Jobless, With Dwindling Options

November 29th, 2011 at 12:00 pm | 39 Comments |

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‘Galatea’ is a columnist writing about her experience looking for work after her recent downsizing. Previous entries in her series can be read here.

When I first lost my job, one of my old writing professors—a reclusive Famous Person who didn’t particularly like people—got in touch with me. Or rather, I got in touch with him by sending a numb email, which ended with something along the lines of “I don’t know what to do next. Just tell me something to make it better.”

In the interests of maintaining his privacy I won’t reprint the email verbatim, but here’s a condensed version of his story.

Once upon a time he had a great job at a large publishing house, when all of a sudden, he’d lost his job. To say that the event shook his self-confidence would be an understatement: he wrote to me, in vivid detail, how he skittered into his apartment, cut off all contact with the outside world, and emotionally withered away inside an exoskeleton of irony in a matter of years.

Of course, he eventually became a Famous Person through his writing. But put him in front of a real, live human being, and that brash persona with the venomous voice suddenly turned into a graying, mumbling man who could barely look you in the eye.


It’s been about two months since I lost my job—nearly nine weeks.

The average length of unemployment in the United States, according to last month’s jobs report from the Labor Department, is 40.5 weeks.

If you look on the bright side, this means that I’m better off than 78% of all my unemployment brethren, which I guess means that I have to be super duper positive. All I have to do is wait around for another seven months and three weeks before I have the right to start feeling bad for myself.

I’ve got about two months of rent left in my account. Three, if I really cut down on expenses, drop my gym membership, and change my diet to ramen and lint.

I feel like I’m bothering my friends, especially the ones who have jobs at this moment. I don’t have much to talk about with them anymore, when I do see them. Each time they tell me to stay positive and optimistic, I’m torn between either bursting into tears, or plastering on my biggest fake Julie Andrews smile and bellowing the most angry, sarcastic performance of “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music while stomp-dancing around the nearest fountain.

The more drafts of cover letters I send, the shorter the responses and edits become. It’s a correlation tied, I feel, to how annoyingly unconfident I’ve become. The last response I got back from a friend who read my cover letter: “Sounds good.”

I forget where I read it (maybe I read it everywhere), but I heard somewhere that generations who come of age in economic crunch times are far more risk-averse than everyone else: they stick to safer jobs, they avoid investing in stocks, and—it is hinted—they avoid the type of bold, out-of-the-box thinking that could pay off either in debt or in a vast fortune.

I’m breaking out everywhere and getting a rash on my face. I’m still on my mother’s health insurance, so I could technically see a dermatologist. I don’t even think I could afford the copay at this point, though, and I’m starting to be embarrassed about leaving the house.

And the last time I had a job interview (holy crap I landed a job interview) I found myself stuttering and sweating, to the point where the interviewer paused, looked at my flustering, and asked softly if I needed a glass of water.

(Holy crap, I blew it so badly.)

A few weeks ago, one of my friends who retreated into law school (a gamble, he admitted freely, based on whether he could land a corporate job) suggested that I move home to live in my mother’s basement. “God no,” I retorted then with a blind ferocity. “I’ll stick it out and make it happen. I’ll find something.”

I’ve got about twelve more weeks to do so, but after that I won’t hit the national unemployment length average for another four months after that.

He’ll visit DC in a few weeks, but I don’t know whether I’ll be able to hang out with him. I can’t afford it. I don’t even know what we could talk about.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little bit anxious.

Recent Posts by Galatea

39 Comments so far ↓

  • kirk

    I sincerely appreciate these posts as I am in a similar situation. I had a high tech career until 2007 and exhausted every available source of $ before I got a job at Target unloading trucks at 4am just to get off the couch and stop watching the History Channel. After a year I got a better job – my sister-in-law expanded her small business just for me. I make 1/4 of my base salary now and I am hoping to be in this job until I turn 65 and go back to work unloading trucks at Target since I exhausted my retirement. The constant drumbeat of mocking facebook posts from my (employed) Tea Party friends (“start writing software!”, “the want ads are full of jobs!”) makes your journal very important to me.

  • medinnus

    I went from being a tech manager in the SF Bay Area to my pregnant wife and me living in a basement with an infant while I worked as a Borders Bookstore employee (various positions) and as a freelance technical writer. Eventually, I tranfered for a promotion at Borders, and then got back into high tech, but there was that five year unemployed/under-employed gap.

    The answer, of course, is to drop your pride, suck it up, and sling hash at McD if thats all you can get now, and keep plugging away for stuff in your main line. Its going to be hard; if it was easy, we’d be pre-9/11

    • Dawnhammer

      I just wanted to point out how this statement (a line frequently thrown at the Occupy crowd) belies the true hardship the unemployed face:

      The answer, of course, is to drop your pride, suck it up, and sling hash at McD if thats all you can get now…

      The truth is that even working at McDonald’s isn’t the fallback it used to be. They’re turning away prospective applicants just like everyone else. Which goes to the heart of why it can be so insulting for the unemployed (I spent 1.5 yrs unemployed after graduation) to hear “just go work at McD’s.” They tried. They can’t.

      The desire to work is there. The jobs — no matter the employer — are not.

      • Ogemaniac

        “just go work at McD’s.”

        For many people, that would be quite a stupid thing to do. My time, even when unemployed, is worth far more than $8/h. Both the taxpayers and myself would be much better off if I split that 32 hours a week that McD’s would give me, along with the several more hours of overhead and commuting, between looking for a real job and staying fresh with my field by reading the patent, commercial and journal literature, attending conferences, and volunteering.

        • medinnus

          But no rent money, no food money, and no health insurance for your newborn kiddo (now age nine!).

          I get that sometimes you can’t even find a McD-level job; but from her screeds, the author isn’t that desperate yet. And according to Ogemaniac, he’ll never be that desperate. Nobody appreciates the whole skill-building bit better than a technical network/systems administrator and occasional code monkey; but with essentially no safety net, there were no options. Just whinging about my acne wasn’t going to work. *shrugs* So, yeah, I had pretty much no life for three years while I was either under- or unemployed; 40 hour work, spare time giving my wife a break from daycare while reading technical reference, building local networks and experimenting and then rebuilding… but at the end of the day, my family needed rent, food, and diapers. My quality of life wasn’t even close to being on the list until we could afford to have some quality of life.

          This is why I volunteer, and support the social safety net. All the while I was doing this, I never met one of those mythical n-good welfare scam artists – just people who were working pretty damned hard to get far enough ahead they only had to work one job.

        • Ogemaniac

          I was laid off in the downsizing storm of 2009. Between my UI check and the money I had managed to save in the three years since I had graduated, I could have went over two years with no reduction in lifestyle whatsoever, three years if I pinched pennies, and essentially indefinitely if I had moved back into mom’s basement. In reality, I was out of work for ten weeks. A McD’s job would have completely interferred with my job searches and interviews, and brought in a pathetic amount of money. My guess is that your problem was that, unlike me, you didn’t save a significant portion of your salary outside of your retirement accounts.

          “All the while I was doing this, I never met one of those mythical n-good welfare scam artists”

          Visit rural northern Michigan, where my family still lives. You couldn’t spit without hitting one. Ironically, they are almost always conservatives. Frankly, liberals need to catch onto this problem fast and quit denying it. Every welfare milker out there pisses off ten working-class whites so much that they vote Republican. The only other issue that similarly enrages poor whites is illegal immigration. If you want to understand why the chickens keep voting for KFC, these two issues are the answer. By denying it, you are part of the Democrat’s problem.

      • SteveT

        In the spring McDonald’s had a hiring surge. I believe May 1st. They hired 50,000 people. There’s about 14 million looking for work. Getting hired at McD is not a sure thing by any means.

  • Rob_654

    I feel bad whenever I read or hear about someone struggling to find work. I am hoping that the Republicans will come to senses and realize that what drive employment is demand, not tax cuts… and that demand is generated by spending and if the private sector isn’t doing it – the government of course can do it which will help get hiring going and then much of the deficit will take care of itself as we drive down unemployment which will by itself increase tax revenue.

    • zaybu

      For anyone to understand the logic, one needs to understand cause (demand) and effect (hiring). Unfortunately the GOP has replaced logic and reality with faith and fantasies.

  • mlindroo

    I was unemployed for one long year before finally finding a new job in the same field. My first two months on the dole certainly weren’t a barrel of laughs, yet I was lucky in many ways as I had saved a lot of money, I have no family to support and the relatively generous cradle-to-grave Western European safety net ensured I received ~70% of my previous net salary as well as free jobs training. The latter wasn’t directly useful, but things like polishing my CV and personality tests did help a bit.

    In the end it all boils down to luck, IMHO. I had job interviews in three different countries, and I actually thought I performed better in the early ones! But the needs of the employer determine whether you are offered the position or not. So my advice would be to just keep trying. Persevere long enough and you *will* find a job!


  • Frumplestiltskin

    I have said it before, look abroad for work. I left the states 15 years ago and have never been unemployed once. Get your masters in TEFL and get a job teaching Uni in China, make contacts and then go into the corporate world, you can live like a king there (or queen) on what would be considered an average salary in the states.
    It doesn’t have to be teaching. My nephew works in finance in Thailand, if you have a technical degree you can do consulting throughout Africa and Asia. If you are young and single there is no reason not to have some adventure in your life.

    • Stan

      The daughter of a friend of mine is underemployed and is seriously considering a job teaching English in South Korea, and my wife knows a man is his 80′s who spent his entire working life teaching English in Africa and the Middle East. Neither has knowledge of any non-European language. So I echo Frumplestiltskin; if you don’t have pressing personal reasons to stay in the States, consider working abroad. Good luck, whatever you do.

      • Ogemaniac

        Teaching abroad is not a bad way to burn a couple years waiting for a recovery if you are young and single. It’s pretty much unworkable if you have kids, though, as the salaries stink and certainly aren’t going up due to a flood of applicants.

    • Primrose

      Getting a masters requires money and time, and it would be silly to get one’s master’s in a subject one has no interest in.

      This idea you have that all an American has to do is present oneself overseas and voila a job was certainly not how it worked back when I tried it. They are jobs like any other and one has to find them, and get them. I seem to remember the overseas teaching program through my college was highly competitive. I’m sure that hasn’t changed.

      This catch all, go teach overseas solution you always say is just as silly as Rbottoms saying we should all go in the military, or those who say go sling hash at Mickey Dees because somehow your worth will be discovered, cream rises to the top.

      No, it doesn’t. There is no one size fits all solution. Nor do I think every person who teaches abroad suddenly has life open up for them.

      I think it is time we stopped pretending that there is an easy answer, and that all will be well. It allows us to stop having compassion for people in trouble or who have had trouble.

      I get your lack of confidence Galatea, but don’t assume always that it means you’ve blown the interview. My father once hired a woman who couldn’t stop counting her rosary during the interview, but it didn’t stop him from hiring her and sending her up the ladder of his company (and he’s an atheist so the rosary wasn’t a plus). Some employers have been right where you are and understand.

      Also, one more thought, you don’t actually know why you weren’t hired. There are hundreds of reasons why someone might choose one person over another. So don’t assume. It is a cruel numbers game really. My only advice, don’t retreat from society, because it is most likely your friends and acquaintances who will find the next opening.

  • Carney

    I remember this. Boy did it hurt.

  • hisgirlfriday

    The worst aspect of the unemployment system in our country is the inertia it creates in those who receive it.

    I am assuming in the case of Gallatea that she is unable to seek out work at some holiday retail job because if she does then the unemployment benefits go up in smoke and she is getting paid more in unemployment than she would expect to get in retail.

    Furthermore, I did not know this until I had an awful temp job in loan collections in early ’09 and was treated to endless sad sack stories like Gallatea’s from delinquent car loan and HELOC customers, but apparently you also forfeit any unemployment benefits if you go back to school and take out a federal student loan.

    There has to be a better system of doing things. Best of luck in the system as it exists.

    • PracticalGirl

      I am assuming in the case of Gallatea that she is unable to seek out work at some holiday retail job because if she does then the unemployment benefits go up in smoke and she is getting paid more in unemployment than she would expect to get in retail.

      Concise, yet a mouthful. I know a few people who are in this situation- between a rock and a hard place. I’d love to see Congress modify unemployment rules to allow for seasonal work without completely tanking future benefits. Something like:

      1. Allow a person to suspend their original unemployment benefits while taking on seasonal or contract work.

      2. Allow that person to pick the benefits back up from the original claim (all weeks not paid still preserved) once the contract/season is over.

      In essence, it’s a self-extension of the unemployment window with no additional $$ spent by the Fed. Pretty simple, within a certain construct and a good definition of what “temporary” means. Most contract work I see is of the 3-6month variety. Cap it at that, perhaps, for qualifying purposes. The person doesn’t collect benefits for the period of contract/season work, saving money for the government and adding to the tax rolls for the period of income. It also allows people to keep their skills up in their professional field, and some contracts lead to permanent employment.

      It’s possible that this would encourage a few businesses to offer only temp/contract work, but not the majority, if they really have enough work for a full time worker. No business owner wants to go through the time and expense to retrain a worker 4 times in a year when they could do it only once.

      • Primrose

        I agree with both Practical Girl and His Girl Friday we need to be more leniant about occasional work, delay benefits but don’t end them.

        In New York, you must report any attempt to start a business, any favors for relatives whether you are paid or not. So an applicant pursuing the thought of a business, or trying to set one up because nothing is happening, is discouraged from making their own employment.

        I think that trying to start a business is the same as looking for work, until it succeeds you haven’t found work, you are interviewing. The entire point of these strictures is to avoid us (taxpayers) being taken for a ride but I think that is a stupid way to form policy. We should form policy based on what will do the greatest good.

        Yes, some people will scam us. Welcome to life. But if we let people have creative responses to the problem, more will get off the roles sooner, and more permanently.

  • Graychin

    It won’t help you find a job, but:

    Have you applied for unemployment compensation? Have you applied for SNAP (food stamps)?

    I have seen you refer to your “libertarian” leanings in previous columns. I hope that doesn’t imply that you are someone silly enough to refuse benefits that YOU HELPED TO PAY FOR with your tax dollars, for philosophical reasons.

    Besides, your experiences among “those OTHER people” (the lazy and shiftless bums who leech off society by using SNAP and collecting unemployment), and your personal clash between ideology and reality, would make a GREAT future column.

    For which I would expect you to receive a generous payment from Frum Forum. :D

    • PracticalGirl

      “For which I would expect you to receive a generous payment from Frum Forum.”

      Which would negate any unemployment, unless Frum pays under the table.

      Also- Didn’t she say she’d been turned down for benefits (disqualified claim) in a previous column?

  • Oldskool

    Learn to write war-mongering rhetoric and you’ll be on easy street. Hehe.

  • Tankslapper

    You are having the same experience as millions of us have had before you, but you aren’t long-term unemployed/under-employed. I had almost four years of it during the last recession. Get a grip. I’ll say two things that will help if you believe them: (1) It’s not about you, don’t take this as a personal failure vs others who have jobs, and (2) This will end. Don’t believe that you are going to be in a reduced emotional & economic state for the rest of your life.

  • Houndentenor

    Some advice from someone who has been there:

    cut the expenses now. Get out of your lease, gym membership, etc. if you can without paying huge penalties (meaning: if they charge you less than what it will cost you to keep them up for the next few months). Cut out everything you don’t actually need and that doesn’t help you get a job. You can’t afford to eat out or buy drinks in bars unless it’s a networking event that might help you get a job. You can’t afford to work out in a gym. You don’t have the money.

    Yes, I realize you aren’t out of money. But you will be soon. Don’t wait until the wolves are at the door to make these decisions. You already know what you’re going to have to do. It sucks, but it’s not going to suck any less if you wait three months until you’ve run out of savings to do it. Do it now and use the money you save in the process to further your job search. Learn to differentiate between want and need. Most of us never learned the difference until we had to. You have to now.

    • Primrose

      I disagree about the gym membership. She needs to keep these things up. Plus, of course, it is another place to meet people, which is essential to fiinding a job.

  • NRA Liberal

    Apprentice to a union trade. Seriously. Due to federal mandates, they are taking any female who is willing to train as a carpenter, electrician, plumber, steamfitter, concrete laborer, operating engineer, or what have you. You will go to the front of the line, and these are slots that are extremely competitive and sought-after, with people camping out overnight to get applications. There are organizations like Nontraditional Employment for Women that can guide you.

    I’ve worked with a lady crane driver setting huge transformer modules in the basement of a midtown highrise. Brand new Liebherr rig, everything computer controlled, the cab looked like a space shuttle cockpit. That’s a nice gig for someone who doesn’t want to get their hands dirty. Pays well into 6 figures a year with great bennies too.

    • hisgirlfriday

      Now that is a fascinating suggestion you don’t see every day. And it’s a shame you don’t. If nursing can welcome more men nowadays, surely more women could be encouraged to join the building trades.

      Alas, I think we already went over in Gallatea’s previous column that there’s more prestige in being an unemployed writer than a union plumber so I doubt she’ll take you up on it. But it is interesting that schools push so hard to get girls interested in math and science but not very much in terms of shop or vocational trade work.

      Another though that just occurred to me, perhaps the reason why those fields still command decent wages nowadays is because employers haven’t been able to as easily use the women workforce to drive those wages down? Although overall I think women’s lib was a good thing as a woman, and certainly for me as a woman individually, I do look at the post-women’s lib economy and wonder what could have been done or what could still be done to make women having entered the workforce less wage-depressing.

      • NRA Liberal

        You might be right with your theory about women’s wages, girlfriday. I never thought of it that way.

        Plumbing may not be glamourous, but it would seem that making excellent wages–even if earned hooking up poo pipes— carries more prestige than collecting unemployment, reading “Who Moved My Cheese” again, repeating affirmations in the mirror and eating ramen.

        If plumbing doesn’t suit her, there are many other options.

        A writer like Galatea might pick up some new material while interacting with all the many and various characters of all backgrounds one meets in the trades. Much more interesting than the Frum Forum intern night out at the gastropub I assure you.

  • Oldskool

    Remember that you have the advantage of youth so you’ll get to see the other side of The Big Reset. Middle-aged people today may not be so lucky. They’re generally passed over because they’re more expensive to employers and they have a shorter expiration date.

  • Ray_Harwick

    When I first lost my job, one of my old writing professors—a reclusive Famous Person who didn’t particularly like people

    Yet, I’ll wager, his writing *about* people was filled with insight into human nature; the kind that makes writers into famous people. He was probably a better listener than a talker, a better observer than an entertainer. That’s not always the case. I went to a far, far cheaper university than Brown and my poetry professor was Pulitizer and American Book Award winner Phillip Levine. My God, was he entertaining! He worked on assembly lines to make his daily bread. My women’s studies teacher was Lillian Faderman who was twice nominated for the Pulitzer in the field in which she is counted as a founder – gay and lesbian history. She was the Chair of the English Department. She posed nude and danced in strip clubs to pay for graduate school. She was the daughter of a holocaust survivor who had *no* living relatives except the man who got her mother pregnant; someone she never met.

    I think what can be said about honestly about people who have achieved status or careers as writers is that they have “lived”. I think Galatea has quite a bit of living to do.

  • rbottoms

    “Be all that you can be in the Arrrrmy.”

  • budgiegirl

    If it were me, I would go for any job possible – especially with seasonal hiring, there are opportunities out there right now albeit temporary. My reasoning:

    First – money is money. A little money is better than none.

    Second – You never know who you might meet when you are on the job, and opportunities could arise. You’ll meet more people at any job than at home.

    Third – It will make for a good interview story when she is through this bump in the road. This latter part I speak from experience. I am a physician – but some of my best interviews have centered on some of the non-physician jobs I held when I was just out of college – including some pretty demeaning minimum wage work. It really does build character, it opens up your eyes to the rest of the world, and you learn some good life lessons. And you get some interesting stories. I would think prospective employers would appreciate the go-getter who is willing to take on any task no matter how big or how small – as compared to the person who says “that job is not worth my valuable time”. Who wants to hire THAT guy? There is lots of scut to be done in any organization, and its good to show you are not above scut.

    and Fourth – I think any job is good for one’s self esteem. Just to add structure to your week by having a work obligation is often good to maintain self-respect and actually helps with time management in general. I find I am often more productive outside of work, the busier that I am with work.

    Good luck – I hope you pursure and find at least a temporary job..

  • rbottoms

    In the navy
    Yes, you can sail the seven seas
    In the navy
    Yes, you can put your mind at ease
    In the navy
    Come on now, people, make a stand
    In the navy, in the navy
    Can’t you see we need a hand
    “In the navy
    Come on, protect the motherland
    In the navy
    Come on and join your fellow man
    In the navy
    Come on people, and make a stand
    In the navy, in the navy, in the navy (in the navy)”

    • Ray_Harwick

      The guy who ran for the State Assembly for downtown Oklahoma City was a Choctaw indian, a former Navy pilot, a former cop and worked in construction and ranched a little, and is gay. During his campaign he said, “I’m the entire Village People all in one.” He won.

      Al McAffrey

  • rbottoms

    Gee, I wish I was back in the army
    The army wasn’t really bad at all
    Three meals a day for which you didn’t pay
    Uniforms for winter, spring and fall
    There’s a lot to be said for the army
    The life without responsibility
    A soldier out of luck was never really stuck
    There’s always someone higher up where you can pass the buck
    Oh, gee, I wish I was back in the army
    Gee, I wish I was back in the army
    The army was the place to find romance
    Soldiers and WAC’s the WAC’s who dressed in slacks
    Dancing cheek to cheek and pants to pants
    There’s a lot to be said for the army
    The best of doctors watched you carefully
    A dentist and a clerk, for weeks and weeks they’d work
    They make a thousand dollar job and give it to a jerk
    Oh, gee, I wish I was back in the army
    Three meals a day for which you didn’t pay
    I thought that I was through with all my care and strife
    But after months and months of the civilian life
    Gee, I wish I was back in the army now!

  • rbottoms

    Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder
    The Airforce Song
    Words and Music by Captain Robert Crawford, ©1939 as the “Army Air Corps Song.”; reportedly renewed 1977 by the USAF

    Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
    Climbing high into the sun;
    Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
    At ‘em boys, Give ‘er the gun! (Give ‘er the gun now!)
    Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,
    Off with one heckuva roar!
    We live in fame or go down in flame.
    Hey! Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!

    Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder
    Sent it high into the blue
    Hands of men blasted the world asunder,
    How they lived God only knew!
    Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
    Gave us wings ever to soar,
    With scouts before and bombers galore, Hey!
    Nothing’ll stop the US Air Force!

  • Polydeuces

    I wanted to say that many of us have been where you are. You have a fine mind, wit and sense of humour and I don’t doubt there are better things for you around the corner. It takes a lot of courage to write to about one’s lowest and most vulnerable moments for all the world to read.

    This too shall pass.

  • NRA Liberal

    Work as a “task rabbit” may help tide you over!