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Entry 2: Funemployment and The Drama of The Job

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Since this project is technically dedicated to the new experiences we’ve been engaging in during quarantine – whether those are good, bad, or morally vacant – I’ve decided to start with this pretty corona-specific experience. This isn’t where I thought I would start, because over the past few months I’ve had a lot of time to engage in self-soothing activities that led to personal growth. But it’s where I feel compelled to start, because it’s a foundational part of why I have so much time to do aforementioned activities, and why I wanted to initiate this project in the first place. Today I’m going to talk about unemployment. Namely, the flavor of unemployment that wafts over a recent graduate during what the kids are calling an economic recession.

Now, let’s start there – the whole “recession” thing. And let’s start with facts. According to our good buddies at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of July 2020, New York’s unemployment rate is cruising at a smooth 15.9% - the highest ever. 16.3 million Americans are unemployed, contrary to February’s pre-corona 3.7 million. That’s 10.2% of our citizens, which USAToday says is the “highest in 70 years”. Pew Research indicates that this unemployment rate is substantially higher than that in the recession of 2008-2009.

That’s a lot of numbers. A lot of very sad and disheartening numbers. Whether or not many of us have admitted that we’re in a recession, it’s apparent from the data that America is in a crisis, and though rates have decreased almost 5% since the complete panic of April, the road back to some semblance of economic normalcy is full of potholes, and rush hour traffic. While fact-deniers, political or media-based talking heads, and sequestered populations may be rejecting the above statistics, the majority of out-of-working-class Americans are all too aware that we should be feeling slightly relieved of unemployment culpability as we slog through the purgatory of a lackluster job market we can’t do nothin’ about. But for some reason, it just doesn’t sink in.

I’ve applied for over a hundred jobs this year, and unfortunately, the proof is in the spreadsheet I made to keep track of them all. Almost every day, I cruise LinkedIn, or Google, or Indeed, or any of the litany of other hellish job websites – I know the jobs are out there, because I see the listings, and I’ve put my hat in the ring for many. But it feels like for every twenty resumes I submit, I only get one response (if that!), whether it’s a rejection or a notice of a hiring freeze. And I know I’m not alone, neither in this process, nor in this existential struggle. I know too many other people experiencing the same thing, either waiting in limbo for a job to magically drop into their laps, or waiting to see if their field of choice will even exist in a few months. They defer to a job as a barista, a retail worker, a customer service representative, everything they suffered through in their undergraduate or graduate schooling, looking ahead at the promise of a more lucrative career once they graduate – only to graduate, and find themselves in another temporary job. They see their futures – one they’ve been thrust into, one they can’t control – and they have to bide their time waiting for academia to end and “real life” to start. After all the money, time, energy and investment in a higher education, all with the promise that it would fuel them for a career path of unlimited possibilities, they find they must take any job they can get, or else feel the unimaginable shame of moving back home to their parents. And their once priceless diploma, one that held the key to a lucrative profession, is now just a piece of paper worth as much as their Starbucks application.

Now, don’t try me. I’ve read the Communist Manifesto too many times over the course of my extended hyper-liberal college and graduate career, and I get it. Capitalism is the enemy. “Lower-class” jobs like the above-mentioned barista or retail worker are the backbone of society, and though treated like positions for the uneducated underclass, they’re truly invaluable, and deserve not only much higher pay, but a much greater level of respect. One’s worth is not dependent upon the arbitrary turns of phrase sugar-coating the pages of a resume, words scanned by a program and discarded as quickly as they’re registered if they don’t fit the exact mold of a particular job. And the system isn’t fit for those just starting out, with jobs often requiring a few years of experience – experience you get in an unpaid internship, one that you qualify for if you have the financial stability or physical ability in your college years to take time for. There’s no shame in taking what you can get from a society that gives you nothing, and it’s no one’s personal fault that one must work to stay alive, and consequently wrangle any job they can possibly get to do so. There are a thousand different reasons that the core values of this country, the economy these days, various sociocultural norms and federal management all align to create the current job climate we have right now: a job climate that puts perfectly talented, bright and capable people in the same category as the ne’er-do-wells, the slackers, everything that society taught us was bad, wrong, and lazy – the unemployed.

The facts are there. The statistics speak for themselves, as does the theory, the historical context, yadda yadda. But emotions sometimes fly in the face of intellect, and they can toy with our sense of stability. It had to be something I did – or didn’t do – was it my resume? My cover letter? Was it my website? LinkedIn page? What part of the equation did I miss? This person got a job, and that person got a job. It has to be something about me. Maybe I’m not applying to the right jobs – or applying to jobs over my experience level. And whether it’s the pressure crafted by a lack of federal aid for the unemployed, or the interpersonal pressure from one’s family, teachers or mentors, it takes extreme mindfulness and care to remind oneself that unemployment is not a reflection on their character, and that a plethora of overpowering hindrances are partially to blame.

But it’s just not realistic to expect someone to be an unemotional Marxist machine (alas, as I’m sure we’d all enjoy life so much more that way), and the feelings that accompany almost daily rejection and disappointment, whether indirectly from internalized norms or directly though personal relationships, are soul-crushing. It’s not talked about enough – and though this hyperbolic situation exacerbates the intensity of the usual unemployment blues, I’m sure this is a bit of a common feeling among those who have been jobless before – namely, everyone.

So if this project is all about what I learned, both about the world and about myself in doing something new, let me compress my internal development into one all-encompassing word: yikes. I learn every day that the society we’ve been raised in, with values like upward mobility [in your career] and hard-working determination [at work], has a bit of a Dr. Phil-esque “every pancake has two sides” essence, and that if you’re not subscribing to the American definition of self-made success, you are – but what else! – a failure. And no matter what extenuating circumstances seem to befall you, the American spirit knows no defeat, and your personal triumph is determined by one thing and one thing only: your ability to work. In many cases, your career defines a lot of things – what you know a lot about, how much money you make and which car your drive, if you rent or buy property, what tax bracket you’re in and what political party you’re in, if you have acrylic nails or if you voted for Obama. In many generations of Americans, a job was a lifeline to an identity. Not saying it has to be that way now – especially not with young’uns like myself waxing poetic on the perils of capitalism – but that’s the way it’s always been. Even if you feel you have no emotional attachment to your job at the laundromat or Limited Too, think about all the things that paycheck allows you to do – where it allows you to live, what it allows you to buy, what clothes or hair it allows you to have, and what you have to give up in order to purchase the things you want. And think about everything you’ve learned from that job – what it’s taught you about people, and about yourself. If that’s not the makings of an identity these days, I don’t know what is. And to live in this particular society without a job seems and feels ultimately dehumanizing, because without a job, you have no money, no independence and, frankly, no identity. Now, tell me that’s not an existential quandary.

Don’t get too depressed about all that sociological philosophizing. I’ll say it again – for my boy Dr. Phil – every pancake has two sides.

What I learned about myself – well, that’s a bit more tricky. I’ve had enough therapy to know that everything I said in the above paragraphs is probably due to a worldview entirely related to my parents, and my upbringing. But I’ve also had enough therapy to know that I’m more than likely not the only person out there with this experience, and I’m certainly not the only person who feels dissonance with the job-identity thing. Hopefully I’ll have a job, or even a career, that feeds into the person I want to be on the whole. But just as well, I want to make sure that I find ways to maintain my independence contrary to what I’ve come to believe about whatever the hell a job stands for. I want to get better at German, and go back to being pretty good at French. I want to improve my roller skating, and listen to that Hegel audiobook I got for free. I want to watch movies about the Vietnam War, and finally give Verdi’s Rigoletto a chance. And I want to do that without all the crushing internalized guilt I feel about not having a job.

Some days are better than others, and I feel like I can cultivate an identity as someone who’s cultured, who learns for the sake of learning, who can get an education with a library card and my dad’s hand-me-down iPad. And some days, I feel like I’ll never be a functioning member of society without all that transactional business of selling my talents, labor and intellect, hoping I’ll climb that big ladder to nowhere until I’m the CEO of Amazon, or whatever. And don’t get me wrong – I would love to work. I see myself in the future as an entrepreneur, and a visionary, a knower-of-things, with business acumen, start-up capital and the drive to found a company, or organization, or anything that will make America a less complicated place to live in. But I’m working (pun intended), slowly but surely, on realizing that that’s not all I have to be in order to be a good person, a smart person, or a person that respects how I came to be who I am. These things are not split, as I once thought they were – hobbies, fun, and frivolous entertainment vs. serious, responsible vocation – as I’ve learned in psychoanalysis, nothing is really that cut and dry. The things you think are inconsequential feed into your abilities and sense of self on the whole, and just because something isn’t your particular job at the moment doesn’t mean it’s not worth as much. And if you feel society has over and over told you that, yes, it is in fact not worth as much, you need to think critically about why you might feel that way. Sure, there are cultural factors – but culture originates from the individuals who comprise a larger group. So who told me I would be worthless if I was unemployed? Was it my teachers? My college counselor? My parents? My siblings? Was it my childhood friend, who got a job before me in high school? Was it my grandfather, who told me that even during the Depression, he was out milking cows, or tilling grain, or whatever it is they did in the 1920s? Or was it my partner, who told me I needed to start paying my half of the bills, or she’d kick me to the curb? Think hard. Think about the person who told you that you need a career to be a whole person – not that you need a job to survive, because that’s a given – but whoever told you that you needed a career to feel worthwhile. Now think about their relationship to a career, and what it meant to them to work in the field they did. It should all start to fall into place.

So that’s what I learned from job hunting during a pandemic. I learned that it’s hard to do – for reasons that have nothing to do with me, and for reasons that have everything to do with me. Because around me, the world feels like it’s crumbling, and within me, the ingrained cognitive dissonance is so great, I keep having to tell myself that it’s not my fault. I learned what I think about careers on the whole, what I think about having a career myself, and how that ties into my identity. And I hope that regaling you with this puts words to an experience you’re having, or had, but couldn’t name. I hope that this makes you think about why you also might be feeling the way you do about your job – whether you have one or not. And when we get jobs, which ideally we will eventually, let's not forget that while it doesn’t define us in the particular way it defined our parents, or grandparents, it ends up – like almost everything – as a tool we can use to learn more about ourselves. Now, boot-straps, everyone! Those LinkedIn quick-apply buttons won’t press themselves…

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