Jobless in America: An Anthology of Testimonials About Unemployment

This summer, The Atlantic asked our readers to tell us what people don't understand about the job search. After reading hundreds of responses -- from the recently laid off, the long-term unemployed, and even dozens of employers -- we published six dispatches of your work:

1. The Unemployed Speak
2. Advice from Employers
3. Longer Voices of the Jobless
4. What It's Like to Be Jobless in Your 20s
5. The 'Mad as Hell' Millennial Generation
6. The View from the Boomers

After receiving such an incredible response, we wanted to make the entire collection of testimonials available in one place. So here it is. An anthology of joblessness in America in three parts: Voices of the Unemployed, a conversation between Millennials and Boomers, and Responses from Employers.

Thanks to all who have shared with us, swapped stories with each other, and even pitched jobs and tips to fellow unemployed via our email account. Best of luck to all of you.

This project isn't over. This is just a moment to take stock of your stories. Keep reading, keep leaving comments, and keep sending a note to our private email account aboutmyjob1@gmail.com.

_____

Voices of the Unemployed

"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. Get down here on the ground, and try to go a year on $350 a week with no hope in sight, and then tell us why the lazy unemployed just need a good swift kick to get the country moving again."

***

"The most difficult part of the job search is waiting for permission to give up"

The most difficult part of the job search is:

1. that I don't live near a factory or outsource outlet in China, India, or Malaysia.

2. trying not to appear desperate for a job when I am, in fact, quite desperate for a job.

3. that I am subject to everyone's advice on how to get a job, but no real job leads.

4. that I am reminded that having a good job is not an entitlement.

5. that when I become depressed from my job search, I'm told told to cheer up or else give a bad vibe to prospective employers ... yet when I become happy through non-search related activities, I am reminded that I should be looking for work

7. that when I confide to friends and family that I have "given up" to pursue more fruitful interests,  it elicits a crushing look of disbelief, disappointment, and disgust

8. waiting for permission to give up.

If looking for a job is a full-time job, then are you "fired" when you never (after many resumes, networking events, and workshops) find a job?

"The worst thing is the impact on my kids."

I am over the bruises to my ego; I just ignore my mother-in-law completely now. The worst thing though is the impact on my kids. We were making $120K plus two years ago. Now, about $35K. Lost the house. Thankfully still in the same school. That said, the kids went from being respectably comfortable in their cohort to being comfortable if tattered (used clothes, battered rental, same old car, no summer trips, etc.). Thank God they are still young (just started third grade) but we're not having any sleepovers here no matter how much they ask. I am afraid for the social impact on them. They are so upbeat, so enthusiastic. They don't know we're in a ditch. It would break my heart if they figured that out.
***

"I think the most difficult part for many is going to be the fact that so many companies will not hire someone who doesn't currently have a job!"

***

"I graduated with a Ph.D. in Education from Purdue University. After a first month and a half, I was moonlighting as a janitor."

I graduated with a Ph.D. in Education from Purdue University in May and moved back to my home state of Colorado. I was fortunate enough to stay with friends who live in a large house in a well-to-do suburb of Denver. Every day, I spent hours looking for jobs and painstakingly tailoring my cover letters and resumes to jobs. After the first month passed, I was embarrassed that I could not find a job and that I looked like a mooch. Even worse, when I did have phone interviews I failed them spectacularly because I was so nervous because I knew the stakes were high. Not to mention I have a terrible phone voice. As the days passed, I kept looking at my phone willing it to ring with an offer for an interview. The phone was blank.

What people don't realize is that it costs us precious money to put together mini portfolios for interviews, or to print and mail certain documentation (such as transcripts). There are a lot of financial sacrifices related to job searching that are being made that on the surface appear trivial, but do impact a budget.

The worse thing about phone interviews is that they focus so much on behavioral questions and interpersonal work place scenarios. They never point blank ask what your story is or why you want the job. Being labeled "unemployed" is humiliating because it conjures up imagery that is far from reality.

I learned to be prudent with gas and did not drive my car unless it was absolutely necessary. I clipped coupons like mad and shopped at the dollar store. The worst part about living in a well-to-do neighborhood is that you begin to wonder what you did wrong and what others did so well. Did I spend too much time in graduate school? Will I ever be able to pay my student loans off? How long can I keep my car running? But you also gain more empathy for people who are in similar situations. It also opened my eyes to gave me another lens from which to view society's problems. I wasn't reading or researching about it, I was living it.

After the first month and a half, I landed a retail job part time and moonlighted as a janitor in the evenings (my co-worker has an MFA in Creative Writing, so we joked that we were the mostly highly educated janitors in Denver). I was proud to finally have work but the self-doubt increased. I was finally offered a job last week. I am excited and relieved, but I am still keeping my retail job on the weekends to pay off my student loans.
***

"Unemployment doesn't mean you have "free time". It's a FT job looking for work. And even when you aren't, you're occupied with other things in your house (especially if you have kids)."

***

"Even the employed (who have taken a job to be employed in this economy) are not having a swell time of it."

I was unemployed for 7 months (5 months to find a job in my pay range that turned out to be "false advertising" so I left to look for other employment which took an additional 2 months and a 90 mile move [had to sell one house and buy another]).

The employer that I worked for in 2009 laid off 30% of its workforce only to advertise for those positions using "Company Confidential" ads (and the dumbasses had a "mail forward" on the @yahoo.com email account that returned the true employer's identification on my "read receipt").  The job I took is so different from my previous and I have been expected to be a mind reader. The "personality" fit is so wrong for me, so I continue to look. That being said, as companies are trying to find ways to cut their budgets, they are offering previously "cut" positions with such ridiculous wages that it is hard to find employment in the "pre-crisis" pay range where the "personality" and skill requirements make for that perfect employment "marriage."  A lot of firms are now posting want ads with "Company Confidential" status, which potential employees are sure to avoid due to the "unknown" employer seeking applicants (i.e., are you applying for your previous job or are you applying to your current employer?).  As you can tell - I'm sending "blind applications" to "blind employers."  Even the employed (who have taken a job to be employed in this economy) are not having a swell time of it.
***
"Unemployment dehumanizes the real person. They lose the essence of their identity and value. To become a number, a label, a resume, a failure, a defect, unproductive, desperate, wishful, delusional, depressed, poor and separated from respectful society.  Being unemployed is to be silently disrespected. On a par with being homeless, mentally ill or addicted."
***

"Getting a graduate degree is the worst decision I've ever made."
I've read many articles similar to this one and have never responded to any of them but today I felt the need to respond, so here's my story: 

I'm an African American woman in my late 20s.  I worked my way through my undergraduate degree and finally received it just as the recession started.  As a result, few people were hiring then.  So, after spending nearly 2 years volunteering and helping out my family in whatever ways I could I headed to graduate school (a decision that I now consider to be the worst decision I've ever made).  I'm nearly finished with that degree and after a year of being a graduate teaching assistant in my program, personal reasons dictated that I relocate closer to my family.  As a result I've spent the last year unemployed.  I recently began working part-time at a big box store--on the sales floor making what I made at my last retail job 5 years ago--and I'm probably the most educated person in the store.  I can't get a management position because I don't have enough experience in retail--so I've been told on several interviews.  Apparently, teaching adult students--both in the classroom and as a volunteer tutor--are not skills easily transferred to the training of adult workers in a retail store. 

I'm starting to feel like something is wrong with me internally.  I know that I've made some poor decisions in my life (getting a graduate degree in women's studies is the biggest among them), but I'm still out here trying.  I've applied to literally hundreds of jobs, and for all of those hundreds of jobs I've had maybe four interviews.  Only one of those jobs paid a human wage.  I'm not asking for much.  I would just like to make $30,000 a year.  At least that way I could afford to sleep on a bed again.  Did I mention that I haven't slept on a real bed in over a year?  I go out of my way to help people, not because I want something from them, but because I've always been this way, and when I need something (and I don't usually ask for help), no one is ever there to help me.  

It's sad to know that if I didn't have to work my way through school and take extra time, I'd probably have a job now. It was that extra year that put my entry-level job search in the recession's beginning.  I look at my peers who are getting married and having children and generally living life and it's depressing.  They've got jobs, health insurance, relationships, homes; I don't even have a real bed to sleep on.  

So people can criticize the educational choices that I've made. I've criticized myself more severely than anyone else can.  I know my graduate degree was an awful, awful idea. Especially since my research ideas didn't get much traction in the department.  People can say that I should have become a nurse, or an engineer or whatever else, but when I started college and the economy was still good young people were sold the idea that they should 'follow their passions'.  The jobs were supposed to come.  I didn't take out a mortgage for a property I couldn't afford; I didn't participate in credit default swaps or create a Ponzi scheme.  I went to college and educated myself.  I've spent countless hours at libraries educating myself.  I've taken care of sick relatives and taught immigrants how to read and write in English--with no pay.  But I'm not responsible enough to run a retail store. I could have spent those hours drinking or partying or whatever else, but I've spent them trying to 'improve' myself in different ways because I seriously feel like I'm damaged goods.  Why else can't I pin down a full-time job with some benefits?  

I hope someone can find something of value in my words.
"It's an employer's market, so they can make unreasonable demands."
One ad stated, "60 day trial at minimum wage to see how it works out."  So you can fire that individual and find some other poor schmuck to take a go at it?  Would I state in my cover letter that I'd like to work 60 days at minimum effort to see if the job is fun enough to stay?
 
Or the laundry list of tasks is 25 items long, but the hours are 10-2 every day.  So you really can't find a second job unless you'd like to wait tables at night.  I worked for an organization that fit that description and yet, they'd call me at 4:30 in the afternoon and expect me to have info from the company computer spreadsheets for them.  I also brought in my own office supplies because they never got around to giving me any, or any training.  After 3 weeks I was let go; being told they thought I was more qualified for the position than I turned out to be.
 
And finally: "Here is your salary and the hours are 9-5."  OK!  Second week: "I meant to say 9-6."  OK.  3rd week: "do you think you can come in at 8am until we finish this project?"  Uhhh? OK.... "Maybe when it's too hot out anyway (Arizona) you might feel like working a few hours on the weekend?"  Not really. "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?
***
"It used to be that older, mature and seasoned workers had a closer connection to what the experience of being unemployed was like. But the more we've moved away from the "emotions" of the depression and have instead "intellectualized" this "recession" then the harder it is for working people to be able to "identify" with the unemployed. The empathy is non-existent."
***
"I'm in my mid-40s. Ageism is a HUGE problem in this economy where employers want young, inexpensive hires."
To be blunt, the hardest part about looking for a job is that human resources departments, filled with unnamed people hiding behind the internet, have completely taken over the process. I'm in my mid-40s, a writer (I know, good luck, right?) and when I was younger, you always had a name of an editor to actually send your materials to, and to call a week or so after you'd sent your clips and resume. Now, those folks don't want to hear from you. Bottom line - if you don't have a connection to the organization you're applying to, sending your materials to HR is like sending them into a black hole. In every case during my job hunt, I only got an interview or a polite rejection letter if I found a real live human being OUTSIDE of HR who had at least a mild interest in my talents. 

Problem number two: not being in late 20s or early 30s. Ageism is a HUGE problem in this economy where employers want young, inexpensive hires.

"I would gladly pay higher taxes for universal health care, if I could only have a job that would allow me to pay those taxes."

I was laid off in 2009 at age sixty. I don't think it was just coincidence, that most of the two hundred people laid off with me were over fifty, with health problems.
 
After ten months, I was able to find a temp job at much lower pay, with no benefits. I worked that job, until I qualified for Social Security, and retired.
 
There was no way that I wanted to go through the job hunting process again, at age sixty two, when the temp job ended.
 
I lay the blame for all the elderly layoffs squarely on the shoulders of our government, that saddles businesses with the burden of providing health care access to their employees.
 
We are the only developed nation that does this, and it's the primary cause of our jobs being shipped overseas.
 
I would gladly pay higher taxes for universal health care, if I could only have a job that would allow me to pay those taxes.
"I have been looking for a job for six months and no one wants to hire a 50-year old woman."
I am really sick and tired of this myth you have helped to create about the unemployed having terrible resumes and not being "positive" or "energetic" or whatever else is on your list. I am a very positive person, I have excellent qualifications, and take my work very seriously. But I had my hours cut through no fault of my own, along with others.

I have been looking for a job for 6 months and no one wants to hire a 50 year old woman. I graduated with honors (and I did not graduate in the seventies, I graduated in 1999) and I have excellent computer skills using a plethora of programs, which has done nothing for my prospects. Not to mention the laundry list of duties employers are looking for, barely paying above minimum wage.

Face it, this economy has changed everything, and workers have no rights and are powerless, too bad it's not easy to just fire someone, thank god for that paper trail. I have seen people fired after over 20 years of service, when my employer showed up drunk and decided to get rid of a fellow worker, because they" needed" to get rid of one of the higher paid people to save money. But we just aren't" positive" enough. Think about it, in this environment, when you can lose your career on someone's whim, workers are frightened and working as fast as they can.

"For those of us prone to depression, the job search can amount to a heroic effort"

The worst part will depend on your temperament and Myers-Briggs profile, but for an introvert (probably the majority of the unemployed), the worst part is the personal uncertainty: the virus of self-doubt triggered by job rejections, the effort to second-guess your personal dynamic with the hiring contact, the lack of a reality check as to why you didn't get even a rejection letter, the willingness to overlook any illegalities, the effort to convince yourself to get back out there and do better next time. The loneliness and social isolation, if your workplace even partly filled that need, if you have no family for moral support. 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.

"Your friends and family are going to wonder what is *wrong* with you."

As your job search drags on, even your friends and family are going to wonder what is "wrong" with you. Of course this is mostly motivated by sheer terror that they are going to be in the same position, despite their assurances that they are too smart or good at their job to be in your position. They may be right in some instances, but the upshot is that no one has real job security anymore, and it is devastating to many people to find out that they are totally disposable in a game they thought they could win. At least the currently unemployed know there is no winning anymore, just damage control.

"Don't use my name. I can't let Google search reveal I have an unlisted graduate degree."

Being long term unemployed, the most difficult and surprising problem is the uncertainty. Many routine decisions are complicated by the unknown. Contemplating relocation seems to rule out new romantic relationship possibilities. Can my car last five more years? Spend some money on home projects to get self productive and occupied OR save every dime? Take on acquiring a new professional skill even recognizing that payoff is relatively far off? Eliminate best credential from resume to remove "overqualified" from rejection reasons? All crucial questions with unclear answers. Don't use my name. I can't let Google search reveal I have an unlisted graduate degree.
"Yes, I've got a Masters, but I'll be a kick-ass assistant."
Maybe I'm overqualified, and yes, I understand that they're scared of hiring someone and training them and seeing them leave after six months; and that that process costs them money. 

But particularly in this economy, do they not think that someone who's overqualified is applying for  job because they NEED and WANT it?  That they'll work that much harder because they're grateful for the job and the income, and that if they're overqualified, odds are they're smarter and harder working and more professional than the slackers you usually get applying to crappy jobs?  Yes, I've got a Masters, but I'll be a kick-ass assistant.  Because to get that Masters, I had to work my butt off and be organized and know how to manage time effectively.

"In one interview the questions were so few I found myself giving mini-monologues. In another, the interviewer could not stop talking."

Recently I had to deal with a couple of interviewers who asked none of the typical interview questions.  In fact they didn't ask many questions at all. In one interview the questions were so few that I found myself giving mini-monologues to make sure she got a good picture of who I am. In another, the interviewer could not stop talking so I had to get in my story whenever she paused for more than 5 seconds. GAH! I couldn't wait to get out of there. She kept saying the same stuff over and over AND I swear to God at one point I thought I fell asleep. 

I hate gimmicky interviews. Never been to one but I see them in the ads. I've seen ads asking you to come in and audition or they ask you to answer silly questions. They weren't even for creative positions.  Recently saw one ad asking the applicant to answer why they are passionate about shipping and packing? Who the hell is passionate about shipping and packing.

Another thing that ticks me off are employers who demand you commit to them long term for 1 or 2 years yet they can fire you at anytime. No way.

"I want to work. I won't apply for a job I'm not serious about."

Employers never seemed to understand that if I was applying for a job, I wanted it. I can't tell you how many jobs I applied to where I was told, in my own follow-up from a non-response or rejection, "You were overqualified." "Or, we didn't think you were serious, given your education." I understand they don't want to lose me in three or six months, but I've got to eat and pay rent in the meantime. Not to mention I'm a darn good assistant and barista. Frankly, I probably would have stayed on in a part-time capacity in many "below-me" jobs if at all possible just for the extra help paying back student loans. I like to work. I want to work. And I won't apply for a job I'm not serious about.
Next Page: Millennials: The 'Mad as Hell' Generation
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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