As The Great Recession turns into The Slow Recovery, I have noticed an increasing number of articles written about the psychological effects of long-term unemployment (if you’re still reading after that opener, I applaud your fortitude). While I always find the statistics sobering, as someone who has had their life deeply affected by the recession, I often find myself disagreeing with how those stats are applied to the inner thoughts of the working class.
This article in particular (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26669971 ), written by Debbie Siegelbaum, deals with the alarming fact that companies have begun discriminating against the long-termed unemployed. I’ve lived through this myself, and I can attest that there is no hurry to grant interviews to folks who have been out of work for months at a time. As Siegelbaum points out, in 1950, the average length of unemployment was just 11.8 weeks; in 2014 it is 37.1 weeks.
My experience with this phenomenon occurred as my first real job as an educator in a public high school ended. When the recession hit, I was let go along with a sizable portion of my coworkers. Despite my teaching certification, which I received through an MA program, I found the prospects of getting an interview growing dim. After sending out countless job applications, and receiving only one interview in over a year, I began to settle for part-time positions; not limited to the field of education mind you.
For a while I worked as a day laborer, scraping tile and hauling all manner of things from refuse to cement and eventually found a part-time gig loading trucks on an overnight shift. It was hard, sweaty, exhausting work where the men and women grew old and worn out before their time. I was grateful for it, and the end of each shift brought a sense of satisfaction, but like many, I found myself underemployed. I was working at jobs I could have received out of high school without taking on debt from undergrad and graduate programs (more on that next post). In addition to that, I took on a second part-time job as a writing tutor. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two part-time jobs, while being enrolled as a part-time graduate student.
This hardly fits the narrative of a lazy, entitled roustabout who is happy to collect public benefits, and after talking to dozens in similar positions, I know I am not the minority. The problem is, as Siegelbaum mentions in her article, those comfortably employed individuals making well above the national average salary do not see it this way. In fact, the more they make, the more they feel they deserve to make it, and the same goes for how they view the un/underemployed.
Unlike the article however, which posits unemployed Americans are unique in the way they internalize and begin to accept this view, I believe our frustration and “shame” comes from a different place.
We want to work, and we want to be paid fairly for our work. That is it. Worker productivity is at an all-time high and so is the pay of CEOs, yet the average worker is losing hours and wages. Not only have skilled jobs been eliminated, but those that survived have been turned into part-time affairs. Sure, employment is slowly ticking up, but that’s because full-time jobs have been split in two, so that a company can save on health costs, benefits and overtime; yet we all know these savings only go to the top instead of being passed on to the consumer. The result is a workforce, which knows they are being cheated, and are frustrated to the point of giving up. When every part of the system is working against you, there seems no better option than to drop out. And when I drop out, I know where I’m heading: Broke Out West.