5 Things People Need to Stop Saying About Unemployment

I have a confession to make: I am one of the millions of people in this country who has struggled to find work, particularly in the past year. I have a Master’s degree that I obtained fairly recently, but like many people I am still stuck in the weird “qualified but unqualified” limbo that seems to be common amongst a number of job seekers in the U.S. I do have a part-time contract job that pays pretty well and that I enjoy, but I am still far from my goal of “finding a paying job with benefits that isn’t going to make me collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day, thereby making my health problems worse.” This may seem like a highly specific goal, and it is, but I have my reasons for it, mostly having to do with disability-related things (with which many readers of my blog will be familiar!). If that shakes up your image of entitled and whiny Gen-Y kids who just don’t understand that life isn’t fair, you may want to read on.

I know putting this on a public blog is risky, more so because there are employers out there who do things like specify that the unemployed need not apply to their open positions (WTF?). I am also, however inadvertently, inviting internet tough folks to clog up my comments section with “well-meaning” crap nuggets of advice about how I am Doing It Wrong with regards to looking for employment. I probably won’t publish those comments, though–not because I am “against free speech,” but because I have had EVERY THOUGHT you could possibly throw at me about those exact topics. Really.

So, in no particular order, here are five things that people need to stop saying about unemployment and/or to unemployed and underemployed people. Because seriously, it is getting old.

“Well, I was unemployed once, and I got through it.” [May come with a barrage of unsolicited advice on How to Find a Job that would have worked 15-20 years ago.]  I notice that this one is commonly used by Baby Boomers who may or may not just want people who can’t find jobs–particularly young people–to shut up. The youth unemployment rate in this country is incredibly high, and although I don’t want to be all MY GENERATION HAS IT THE WORST–because goodness knows that older people have to deal with ageism on the job market in a particularly insidious way, regardless of how much career experience they have–this piece of advice rings quite hollow after a while. We know you’re only trying to help us during a difficult time, but here’s how you could actually help us Gen-Xers and Millennials out: Know when to stop talking, or stop typing if you just need to comment on an article online.

And if we resist your “advice,” it’s not because we’re being rude or obstinate for no reason, or because we hate you. It’s because many of us have more than enough to deal with right now. Maybe we don’t want to think about how much it sucks to be un(der)employed right now, because we think about that all the time. Maybe we already spend untold hours on cover letters, targeted resumes, networking, and all of the things that we’re supposed to do in order to get a job. Many of us are doing all of these things (and more!) as it is. Empathy: Try it sometime!

“Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten a degree in Women’s Studies/English/Art History, then!” Sure, let me queue up my time machine, go back eight years to my first term of undergrad, and pick a STEM major! Never mind that I would be terrible at one of those. I had the audacity–as do many people–to pick a field that I was, and am, actually pretty good at, and that I enjoyed. I EVEN GOT A MASTER’S DEGREE IN IT, so clearly I am just a waste of space because of my stupid, useless degree.

Had I been a STEM major in college, I probably would have caused something like this to happen–which would have given me an entirely different set of problems.

I know people love to rain down the hate on Humanities majors for their lack of “practicality” for what the market demands, and my guess is that people in the so-called “soft sciences” such as Psychology and Sociology get a lot of this as well. And sometimes there are other obstacles to going into STEM fields, as this wonderful comment at Ask a Manager details. I would add that while you’re busy prattling away in comments fields about your amazing Electrical Engineering degree, we’re the ones who are doing some pretty important things that you don’t see. Who do you think writes that snappy content for your company’s website? Who do you think edits your memos, corrects the grammar and spelling of your scientific papers, or turns your vague and already-kinda-been-there ideas about web 2.0 into viable social media plans? If it weren’t for “creative” types in the arts and humanities (from a variety of majors), where the hell do you think all of your entertainment would come from?

Poster for the 2012 film "The Avengers"

The guy who wrote and directed this total flop got a “useless” degree in Film.

Where do you think media criticism comes from? Journalism, opinion pieces, magazines on a huge variety of topics (including tech, business and science)? Blog posts that you pretend not to read at work? Books? And yes, weird academic papers that almost no one reads, like my B.A. thesis on the Heaven’s Gate cult? (That last one may weaken my argument a bit, but still.) I can hear the cries of indignation now: ZOMG HOW COULD YOU HAVE WRITTEN SOMETHING SO USELESS? Here’s how: I know how to put sentences together and shape a bunch of those sentences into paragraphs that expand upon a substantial and cohesive argument, keep momentum going throughout long-term projects (even when the end seems as faraway as a spaceship containing friendly aliens that will welcome your earthly soul to their peaceful home planet after a short ride through the galaxy), and read, summarize and analyze a variety of materials from different forms of media critically. Useless.

“Just think POSITIVE!” Okay, Captain the-Sun-Shines-Out-of-Our-Behinds. Perennial awesome person/journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an entire book about this trend, and as I covered in my review of Bright Sided, she is much better at building an argument against “positive thinking” than I am, because I tend to get super wordy when this topic comes up. Because it is that goddamned infuriating, particularly when applied to a HUGE PROBLEM like mass unemployment that is closely intertwined with structural failures. With the positive thinking crowd, we see the mistake of depicting individual actions as the determining factor of whether someone will succeed or fail, even though that is not really how it works. If “just trying” positive thinking and affirmations alone could get me a job, I would have SO MANY JOBS, because I have tried it and the job of my dreams did not exactly appear from the heavens fully-formed.

“You can’t go get a job at McDonald’s/in retail? You must think you’re too good for those kinds of jobs.” Not exactly; there are so many people who need work right now that even temping, retail and yes, McDonald’s are not magical employment panaceas–there was, for example, that widely-reported story about old Mickey D’s receiving one million job applications for 62,000 job openings. Take a moment and think about those odds for a bit.

As for being “too good” for certain jobs: If, say, Sephora offered me a job tomorrow, I would probably take it because I need a job and am interested in makeup (and yes, I have applied to work there). It’s not that I think I’m too good for those kinds of gigs; it’s basic math, because a whole heck of a lot of people need work right now. Also, there is a little thing called being “overqualified,” which pretty much means that Sephora might not want a sales associate with a Master’s degree, much less a Master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies. Admittedly, the notion of a Women’s Studies nerd selling cosmetics and beauty products is pretty hilarious, but that seems a bit more suited for Alan Ball’s next black comedy series than for real life.

“You need to try harder to find any job that will take you.” Certainly, there are some good tips out there that job-seekers can follow to improve their candidacy for some positions (I quite like Ask a Manager’s many posts on searching for jobs). However, the continued emphasis on individual actions in the face of some pretty intense structural odds is extremely troubling, particularly because capitalism is a system that is designed to give a lot of privileges, legs-up and such to a relative few, while the rest of us are stuck being told that we need to think positive, try harder, and generally keep running on the rat wheel until our hard work rewards us, too–often while facing stagnant wages, non-existent health benefits, and/or unpaid internships cleverly marketed as “work experience” that will supposedly look great on your resume.

Those of us who can’t find work, or enough work, are always to blame somehow: too little education, too much education in a “useless” field, too little time devoted to networking and volunteering, too little pressure on ourselves to look positive, confident and not bitter to employers even in the face of seemingly endless rejection; we have the wrong outfit, wrong resume, wrong cover letter, wrong work experience, wrong attitude.

And once you get a paying job, there is zero guarantee that it will pay a living wage; recent statistics, furthermore, point to the chilling fact that less than half of all jobs in the U.S. currently pay over $35,000 per year. How ’bout that “invisible hand of the market” holding people down instead of taking care of everything, like some said it would? Whee, capitalism! Unfortunately, the response in comments sections all around the internet is usually something to the effect of “Who gives a shit about poor people, right…they should take responsibility and get off welfare! The wealth of the top 10% will trickle down, because Reganomics works! I’m not [middle/lower/working] class, so I don’t need to care about them.” often with a piping-hot side of “OMG ILLEGALS ARE TAKING OUR JOBBBBBBBS.”

Mitt Romney giving the thumbs-up.

In the time it took me to write the above paragraph, Mitt Romney most likely made more money than I will ever see in my lifetime. GOD BLESS AMERICA.

Being unemployed/underemployed sucks, and you most likely know someone who is in that situation. For the love of Cthulhu, please re-think what you say to your friends, relatives, and fellow internet denizens who are going through this. If it happens to you—and I hope it does not—you will be glad that you stopped saying jerky things and generally acting like an ass to people who really don’t deserve it.

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5 thoughts on “5 Things People Need to Stop Saying About Unemployment

  1. “Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten a degree in Women’s Studies/English/Art History, then!”

    Meanwhile I have a degree in the hardest of sciences and I’m unemployed too. Wow, almost looks like the job market sucks for everyone, doesn’t it?

    Too many people want to find something you’ve done wrong, because of Just World beliefs, because they want to feel that they themselves are protected, whatever. As if being unemployed and broke wasn’t hard enough, there’s the added complication of an aching jaw from having to grit our teeth through so much would-be helpful advice. Bleh

  2. Hannah says:

    The comedian Mark Steel wrote a wonderful piece on unemployment (it’s in his book Reasons to be Cheerful) noting that it is, in many ways, harder than having a job: at least when you’re employed you’re allowed to moan about it, and there are people around making sure you do it, whereas being unemployed, you just slip off the radar and it begins to feel like no one would notice if you just stopped breathing. I was unemployed for nearly a year after finishing my degree, and it was, without doubt, the most depressing period of my life: both in the colloquial sense and in that it made my clinical depression about ten times worse.

    Good luck – I really hope you find a decent job that you enjoy as soon as possible.

  3. Melissa says:

    This is such a phenomenal piece! Great job.

  4. linmirianjoyrex says:

    YES. This is a MASTERPIECE. IT IS BRILLIANT. IT IS WHAT PEOPLE NEED TO HEAR. :D

  5. aspoonfulatatime says:

    As a defense contractor, feeling the hits of the cuts as we approach possible sequestration cuts for civilian employees, I am about to go through unemployment (second lay off) in almost as many years. The temporary nature of my work has helped me keep an emotional distance from my job while also pressuring me, given the short time I have, to prove myself even harder with the hope of continuing employment or being considered for the next contract. I have an English degree, and with all the “technical documentation” we produce, with clarity of policy/instructions in the Army IT environment being so “critical,” you would think they could piece things together or at least not be such jerks, but I am routinely told and made to feel how little my skills matter. (The Army’s labor category for me is the very non-descriptive “documentation specialist,” a title that has bit me in the ass for years and I just HATE it — I was vulnerable to chopping on that front alone, nevermind I have done every job on my 3-person team, including leading it at various times on the contract because every high-falutin’ IT guy making 6 figures stomped off citing despair with the Army culture). I mean, if anybody’s in desperate need of a critical thinker with creativity, problem solving, and writing/editing skills, it is the U.S.MF Army. *whew.. a rant leaked out!* My town is so small and Defense-reliant, that the cuts we’re facing is going to decimate my community. The supporting outlying community really only provides low-wage service jobs (that I was too overqualified for in college!) because mostly old retired people (like my poor old folks, who I want to help) live here and don’t want to pay much tax or allow any growth (curmudgeonly attitudes). Most bright younger people want to move away or are simply forced to due to limited opportunities and little feeling of inclusion/hope for being a part of this community.

    Everything you have so aptly (and humorously!) described in this blog is something I can relate to — I have lived through exactly what you are describing (love Ehrenreich’s books too, btw!) and it is a source of comfort for me to hear your candid thoughts — I dislike the incredible pressure to censor them because you are right, the problem is something bigger and more systemic. Unemployment is the symptom of a greater disease.

    Because I have lived through this before, I am better prepared to endure this along with all the stupidity from well-meaning people and not-so-well-meaning/indifferent people alike; the conventional wisdom and prescription for how to solve this problem, really is terribly futile and that’s part of the frustration you’re expressing. In my case, I am prepared to not only ignore it this time, but I’m ready to try some unconventional things and take some risks — as far as I’m concerned, it is risky and there’s no guarantee either way; the only difference is the perception of others. I just stumbled upon your blog by accident and have yet to read your others, which I look forward to, but no matter what’s happened since you wrote this post that I have yet to learn about, I wish you the best luck (does that sounds stupid?). Thanks specifically for your candor and insight. I wish you great luck and thanks for writing this post! :-) Cheers, R.

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