by Scott C. Hammond, PhD
Monday, February 10, 2014
Lost in the Wilderness of Unemployment
by Scott C. Hammond, PhD
From 10 am to 2 pm every weekday, my local bookstore cafe is the new soup line with no soup, a gathering place for middle-aged men hoping to reinvent themselves back into economic relevance. There is free web access, the latest publications full of career advice that can’t afford to be bought. They want a place to go and someone to talk to. They are white, 40 plus men. Middle class. They were once educated with college degrees that have worn out. They once aspired to management, but they were forced to settle for individual contributor jobs that pay less than they had hoped. Some are divorced, but those who have not can see it coming, as they can no longer provide the financial and emotional security that is their contribution to a marriage.
In the middle row of twenty cafe tables sits the English teacher. He is slight in figure, with a 1960s beard, wire rim glasses and an army surplus pack for a brief case. He abandoned the corporate look 18 months ago when he got fired from a job he did not want. Five year ago he gave up a beloved job teaching high school English to work in a corporate technical writing center for a better salary. He had hated that job, but he could finally pay the bills. But a year and a half ago the outsourcing angel of death visited his company, and his job was sent to India. He was the first to start coming to the cafe, and he has seen many come and go. "He helps us with our resumes and letters," says one man. "No charge." Even if he wanted to charge no one could afford to pay him.
These broken men are above temporary work, though every once in a while someone will disappear for a week and return. They'll come into the cafe and buy something to drink. For the first time in months they have a few dollars to spend. For the first time in months they have half and ounce of self-respect, not fabricated, but created when men add value to their families through work, even if it is temporary.
You can tell the newcomers. They come into the cafe with a stack of books on job search topics, how to write a resume, how to write a killer letter, how to interview. They don't want to buy the books, but they do want the latest ideas. So they read and explore, taking notes on a hand-me-down laptop that makes them miss the technology they handed in when they lost their jobs. "I'm even using the cell phone that we replaced last year because my daughter wanted an upgrade.”
When a newcomer comes to the cafe, someone will approach them and start a conversation. "Looking for work?" Starved for friendly and real conversation, they tell their story. It’s the same story. The same plot. The company is different. The people involved are different. But the story is the same. Those younger bosses don't understand the value I bring to the company. I should have done an MBA. They handled the terminations in a callous, uncaring way. They would not have fired me if I were a woman or minority. None of my colleagues, the people I worked with for years, will return my calls. My severance is running out and I thought I would have something by now. My family and friends don't know how to help so they stop trying.
They have a disease called fear. Fear of being irrelevant. It is not contagious, but people treat you as if it is. Contact with your fear will force them to see how easy it would be for them to be there, with you, in the café, looking. So they treat you with rubber gloves. Quick and "I'm in a hurry" conversations. They don't want to linger. Soon the only people who really listen are other unemployed men. The brotherhood.
The regulars start their sessions by opening up their laptops and looking at the latest listings. They hit all the websites now familiar, so they can say they are trying. When they first start looking, they fired off their resumes right and left, shooting at anything that moves. But that cost too much, not economically, but emotionally. They were forced to become more selective because the cost of the disappointment of not getting the job or not getting the interview, or not even getting a call, renewed the hurt of getting fired. So they budget their disappointment. They only go after the jobs they really want. They find a corner and craft their letter and resume, even role-play interviews, saying all along that they don’t really want the job that they would give almost anything to have.
The English teacher reads their letters. He makes changes carefully so as not to hurt a fragile man who never expected to be in a job search. Quietly and proudly, he claims he helped three men write letters that lead to jobs. They finally escaped the cafe for better places. But then almost anyplace is a better place.
For most, when the phone does not ring, when the resume fails to impress or open doors, they settle into a routine. They come every day. They sit at a table. They scan the net, download a job opportunity, and check email. Someone, just one person, joins them. They never sit in a large group, rarely more than pairs. Then they talk. Commiserate. Complain. Share the pain and then leave. By mid afternoon, they collect their belongings. They lucky ones have to pick up the kids because the wife is working. The others go home to television, chores, and dinner. Fitness clubs and restaurants are no longer in the budget. They have already had the best part of their day.
If you sit there long enough, you will hear a long pause, then the words of deep pain spoken in a fearless monotone that is now at the foundation of their being. They are lost in an unfamiliar land. Their identity went out with the job. They are irrelevant in society, in their own families, in their marriage. They have become burdens. So they deal with their pain with ever more grandiose stories about their own importance, about their own misunderstood significance. Stories of injustice, of victimhood, and unrecognized value.
Frustrated that the men were occupying tables in the café and not buying coffee or three-dollar bottles of Italian water, the book store manager cut power to the outlets where the computers are charged. When that did not work, the cafe manager started bringing around menus and hollowly ask if she could take your order every 20 minutes. But they were entrenched. Eventually the bookstore did hire the English teacher. He's making less than he did in the corporation, less even than he did as a teacher, but hey, it's a job.
Scott C. Hammond, PhD, is a professor of management at Utah State University and a volunteer searcher with his dog Dusty, for Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs. His book, Lesson of the Lost: Finding Hope and Resilience in Work, Life and the Wilderness is available at Amazon.com, lessonsofthelost.com, and many bookstores.