The Scarlet U

I have now been unemployed for 10½ months.  This is the longest stretch of time that I have been out of work in my entire adult life.

It’s not as if I’ve just learned to ride a horse and this is my first rodeo.  I experienced a nice little spell of unemployment in 2009-2010, at a time when the American economy was truly in the toilet.  Duration:  8½ months.  Having always worked for private industry, I thought that now, finally, I had a solid public sector job that was not likely to tip over and blow away with the first gusts of recession.  Three years and three months later, I was laid off.  State funding had been cut for five consecutive years, the organization was out of money, and one of the managers had to go.  I had the least seniority, so adios, amigo.  But first I had to lay off half my staff and figure out how the other half would continue to run the operation.

When I started my last job, amazed friends would tell me “Wow, you’re the only person I know who lost their job and is working again.”  When I lost that job, my long-retired parents tried to make me feel better by admitting that almost everyone they knew was out of work.

There are some things that most unemployed Americans have in common.  We applied for unemployment benefits and most of us received them, at least for a while.  We gussied up our résumés, filled out job applications, went on interviews.

Once we get past those basics, however, everyone has his or her own coping strategies.  For my wife and me, we picked up stakes and relocated 650 miles north to save money by doubling up with family in a church parsonage.  My sister, on the other hand, changed careers by going back to school with the money from her divorce settlement.  Then she had a hard time locating work with a certificate in hand and no experience.  Finding herself unable to make the accommodations necessary to live with family, she ended up camping out in a weekly motel room in Reno (because it is cheaper than California and because it is near one of her, ahem, “boyfriends”) with her cats and her laptop and cell phone and résumés.  She eventually found a job in Idaho, but couldn’t manage to keep it for more than a few months.  Problems with personality clashes.  Panicked at her lack of income, she began bouncing around the country taking short-term assignments.  New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon.  I can’t keep track.  There aren’t enough lines in my address book.

I do think one’s success as an unemployed person (if there is such a thing) often comes down to one’s personality.  If you’re a “Type B” personality (like my father and myself), an easygoing sort who works and plays well with others, you’re more likely to be able to make life’s little (and big) adjustments until you’re back in the saddle again.  If you’re a “Type A” personality (like my mother and sister), however, your alpha ways are likely to keep you flailing (and failing) at the headwinds that knock you down repeatedly.

These days, a person who becomes unemployed cannot help but wonder whether he or she will ever be able to get back in that saddle.  In the past, such a thought would have been preposterous.  Self-indulgent at best, delusional at worst.  But times have changed.  Once you creep past that six-month mark, you’re kind of out of luck.  With no more federal unemployment extensions, one is likely to face an income of zero for the foreseeable future.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the prospects of reemployment are poor once you’ve been out of work that long, and diminish with nearly each passing day.

Back in March, New York Times business writer Binyamin Applebaum published a piece titled “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again.”  Sadly, the numbers demonstrate that this assessment is not some bit of facile hyperbole.  While unemployment as a whole has been decreasing in recent months, evidence seems to indicate that if you don’t find a new job within six months of losing your old one, you may be permanently forfeiting your right to work.  Of course, everyone from Congress to the Federal Reserve to newspaper reporters gets to play little games with the numbers.  For example, just because you’re out of work does not necessarily mean that you’re counted in the unemployment statistics.  If, after being unemployed for quite a while, you finally give up and quit looking for a job, then (ta-da!) you’re no longer unemployed.  You’re simply “out of the work force.”

I wonder where exactly I fall on all those neat little line graphs and bar charts that the economists like to include in their reports.  I suppose I’m still considered among the long-term unemployed, as I’m still looking for a job.  Sort of.

To date, I have applied for 141 advertised positions.  For many of these, the process included filling out lengthy applications, writing a series of essays and supplying a cover letter, a résumé, my college and graduate school transcripts, and a list of references.  When combined with creating files in PDF format, preparing envelopes and going to the post office, this rigmarole can take most of the day.  And that’s just for one job.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be called for an interview, which generally means packing up dress clothes, making hotel reservations, getting in the car and driving hundreds of miles (thousands, in a few cases) only to find out that an internal candidate was hired.

Then there are the dry spells.  Those are the times when you go weeks without seeing any new job postings for which you might remotely be qualified.  In order to minimize those dry spells, I steadily broadened my job search parameters.  So it’s in a field that is only peripherally related to my experience.  Apply.  So they want a few more years of experience than I actually have.  Apply.  So it’s 2,800 miles away.  Apply.  So it only pays half the salary I was earning before being laid off.  Apply, apply, apply.

After a while, however, when you repeatedly come up empty handed, you start to slow down your job search.  My wife, God bless her, has encouraged this to help me save my sanity.  So I do other things.  Write a couple of freelance articles for nine bucks each.  Work on my blog.  Work on my book.  Spend time with family.  Sleep more.

My mother reminds me that my brother-in-law’s father applied for more than 300 jobs when he was laid off.  When even that didn’t work, he was fortunate that he had enough years in at his company that he was able to retire and draw a pension.  Then he died.  And indeed, some days, those seem like the options.  Retire.  Die.

“Retirement,” of course, has become a fuzzy concept.  In the 21st century, most of us long-term unemployed people aren’t eligible for pensions.  Retirement becomes a de facto kind of thing as we gradually face up to the reality that we aren’t going to work anymore.  And that we have no financial cushion to get us through once our savings and 401(k)s are gone.  Many of us apply for disability payments, although those are harder to come by these days.  And there are plenty of us who continue to make halfhearted stabs at applying for unlikely jobs right up until the end of our lives.

The number crunchers insist that the economy is improving, both in terms of job creation and new hires.  So why are the long-term unemployed having such a hard time finding work?  Many answers to this question have been suggested.  One factor is that the long-term unemployed are getting older.  While one might think that a prospective employer would jump at the prospect of hiring an over-50 applicant who has years of managerial experience well-documented in a lengthy résumé, this is often not the case.  For one thing, it’s not a good long-term investment to bring on an employee who is likely to retire in a few years.  For another, employees with extensive experience are more expensive to hire.  You can’t reasonably expect a candidate with 30 years of experience to be willing to accept an entry-level wage.

For an analysis more rooted in economics, Applebaum points to a Brookings Institution paper indicating that there are both “supply side” and “demand side” aspects of the problem.  On the supply side, the long-term unemployed get more and more discouraged until they stop looking for work.  On the demand side, employers wrinkle their noses and just say “no” to applicants who have been out of work for a while.  After all, they’re probably not up-to-date on the latest developments in the industry and their professional contacts are likely attenuated if they’ve been out of the game too long.  This attitude among employers leads Applebaum to refer to the long-term unemployed as “people whose hopes are slipping away.”

And then, of course, there is the thinly-veiled antipathy to the long-term unemployed that was exposed with such virulence among conservative Republicans in Congress earlier this year.  Because, as you know, we’re all no-good lazy bums.  Four years ago, at the height of the Recession, The New York Times dubbed this phenomenon as pinning the curse of “the scarlet U” on the unemployed.

According to this line of thinking, if we’ve been out of work so long, it must be because we really don’t want to work.  We’re obviously not looking for work very hard, and furthermore, we’re probably being too picky.  There’s plenty enough work to go around for everyone if you’re just willing to take what’s available.  Don’t tell me you’re discouraged!  Get yourself together, man, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!  If all you want to do is sit home on your sofa and watch your big screen TV, then you are a LOSER and have no one to blame but yourself.

And it’s true, we are losers.  First we lose our jobs.  Then we lose our unemployment checks (thanks, Congress).  Then we lose our savings.  Then we lose that TV we’re watching and that sofa we’re sitting on.  Then we lose our cars, our homes, our friends, our families and our self-esteem.  As the months and years go by, the losses mount up until, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, we end up “sans every thing.”


Applebaum, Binyamin, “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again,” New York Times (Economix blog, March 10, 2014).

Guo, Jeff, “Uneven Recovery: They’re Hiring, but not for the Long-Term Unemployed,” Washington Post (Storyline, Aug. 5, 2014).

Kasperkevic, Jana, “The Ghosts of America’s Long-Term Unemployed,”  The Guardian (U.S. Money blog, March 27, 2014).

Norris, Floyd, “Economy: A Drop in the Long-Term Unemployed,” New York Times (Off the Charts, July 25, 2014).

Rampell, Catherine, “The New Poor: Unemployed, and Likely to Stay That Way,” New York Times (Business, Dec. 2, 2010).

See also: “Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You,” A Map of California (Jan. 13, 2014).

5 thoughts on “The Scarlet U

  1. I have been un or under employed since 2010, successfully able to collect unemployment twice, also applied for jobs ad nauseum to no avail. But as of 9/2/2014 I will be employed again via Americorps, and in my chosen field (arts) — because I spent a year volunteering. I highly recommend it as an employment door opener!

  2. “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again.” Is that supposed to be an uplifting mood booster to the unemployed along with the other articles you site. I have recently written on retirement and transitions, being semi-retired which I became before I was planning it. But one euphemism I have seen used in a couple of articles is ” involuntarily unemployed.” I thought that was pretty funny. Seems like they want to make being fired, laid off, terminated sound like something harmless. The Scarlet U. I hadn’t heard that either. I would add the Scarlet A (not adultery, but age discrimination) to the lexicon. It makes me kind of glad I haven’t been reading this stuff. But I do agree that the unemployment crisis for older adults has been swept under the rug by our government and the media.

    • So true, Deborah! One notable exception is The New York Times, which continues to do follow-up stories on the long-term unemployed. In fact, it was The Times that first made me aware of the issue, back before I became unemployed the first time, before I ever imagined joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

      I’m glad you asked whether my post was intended to be an “uplifting booster” to the unemployed. Actually, it was neither intended to be a “booster” nor a “downer.” My intent is to increase public awareness and to “tell it like it is.” Readers take each dispatch of the media (my blog included) in their own way, based on personal interpretations that create meaning for them. I try not to place labels on things because I believe that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Although I don’t try to cover up the “:ugly,” I do try to find the “beauty” that exists in everything, including being a part of America’s nouveau pauvre.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I hope to see you around often.

      • Actually, after I commented I hoped you would not think I meant your post was a downer. I meant that guy’s article was a downer. How someone can make a proclamation like that…”You might never work again.” How the f**k does he know? I feel that type of writing can be so terrible for people who are unemployed to read. And doesn’t that kind of writing almost add to a self fulfilling prophecy in that it could possibly influence employers thinking about unemployed people. But then I may be reading too much into it.

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