Sunday, October 23, 2011

On unemployment

My last post went viral, in a kind of small-scale way. Since I started this blog in January, my posts have averaged just under 100 hits each. A few, like the one last March where I described testifying before the Criminal Justice Committee of the Texas State Senate, were linked to outside sources and got a few hundred hits. Some of my most deeply felt posts have struggled to reach even the 50-hit mark. Some are read when they first appear and then never receive any more visits. Others inexplicably continue to draw interest for months.

My line-by-line commentary on the sign held by a college student who claimed to be about to graduate completely debt free, however, behaved in a way I had never seen before. Within 48 hours of my posting it the Friday before last, it had received over 200 hits. It continued to be viewed regularly throughout the next week, and as of this writing it has over 600 pageviews, surpassing the all-time previous record by 50%. And it's only been up for 9 days!

Obviously this post is being read by people who go far beyond my normal Not Ready for Facebook constituency. When you search "I am a college senior about to graduate completely debt free" on google it is the third item to come up. Thus, anybody wanting to find out more about the sign and the claims it makes is going to be directed straight to my post. And so the hits continue to come in.

I have no idea whether this will lead to a broader readership in the long run. I am going to take the opportunity, though, to write a little more about my experience with un- and under-employment—the six years I alluded to in the last post. In an atmosphere in which the man who is now considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination can say that the unemployed have brought their situation on themselves and receive loud cheers—in which the very state of being unemployed is being viewed by some as an automatic disqualification for further employment—I need to explain that long-term unemployment is something that can happen to anyone, even if you play by the rules and jump through the hoops and pat yourself on the back and expect things to fall into place.

After attending the elite private college I alluded to in my last post, I went on to an even more elite graduate school. All right, it was the same Ivy League institution that four out of the last six presidents have attended. One of those places that trains most of the Wall Street bankers and other highly successful people who make up the 1% whose privileged, insular existence the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been complaining about. While there, I did everything I was supposed to do. I broadened my knowledge in many directions in order to prepare for the college teaching career I was anticipating. I got classroom teaching experience, first as a TA and then as an adjunct instructor. I won a major award for my teaching, and got reviews from my students that topped the charts. I wrote a dissertation that was quickly snatched up by Cambridge University Press and, after some revisions, was published as a book less than three years after I received my PhD.

And I still couldn't find a job. After four years of flitting from one temporary lecturer position (academic-speak for a dirt private with no rank or privileges) to another, I found myself unable to get even an interview for a tenure-track job (sort of the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer—you still have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get into the diminishing circle of those lucky enough to have tenure). It didn't matter that I had a doctorate from Yale (the name will out after all), a book published to warm reviews, and substantial, highly successful teaching experience. I couldn't even get my foot in the door, and that situation lasted for six years.

I soon discovered that I was "overqualified" for almost any other kind of job. It wasn't that I didn't look at or consider other careers. I simply learned that the fact that I had spent most of my 20s getting a PhD in the humanities made me practically unemployable. I was reduced to signing up with temp agencies and begging the local office of Princeton Review to hire me as a tutor. I found a church with a grand piano that was willing to let me use it to teach, and I developed a private piano studio that at its high point consisted of seven students. I decided to try teaching high school, which meant that I had to go back to school and take even more classes in education. One of the low points came in the middle of my semester of student-teaching. I had earned an Ivy League PhD, gone deeply into debt with student loans and published an acclaimed book, all to be paid $14,000 a year to teach part-time at a private school in the morning before going to my unpaid gig at a public school in the afternoon, where I tried to force-feed Shakespeare and Orwell to students who simply couldn't imagine that any kind of literature was not BORING!! It was hard and often degrading work, and I was being paid a pittance for my slave labor. I nearly broke down in frustration, especially after the experience with the principal that I described in my post last June titled "Dead Poets Redux."

I literally would not have made it through that time if my wife had not been able to find work as a registered nurse at the drop of a hat. It didn't hurt that she also received a substantial financial settlement over the death of her first husband. After my first child was born, I spent nearly two years as the custodial parent while Barbara worked. I did the shopping, cooking and house-cleaning as best I could, and bonded with my infant daughter in a way few men get to experience. That part of it was nice, although there were many times when I thought I could feel my brain cells disintegrating from lack of use. Then I finally got the phone call that led to the interview that led to the job that got me onto a tenure-track and, eventually, led to a tenured job, which led to another one, which led to my current position as a full professor at a major university.

Yes, I persevered when many people would have given up. Yes, I showed a willingness to do all kinds of things as needed, and refused to let my lack of professional success define me. (I had seen others fall into this trap, and saw how easy it was for them to become consumed by anger and frustration, which only made it harder and harder for them to get a job.) Nevertheless, I know beyond a doubt that where I am today was as much as result of luck as it was of hard work. I know beyond a doubt that there are many very good people out there who have never gotten a break, despite having played by the rules and done everything right. I know that unemployment is not a choice, that the unemployed are not responsible for their plight, and that anybody who thinks otherwise has simply never been there.

That's why, even though I have a good job, a lovely family, a nice house, thriving retirement funds and adequate health insurance, I stand with the people occupying Wall Street and not with the people looking down their noses at them. Nobody is self-made. Nobody succeeds without a great deal of help from others and a measure of good luck. Nobody. To the extent that our national mythology has bought into the idea that anyone can pull him or herself up by his or her own bootstraps, we are sacrificing community, compassion and mutual support on the altar of a false and soul-destroying individualism. Beware of this false idol, because it will tear our society to shreds without an ounce of regret. Then, like all idols, it will destroy its worshipers as well.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. My health problems, a bad economy, and being overqualified combines to limit my employment potential. It's not what I dreamed of for my life, but it's my reality.

    I used to think that anyone could pull him or herself up by his or her own bootstraps. Now that idea seems ridiculous, for me and for so many others.

    Long-term unemployment can happen to anyone. I believe that, deep down inside, we all know this and fear it. So, we blame and reject those who fall victim to long-term unemployment, keeping their curse far from ourselves -- and keeping the fear deep down where we don't notice it.

    BA. BSN. MAT. Member of Phi Beta Kappa. Cashier at Walmart.