Everything Is Not Alright (Really, I’m Okay)
Today, I want to talk about something serious. Things are not alright, as the kids say these days. It isn’t particularly a secret, though I wish it were. Let’s talk about unemployment. More specifically, mine. It’s come to my attention that people are curious. And, that’s really alright. So, since it isn’t a secret, let’s dialogue. Well, monologue. I don’t think the kids say that.
A couple of up front thoughts, though. First, I’m not unique. But, I’m going to talk about this as my experience. Millions of Americans are currently unemployed and millions more are underemployed. And believe it sister, it’s the same thing. Minimum wage doesn’t pay your student loans and for your kids clothes and for your mortgage. The only way I know how to talk about this is through my personal experience. Everyone has problems, many have similar problems. These are mine.
Okay. So, let’s establish some basics. I am 28 years old. I have a family; a wife and a daughter. I have an education, completed through the graduate level. I have work experience. For example, I helped design a lesson learned program for the Pentagon to improve the whole of government response to post, or just plain, conflict environments. This even came with a security clearance. Me and a million other people, apparently. I lined up three job opportunities with my time there. And, in the fullness of time, each has not worked out.
That’s the amazing part about government job applications. If they go well, it can take months before you find out things fell apart. It’s a weird dynamic to transition from being patient for a job application to process to being patient waiting for a call back indicating any interest at all.
And that’s the rub. I’ve applied for hundreds of other jobs. Aside from the ones I lined up through networking at the Pentagon, I have received not one single call for an interview. Two weeks ago I applied at Barnes and Noble. Still, no call. I have currently been unemployed for eighteen months. On the plus side, the interview that was for all the money went swimmingly. On the down side, they decided not to hire anyone for the time being. Win some. Lose a whole lot.
When I was finishing High School, the advice was: "go to college if you want to get a good job." I did. And couldn’t. Then, they said, "Get a masters degree. Do some entry-level work. Then you’ll get the job you want." I did. And still can’t. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced this can understand the feeling of spending the better part of a decade educating yourself and having nothing come of it. Or, spending the last five years actively pursuing a specific goal, making the right moves, working all the time only to find out at the payoff, no one will even return your phone call.
If you have not lived this, you do not understand. You can feel for me. And I think most everyone does. You can want good things for me. And I think most everyone does. But, you do not understand. I know I have been making only right moves since 2006. Taking what I needed and advancing down my path to professional satisfaction. I know this for a fact. You understand my emphasis? I know this. But, sometimes you can make all the right moves and still lose.
Let me try to help you see what this is like. Picture yourself in a chamber. You are the only thing in it. It echoes. Now, the only person who knows your situation is you. The only person who can provide feedback on your situation is, by and large, you. No one responds to you. Okay. Keep this in your mind. At the same time, pick a phrase. Any cliché phrase designed to motivate a person is fine. Or, make up some shocking combination of words completely unrelated to this issue; the more shocking the better. Pause your reading for the next five minutes. Close your eyes. See yourself in the echo chamber. Repeat your phrase to yourself for that entire five minutes.
You’re in a glass box of emotion! Ha! But, really, when repeated so frequently, the words lose their meaning. Even a person as gut stubborn as I am can’t make it through job application after job application without all words of self assurance losing their effectiveness. It isn’t a matter of being tough. The parts of your brain that light up with the saying or hearing of those reassuring words goes numb. It’s the same exact thing that happens when you have to spend an extended period around a smell. Good smell. Bad smell. After awhile, it loses its impact. Your brain filters it to constant low level background information.
Time passes. I have a hard time reassuring myself that an economic meltdown is the primary cause of my strife. All I can think is I am almost thirty years old. I have a wife, a daughter and a mortgage. I’m very proud of my accomplishments and my family. And, with good reason. But, two weeks ago, I asked a nineteen year old for an application to the Barnes and Noble for a sales assistant position. In ten years I’ve gone from heading off to college to applying for part time hours at a minimum wage job. This is not what I worked the last decade of my life to accomplish. What does my future hold? The possibility of asking another nineteen year old for an application to the Best Buy.
How now brown cow? How now. It just melts my brain. Does not compute. Reboot. I mean, it’s got me quoting MTV. You think you know, but you have no idea.
This is really two issues. First, we’ve been talking about the pursuit of professional pride and accomplishment. But, the second is the simple issue of money. I noted earlier that minimum wage doesn’t pay for the lifestyle I’ve been building. But, do you know what it pays better than? No wages. And the wages of no wages is broke. Hopes and dreams are not legal tender. I’m terrified of applying to minimum wage jobs. I like to work. I’m not good at quitting bad jobs. I’m terrified that a routine involving even a modicum of pay will make me complacent. It literally gives me nightmares. Also, my minimum wage job will not cover the day care for my baby.
It’s funny. I’ve been asked how I’m handling all of this. My response was unguardedly bitter and sarcastic. Whoops. The truth is everything is not alright. This is not a normal problem. While I may have fully embraced the gallows humor, I still work each day to find new opportunity. But, oh my, it’s a grim search. Most days, I can’t actually recall why it is I set out down this path. What’s the point, again? Finding new opportunities and applying to them is more like muscle memory at this point. You get up. You do this. You write this. You send this. You go to bed.
I have lost any genuine expectation that everything is going to be alright. Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I’m not naïve. Life is hard. If life was easier, we’d be a lot better at it in general. But, everyday I’m confronted in the news by politicians talking up the American dream of hard work bringing great reward. Fury. Fury is the word I would use to describe the emotion I experience then. A fury so dense, it’s somewhere between neutron star and black hole.
My favorite is when my wife and I are watching the news. Sometimes, the expert guest will say something and my wife will exclaim how that is exactly the commentary I offered, almost verbatim. Of course, she’s saying “Dude, it’s okay. I know how painfully smart you are.” All I can think is, wait, that commentator on the television is my age? Crap. On the other hand, my wife does call me dude. Which is sweet. The nineties were my formative years.
Democrats want to talk about their jobless recovery and Republicans, well at least the Democrats are trying. I can’t imagine how someone whose pension was robbed by investment in falsified triple-a rated bonds responds to the Republican call to let, for example, auto companies go under so that they can resurface free of the efficiency reducing pensioner barnacles. You know, the barnacles for which real people worked twenty five years of their life. Yeah, I’m talking about Mitt Romney circa 2008.
Our politicians and media talk endlessly about Wall Street, AIG, bailouts and housing prices. Where is the coverage of the cohorts of twenty-somethings graduating into a jobless recovery? Do you understand that there are millions of us who, by the time this thing is over, will be years from their education with no meaningful interim work experience? What will we say at our interviews for the new economy jobs?
Hi. My name is Bill. First, let me say thanks for having me out. So, what have I been doing? Well, several years back I finished my Masters program. The degree is specific to this job. Since then, well. Life. I had a baby, played Mr. Mom for awhile. I did some temp work while the economy recovered. And, since then I’ve mostly been making copies for secretaries at [big name law firm]. But, I met a lot of people there. Kept up with the industry. So forth. I can type. Do people still ask about that? Do you think my responsible nature proven by my status as a father will put me ahead of a fresh graduate with the same work experience? I probably shouldn’t have asked that question. Yes, I agree the answer is obvious. I’ll go now. I promise I used to be great.
I never used to envision my future self as the clumsy, fat, balding, drunk, used-to-be-captain of the high school of the sports team. But, my current cut rate diet isn’t helping my weight. My hairline certainly isn’t as jazzy as it was before the decade of stress. Genetics played a role there. I don’t drink alcohol, mostly because it’s expensive. I do spend an inordinate amount of time of late pining for the good times. Back in the day. You remember? I used to own this town. Laces out. Nineties. No apologies.
I used to picture myself at age thirty as a ninja master with a heart of gold. Witty. Sexy. Fit. Independently wealthy, but not flashy about it. Basically, Kung Fu The Legend Continues. Instead, I fell down the stairs the other day.
I’m not even sure if I’m the malfunction, the economy is the malfunction or if it is a combination of both with a dose of bad luck. I really couldn’t say. And that, my friends, is disconcerting. It’s all freshman year stoner philosophy 101. Given that I’m a solipsist, I’ve clearly got some issues to work on. But, of course, you’ll already know that. Me and Mr. Cobb, right?
The truth is: I thought I’d have a family and be five or six years into a career. And, I’m not at all unhappy with the half of that which I have realized. I would always choose having my family over the job portion of the equation. But, I would have liked, you know, to have made that choice for myself. And, I would have liked to have made a cool million or so in my profession before having made that choice for myself. Though, I admit that is improbable even in the best of circumstances.
Everything is not alright. But, really, I’m okay. I’m a put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-damn-the-consequences-full-speed-ahead sort of fellow. Find something new everyday. Positive. But, still, negative, because progress is not success. And that’s hard. Real hard. How long can progress be called progress without realizing success?
At the least. At the very least. My engine block is not cracked. I am not currently living in a dust bowl. But, a whole lot like Mr. Tom Joad, I sure am looking for some dignity. You know? Just some dignity. I would also very much like to keep the bank from repossessing my home. I put this in the dignity column.