The Atlantic magazine has recently published “Jobless in America: An Anthology of Testimonials about Unemployment.” As the title suggests, that piece contains statements from hundreds of Atlantic readers about the inability to find a job, the experience of being unemployed, problems with paying bills, and so forth. It is reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, reporting the statements of people looking back on the Great Depression.
The statements made by people in The Atlantic‘s anthology are quite similar to things that people were saying in the 1990s, when there was so much downsizing, offshoring, and Walmarting of jobs. In that regard, too, there is a parallel with Terkel’s interviews. Not everyone realizes that many people were experiencing severe difficulty during the so-called Roaring Twenties, preceding the Depression. In both cases — in the 1920s, and again in the 1990s and 2000s, the middle class — including the bulk of the social work profession and other supposed protectors of the poor — were just not interested in financial hardship. It was someone else’s problem. Although we had economic downturns that did affect the middle class, in the early 1990s and again after 2000, they were not nearly as severe as the current “Great Recession.” They did not have a deep or lasting impact upon the middle and upper classes. For the middle class, the 1990s were a time of relative prosperity — including some downright fat years, when many people believed that the economy had nowhere to go but up.
So in the 1990s, college-educated people were not generally concerned with financial hardship. It was almost as though there was something wrong with those of us who did raise such matters. It was presumed, for instance, that people on welfare were lazy, cheating, milking the system. (I, myself, wasn’t on welfare, but under other circumstances I might have been, as many former members of the middle class are now discovering for themselves.)
No doubt things needed to be changed in the welfare system in the early 1990s. My concern here is that, somehow, it came to be OK that relatively well-to-do people would milk the system to subsidize their relatively plush existences, and yet would treat lower-income people like dirt when they sought mere life support. For the middle class, more than the lower class, the guiding ethic was not that we take care of our own; it was that you grab what you can get, and leave the others to fend for themselves. These were not people who could see ahead to when they, or their children, might need a social safety net.
One time in the late 1990s, for instance, I was talking to a federal employee from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I believe his name was Frank. Frank, a midlevel bureaucrat, was complaining about welfare people who expected taxpayers to support them. And then, not three minutes later, Frank was telling me about how you could arrange your mortgage in such a way as to maximize the amount you could get from the government, to support you as you lived there in your big, expensive house. Bear in mind, too, that, as I say, Frank was from FEMA, which has come in for major criticism due to its ineptitude in responding to Hurricane Katrina and elsewhere. In other words, this middle-class freeloader was getting every cent he could get from the government; he was positioned to do that because he had a cushy job (itself providing a handsome salary and great benefits) with an agency that didn’t actually do what it was supposed to do (partly because, if my own experience in federal employment is any indication, people like Frank spent so much time on the job looking after their own interests); and then he had the nerve to criticize people who weren’t willing to take full-time, minimum-wage jobs that left them hardly better off (after paying for someone to handle their kids while they were at work) than if they just stayed home.
Middle-class people have been successfully milking the system for decades. But, funny thing: as the song says, “The strong seem to get more, while the weak ones fade.” By making the U.S. a much more harshly free-market place than it had been in the 1970s, the Boomers and Gen-Xers of the 1990s created an ambiance in which they, themselves, would likewise become less eligible for public assistance at precisely the time when they would need it most. Any fool could see that laissez-faire capitalism is forever sorting winners from losers, with the majority inevitably winding up in the latter category. But the middle class of the 1990s believed what it wanted to believe. So now, many of those clueless protectors of moral rectitude are becoming uncomfortably reminded that what goes around comes around.
It didn’t actually take laziness, freeloading, schizophrenia, or other physical, mental, or moral failure to experience hardship in the 1990s. All you needed was to try to be a good, normal person. That, by itself, could easily land you in hard times. Just stop working as a lawyer, stop being a lying salesperson or marketer, stop working 60+ hours a week and neglecting other important aspects of life, stop leaving your kids with someone who was not qualified to take care of them. Stop spongeing off your community, tangibly and intangibly, without paying back with your own time, effort, and money; stop working at that factory that’s dumping that crap into the river; stop buying stuff sold by Wal-Mart and other corporations that didn’t pay a fair wage to workers in China.
Unfortunately, being normal and decent became difficult if not impossible, at least if you were meanwhile trying to live a middle-class life. You couldn’t have afforded all those things you needed to buy, if you were going to have to pay a fair price for them. Doing so might have kept jobs in America. It might also have propped up the international labor standards — the bottom of the barrel — that increasingly determines what people in India, China, and the U.S. will be paid. But again, you of the 1990s middle class didn’t think this was your problem. You should have been interested in warnings that your own future wages would have to be competitive with those being paid abroad — that it was in your own best interest, and the best interests of your children and grandchildren, to make sure people were paid fairly for their labor. But your head just wasn’t there yet.
There are quite a few things that a person could now say to former members of the middle class, in the same lecturing tone as that in which those people addressed the underclass in the 1990s. For example, in your nice middle-class lifestyle, you just had to raise kids, with all the expenses and priority distortions that would entail. You could criticize the poor for having kids that they couldn’t afford to raise, when you yourself could not be sure that America would be able to employ your own surplus offspring. You had to have McMansions that filled up the yard where your kids should have been playing; gas-guzzling SUVs that helped your nation to become more dependent upon foreign energy suppliers; and credit cards and other debts that you ultimately couldn’t repay.
I’m a Baby Boomer. Like most Americans of my generation, I’m guilty of some of these things. I also know that departing from even a few of them has been enough to mark a person as an oddball or a failure. For instance, within the broad middle class, not having children is still considered unusual. The logic seems to be that you are allowed to have kids, you are physically able to have kids, and everyone else has kids, so you should too. But you can see that the country has too many people already. You may be aware of the research suggesting that people tend to be happier without them. You may have seen that a person who has to support a family often feels less able to do the right thing (as distinct from the thing that brings in the money). You may be concerned about the long-term demands on the environment imposed by successive generations of your descendants. And you may sense that you could devote vastly more time and energy to your community, friends, and other important things, when you aren’t selfishly absorbed in your own (often dysfunctional) family world. And yet, somehow, the controlling social logic of the middle class still makes it “normal” to have children.
Something similar happened in the world of homelessness. To the average member of the middle class, homelessness has about the same appeal as the bubonic plague. But, dirty little secret here, at one point I actually spent a year sleeping in my tent. I had daytime access to office space and a mini-fridge, and was able to save hundreds of dollars each month by just camping out in various forests and fields. Sounds extreme, right? Yet during that year, around age 50, I ran my fastest mile and three-mile times ever. I was in great shape, and — maybe because I was getting so much fresh air — I had a great attitude toward life. It was hard, but it wasn’t that hard; it had many moments of real beauty; and I slept very well. Imagine the sound of huge snowflakes falling quietly on your tent, while you’re snuggled in your sleeping bag. But this, to the middle class, was truly odd. It’s not just that indoor living was more convenient. It was almost a moral issue. I was really supposed to be sleeping in a semi-sealed room, with all the air-quality problems that could entail.
And so we have this Atlantic article, with all these people discovering that the fat and happy American Way cannot forever resist the forces of change. One of the concerns expressed by these people had to do with student loan repayment. This was something I specialized in during the 1990s. As described more fully in a separate post, people back then seemed more interested in moralizing about student borrowers than in actually understanding their situations and developing practical solutions. So now unemployment has reached much more deeply into the ranks of middle-class college graduates, student loan repayment ability is more comprehensively challenged, and there is a very belated awareness that the nation does need to get its colleges and universities in sync with their funding. It seems like something that a sensible person could have foreseen. As that other post describes, I did foresee it, and so did others.
The day of reckoning won’t necessarily mean that higher education needs to be reduced. It might mean that professors in some fields, pulling down salaries approaching or exceeding $100,000 per year (without necessarily making much of a contribution or even being up-to-date in their knowledge) may have to make more room for younger PhDs who are willing to work for a fraction of that because they love the work and/or because they have ambitions and dreams and need a way to make a start. Again, as the other post explains, these were developments that needed to be implemented gradually over the years — not postponed until the point of crisis. The effort to prevent higher education from becoming lucrative, and therefore primarily a business, should have begun long ago.
I’ll admit to a bit of Schadenfreude here. But my reaction is not primarily that it feels good to see the arrogant brought low. I don’t think the humbling of the middle class is necessarily a good thing per se. The important development, I think, is the rediscovery that hardship is not entirely bad. It can have positive effects on health and can foster compassion. A splash of cold water in the face can also break people away from nonsensical ideologies — perhaps even to the point that they will elect politicans who likewise have some common sense. To quote another Atlantic reader,
Possibly the worst thing about being unemployed is having to suffer through the pundit and the politician classes gassing on interminably about what it’s like to be unemployed, what kind of people are unemployed and how they think and act, when none of them knows or understands one damn thing about it, nor do they even want to.
There did seem to be some newfound awareness of lower-class reality in the remark, “The most difficult part of the job search is waiting for permission to give up.” It’s one thing to read about, say, the longstanding, inordinately high unemployment rates confronting young black males. It’s another thing altogether to gain some personal experience with the prospect that a job search is hopeless.
What remains to be discovered, in that situation, is that you don’t really need anyone’s permission to give up on a job search. For one thing, you’ll never get that permission, especially not from most of those who continue to draw good paychecks. It tends to feed into their egos, just as it previously fed into yours, to believe that employability is evidence of superior qualities. As one Atlantic reader says, it has become harder “for working people to be able to ‘identify’ with the unemployed. The empathy is non-existent.” Employed people tend to overlook those ways in which their jobs depend upon their ability to prostitute themselves — not only to neglect children, communities, and other life priorities, and to lie to people, destroy the environment, and otherwise carry on as mentioned above, but also to become skilled in betrayal, cheating, and other pathetic behaviors within the employment environment itself. So, no, people who can manage the degree of denial necessary to continue in the employment environment are not likely to be the first to applaud your departure from all that. As another Atlantic reader put it (starting with the editor’s summary),
It’s an employer’s market, so they can make unreasonable demands. . . . [They ask if you would like to work six or seven days a week, and when you say “not really,” they say], “Oh, I need someone who is a team player. You are fired.” And the worst part is, how do you explain this on your resume without looking like a malcontent?
In response to this sort of thing, you don’t have to draw the line anywhere. You can become as much a part of the carpet as you like. But as workers learned in previous generations, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sooner or later, there have to be meaningful checks upon employers’ treatment of employees, in this country and abroad. Where governments fail to supply those checks, in the courts or in administrative procedures or legislation, it falls to the employees to do so themselves. And to some extent employees do respond, in various functional and dysfunctional ways. For instance, when it becomes infeasible to express reasonable concerns and to expect reasonable responses, employees have been known to engage in theft, sabotage, and other ways of breaking out of the box. Later in the process, of course, employees can go on strike, and in more extreme cases there can be political revolutions. For a while, these sorts of developments will not prevent some employers from jumping ship to another labor market where workers are more cooperative (i.e., desperate). But no trick works forever. Over time, even that move will probably be met by some counterforce. Here, as elsewhere, the question is whether it will be possible to persuade Americans, and their politicians, to seek constructive measures proactively, instead of letting things fester.
Reflecting another concern, one reader said, “Ageism is a HUGE problem in this economy where employers want young, inexpensive hires.” But again, I would say to that aging employee, don’t you remember the 1990s, when you were younger and making a good income, and you had no interest in carrying those welfare mothers and other stereotypical down-and-out characters? It all looks very different when, by age or disability or some other cause, you join the ranks of those who need some support and can’t get it. Now it seems like it might have been prudent to take appropriate measures — taxing rich people at least as intensively as the poor, for example, and breaking jobs up into smaller portions so everyone could have at least part-time employment. There is something to be said for a nation that does not abandon its own people.
One unemployed Atlantic reader said, “The worst part is the personal uncertainty: the virus of self-doubt triggered by job rejections . . . the lack of a reality check as to why you didn’t get even a rejection letter . . . . For those of us prone to depression, the job search can amount to a heroic effort, even without dependent family members asking you the wrong questions.” This touches upon another drawback of the way things have been done in America. This is not a land of careful thought. The U.S. has just not been interested in fostering openness, truthfulness, communication, or other basic decencies. Yet here, again, this is not a new problem. Formerly middle-class Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers themselves have had a hand in creating it. You’ll know this is changing when you see today’s failing criminal justice system, which in its current condition is another relic of harsh 1990s attitudes, paying much closer attention to what the accused individual actually did, why s/he did it, and what positive outcomes — as distinct from excuses for rejection — can be rescued from bad situations.
After quoting various unemployed readers, the Atlantic article goes on to provide quotes from members of the Millennial, Gen-X, and Baby Boom generations. The elders of the Boomer generation have had an especially profound influence on today’s employment environment and also upon the upbringing of the younger generations, so I will comment on a few of their remarks in particular.
First, it was unfortunate that there was so much sarcasm and defensiveness, presumably reflecting dominant trends in what The Atlantic received from readers of my generation. There seemed to be a lack of awareness that the job market confronting young people today is not only worse than it has been at any point during the Boomers’ careers, including the 1980-82 recession, but is also projected to continue much longer, with a much larger and semi-permanent overhang of unemployed and underemployed would-be workers, waiting to seek opportunities, and thereby keeping wages suppressed on into the indefinite future.
You don’t need to have lived through the 1960s and 1970s to know that life in America was dramatically more congenial and more full of opportunity then. There has been plenty of money since then; national wealth per se does not seem to be the explanation. At least part of the responsibility for this increased harshness and reduced opportunity is expressed in the statement of another Atlantic Boomer, “No one owes you anything.” To which I respond: says who? That ridiculous sentiment lies at the root of the extremes we encounter in the job market and elsewhere. In law and in common understanding, your parents owe you good parenting, your town owes you a basically decent place to live, the people who sell you things owe you products that perform as advertised, and so forth. The world is full of obligations. Free-market rhetoric pretends otherwise; but the free market itself works best when it is allowed to do its magic within a carefully constructed and monitored framework of governing rules. Human endeavors, ranging from football to marriage to corporate enterprise, take place within contexts that impose mutual expectations. Other people owe you a great deal, and you owe a great deal in return.
But don’t take my word for it. Live as though nobody owes you anything, and there’s a good chance that one day you and/or your loved ones, too, will find themselves vulnerable and wishing that you had done more to contribute to the social fabric instead of trashing it.
There’s much more to say about the Atlantic article, but this post has already grown long enough. Consider it a start in a better direction, on the subject of employment. The core message here is that the things you hear all the time about the job market and unemployment ain’t necessarily so. There is a certain received wisdom, and unfortunately much of it is based on arrogance, assumption, and ignorance, rather than upon experience or research. The sooner we depart from that received wisdom, the sooner we can get started toward a healthier understanding of paid employment.