For a long time, until I wrecked my knee, I would play basketball at the local YMCA every Monday at lunch.
When a few of us started the midday game 20 years ago, we were mostly in our 30s and 40s; by the time I stopped playing, some of us were in our 60s. Several of the players were self-employed – a musician, a market researcher, a lawyer, a limo driver – but there were also a couple of guys who worked in the publishing industry, and a cop. It was pretty well understood at the Y that the Monday noon game was the old men’s game, the Friday game the young men’s game, and the Wednesday game a mix of the two.
A couple of years ago, the Monday game started getting younger. Much younger. Guys in their early 20s – several of whom had gone to school with my 23-year-old son – were turning up to play. They brought a lot of passion and energy to the game, and they could get to the basket with much greater ease than the rest of us. One unwritten rule about those Monday get-togethers was that during the breaks between games, we didn’t talk about our jobs. Basketball was our safety valve, allowing us to blow off steam and forget about the pressures of work. So all the years we got together at lunchtime, we stuck to discussing hoops, and our wives, and our kids. We didn’t talk about our jobs. But the young guys didn’t talk about their jobs either. They didn’t have jobs.
The human impact of widespread unemployment hits you in unlikely moments like this. Young men should not be hanging out at the gym at lunchtime. Neither should young women. They should be at work. They should be doing something productive. They should be getting on with their lives. The sight of so many unemployed young men – with college degrees, some from fine institutions – drove home a harsh reality. This was a deep and savage economic downturn we were experiencing. And no matter how much the Fed might argue that the recession was over, these guys weren’t buying it. These guys were bearing the brunt of it. There was no recovery in sight.
After my son graduated from college with a degree in classics – that’s right, classics – he moved to Charlottesville, Va., for a few months. While there, he worked briefly as a bouncer, a moving man, a sandwich delivery man, and a bookstore clerk. Eventually, he returned home and decided to go to law school. He was demoralized by his first venture into the workforce, which was more like a reconnaissance mission. Shortly after that, while he was waiting to start law school, a good friend of mine offered him a clerical job. It changed him completely. Now he had structure and purpose in his life. He was no longer a child. He had his own money. Soon he had his own apartment. He could start living his own life. But perhaps the most interesting thing about all this was that he became a sort of celebrity among his friends. He had a nine-to-five job. They didn’t. They were substitute teaching. They were waiting on tables. They were parking cars. They were waiting on tables and parking cars. And worst of all, they were still living with their parents.
This was not what they’d intended to do with that college degree.
When a nation goes through an extended economic downturn like the one we are experiencing, the effects are felt in a series of waves. First you might hear that a neighbor has lost his job. Then a local teacher or librarian has to put her house on the market because her husband has gotten the ax. Then you find yourself at a New Year’s Eve party wisecracking about the pressures of work, joking about how you would like to pack it all in and retire to the south of France, when somebody pulls you aside (probably your wife) and whispers: “Not so loud – Tom has been out of work for a year and a half.”
That a person has been out of work for 18 long months is not always obvious to everyone else in the community – even in a small town like the one I live in. It’s not the sort of thing the unemployed person wants to get around. It’s only when you find out that somebody you know – not a close friend, perhaps, but someone you have known for a long time, someone you used to play basketball with, for example – is not working, that you suddenly realize how infrequently you have seen that person over the past year or so. And the reason is clear: People who have lost their jobs keep a low profile. They don’t go to parties, they avoid community events, they tend to stay in the house. They send out résumés, they go on job interviews, they wait for the mail, but they don’t hang out in places where they are likely to run into people who are still working. They are mortified. They are ashamed. They feel guilty of a crime they have not in fact committed.
Being out of work for such a length of time is demoralizing, of course, and it is economically ruinous. But mostly it is humiliating. When I was in college, I worked the graveyard shift in a Philadelphia bubble-gum factory with a middle-aged man who reported to work every night in a dapper three-piece suit, brandishing an attaché case. After our shift ended in the morning, he would wash up before leaving the factory to remove powder from his hands and hair. He had worked as a salesman for years in the jewelry business in downtown Philadelphia, and he did not want his neighbors to know that he had lost his white-collar job and was now reduced to working in a bubble-gum factory. The fact that he left home every night at 10:30 and arrived home the next morning just as everyone else was going to work strongly suggested that he was no longer working in the jewelry business. This did not matter to him. What mattered to him was keeping up appearances, however absurd. What mattered was hanging on to his dignity.
When unemployment stands at 5 percent – euphemistically referred to as “full employment” – it is easy to believe that the only people not working are the halt and the lame, losers, ne’er-do-wells, and self-styled mavericks that employers do not wish to hire because of their checkered pasts or criminal records or transparent personality disorders. The rest of us are encouraged to believe, at least in boom times, that anyone who wants a job can find one. But as the jobless numbers creep up during a recession, these bromides lose their power to convince. All of a sudden you start meeting people who are not lazy, not unreliable, do not have bad attitudes or troubled work histories, yet who are unemployed all the same. They are out of work because the market has turned against them. And they are not losers or mavericks or jerks. They are people just like you.
When the economy goes into the tank, affluent people are initially insulated from the shock. You hear about people losing their jobs, but it is always someone you don’t know. Then it closes in on you. Unemployment causes people to do and say things they never thought imaginable. People I have known for years, who have had much better jobs and lived in much nicer houses, have come out and asked if I know of any openings anywhere. Not openings for top-level positions, but clerical work. Temping. Anything to cover the nut.
Just before last Christmas, a friend got a call from a relative she had not heard from in several years. The woman could not pay her bills. She was desperate for help. Any kind of help. It had come to this. People you would not consider close friends or even close relatives were calling for help. That’s how bad this economy has become. People are desperate. And it’s not just poor people anymore.
Jobs give people dignity, and not having a job takes that dignity away. This is hard on young people because they wonder if they will ever get a real shot at pursuing the career they envisioned when they entered college. It is hard on middle-aged people because no matter what anyone says to them, they believe society has turned its back on them. And it is hard on poor people because poor people do not have savings to fall back on, or property to borrow against, or chits to call in, or connections. Poor people do not have affluent friends who can give their kid a job. When my father was in his early 30s, he got laid off from his job at a prominent household appliance company called Proctor & Schwartz. My dad was a ninth-grade dropout who had clawed his way into the white-collar sector of the workforce after grueling experiences following the Second World War and had finally landed a position as an “expeditor,” a sort of draftsman’s assistant. In 1958, the United States was in a recession, and he lost his job. We soon lost our house and were forced to move to a housing project. My father was never the same after that. He never recovered from the stigma of losing that house. He never again worked in an office. He worked as a rent-a-cop and a pretzel-truck driver and a sandwich guy, but for the rest of his life he was a walking ghost, and a hard-drinking one at that. Our family did not revive until my mother, at age 44, with four mouths to feed, rejoined the workforce in 1964. She worked at the same job until she was forced to retire two decades later. She loved every minute of it. Having a job gave her dignity and purpose. Losing that job would have taken all that away. Finding a job not only saved her life. It saved her family.
Even in the best of times, it is not uncommon for middle-aged people to get booted out onto the street. We all read Death of a Salesman in high school; we all have been given ample notice that at a certain point society will decide it no longer has use for our talents – at least not at the salary we are presently commanding. It happens to executives, it happens to teachers, it happens to salespeople, it happens to journalists. But people who lose their jobs in middle age can at least console themselves with the thought that they have had their run, their day in the sun. What worries me about the grinding recession we are experiencing today is that millions and millions of young Americans will never get a crack at the careers they have dreamed of, or will not get that shot at the brass ring until they are in their 30s. And when the economy finally recovers and good jobs are no longer at a premium, these embittered 30-year-olds will be competing for openings with bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, chipper new college graduates who have not spent the last decade waiting on tables and parking cars and just generally being angry. Who’s going to have the most winning attitude at the crucial follow-up job interview?
Unemployment gives an entire society a doleful, melancholy aspect. You find yourself consoling people in the supermarket who confess that if they don’t find work soon, they will be forced to sell their house and leave town. You actually feel a rush when you hear that someone has gotten a job. Any job. And you feel the fallout from unemployment in your daily life. Shops are boarded up. Houses are up for sale. Merchants openly talk about losing their businesses. The building I have worked in since 1993 has five office suites. When the economy is in good shape, all those suites are occupied – by software engineers, by accountants, by travel agents, by psychiatrists, by advertising executives, by investment advisers, by mysterious concert promoters. But when the economy heads south, those suites are empty for years at a time. Since the spring of 2010, I have had no one to talk to in the halls about the World Series, American Idol, Donald Trump, Lady Gaga. There is no one left in the building. There is no one here. I am not merely the last man standing. I am the last man working.
In a downturn such as this, middle-aged people are often forced to go back to the jobs they started out in. High-powered salesmen go back to making cold calls. Down-sized controllers work as cashiers in convenience stores. People who ran their own companies go back to punching a clock. Anything is preferable to going on welfare. A relative of my wife’s in England used to be in sales; now he services soda machines. I saw him last November; he was battered but unbowed. He did not find his new job demeaning; he was happy to have it. There is something heroic and noble about people like this. There is something courageous and gallant about the way some unemployed people refuse to go down for the count. Some people drop out of the workforce and start to collect relief. Others move back in with their parents or in-laws. But some people fight to avoid going under. I know one friend who was out of work for almost two years before finally landing a job. He was depressed and diminished throughout. But he never threw in the towel. He followed the dictum first enunciated by the doomed Chicago Bears football star Brian Piccolo, who shortly before succumbing to cancer declared: “You can’t quit. It’s a league rule.”
Just before the crash of 2007, I started working on a story about all the jobs I had been fired from in my life. With the exception of one position – a nonpaying gig as a commentator at WKTI-FM Milwaukee that I got axed from twice – I was never fired from a job that I did not deserve to be fired from. When I started writing the story, I believed that a lot of other people, if they were really honest with themselves, would make the same admission. It seemed like a funny idea for a story. At least it did then. But it’s one I’ve put on hold for a while. What seemed funny in the spring of 2007 didn’t seem nearly as funny in the spring of 2008. Or now. In fact, it doesn’t seem funny at all.