Retirement? No, Thank You

A couple of weeks ago at work we had a very nice retirement party for one of my coworkers who had been with our agency for 25 years.  She told us how much she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren.  Most of all, however, she was excited about not having to work.

So many people can’t wait to retire, and I wish them well.  But I have a hard time imagining freely choosing not to go to work anymore.  Having experienced two year-long spates of unemployment, I am not particularly enamored of staying home.  Perhaps this is because I had no income and stood in line for handouts from food banks, some of which was so rotten that we had to throw our gifts away.  Perhaps I’d have a different point of view if I were receiving regular pension checks.  Perhaps I’d see things in another light if I had a reasonable chance of retiring without being utterly destitute.

My sister was a housewife and mother for a couple of decades before she walked out on her husband when her kids were teenagers and suddenly found herself thrust into the world of work.  She was unprepared for any type of career and ended up spending most of her divorce settlement on going back to school.  Like me, she knows that she can never retire.  She says she’s fine with it, however.  “I had 20 years of retirement when I was young,” she tells me.

I don’t know that retirement is a good thing at all.  On one hand, my parents have been retired for nearly 25 years and seem to like it just fine.  On the other hand, I often see articles like this one by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lai, that asks the question whether early retirement is equated with early death.  I suppose the jury is still out on that one, as the studies seem to yield conflicting findings.

It is said that a lack of intellectual stimulation can cause brain function to atrophy.  With that in mind, one might say that thriving in retirement is a function of keeping busy with things other than work.  As Michael mentions, many of us have our entire identities tied up with our work, leaving us floating in space once that tether is cut.  This may be one reason that those who have devoted much of their lives to family responsibilities and maintain strong family bonds have an easier time of it in retirement than those who have little in the way of social connection.

At one point during my most recent period of unemployment, I began wondering whether I should just consider myself retired and leave it at that.  We’d be poor, but we’d scrape together enough to subsist somehow.  After all, who wants to hire a fiftysomething with outdated technical skills who hasn’t worked in a year?  It seemed that accepting myself as retired might make me feel less of a loser than I did when I applied for hundreds of job openings and got nowhere fast.

Now that I’m working again, I’m actually glad that I’ll never be able to retire.  If I could, I might be tempted to do so, and I know that it would not be a good thing for me at all.

Yes, I enjoy going to work every day.  It’s not always a bed of roses, but it does give me a sense of purpose.  As I admitted at a recent staff meeting, I am grateful for having a job that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Would I be able to achieve the same thing doing volunteer work in retirement?  Perhaps.  But it is a special feeling to know that not only am I a member of a profession that allows me to help others, but that I’m good enough at it to be well-paid for the privilege.

About a year ago, I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my coworkers about retirement.  He insisted that retirement is ideal, because it allows you to pursue personal interests rather than having work sucking up all your time.  I suppose this is true if one’s personal interests are diametrically opposed to what one does for a living.  I once had an employee on my team who was a cage fighter and another who raised geckos.  I must admit that such pursuits are a long way from working in the legal world.  However, a very different picture emerges when one’s vocation and avocation are more closely related.  I have plenty of hobbies that I pursue in the evenings and on weekends.  I build my vacations around them.  And as much as I enjoy them, I don’t think I’d want to work at them “full time.”  It’s good to have some degree of balance in life, and I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have that if I were not steadily employed.

I don’t know whether it’s true that one can expect to die within a few years of retiring, but I’d really rather not find out personally.  Instead, I’d prefer to continue experiencing the joy of working.  And, yes, I do include the endless meetings, the time pressure and deadlines, the bosses and the coworkers, the paperwork and the politics.  This lends a richness to my life that no amount of devotion to my hobbies ever could.  I just hope that I’m able to remain healthy enough to keep getting up in the morning, putting on a tie and doing it again and again.

I guess you could say I’m just an old cowboy who’ll die in the saddle with a smile on his face.

 

High on the Hog

piggy bank

One of the trickiest parts of the job application process is broaching the matter of salary.  As money has a nasty little tendency to bring out the worst in all parties involved, we often try to hold off mentioning compensation until the last possible moment.  As we glide back and forth through the steps of the interview dance, we pointedly seek to avoid prematurely stepping on that sensitive dollar spot.  Instead, the prospective employee pretends that money is not an issue and that, in fact, it would be a privilege and an honor to work for this employer under any terms.  Often, the employer does nothing to counter this notion, making the most of its superior bargaining power in a job market in which employers can have their pick of applicants.

Some employers use “salary requirements” as a means of unceremoniously culling the daunting stack of applications down to a manageable level.  This part of the application form is often specifically labeled as required to avoid having applicants dodge the issue.  Ask for too much and your application goes in “the pile or the file” (the reject pile or the circular file, that is).

When I first graduated from college, I would ask my father for advice on how to fill in the spot on the application form where the employer would ask how much money I want.  He would tell me to just write “Scale,” an indicator of submissiveness that rises to the level of utter capitulation.  Some aver that this tactic is a clever way of saying “pay me whatever you think I’m worth,” but really it’s just a statement that the applicant needs this job and is willing to roll over and accept whatever paltry sum is offered.

I have read articles suggesting that an applicant that always negotiates his or her salary will, over a working lifetime, earn much more than those of us who simply accept whatever is served up by the employer.  The idea is that an employer has more respect for those applicants who are willing to ask for and justify the compensation that they feel they deserve.  The hidden implication, of course, is that the applicant must be willing to walk away from employers who will have none of it.  This may be possible in an economy that is close to full employment, something we haven’t seen in the United States for quite a while now.

Of course, applicants with sought-after skills will have more bargaining power than those with, say, a liberal arts degree and no job experience beyond fast food and babysitting.  The problem is that it can be hard to know what skills are valued by this particular employer.  I once worked for a small business for more than a year when the owner admitted that she had been so desperate for someone who knew how to work her finicky computers that I could have asked for much more money and she would have gladly paid it.

The fact remains, however, that applicants for many positions have absolutely no ability to haggle over their compensation.  Salaries are often set in stone, either by union contract, corporate policy or employer stubbornness.  Many employers treat applying for job like purchasing a gallon of milk:  The price on the sticker is non-negotiable.

And there will always be employers who take offense at the mere mention of pay.  I recall one phone interview that went swimmingly right up until the very end.  I had answered all of the interviewer’s questions to his satisfaction and he asked me whether I had any of my own.  That’s when I took the opportunity to ask about compensation.  It’s not as if I demanded a particular figure; I simply asked what the salary was.  The employer made it abundantly clear that I had a hell of a nerve to even bring up such a topic.  Obviously, I was more interested in money than in working for the company.  I was shocked, and of course I never heard from them again.

Another land mine that applicants can step on is the “salary range.”  Some employers advertise a range of compensation that leads applicants to believe that the starting salary may be anywhere in that range.  So, if I have a great deal of relevant experience and education, I could potentially start near the top of the range, right?  Wrong.  Most employers hire at the bottom of the salary range as a matter of course; the top number is the compensation to which an employee may work up to over a period of years.

These days, I am employed in government work, where salary ranges for most positions are matters of public record.  It is, at least theoretically, possible to start at a salary above the bottom of the range if you have particular skills that are needed and can’t be easily found.  I didn’t immediately understand how this works, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out.

After two interviews with my current employer, I noticed that I had a missed call from Human Resources.  When I called back, I was told that they had started to call me but then realized that they would have to do further research and call me back because I had requested ham.

Excuse me?  Now, I am a Jewish boy from New York, and a vegan to boot, and I have never eaten ham in all my life.  Why would I ask for ham?

Well, what a doofus I was.  It turns out that HAM stands for “hiring above minimum.”  And it’s true:  Based on my years of experience, I had asked to be hired at a salary above the bottom of the range.  I ended up getting turned down for HAM, because they don’t offer HAM to unemployed people.  To get HAM, you must have a job which you may or may not leave for new employment depending on whether the compensation offered makes it worth your while.

Instead of HAM, I would have to be satisfied with BACON:  The Basic Agreement on Compensation Of New-Hires.  Oh my goodness, I had totally forgotten!  This is a union job!

Okay, it is what it is.  I very much need this job.  But that doesn’t mean that I have no negotiating power whatsoever.  I knew I had to stand up for myself and get everything I possibly could.  So I demanded the California Retroactive Income Supplement to Paychecks.  That’s right, if I’m going to bring home the BACON, I’m at least going to make sure it’s nice and CRISP.

Oh, and I wasn’t done yet.  I am no dummy.  I know all about the various programs for which state employees are eligible.  The legislature has been good to us and I plan to take full advantage of that.  So for my next move, I insisted upon being signed up for Salary Augmentation Under Senate/Assembly Grant to Employees.  You read that right, folks.  I demanded my SAUSAGE rights.

The poor HR lady sighed.  I could tell she hates dealing with know-it-alls like me.  Well, she informed me that, in that case, I’m going to have to choose one of the two SAUSAGE options.  If I have dependents, she told me, I should select a Partial Adjustment to Taxable Income for Employees of the State (PATTIES).  Otherwise, I’d be stuck with the Low Income/No Kids Subsidy (LINKS).  I ordered up PATTIES and thought that I was finally done with this whole unappetizing mess.

But, as it turned out, HR still had one more course to pile on my plate.  It was my own fault, really.  I stupidly admitted that we provide day care for our two-year old grandniece, and wouldn’t you know, that changed the picture entirely.  I was forced to take an additional payroll deduction for a savings plan based on the state’s acknowledgment of the effects that the Price Of Raising Kids Can Have On Personal Savings.

You guessed it, folks.  I’m stuck with PORK CHOPS.

Employed!

It happened about a week ago.

While I was concentrating intently on something else entirely, I suddenly thought I felt a tickle in my pocket.  Sure enough, my trusty iPhone was vibrating.  I wasn’t expecting a call from anyone and I didn’t recognize the number on the screen.

As it turned out, it was an employer to which I had applied sometime in the past few months.  They would like to invite me to travel hundreds of miles to their out-of-state location on Friday to sit for testing.

Hmm, I know how this song goes.  The angst-ridden lyrics include a mention of “I’ve been down this road a time or two,” perhaps as a rhyme for “and this is not the job for you.”  Let’s see:  First, you spend hundreds of dollars in gas, restaurant and hotel money to sit in a training room with 20 or 30 other wannabes in various stages of unemployment discomfort.  I went through this twice down in Orange County this past spring.  Either you type insipid essays in Microsoft Word or you bubble in your multiple guess answers with a Number 2 pencil.  Then you go home and a couple of months later you receive a congratulatory email along with notification that you have now been added to the list of candidates for any management position for which the organization should happen to open recruitment within the next year.  About a month after that, you receive another email inviting you for an interview.  You make more hotel reservations, take gas money out of savings, drive hundreds of miles again to get dressed up, shake hands and tell a lot of stories about your management style and a time when you disagreed with your employer’s decision and how you implemented it effectively among your subordinates anyway.  After that, who knows?  You might receive a call inviting you back to a second interview (now that you’ve already blown through $1,500 in travel expenses) or you might receive a form letter informing you that a better qualified candidate was selected and better luck next time.

All of this flashed through my mind in the ten seconds I had to respond to the employer on the phone.  My answer tasted delicious on my tongue.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I burbled in my most sympathetic voice, “but I’ve already accepted another position.”

You read that right, folks.  After nearly a year of unemployment, Uncle Guacamole is once again gainfully employed in a full-time job.

It gave me great pleasure to be able to turn down this offer to spend a lot of money on nothing.  This pleasure was enhanced immeasurably by uttering it from my own cubicle at my new job on a very quiet floor of an office building from which several dozen of my nearby coworkers could hear my heartfelt rejection.

About six months ago, one of my readers asked that I be sure to inform her when I finally find a job by uttering “Hooray!” and “Yeehaw!” in this space.

Hooray!  Yeehaw!

Never say that I’m not a man of my word.

I have now been on the job for one week and, I’ve got to tell you folks, I am loving it.  I was a supervisor for years until I made my way up to manager.  This job is neither of those and thus represents a significant demotion.  Also I had to take a big salary cut from my last position.  But then again, it’s a big raise from the zero dollars and zero cents I was earning as an unemployed person.  And I will unequivocally assert that it is a heck of a lot better than standing in line for three hours waiting for a food handout.

I am also now a commuter.  My job (ooh, it sounds so lovely to say my job) is in downtown Sacramento, which is 36 miles away, nearly an hour’s drive in rush hour traffic.  Also, there is no parking to be had without paying a monthly fee to a garage and then hiking from there to the office tower in which I work.  Thus, my wonderful wife drives me to work each morning, then returns at 5 p.m. to pick me up.  At two round-trips daily, that’s about 144 miles, which works out to well over $150 in gas.  And we will certainly have to purchase another vehicle sooner rather than later.  Our old trusty isn’t going to last long at this rate.

It is truly a blessing from God that my wife is willing to do all the driving.  The rush hour traffic as one approaches downtown on Interstate 5 reminds this New York boy of his romps of yesteryear on the Long Island Expressway.  It is enough to fray the nerves of one stronger than I.  My wife, however, has it down to a science.  She has memorized every lane change from Arco Arena to Q Street and manages to execute this automotive dance with balletic aplomb.  I’ll say it again:  God has been very good to me.

As if that weren’t enough, I have a boss who is an answer to prayer.  His kindness and patience humbles me.  And if, someday, I make it back into management, I want to be like him.

The Underground Economy

If you’re interested in the effects of long-term unemployment and the ways that out-of-work people manage to get by, I highly recommend the Longreads selection that was Freshly Pressed this past week:  “Mango, Mango! A Family, a Fruit Stand and Survival on $4.50 a Day.”  Douglas Haynes, whose piece was originally published in Orion magazine, takes us through a day in the life of families who eke out a living by selling snacks in the squalor of Managua, Nicaragua’s sprawling Mercado Oriental.  While some of the tiny businesses that set up folding tables are licensed, most are not.  With so many thousands of stands cropping up and disappearing daily, selling everything imaginable, the government can’t even begin to keep track.  For most of these mom and pop entrepreneurs, the profits are barely enough to feed their families.

In Nicaragua, as in the United States, working “under the table” means that nothing is put into the government’s established economic institutions and nothing is taken out of them.  These are people who work without paying taxes into the public coffers and without the ability to draw social security benefits once they are no longer able to work.  And, as Haynes point out, they suffer all the disadvantages of the self-employed — no paid vacation, no sick leave, no health insurance.  Still, in societies in which there are tens of thousands of people out of work, it is a way to survive.

Several years ago, I read an excellent book about residents of the South Side of Chicago who provide goods and services to the community on street corners, in alleyways, out of parking lots and abandoned buildings.  In Off the Books, author Sudhir Venkatesh refers to this phenomenon as “the underground economy.”  Operating in the shadows, these informal businesses fill a void in that they provide a way to obtain desired goods and services in areas that may be underserved due to a deteriorating economic establishment in the wake of poverty, crime and the participation of “legitimate” business owners in white flight.

In the public eye, the underground economy is often associated with illegal activity.  Indeed, criminal enterprises, such as prostitution or the sale of drugs, necessarily remain outside of the mainstream.  But the fact that they’re not counted by the government doesn’t make them any less a part of our economy.  As long as there are those willing to pay cash or barter for these goods and services, there will be enterprising folks willing to evade the law to sell them.  I think of when I lived on Broad Street in downtown Hartford, where cars would slowly approach each other from opposite directions and stop for just a moment, in broad daylight right in front of the brownstone I called home, to make their exchanges through open windows.

However, a significant part of the underground economy consists of legal activity, such as the sale of sliced watermelon, bottles of Coke and fried platanos in Managua or the automotive repair and oil change businesses that operate out of back alleys in Chicago.  In an economy in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the point of such efforts is to earn a dollar or two in profit to allow one to get through another day — to put some kind of food on the table for the family, even if it’s just rice and beans in Nicaragua or peanut butter and jelly in the United States.

Indeed, it’s sad to say that unemployment is starting to make the United States look more and more like Latin America or Africa.  With a large segment of our population descending into third world conditions, it’s no wonder that the Occupy movement railed so mightily against the “one percent” just a few years ago.

In most other parts of the world, the “underground economy” goes by the name “System D.”  The “D” stands for the French term la débrouillardisme, which is most often translated as “resourcefulness,” although that word fails to capture the true nuance of the French.  The original phrase embodies some combination of “schemes to get by,” “living by one’s wits,” “knowing how to get around the system” and one of my favorite terms from back in the 1970s, “gettin’ over on the man.”  In France, to say that someone is très débrouillard is an expression of high admiration.  It means that you are able to figure out a way to get what you need, even when the odds are stacked against you, wink, wink.

I have come to realize that, here in the United States, System D takes on numerous forms, including learning how to work the system and learning how to live outside it.  Some combination of these is what enables the unemployed to keep going without a steady paycheck.  For example, it is perfectly legal for a person to earn a certain amount of money while drawing Food Stamps.  Your EBT card will rarely feed the family until the end of the month; even if you can supplement it with some canned goods from the local food bank or the occasional dumpster dive, that isn’t going to help if your kid needs a pair of shoes.  So the unemployed frequently supplement whatever kind of benefits they are receiving by selling goods or services on the side.  This could mean anything from setting up a table at a swap meet to babysitting to fixing things as a handyman.  Haynes describes bus drivers who pay a man a few cents to shout out the bus route number in the crowded marketplace.  Such informally obtained income is generally taxable, but of course, most people don’t bother declaring it.

Further strengthening the underground economy, those who find themselves in poverty often exchange good will by patronizing each other.  “I know a guy who knows a guy” is what everyone wants to hear.  And when there’s not enough money to pay the guy, there’s always barter.  Change the oil in my car and I’ll bake you some pies.  Venkatesh mentions Chicago shop owners who can’t afford a security guard and instead “hire” a homeless person to sleep in their tiny storefronts at night.

Understanding how the underground economy works in one’s community often makes it possible for the poor to get hold of the things they need.  The main thing, of course, is that you don’t ask too many questions.  Back in New York, I remember that there were always guys who knew how to get stuff that “fell off a truck.”  The retired guy who might be willing to fix your leak or the out-of-work teacher who can tutor your kid probably doesn’t have ads in the Yellow Pages (although, these days, they might have one on Craigslist).  It’s very much a word of mouth thing.  Here in our little relatively rural community, many people have little gardens where they grow various things — could be cucumbers or cantaloupes or cannabis, you never know.

I think of the three homeless guys who we’ve tried to help out here at the church.  Homeless Guy #1 is in jail, awaiting trial.  His needs are being provided for by the judicial system.  Homeless Guy #2 has done a lot of couch surfing and has now found a place to stay for a month or so.  Sometimes he works as a day laborer or fix-it guy or painter.  Other times, he doesn’t, particularly if there’s alcohol to be had.  He figures out ways to trade his services for whatever he needs.  Homeless Guy #3 sleeps on someone’s porch or under a tree, and begs sandwiches at the door of the parsonage when his Food Stamps run out.

His EBT was replenished yesterday, so we weren’t surprised to see him walking along the road with a full plastic bag from the local dollar store this afternoon.  When he passed by the panhandler who stands at the freeway entrance with the “homeless and hungry” sign, we saw him give the guy some money.

It’s funny how those of us who have the least are often the most generous.

 

The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income.  But I soon came to realize that there is something else:  The fear of the unknown.  Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out?  Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state?  The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.

Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food.  He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow.  I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway.  That guy was hungry.

Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.”  It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.

When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?”  Um, look for another job, maybe?  What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?

Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries.  When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless.  I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”

But I didn’t know.

I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern.  A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds:  “What will you do for money?”  I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings.  You don’t have any, now do you?”

As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment:  You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.

Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms.  There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event.  Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death?  Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3?  It turns out that it is.

I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism.  The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans).  The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs:  reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away.  This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly.  In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.

But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press.  The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates.  Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need.  Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables.  The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.

When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless.  We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners.  Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement.  What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit.  The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century.  I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.

But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice.  Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need.  Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us?  And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.

This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others.  But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.

The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money.  This is because we have built our entire identities around work.  The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away.  We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer.  Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide.  While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.

And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century.  Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.

I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies.  But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.

References

Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”

Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).

Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).

Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).

Spencer, David, “Why Work More?  We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).

On Blogging About Homelessness

I’m not a news junkie, I don’t have a Facebook feed and my favorite flavor of ice cream is not Heavenly Hashtag.  In some respects, I feel as if I embody my generation’s version of my parents’ refusal to text message.

Blogging is the medium for which I feel affinity, both in the writing and in the reading.  I find myself exposed to many more viewpoints in the blogosphere than are presented to me by CNN or Fox News.  I try to remain at least minimally conversant with the issues of the day, which seem to change every few seconds, not unlike the electronic billboard at Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno that flips through a half dozen ads before the light turns green.  The Malaysia Airlines twin tragedies —  the plane that vanished in the Indian Ocean and the one that was shot down over Ukraine.  Missiles and murders in Gaza and the West Bank.  The execution of James Foley.  The drought here in California.

Mike Brown.

And yes, even the hullaballoo over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as petty as that may seem in comparison to the above.

In reading the comments on a blog post about the tragedy in Ferguson, I sat up and noticed when one commenter accused another of wanting a soapbox rather than a discussion.  After thinking about this, I realized that both are essential elements of good blogging.  At least for myself, I know I want both a soapbox and a discussion.  Yes, I appreciate the opportunity to report on events as seen through my own eyes and the partiality of my own filters.  The best part, however, is the discussion that ensues, the comments that challenge me, encourage me to stretch my thought processes and help me to see contrasting viewpoints and approaches that I could never begin to imagine on my own.

I like to think that my commenters help me to improve my writing in that they encourage me to consider multiple angles rather than merely committing my raw thoughts to pixels.  While inflammatory remarks do have their place in the pantheon of rhetoric, my commenters provide appropriate checks and balances that often cause me to pause and use the backspace key more than I did, say, a year ago.  They give me a reason to take time out to think about how my words will affect those who read them.

Nevertheless, I am sometimes way off base, and I am grateful to my commenters for setting me straight.  At times, my shortcoming is in the realm of making assumptions that may not be apparent to readers.  My understanding of how something works may be very different from your understanding of how it works, particularly if, although brought together by the digital world, we are widely separated by culture and geography.

I think about readers like Belle, who have, in my opinion, provided some of the most insightful comments in this space.  In her comment yesterday, for example, she asks why I haven’t pursued various enumerated avenues in my efforts to rejoin the workforce.  In an “I could have had a V8!” moment, I had to smack my forehead at the realization that there is so much back story that I have never adequately explained.  I have fallen victim to the fallacy of assuming that everyone else knows what I know.

And then there are the blessings bestowed upon me by fellow chroniclers such as The Art Bag Lady, who yesterday went toe to toe with me on her own blog.  She pointed out a number of my prejudices in writing about homelessness, including conflicting opinions that I have expressed and things that I can’t possible appreciate, never having been homeless myself.  Aside from being deeply honored by her lengthy critique, I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to benefit from insights born of working with the homeless regularly and of actually having been homeless, both of which are outside of my personal experience.

I think also of Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, which consists almost exclusively of transcriptions of his conversations with the homeless of his Canadian city.  In at least one respect, Dennis has succeeded where I have failed.  He is an excellent listener; he allows the homeless to tell their stories in their own words.  By contrast, I don’t spend a lot of time just listening to the homeless individuals whom we serve through our ministry in this community.  They come to the door of the parsonage seeking help with a particular need, and I enjoy doing whatever I can to help fill that need.  Biblically, I believe this is called “standing in the gap.”  Ezek. 22:30  I have to laugh, because this is such a “male” thing.  It seems we always want to solve someone’s problems rather than taking time to just listen.  A lot of us men only feel satisfied when we have actually done something, taken some sort of affirmative action.  Unlike many of the women in our lives, we tend to forget that being a listening ear is an action, too.  And that sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

So here in the parsonage, we make some sandwiches, pack canned food and pasta into grocery bags and start thinking about places to stay the night and residential treatment programs and who needs a ride to where.  But dare I suggest that such pat solutions close more doors than they open?

Just as blogging provides us with a forum (a soapbox and a discussion), so does lending an understanding ear and a sympathetic shoulder provide an empowering forum to the homeless.  Listening more and speaking less provides a voice to the voiceless.  It makes the invisible visible. And it allows them to tell the rest of the world about the abuse they suffered as children, the odds that have been stacked against them from the very beginning, and the lack of viable choices that has pervaded their entire lives.

And perhaps I would be less prone, as The Art Bag Lady points out, to alternate between empathy and irritation if I were to stop telling it as I see it and allow the homeless to tell it like it really is.  If for once I would just shut up and listen.

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.”

References

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).