Pop Culture Under a Microscope

On the Social Costs of Unemployment

New unemployment claims shot up two weeks ago for the first time in something like a year.  I was one of those.  Laid off since January, I have technically been casually looking for jobs since then.  But I recently decided to make an actual focused effort, and so I began filing weekly unemployment claims, as well.

I’ve applied to more than 30 jobs at this point, in six different cities (though concentrated in three), and so far I haven’t gotten so much as an interview.  It’s starting to feel pretty bleak, this total lack of response, particularly as I get further away from the little work experience I actually had.  It’s not that I’m worried about getting by—I have a spouse who can pay the bills, and in that I know I am luckier than most.  I know many others have been looking for work much longer with less support, and a new tide of graduates this month can only make the “market” that much more crowded. But it’s beginning to feel that I will never break into a “career,” and that, to me, is terrifying.

It has been endlessly discussed what this dearth of jobs means for “the economy”: lower tax revenues, higher demand for depleted services, wimpy buying power and confidence–etc.  But my own situation makes me wonder something different.  How much talent and enthusiasm is wasted as young people (and others, too,) flounder about, unable to gain access to their chosen careers—or even their second- or third-choice careers?  How much potential for good, or for progress, or simply productive energy in general is our nation losing out on as smart, motivated people find they have no outlet for their efforts?

I don’t mean to imply that I think I, specifically, am some colossal loss.  I might not be the next Noam Chomsky or Foucault, or even the next Mary Kay Henry or Cecile Richards.  But I do think I’m someone with the capacity to do some good in the world, and I’m sure there are many others like me.  I got great grades in school, had considerable success and made some fondly supportive advisors.  More importantly, I’m passionate and want to do work that matters.  My sense of myself has always been deeply entangled with continual success and perceived potential: it’s not that I thought I could do ANYTHING, but I always assumed I would do SOMETHING.  But right now, I can’t even find someone to give my skills away to.

I have often expressed anger at the barriers facing those who would choose to do something valuable for society—economic barriers, emotional ones, and otherwise.  But now, even after you’ve accepted the prospect of lifelong financial sacrifice and completed the preparatory gauntlet, there’s still not much chance of landing even these traditionally undesirable jobs.  And even aside from the loss we’re experiencing right now, I wonder how strong a cautionary message it will send to future generations considering what path to take with their lives.

I thought when I first lost my job that unemployment would be an opportunity to do all the work I most wanted to do; I have long said I would love to be a “freelance scholar.”  But to do work, it turns out, costs money, even if you’re doing it on your own time.  If you paint, if you sew, even if you do research or make music, there are supplies you need to do those things, and in the absence of a patron or employer, you have to supply those materials yourself.  In my case, we’re getting by, but we don’t exactly have a hefty surplus of funds; for those in worse straits, they need that money to pay the rent, if they have money at all.  It turns out that there’s a financial disincentive to do work on your own.  I create a greater financial drag if I’m doing something productive than if I do nothing at all.

And I guess what seems the saddest to me is how this is likely to resolve.  When the economy ultimately “recovers,” even if all the lost jobs were eventually restored (which is unlikely), many of us will long ago have had to make a decision.  Those who needed money the most will have taken whatever job they could get, in spite of any plan they might have had for their “careers.”  Some with fewer imperatives will simply settle into unemployment–become homemakers or accept various other compromises.  And it’s hard to imagine a route back to the fire and enthusiasm we had for doing something valuable.  Whatever the permanent effects of the recession on “the economy,” our society will have lost out on the benefits of thousands of lives committed to good work.  And I can’t help thinking, what a waste.

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