It seems appropriate, on this Labor Day weekend, to post an introduction of sorts to a project which I have been working on for a few weeks now.
It started as an idea for one week’s essay for this journal page: talk about what it is like to be unemployed beyond the statistics and the political sniping and the pundit snarking and the ‘feel good’ one-off pieces. Focus not just on me, one person in the crowd, but on the collective of people out in the world who are currently going through (or have previously gone through) this experience. Collect stories from other people, so that I’m not just one more person posting a whiny rant about what I am going through, and so I’m not just doing another ‘here’s someone who’s unemployed story’ that you can see on the nightly news, feel bad for that person, and then move. Write something that, hopefully, will make someone stop and think, if only for a moment.
So I posted some questions to a discussion board, and hoped I’d get a few responses.
Never did I imagine a few questions would explode into something so much more than a simple blog essay.
NOTE: All names have been changed to protect the identities of the contributors.
“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out…”
(Jimmie Cox, 1923)
Unemployment. It’s hardly a topic that no one is talking about. If you Google the word, you will get results for hundreds of news articles on the subject. But, look closer: nearly every article will be about the statistics. Check out the first five news headlines for the results from September 5, 2010:
Private employers add 67000 jobs, but unemployment rate rises - “The median length of unemployment fell to 19.9 weeks in August, from 22.2 weeks in July…”
Why 100000 jobs a month won't lower unemployment rate – “The US has averaged about 100,000 new jobs a month for eight months. Good, right? Well, the US is growing, and 100,000 jobs aren't enough for the new people coming into the workforce...”
Unemployment rate climbed to 9.6 percent in August “…although private-sector employers added 67,000 jobs…”
This is typical, of course, because the easiest way to communicate an update on the unemployment situation is to quote the latest statistics and then use them to briefly prove some kind of random point. However, what this does is make unemployment about the numbered but nameless, faceless, unspecific masses. It takes everyone who is unemployed and lumps them into a nice neat summary, a pretty chart or graph.
In short, it leaves out any idea of the actual experience that is being unemployed.
When I started this project – and yes, I now call it a project, not an essay – I knew what my experience with unemployment had been so far. However, there have been many blogs written by unemployed people, just as there have been many news stories about one particular unemployed person here or there. They get lumped together and lost in the daily drumming that is the 24-hour news cycle. To write about my experiences alone would have no more meaning than any of these other stories, because as one acquaintance so eloquently told me once during a discussion of one of those stories, “Yeah, that guy’s story, that’s tough. But, it’s just that one guy. That isn’t everybody who’s unemployed, you know?”
That isn’t everybody…
Isn’t it? That was my question. Even I have thought sometimes, watching one of those news reports on Joe X, unemployed person number whatever, “Man, he’s got it bad. Glad that’s not me.” But in many ways, it is me. I am Joe X, or Jane Y. My situation is different, but yet it’s also the same. And because no one talks about it, no one understands this.
It’s not just that nobody knows you in the way the song says, the idea that when you can’t be of financial gain to them, they pretend they’ve never met you; it’s that no one KNOWS you anymore, because if they haven’t been unemployed, they cannot truly understand what it means to BE unemployed. They don’t *know* you, and they can’t, because you aren’t likely to tell them.
“I fear how my friends will respond if I tell them the honest truth of how I am feeling.”~ Taliba
“I tell them I'm currently unemployed - a few are very gracious… Most others can't get away from me fast [enough]…” ~ Karen
“. I don't have too many friends to talk to, since most of them seem to be busy.... they were never too busy… when I was employed…” ~ Renita
I’ve never been one to shy away from asking questions, so I did just that. On Friday, July 23, 2010, I posed the first set of questions to three different discussion boards on the LinkedIn professional networking site (www.LinkedIn.com). I hoped for five, maybe ten responses if I was lucky, just enough to give me a little more insight into the collective mind of the unemployed. By Sunday I had gotten five or ix posts (on only one board – the others to this day have remained silent) and was fairly pleased. I thought I’d gotten lucky, and didn’t expect much more than what I had received at that point.
Then came Monday, and the discussion board exploded.
“Unemployment feels like a death.” ~ Bobby
“Unemployment is no vacation.” ~ Henna
“Unemployment is hell…” ~ Jake
Six weeks later, over 1200 comments have been posted publicly, and I have also received dozens of contributions from people concerned that posting publicly could be a detriment to their job search. I have heard from people from 25 years old to 75, people who work or have worked in 79 different industries; people who live in 29 of the 50 United States (plus D.C.), and people from 17 additional countries outside the U.S.
These people, representing 80 different regional areas of the world, are men and women. Some are married, others divorced, partnered, or single; some have children and parents and siblings who depend on them, and some have no one but themselves to support. Some live in urban cities, others in suburban neighborhoods, and others in rural areas. Some own their homes outright, some have mortgages, and some rent their homes. Some have lost their homes and had to move in with friends or family.
These people are everyone of us, and at the same time each one is unique and different. What they have in common above all is that they all have a story to tell. It is the same story, and yet it is individual to each one.
And it is a story that is not being told.
“I have experienced every one of the 5 stages of grief to some degree or another and some that aren't even categorized.” ~ Fred
Being unemployed is something that cannot be explained through charts or statistics. It is about the people. About the men and women who are currently getting up in the morning with no specific place to go. It is about the families of those men and women. It is about the friends and former coworkers. It is about the community in which they live.
“Unemployment is like having leprosy – everyone treats you like you have a deadly disease they can catch, and it feels like you’re losing pieces of yourself.” - Taliba
It is about the toll that it takes - physical, the emotional, the mental and spiritual cost. It’s about the story that you never hear.
“…it feels a lot like being chained to the bottom of a swimming pool with just the air in your lungs…” ~ Harvey
Here are just a few things to consider about unemployment that get lost in the statistics:
It is about the financial burden, that goes beyond the lack of a paycheck.
* It is about the worry of losing your home because you can’t pay the mortgage or rent.
* It is about having to give up the car because you can’t pay the lease or insurance bill, or buy gas to run it.
* It is about being afraid of losing the house, and of having no idea where you will go when you do.
* It is about choosing to pay the electric bill that runs your computer verses the gas bill that keeps you warm; choosing between the cable bill that feeds your internet for job hunting verses the phone bill that allows prospective employers to reach you; choosing between buying nutritional food to keep up your health verses cheap food that will save you money.
* It is about your credit rating, because every time you can’t pay a bill it causes another ding on your report; it is about knowing that a bad credit rating could be what keeps you from getting hired again.
“Unemployment pays me about 1/3 my prior wage. I have gone through our savings and retirement account to keep our bills paid and our house.” ~ Laura
“It is so difficult to keep being positive when you wonder how you are going to pay for your children's education or even pay the daily bills-and this is with 20 years… experience.” ~ Nadia
“I eat only one meal a day and drink water throughout the day.” ~ Prince
“Since my … unemployment has terminated, living with my mother-in-law… is the only viable option… that is stressful (along with being unemployed).” ~ Phil
It is about relationships, about how each person in your life is affected by your unemployment:
* It is about the strain on your partnership - how your significant sees you, or how you think they see you.
* It is about the strain on your extended family – being afraid to ask for help, or knowing they can’t – or worse, WON’T – help you.
* It is about explaining to your children that they can’t have new clothes for school this fall because there isn’t money to buy them.
* It is about friendships – those who you can turn to, and those who turn their backs on you.
* It is about coworkers – those who will stay in touch and try to help you in your job hunt, verses those who used to talk to you all the time and suddenly are unavailable when you call
“I don't think most of my family and friends know how to relate...” ~ Bella
“Friends, relatives… think you are lazy, just stupid, there must be something wrong with you.” ~ Selena
“…the support from friends & family I thought would be here, isn't…”~ Renae
“…openly told me not to ask for money…” ~ Cadence
“When he starts first grade in the fall, I'm sure there will be talk on the playground about what their parents ‘do for a living’ -- and I have no doubt that my son will be embarrassed to admit that his Dad is unemployed…” – Pacey
It is about respect, and how you see yourself and your place in the world:
* It is about your self worth, your value to others
* It is about pride in your accomplishments and your ability to provide for yourself and others
* It is about esteem – that which you have for yourself, that which other have in you.
* It is about confidence, knowing that you are capable of doing something of value to others.
“It's enough to send you over the edge… robbing us of whatever dignity we have left.” ~ Perry
“The most insidious effect, for me, has been shame and fear.” ~ Daisy
“…the self esteem gets attacked every day by feeling like no one can use you or want you” ~ Franny
“I get down upon myself, lacking skills, and experience. Depression sets in, and I start to question my worthiness as a human.” ~ Ellen
It is about faith, in the god you believe in and the world around you.
“Only faith in [myself] and faith in God can keep [me] going.” - Pierce
“I have heard [of] people writing to god... Less insane people write to… Steve Jobs....” ~ Parker
“…these times (being unemployed) are nothing more than spiritual warfare…” ~ Winter
“I hear that expression about God closing a door and another opening. I'm not seeing it…” ~ Perry
“…during these trying times all you can do is hold on to your faith …” ~ Raven
As I have collected stories, I have also seen something extraordinary happen. People suffering the weight of unemployment discovered they were not alone. They discovered that there were others who understood their fears, anger, frustration. They started to talk to each other, and to me. The news of the discussion spread, as did participation levels.
“… stumbled upon this heart-wrenching discussion. I can assure you it is no different over in the UK…” ~ Geoff
“Went to my Looking for Work support group… this morning. Mentioned this thread…” ~ Franny
“I can relate to all of you… its helps to see that I am not the only one going through this mess.” ~ Darian
“While it is terrible that we are all in this situation, it is good to see that I am not the only one that feels this way.” ~ Jensen
They started to help each other. At first, it was moral support, encouragement and pep talks to keep themselves and each other motivated in the search for the new job, the next new opportunity. Then it was forming support circles and posting notices for ones that had already existed. People from the discussion started to form small private groups in their local areas - to date two have had actual in-person meetings.
Finally, it was active involvement in helping each other look for work– forming network connections, posting job openings and recruitment options. Fisher in Utah sent Betty in New Jersey several names of people he knew in her area who might be able to help her. Garrett in California offered to forward Cassie’s resume to his company’s Arizona offices near her. Camille in Connecticut notified Taliba in New York of a job opening that might fit her skills. Candy, a resume specialist in South Carolina, offered to help Prince in Texas with his resume free of charge – and, for that matter, anyone else who asked.
People who had never met, never seen each other with their own eyes began actively working in each other’s interests. They started reporting to each other on successes and failures, celebrating or consoling each other as things progressed. They started asking each other questions about their experiences, seeking the knowledge that they were not the only one to have doubts or worries, and helping each other to cope with their struggles.
Because finally, they have found someone who, while having never met them, actually KNOWS them.
It’s been only six weeks. This ‘project’ has only just begun.
“I have a lot to say so I will probably post several times...” ~ Fred
“I have a lot to say... I could write for days...” ~ Eden
“I can write thesis on this.” ~ Cherrie
I could not in any one essay possibly even begin to touch on everything that has been discussed, and I will not be so bold as to try. I will, rather, pursue this in detail in further installments, and I hope in a means more public than simply an online journal. It is a journey to discover what it really means to be unemployed, and to tell the tales of people who have been down and out and are struggling to find their way back. It is a story about what lies behind the statistics.
We are not numbers.
We are people.
We are individuals, each with our own stories and struggles and hopes.
We will be heard.
“…now that you know who the unemployed are and what the experience is like, never, never lump people together into one category when you think of the unemployed…” ~ Cailyn
To be continued…
 According to listed “Locations” on each person’s LinkedIn profile.