Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

Getting Personal – Unemployment – The Possum

Posted by middlerage on January 5, 2013

[Warning: Long post]

I recently celebrated, on this blog, my finding a new job after a three-year desert of unemployment. During that three years of blogging I rarely mentioned my unemployed status, and when I did, it was only in passing. You’d think a blog would be the perfect place to discuss the trials and tribulations of being out-of-work, yet oddly I didn’t. It was a personal situation I was hesitant to go into in a public forum. I think the reasons – or at least as much as we can ever know our own emotions – can be summed up in the following three thoughts:

Guilt: No matter how much unemployment is not (or is) our fault, we live in a can-do, up-by-your-bootstraps, meritocracy. Even in an age of record economic hardship, it is still hard not to feel unclean in some mysterious way. As a scientist, I rationally understood the illogic of this emotion, so I forced myself to be honest… when asked. But I never brought it up on my own.

Part of this is that you don’t want people to feel bad for you. You especially don’t want them to feel awkward, to feel, “Thank God I have a job, but I can barely pay the mortgage, and now I feel obligated to buy lunch.” You feel guilty, and your friends feel guilty: I had a friend who got a lovely promotion, but immediately felt bad after telling me. He didn’t know that I was immensely happy for him, and actually the good fortune was a salve to me. But I understood his feeling, because I would’ve felt the same if the situation was reversed. Which, perhaps just goes to show we all really do understand one-another, and the guilt of being unemployed is a silly emotion.

Another guilt trip that made me reticent to open up on the blog, was my peculiar situation. As a scientist, I didn’t make a very good poster-boy for the unemployed masses of the Great Recession. I wasn’t a home-builder, construction worker, mortgage broker, or mid-level financier getting laid off as the housing bubble burst. Scientists live in their own world of federal grants and academia – we should be immune to such broader economic troubles, and for the most part we are. My situation was unusual, but I like to say, “I wasn’t laid off because of the Great Depression, however I couldn’t find another job because of it.” As time went by, I started to find stories that made me feel better. Like the microbiologist in Tennessee who lost his research job, and was now making cabinetry in his garage at a fourth of his former income. Or the editorial in Scientific American that mentioned a brilliant physicist whose work led to a Nobel prize for three colleagues, but had lost his job and was now a parking attendant. Due to the Nobel’s peculiar rules, only a max of three people can share a prize and he was forgotten, and poor. (Okay, his situation has nothing to do with the Great Recession, but it made me feel better, anyway).

Finally, I think it is the diminishment of guilt, with my new-found employment, that makes me feel like opening up, now, on the blog.

Illumination: Another odd thing is I never really felt like I could bring any decent illumination to the subject. I didn’t feel like I had much to say about it that my readers didn’t already know or guess. Strangely I just didn’t have much to add to the conversation; I just hoped that whenever a news article about the long-term unemployed appeared, my readers read it. I read such articles voraciously, and would react strongly, “Yeah, this is important!” However, now that I am working, I am feeling feelings and thinking thoughts I didn’t before. Why? I couldn’t say. Maybe one problem with unemployment is it numbs the brain.

When I used to describe global warming (my field of scientific research) to school kids, I liked to invoke the concepts of the chronic and traumatic: “Tornadoes are an example of trauma. They are exciting because they are dramatic and violent, just like a car crash, so lots of people want to now about them. However, if car wrecks kill ~50,000 people a year, can you guess how many people die from smoking cigarettes every year? ~400,000, or nearly ten times as much. Yet smoking isn’t nearly as interesting as a car wreck. Likewise global warming: a tornado can cause terrible tragedy, but it will be dwarfed by the global deaths from malaria and dengue fever as mosquitoes extend their range in a benevolently warm world.”

Unemployment is not dramatic. In the 24 hour news cycle, it is hard to maintain excitement about unemployment. However, the latest article I read claims there are 3 million folks who have been unemployed so long they aren’t even counted in federal statistics anymore. This is chronic. We are going to have this problem for at least a decade if not longer, along with associated well-being and health costs. It’s a new age.

Mundane: I guess associated with the illumination problem, unemployment is mundane. There just didn’t seem a lot to write about. To me, unemployment is reminiscent of war: endless hours of boredom and drudgery interspersed with microseconds of sheer terror. Yes there are the wee hours of the night when you wake to thoughts of “How are we going to pay for anything this week? Will we get thrown out on the street?” And just like in war, when you’ve been there you have a certain experience that is hard to transmit to your friends. In the Civil War they called it Seeing the Elephant when you’d been in real combat. I won’t trivialize war by claiming the elephant – any soldier in Afghanistan would gladly trade his/her worries about the next IED for my worries about making a mortgage payment. But there is an indescribable feeling about living on the financial edge that one can’t adequately transmit to those who’ve never been there. I call it Seeing the Opossum, because what the heck, I have a fondness for the little ugly little buggers, and it takes the grandiosity out of it – I don’t want to suggest I’m better or cooler than those who haven’t experienced unemployment.

But I have seen the ‘possum, and I’ll start trying to write the occasional post about it; because, my good fortune aside, there are still millions of unemployed Americans, and we need to keep this chronic problem in the forefront of our minds.

4 Responses to “Getting Personal – Unemployment – The Possum”

  1. Dahveed said

    When you announced your new job and mentioned the fact that it had been 3 years, it blew me away. I think the fact that you rarely mentioned it, combined with my own proclivity to navel gaze, made me not realize how long it had been. Despite that, the possum has weighed heavily in my mind since my first kid was born. I had a couple friends declare bankruptcy after the .com bubble pop in 2000; and that never leaves my mind, especially when I think about my family. My current job is difficult, stressful, and in some ways soul-stealing, but I always try to end any complaints about it with a sobering “… but it beats the alternative” because, well, it does. When I read about companies not hiring people because they’re not current job holders it absolutely enrages me. Here’s hoping for sustained fulfillment of our most basic needs from Maslows hierarchy.

  2. middlerage said

    It is enraging when folks don’t get hired because of their lack of work.
    You’ve mentioned before how yucky your job is. I really wish I had a way to make that better. Any advice I had would not be worth much, just know I sypathize.

  3. Fatman said

    I was really happy to hear the news and surprised it had been 3 years. Working for the unemployment office and seeing real data, not just NM but watching the balances fall in almost every state, I saw how bad things are. I didn’t expect you to detail your plight, and I hoped you had a second blog you would share when things got good.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your insightful blog,and am courious to see how it developes


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