Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Unemployment forcing us to forge new identities - The social costs of joblessness

I’ve been an independent contractor for most of my life, and I’ve always believed my work speaks for itself. I’ve also refused to compromise my dignity or my self-respect in order to remain employed by people who didn’t appreciate how hard I worked for them. I once told a brokerage firm that wanted me to shave my goatee, “I’m only here eight hours a day. The other sixteen, I’m going to look the way I want to look.” Over the years, this mentality would lead to the occasional period of joblessness (who knew?). The minuses of being young and out of work – getting by with a little help from my friends, couch-surfing, and constant anxiety over money – are obvious. On the plus side, however, I was unemployed, evicted, broke, and stressed out way before it became fashionable.

Since corporate America has no interest in hiring back the millions of workers it laid off in the past few years, it’s clear that some aspects of the Great Recession are going to be with us for a while – namely, chronic unemployment as the bastard child of outsourcing and a globalized economy. So we’re all going to have to get used to higher (read: European) unemployment rates for the foreseeable future. In response, we’ll need to move away from this exclusively American cultural idea of defining ourselves by what we do for a living and toward a more enlightened (read: European) style of relating to each other as individuals, not as holders of job titles.

Don’t get me wrong, I love America, I think we Americans are pretty awesome, and I don’t want us to become European. I just think that sometimes our status as the world’s lone superpower and the most prosperous nation ever makes us lose sight of how young we are as a culture. Keep in mind that America as we know it has been around for about fifty years; and there are shops in Italy full of antiques older than this country. While we’ve always made it easy for the capitalists to capitalize, it took us until 1935 to realize that we also had to provide some sort of income for people who are too old to work and support themselves; it took us until 1964 to grant equal protection under the law for everyone; and it wasn’t until 1965 that we decided to provide heath insurance for people too old to be able to get an affordable policy. Before we put the safety net of Social Security and Medicare under the high-wire that is the American job market, untold millions of people fell to their economic death when they could no longer work.

And we know the financial costs of long-term unemployment can be devastating. As foreclosures piled up in recent years (one in four mortgages are underwater), some communities have been left with streets where only a few families remain in their homes. The economic chain of events is predictable: prices of the foreclosed properties drop, dragging down the values of other houses on their streets and in their towns, leaving local governments with less tax revenue at the same time they’re under more pressure to provide services. But as bad as those costs are, the long-term emotional damage to workers (read: your friends and family) could prove to be much, much worse.

The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University conducted a survey to measure the effect unemployment has on worker’s attitudes – and the findings were pretty scary. Respondents said they’d felt or had experienced anxiety, helplessness, depression, and stress. They talked about strained relationships, problems sleeping, and avoiding social situations. A lot of people felt that the advanced degrees they’d worked so hard to earn were “useless” or caused employers to think they're overqualified; which is tragic considering the fact that the unemployment rate goes up as a worker’s education level goes down. Many said they have questioned their self-identity after they had allowed their professional careers to define them.

In this new era of chronic joblessness, we have to start adapting our personal behavior and our social customs. It’s important to realize that it’s very likely the person we’re talking to hates his or her job (and hates talking about it), doesn’t have a job, may have been recently laid off, or is about to be laid off. There is even a chance, as embarrassing as it is in this economy, that person may be independently wealthy and doesn’t need to work. Either way, it’s rude to ask, “So what do you do?” It’s better to start a conversation with “How do you know the host?” or “What brings you here today?” Like they do in Europe. We have to change our identity-via-occupation culture or risk creating a permanent underclass of desperate, depressed, transient, unemployed workers.

As scary as it is, we will have to start thinking of ourselves as the people we see when we look in the mirror, not the people we become when we clock in at work.


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