“Irony of ironies, all is irony” has become my motto in my three-year job hunt, with apologies to Ecclesiastes.
The very same day that I accepted this assignment, I finally heard on my job application to the Library of Congress.
I had applied to the Library of Congress sometime at the end of summer 2009. In September, optimistic about my chances of finding employment with the federal government, I had moved to Washington, D.C. to do an internship with the National Whistleblower Center, where my skills as a legal editor and as a blogger could be put to some use.
I finally heard from them after a wait of over nine months.
We regret to inform you….
I have now been unemployed for over three years. For the seemingly 1,000 applications I have made in that time, I have received only two replies: This one from the Library of Congress, and another from the online news aggregation site The Daily Beast. They had emailed me to tell me that the job I had applied for had been abolished.
Forget the irony, let’s talk about The Iron Man of Unemployment Competition.
About the time I was applying to the Library of Congress, my friend Peetah, with whom I used to work with at database provider Information Access Co. of Foster City back in the heyday of Silicon Valley, on finding out I still hadn’t landed a permanent job after two+ years of trying, asked me if I wasn’t making a bid for the “Ironman of Unemployment” title currently held by our friend, Big Tommy.
Big Tommy, a professional librarian, had gotten the blues after a split-up with his gal pal at the turn of the new millennium. They were going to get married, but she wanted kids, and he didn’t. He quit his job, moved in with his mother in a shack on the Canadian border, and hasn’t worked since.
He does get a small pension from the Social Security Administration, for being mentally or emotionally disabled. The last time I saw him, around Xmas time, what had seemed to us like a well-meaning scam, to get that pension, had morphed into the real thing.
I’m not one of those people who gets comfort from the travails of people who are worse off than I am. But I do suffer from high levels of anxiety. I have been ignoring Tommy Boy’s letters (he doesn’t believe in late 20th Century technology like email) after I left the District of Columbia with the new year.
The irony of Peetah’s question is that several months after he asked, he was laid off. I haven’t gotten a reply to any of my emails to him since.
Peetah and I were first laid off from our jobs at IAC back in 2003, when the lot of us were sacked and our jobs outsourced to India. IAC had been the leading database provider in the world, and we had worked as content editors, creating and editing “content” to go into that database.
In the 1990s, some of our databases cost $600 an hour to access. Once owned by Ziff-Davis, we were sold to Thomson Corp., the huge newspaper chain that had seen the future and determined it was digital, for something north of $300 million, a good chunk of cash in the mid-1990s.
By the late 1990s and the rise of graphical browser with Netscape, IAC was under siege. In the days before Netscape, searching what was then not even called The Information Superhighway meant Boolean searchs on a green or amber screen. No graphics.
With Netscape and the boom in Internet search came the new paradigm that has buffeted the information industry ever since: The “users” wanted everything for free.
By the fall of 2003, the part was over for the employees at IAC, including me and Peetah. We had gone through wave after wave of layoffs since the late ’90s, and now it was out turn. In my own words, we were “unceremoniously $#!%canned, our jobs packed off to India. (We had started outsourcing to India in the early 1990s: We had been the pioneers.)
I had been with the company for 14 years.
Peetah took the opportunity to go get a master’s in divinity from the Unitarian-Universalist Church, but for some reason, perhaps a disagreement over dogma, he was never ordained.
We friends kidded him that it must be that he believed in god that got him the sack from the Unitarians.
All was not lost as at grad school, he met the woman who would be his wife. They had two children. He eventually got a job as a content editor at a New England information company. The news to the former employees (we keep in touch after all these years) astounded the only one of us left with the parent company, who couldn’t believe that any information company in the United States was hiring any domestic staff.
He is now in his early 50s and unemployed, with two small children.
After I was laid off, I eventually worked my way up the ladder from a $7/hr job at a testing company in California to a $15/hour position, but a scandal broke when the company was found to have fudged test results at the request of one of the big states who were trying to meet the new “No Child Left Behind” standards.
I never got the permanent job I had hoped for, as they laid off temporary staff. (A friend of mine who was doing free-lance work for the same company was laid off finally last year.)
Eventually, I ran out of money and was living in my old Cadillac on the beach at Carmel-by-the Sea.
It was back East for me, after my sister and step-mother sent me $1,000 each for the trip!
I decided to move to a river town in Upper State New York, near Tarrytown. I liked the idea of being near Sleepy Hollow, setting of the Washington Irving story that was one of my favorite tales as a child. An old Army buddy and his wife lived there, and I soon found out that an old college pal lived there too. I was just 45 minutes from my father, who was a prostate cancer survivor closing in on 80 years old, and my stepmother, who was 17 years his junior and nearing retirement age.
I had never seen much of my father during my life, and this would be a chance of not only getting closer, but of helping him (and my stepmother) as they made their life transition, with her retirement.
Near the apartment I rented was a legal publisher with a name that rang a bell with me as it was evocative of one of my favorite novels. I was extremely upbeat and positive in those days, and I knew I’d get a job there. One day, reading the local paper, I saw they were hiring.
I had been a Russian linguist in the military, and the “boss” had studied Russian in college. We hit it off well, and I was offered a job as a legal editor, which I accepted.
I was now a legal editor, though I had no background in the law. But an editor is an editor, and I had been working with words for decades, even in the Army, and I picked up the new skill set required of the job fairly quickly. And became a good one, too.
But fate intervened. My stepmother came down with pancreatic cancer and my father’s health fluctuated with hers. If she had a good day, he had a good day; if she had a bad day…. When she died, he died six weeks later.
During this domestic drama, the small family owned publisher I worked for was taken over by the biggest publishing company in the world, which had offices in New York City. Two things quickly became apparent: We were going to move to Manhattan, and there was not going to be any boost in pay, despite the fact that the move would boost most of the employees’ expenses by $150/mo.
There was also frank talk by the new company of how the editing functions of the entire organization were being shipped out to India. The specter of another job lost to South-Asian subcontinent loomed. I seriously began thinking (again) of fulfilling my father’s wish for me and going to law school, even though I was now in my late 40s. (A law degree is de rigeur for the highest level of legal editing.)
My father’s health deteriorated so rapidly after his wife went into the hospice I gave up my apartment and moved in with him across the Connecticut-New York border. My commute was 45 minutes, but once the move to New York City was implemented, it was going to be two and one-half hours — one way.
And then my father passed, six weeks after my stepmother, and there soon came a day that I had used up all my vacation, personal days and family leave.
I quit and got unemployment benefits as any move of an employer of over eight miles, under New York labor law, meant that you qualified for UI.
I never dreamed I’d be getting 99 weeks of benefits! Thank god for the Democrats retaking both Houses of Congress and the White House.
Each month, as part of the unemployment insurance process, I had to send to the state the names of 10 employers I contacted that month. I supplied the New York UI Bureau with over 200 names, which became increasingly difficult as the numbers of employers hiring editors was shrinking.
I applied for jobs in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, California, the Monterey Bay Area and even back in Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area. I expanded my job search from various permutations of editor, including a job I wasn’t even qualified for, technical editor, to any job that entailed writing skills, like public relations.
Employers since the recession in the first Bush Administration have not generally accepted submissions of resumes from outside the geographic area. So, I used the addresses of friends and families in the geographic areas that I was seeking employment. Which were legion. Because if I didn’t look in other geographic regions, there simply wasn’t 10 jobs in a month in the New York Metro area to submit.
The broadening of my horizons didn’t help. I only ever got two acknowledgments to my hundreds of submissions, both negative.
Early on in my three year quest for a “good job” (a private joke between my father, a former aluminum siding salesman, and myself — in response to my bitching about my low-paid career, coupled with my refusal to heed his advice and become a lawyer (a “license to steal” as he put iThe t), Dad’d coo, “Don’t you want a good job?” h and we’d both laugh) I was perusing the employment pages of the New Hampshire Union Leader back in my hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, which was three hours away from where I was living in my father’s house in Connecticut.
Lo and behold, the Union Leader itself was advertising for freelance editors at $29/hr to work on-call. I remember violently rejecting the idea of working for the Union Leader in my mind, as it was still a right-wing reactionary rag, just as it was in my youth. I despised its politics and the slant of its stories and never bothered to apply for the job, despite my experience working deadline pressure as an editor in the Army and later in Silicon Valley.
I don’t know if I’d make such a choice today. Whether I’d have the luxury of having political convictions.
I haven’t see a similar ad since, as the Union Leader, like most newspapers, continues to shrink as its readers (and its advertising revenue) are bled away by the ‘Net. It’s copy editing is pretty sloppy these days.
It was the ‘Net that had killed my first civilian job after my military service, back in 2003.
The Big Hurt
The English news magazine The Economist recently reported that the middle-class in America is under siege due to the outsourcing of mid-skilled jobs paying middle-class wages to India and other pats of the developing world. Editing not only is a mid-skilled job increasingly being outsourced, but even low-level legal functions, once performed by the new hires of law firms, is being done in India. (The job market for law school grads in 2009 was the worst on record.)
I’m facing a reckoning which many unemployed Americans are facing: My mid-skilled job likely is not “available” to me.
During my three year odyssey of unemployment, I turned 50, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently gutted Great Society-era anti-age discrimination employment laws. Outside of the education field where some school system like to hire older candidates with prior job experience primarily as they will not rack up the years of seniority that will make them higher-paid and huge pension liabilities in the long-term, most employers don’t want the older candidate. We are associated with a higher level of costs when it comes to health insurance, for one thing.
So, what’s a guy to do if he doesn’t want that Big Brass Ring of the Iron Man of Unemployment title?
Retraining is obviously first on the list, but in this job market, with so many mid-skilled jobs that pay living wages disappearing, being retrained for what is a proposition that sows confusion. As a veteran, I plan to mosey on down to what Bruce Springsteen in “Born in the U.S.A.” called “my V.A. man” and hope he doesn’t say, “Son, ya gotta understand….”
(I should say, mosey on down again, for the guy who handles workfare at the V.A. hospital did an online job search for me after finding out I didn’t qualify. One of the jobs he showed me during this exercise in futility was a job posted by examiner.com. “I already work for them,” I told them, “and I made exactly 16 cents.” I didn’t tell him I’ve yet to collect my wages from this “employer” that has its “job offerings” posted all over the Web.)
“Son, ya gotta understand….”
I understand all too well. With the real level of unemployment at 18-20% when shorn of the accounting legerdemain of the Reagan & Clinton Administrations to understate the true rate of the jobless now nearing Great Depression level eras it may be time to either surrender to my father’s wish and become the world’s oldest law school grad or lower my sights and hope that the new super Wal-Mart development plan goes through. And that they’ll hire me, though I lack retail experience.
One tip I can pass on to all unemployed: Don’t become dependent on your Unemployment Insurance check. It’s welcome, and you paid for it with your payroll taxes, but it can be a disincentive to really going out there in the trenches and taking a less than perfect job that is a job nonetheless.
I’d like to get back into that positive frame of mind that I had half-a-decade ago, when I walked into that small publishing house on the banks of the Hudson River brimming with confidence, just knowing I’d get that job. It’s a special place you have to will yourself into, with not just positive thinking but with an actual communion with a higher entity or life force.
Unfortunately, the discouragements of long-term unemployment can being a person to begin to doubt the positive intentions of that higher entity or life force. But don’t you believe it.