.

Soon after that, I lost everything. I lost my apartment, my furniture, my savings, my bank accounts, my credit cards and my once pristine credit rating. All gone, never to return. Thankfully for me, my parents are still alive and they love my enough to allow me to move in with them. Otherwise, I'd be living on the streets. Do you know how vile it is to be 52 years old and living with your parents?!! And it's no day at the beach for them to have me here either.

I wrote and re-wrote my resumes more times than I can remember. I applied to every job that I was qualified for, every job that I was over-qualified for, most jobs that I was barely qualified for and some jobs that I wasn't qualified for at all. I applied to every hospital, doctor's office, lab, clinic, nursing home, assisted living facility and hospice within 100 miles. 4 of them thanked me for applying. The rest ignored me completely. It's like I don't even exist. Like I said before, I can do any type of office work. And every business needs someone to answer the phones. And I put together resumes for every industry and sent them out. And never got a single reply. Here's where the second ugly truth came up. You can't be a guy and get a job in fields that are dominated by women. Most doctors may be men but most support people are women. And all administrative assistant/secretarial/clerical jobs are filled by women. You would think women would be understanding about sexism. But I found that women definitely do NOT want a man to intrude into their work environment. And don't try looking for a job in your late 40s and early 50s. Again, unemployable.

The pain and anguish and despair at times was unbearable. Everything that I worked my entire life to achieve is gone. And it's not coming back. I haven't cried in about a year because there are no more tears. I can't even do the things that I used to take for granted. Like getting hungry and deciding to stop at MickeyD's for a burger. People do that all of the time, every day. I did, at least when I felt like it. Now I can't. I don't have any money. I can't get a date. Even if I could meet a single girl, I can't ask her out. I don't have any money. I don't have an apartment to bring her back to. I have nothing. Actually, that's not true. I have 2 parents who love me and a roof over my head and food to eat. I have my tv and my computer. And I am thankful for all of them.

I had a blood test this morning. There's nothing wrong. It's something my mom wants me to do each year as part of a regular check-up. I pray that the results come back with cancer or leukemia or something that will cause my demise. How sick is that? But I pray for the sweet release of death every night. My life ended 6 years ago. Now, I just exist. And I don't want to anymore.

Living the nightmare

I feel my life slipping past my fingertips. Every morning, I walk up trying to pick up the pieces of my self worth and try to understand why I got out of bed today. My partner, getting ready for work, kisses me on the forehead and says "I love you" before stepping out the door. As for me, I sit alone on the bedside trying to gather my thoughts on what I need to do.

I get up and turn on the laptop, checking the mundane posts from Facebook, check emails and then give myself the time block to search job postings. This routine has been going on for nearly 3 years. I have cried myself to sleep worrying over money issues and my health has started to show signs of wear.

My tree of hope has dwindled to a mere stump. The worthlessness I feel has attacked me time and time again; yet, like a zombie, my body functions but has become lifeless. I often think of what has become of me. I know I am not inferior, nor lack a willing mind to learn new things, but still, I'm jobless.

I look in a mirror, my once youthful face gleaming with life- now a lightly tarnished face with light wrinkles and bags over the eyes from the worry and strain from being without work. It's grueling to look at. Dark thoughts of ending it all pop in my head, but are halted by the visions of my love ones.

I glace at my resumes over and over, sending them to various job postings in hopes to get a call back or an email response. Nothing. I have applied to many jobs- from retail to working in an office, nothing but silence comes back.

I am connected with three job agencies and they can't seem to find me anything as well. I am willing to take and try anything. I have eaten a slice of humble pie and am willing to take a job. I get no offers. I cannot understand why I am not getting hired. I cannot understand why it's so hard for people like me, who are good, honest, hard-working people not able to get their foot in the door.

The news states that unemployment is going down. In actuality, unemployment is up, and people who are registered for unemployment are down. I am apart of that crass statistic. I am not collecting unemployment benefits anymore. My funding for that is exhausted and now I am like many other folks scratching and surviving.

Because I am now jobless and been looking for a long while, I am having it harder and harder to make ends meet for basic survival. I have humbly begged for help from friends and family. I am not proud of asking for handouts or even for help. Most of my life, I had fought to be strong and make it on my own and now, I have lost my pride to beg for help.

It sickens me. My life has changed so much that going to a dollar store or a thrift store is lavish. It sickens me that a McDonald's meal has become a luxury. I desire to sleep all day because I don't want to live the nightmare. My partner and I argue about money issues and have been at each other's throats. After our arguments we apologize and understand that we are frustrated with the situation and reconcile. He remarks, "I just wish someone would hire you all ready." I nod in agreement and pull out my sketchbook to draw so I can escape my harsh reality of being unemployed and broke. I have been clinging onto faith that things will get better, and that I will find something soon, but the silence from employers set aside my belief that things will get better.

It frustrates me. It frustrates me to the point of looking at a knife and ending it all. I used to never have such thoughts until this self worthlessness imbedded itself in my brain. I know there are many people out there looking, and I know that there are many people out there just wanting a chance to make it. We never asked for it to be easy, but we just want a chance to make something of ourselves and be given a chance to work. We have so much to offer and employers need to understand that the idea of good core business ideals start with taking care of the people around them.

Businesses need to see potential in people. Sure, some of the people may not have the skills for the job right now, but if you groom them and train them you can cultivate something more than just an employee, but you create loyalty and a person willing to strive for something worth more than their pay check.

Good hard working people have the ability to learn and grow. Now, I am not condemning the idea that schooling is not important but those who do not have a strong educational background still have the ability to strive to become a strong working class. The heart and drive is based on what they are willing to do and work for to achieve goals. This ideal has built foundations of civilizations and cultivated strong leaders.

I know I may not have a strong education, but I have lived long enough to know how to treat people and how to communicate and have the desire to learn but that does not seem to matter anymore. The Employers want the best people to work for them, but to be the best you have to work hard for it. That means taking that chance on those of us who are looking for work and willing to fill those roles you ask and work for you. Give us a chance to build along with you and strive to make something of ourselves. I promise you, the investment you make on people like me will be more than just a pay check. You are crafting a person who can have loyalty to your company, building a person's esteem and pride. You are making your mark in helping someone become something better than when you first came across them. You are building hopes and dreams and creating so much more than you realize.

Though my self-worth in nearly nonexistent, I have a glimmer of hope still telling me to keep pushing forward. It's all I have left. I just want a chance to make it like everyone else. I know others can relate to what I am saying and have thought of similar things I have said, but we have to strive on thinking things will get better. One way or another, it will work out.

Poverty and Lies

On the way down, at first, it's easy to disguise. The breadlines, dusty hordes of migrant workers, squalid city tenements—these old outward symbols are gone, with the poor now masked by cell phones and refrigerators, driving around the suburbs in moribund cars.

It's game of lies, this being hard up. My poverty was a slow grind of boredom and a thousand complicated inconveniences that I successfully hid. It gives new meaning to what W. H. Auden called the "low dishonest decade." I fooled my parents, friends, and girls who never guessed how soul crushing it got. And then last year, after I'd escaped the ragged edge of America's economy, it happened to a friend.


You begin to fake being busy. Projects of various sorts always need doing and never finish. You avoid cost—at the bar and no drink in hand, meeting your friends after the baseball game or concert, etc. You stop snacking and gorge the day's single meal. Then come the mental changes.

A workingman might plan ahead for years of mortgages, vacations, weddings and other life expenses. But when on the way down you stop thinking in years and start thinking in months, then weeks, and then days, which is what Orwell meant when he said poverty "annihilates the future."

And the whole time no one notices. Your friends, like the television people, always talk about the economy. Sometimes your new class is represented via some outraged journalist or politician. But no one notices this great horrible thing that has happened to you. (And you'll never tell.) It's like some bad independent movie where the lighting it all wrong.

All this gives you meanness. Everyone looks to Wall Street for some morally racked banker to jump, for the Department of Justice to finally get the crooks, for the failure to happen again, and meanwhile, you're still on the way down. The cause seems more interesting to America than the sad effect. It's as if not-poor people were emotionally unequipped to handle the poor. At least, that's how it feels, and poverty is very much a matter of feeling.

And there's the good (not a silver lining but a bad thing that makes you a better person.) Poverty's suffering, like most suffering, forces you to empathy. You know, and so you understand, and you see when your friend falls. I learned that at Harvard's bookstore.

It was a part-time no-benefit cashier job, and everyone, the young grads and limping old men, there by way of desperation, knew the score. In a cramped windowless waiting room two hiring girls zigzagged around some 50 of us nervous wrecks for an hour, taking and forgetting names. All you could do was hope they liked the look of you.

At least half of us left without an interview. But the worst part was, out of all those people, no one said a word. We just slunk away, trying to hide our shame. I recall being angry, but I also deeply and sincerely felt for the other applicants. I imagined myself a disguised millionaire who would reveal himself and save them.

After that and a nervous breakdown I began the slow climb back. Living (sort of), I took a temporary part-time job with a non-profit meant to, ironically, help poor people. Of course, no one knew my situation. They were more interested in getting paid, masking their greed with good causes, hardly working with any semblance of the urgency I was living with.

I also volunteered and gratefully took a terrible temp office job. A hard year later I found steady part-time work and a seasonal job. I'm on the way up again, and the first thing I did on my return to the land of the employed was get my friend a job. We never talked about it, his situation, but I like to think of it as a real moment of solidarity. It was by far the best thing I did that year. I felt like I'd saved the world.

Seeing America from the bottom up taught me a few things. I will never think success the mark of intelligence or hard work, nor think luck is made, implying however slightly that back luck is deserved. I will not think all nonprofits altruistic, nor dismiss volunteer street callers and their causes. I will maintain a special hatred for people who buy expensive fruit at Whole Foods. And no longer will I dismiss those nine-to-fivers in dimply-lit cubicles. They are not living lives of quiet desperation, though I know some who are.

[You can read all of our "Unemployment Stories" series here. Photo: Flickr]