To Be or Not to Be (Employed), That is the Question


It’s been almost three years since I’ve seen the snapper guy.

We were brand new in town and we couldn’t seem to figure out which end was up.  Just getting phone and internet service turned on was an ordeal.  We’d call one company and they’d send us to another that would send us back to the first.  Then there was the little matter of water.  When you move to the middle of the desert, you quickly discover that, well, there isn’t any.  Not the kind you can drink, anyway.  You have to have a tank installed in your home and find out how to get in touch with the water guy so he can drag a hose through your back door on a regular basis.  We called the number for the only water delivery company listed in the phone book and found that it had been disconnected.  And on and on.

Knowledge is power and it didn’t take us long to learn that the only way to gain local knowledge of who does what is to ask someone who might be inclined to share information.  Like Blanche Dubois, we had to depend on the kindness of strangers.  We finally hit pay dirt by asking the ladies who serve food at the local cafés.  Then I read the blog of a quirky local guy who, as it turned out, worked in the bank; we opened an account with him and got some more information.  Coming from a big city, the importance of knowing people in a small town was new to us.  Anytime a friendly person struck up a conversation, we’d take the time to talk.  After all, he or she could have a piece of critical information unavailable to mere mortals who have just moved to town.

On the day we met the snapper guy, we had headed out into the Sunday morning heat to go see the omelette guy.  Once we figured out where to dump our trash and how to get our lawn cut and our cars serviced, we had turned to the important matter of where to find the best meal in town.  The bank blogger guy had told us about the made-to-order omelette guy, so we headed out to brunch.  While we were standing around waiting for him to finish his sizzle and flip thing, my eyes met those of an older gentleman at a nearby table.  He motioned me over and we had a nice little chat.  After introducing myself as a newcomer, we quickly found common ground in our love of eating fresh fish.  I nodded and mmhmm’d and generally let him talk about the best kinds of fish and how to prepare them.  We agreed that our mutual favorite was red snapper, and he invited us to come visit sometime so that he could prepare a fantastic fish dinner for us.  I was amazed by his generosity and told him I’d really like that.  It was time to tip the omelette guy and go eat.

I ran into the snapper guy just once after that, and we merely waved at each other.  We never did go visit him, which I regret now that our time in the desert has come to a close.  I also realize that I should have visited our tiny local bookstore more than once or twice and that I should have supported our local library more and that, despite my dislike of outdoor pursuits, I should have gone down to the river a few times.

There is no sense in having regrets, however; when it’s time to move on, I just go.  Due to a complicated situation with my employer, about half the staff received layoff notices, including yours truly.  So, as the taxi driver said, where to?

In a few weeks, we will be moving in with family in northern California, more than 600 miles away.  Meanwhile, I have set my résumé adrift on the sea of bits and bytes that is the internet and, at the risk of mixing my metaphors, I sit with my iced tea behind the screen of my laptop and watch the letters and phrases and pages of my job history and references fly across the miles at the whim of the four winds.

What washes up on the beach has been interesting, to say the least.  Rather than smooth sea glass, starfish and clam shells, I seem to be harvesting proposals from every mass marketer, franchiser and get-rich-quick scheme our great nation has to offer.  Insurance companies want me to set up brokerages right in my hometown!  And I did receive a proposal from a recruiter at a very large tech firm about two thousand miles away, in the heart of the American Midwest.  If they want me to come for an interview, I told them, send me a plane ticket.

The most disconcerting aspects of my job search to date have been how few jobs are out there, how little they’re paying and the extent to which much of my previous work has been blitzed into obsolescence by modern technology.

Since I have to change jobs, I want to do something that’s a little more fun than being a boring manager.  My favorite jobs have always been those that feed into my predilection for being an adrenalin junkie.  I want to pick up the pace, work all night on a tight deadline and emerge bleary eyed at dawn as the courier rushes the completed work out the door.  I want to watch the automatic call distributor queue start to back up and then rush around moving people and pressing buttons while simultaneously pushing calls from one switch to another and calling in staff for overtime.  I loved working in the publishing and telecom industries, but alas, automation has zapped much of the zip and jolt out of what we once had to do manually.

And now, as I stare down the barrel of double nickels, the big five five, I wonder whether it’s time for this old dog to throw in the towel and, as my father likes to say, pass the torch from failing hands.  Anti-discrimination laws notwithstanding, who is going to hire an overeducated, over the hill, overeager middle manager?  We are a dime a dozen.  The young guy who cleans the bathrooms and vacuums the carpets in my building is more likely to get hired than I am.

The last time that I lost my job, I was unemployed for eight months and applied for 133 jobs in 27 states before I finally was hired.  I sigh at the thought of running this maze again.  Last time, when the plumber at our apartment complex came to fix our toilet, he asked me why I wasn’t at work.  Rather than expound upon the joys of unemployment, I simply told him that I had retired and was now a house husband.  I threw a dish towel over my arm and started a load of laundry to act the part.

It was an act last time, but now I wonder whether the time has come to do it for real.  I remember how my grandfather eased into retirement by going part-time first.  He had been with his employer for an insane number of years and finally stopped working at the age of 80.  When he did, he drew a pension and Social Security.  My parents retired much sooner, at about the age of sixty, also with pensions and Social Security.

But this is the 21st century, and there is no pension for me.  I have worked on both the east and west coasts of the United States for a variety of employers, never staying in one place for more than six to eight years, certainly not long enough to draw a pension.  This rolling stone has gathered no moss.  And I am not old enough to draw Social Security yet.  One could postulate that retiring earlier and earlier with each successive generation is a measure of progress.  But when retirement is not altogether voluntary, driven by a weak economy and galloping technology, one must question how much of a leap forward it really is.  This is particularly so when few arrangements have been made to support those who are pushed out of the workforce.  And there are too many of us sharing this misfortune to dump us on a nearby ice floe and cast us out to sea.

So what is one to do?  Well, there is the social safety net, such as it is.  There are unemployment benefits, but they will constitute only a small percentage of my wages and are generally cut off in a matter of months.  Then what?  They say the national rate of unemployment is starting to fall, but those figures are known to be biased by the fact that they fail to account for the growing ranks of the long-term unemployed who have exhausted all benefits and have simply stopped looking for work.  Meanwhile, my mother called this morning to tell me to apply for Food Stamps.  I told her that we’re not totally broke yet, but she retorted that some food aid is available to the unemployed even if their resources haven’t been totally depleted.  Yowza, imagine me at Wal-Mart with an EBT card.

It isn’t as if we haven’t planned.  But the savings we have will not last us forever and the 401(k) plan I’ve been contributing to for years will be taxed from here to Timbuktu because, in the eyes of the federal government, I’m still a spry young thing.  In reality, of course, I am neither spry nor young.  I wonder what to put down on the ubiquitous disability questionnaire that appears in the EEO section of every job application.  It’s bad enough that I have to admit to being a white male and hence bereft of attributes that could contribute positive mojo to an employer’s diversity statistics.  Should I take the opportunity to come across as a disabled applicant?  Will this help or hurt my chances of being hired?  When completing the inane application forms that most employers continue to use, do I really want to get into the details of my diabetes and hypertension problems?  Should I admit that I injured my hip in a car accident and some days I hobble around like a gremlin?  Should I mention my intimate familiarly with the painful cramps colloquially known as “the charley horse?”  I’m sorry, but I am not going to mention my disgusting gastrointestinal issues, nor will I discuss my sleep apnea and the Martian gear I wear at night so I won’t stop breathing and die in my sleep.  I grit my teeth and check no, not disabled, no reasonable accommodations needed.  And then I start to worry about what I’d do if they actually hired me, how I’d handle the walking involved, whether there’d be a handicapped parking spot on my side of the building, how much traveling they’d expect me to do.

I think of my nephew, age 22, not working.  I think of my niece, age 28, not working.  We have friends with adult children who sit at home, unemployed, living off of Mom’s generosity and begging for her debit card so they can go out for fast food.  So it’s not only those of us who have advanced to a certain age who find ourselves unwanted by the work world.  The younger set is having trouble grabbing a toehold in the workforce, as years slip by in which they amass neither savings nor equity in retirement programs.  And if the young and able-bodied can’t make it in this economy, then I don’t hold out much hope for us older blokes.

My wife and I sit across from each other in the living room in the evenings and talk about what comes next, choosing our words ever so carefully.  In a few weeks, we’ll be living with my mother-in-law.  Won’t it be nice to have our extended family within a few minutes’ drive instead of eleven hours away?  Yes, indeed.  (I try not to think too much about our loss of privacy, nor about the depression that inevitably settles over me like a heavy cloud once I’ve been out of work for a while.)  We’ll get to babysit my little grandniece while her mom is at community college during the day or working at Taco Bell in the evening.  We’ll get to help out with the church.  We’ll get some rest.  We’ll get to “regroup,” my wife says.  We’ll get to take a break.

The question is just how long that break will be.  Will I apply for hundreds of jobs for which I am really not qualified and do not particularly interest me anyway, begging pathetically like a cat scratching at the door?  Will I collect rejection emails for a year or more and then take a low-wage nothing of a job, working alongside high school students so that we can pay our car insurance?  Or will I, with time, settle into another mode of life, that of the funny old uncle with too much time on his hands, always available to babysit or drive someone to the grocery store?  Will I mellow out and be content with playing Scrabble online, tap-tapping away at my blog and occasionally making a halfhearted effort at applying for a job that I don’t really want and am not likely to get in any event?

We all like to feel that we have some measure of control over our lives.  So rather than slip into the silent masses of the long-term unemployed, perhaps it would be better to declare my independence from the work force right now and announce my retirement.

It’s either that or find a new career altogether.  I was thinking about that last night while we were having dinner in our favorite dive bar across the river in Arizona, just as Nickelback’s song “I Wanna Be a Rock Star” came on the jukebox.

I’ve got a decent singing voice and I suppose it’s not too late to learn to play the guitar.  Hey, you never know, right?


6 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be (Employed), That is the Question

  1. Pingback: Ars Gratia Artis | A Map of California

  2. Pingback: Federal Unemployment Extensions: The Doomsday Prepper Model | A Map of California

  3. I have read a few entries of your blog. I don’t think anyone is expressing the prolonged effects of sustained unemployment in the real blow-by-blow way that you are. I would love to see a number of your posts published in a magazine such as the New Yorker, Harpers, or the Economist. As I said before, I think this is important stuff………

    • I am truly touched by the kindness of your comment, Kathleen. It is something special indeed when others express their faith in your work. I fear that the esteemed publications you mentioned wouldn’t give me the time of day, but anything is possible! May your words bring me good luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s