Unemployment is one of the biggest problems the United States faces. As the jobless rate stubbornly stays above 9 percent, there are at present about 13.9 million unemployed workers in the country (excluding those folks who have already given up looking for a job and are not counted among these grim statistics).
Of particularly grave concern are those who have been unemployed for a prolonged period of time. Of the aforementioned 13.9-million, about 42.4 percent (some 5.9-million people) have been out of work for at least six months -- an all-time record for post-World War II America.
While those numbers are sobering and numbing, imagine what it would be like to be unemployed for fifty years.
Yes, you read that right… a half-century of joblessness (encompassing the entire span of a man’s so-called ‘working’ years).
The father of an old friend of mine has basically been without a steady job for that incredibly long period of time. Yes, he has worked in some jobs periodically, but never longer than a few weeks at most.
Since this fellow is still alive, I will not embarrass him by revealing his name, so I will simply call him ‘Jim’ (not his real name).
Jim’s multi-decade experience of unemployment says much about this country, I think.
He is now in his early 70s and grew up in a comfortable middle-class suburban family in the Northeast; later, he married and raised two kids. He is a college graduate… but he has (to the best of my knowledge) never held a steady job in his whole adult life.
He has presumably been to hundreds of job interviews, and received offers for only a handful of them (sadly, none of which ever led to a lengthy career).
Still, he has always had a house to live in, a car, enough food and clothes for his family… but no meaningful job.
There are many bizarre, sad, disturbing and fascinating aspects to Jim’s five-decade odyssey of joblessness -- but for the purposes of this essay, I shall focus on just a few.
Jim was terribly embarrassed by his chronic unemployment -- as such, he toiled long and hard to ‘hide’ his joblessness from those outside his immediate family.
Moreover, due to his class-consciousness, he was desperate to create and maintain a ‘façade’ of ‘middle-class respectability.’ (Even though, realistically, he had fallen into the status of ‘working poor’, or perhaps, more appropriately, ‘non-working poor’).
Of course, this subterfuge and self-delusion created moments of hilarity and poignancy.
For example, when his children were young, Jim would insist on driving them to school in the morning (even though a free bus service was available). He did this so his neighbors would see him driving off in the morning -- creating the (false) impression that he was dropping off his kids at school on his way to his (nonexistent) ‘job.’
Jim faced a dilemma over when he would return home (since he really had nowhere to go). Apparently, he would go shopping or do other errands (in places far from where he lived so that none of his neighbors would spot him and raise questions).
Other times he would simply ‘drive around’ until he deemed it ‘safe’ to return home – i.e., when all the other fathers in the neighborhood had presumably gone off to work.
Of course, this wasn’t a fool-proof conspiracy, since some of his neighbors obviously must’ve seen Jim mysteriously hanging around his house in the middle of the day.
Moreover, whenever his unemployment insurance would expire (since this was before the advent of internet service), Jim would have to drag himself down to the local Department of Labor to file for an extension. This was a humiliating experience for him. No matter how early he arrived at the unemployment office, there was already a long queue of other jobless folk.
Again, to ‘hide’ the fact that he was one of the masses of the forlorn unemployed, Jim would wear his finest suit and carry a briefcase -- in a pathetic, vain attempt to fool the other filers and any passersby into thinking he ‘worked’ as a ‘bureaucrat’ at the office.
You may wonder how Jim’s family survived these many years of want and deprivation.
Well, that’s a bit of a mystery.
From what I have gathered and pieced together, Jim’s wife worked periodically (usually as a secretary or receptionist); the family cut every corner imaginable, plus they (most likely) relied heavily on government aid (i.e., that nasty, unpleasant word ‘welfare.’).
Apparently, they never took out bank loans nor any credit cards (unlike the millions of people today who find themselves in deep crushing debt). This fact led me to believe that the United States has a very generous (perhaps overly-generous) social welfare system.
Hence, because Jim and his family always had a house, a car, clothes on their back and food in the fridge, he was able -- somehow -- to maintain the fragile veneer of ‘respectability.’
Thus, to the outside world, on the surface at least, Jim’s family ‘looked’ like a happy, prosperous, upwardly mobile clan – which is exactly the fantasy lie he wanted to portray.
Respect and dignity played a huge role in this tragicomedy.
As a self-described middle-class, college-educated man, Jim refused to work in menial jobs (which are always widely availble) that he considered ‘beneath’ him.
Jim’s deception and self-delusions were so all-encompassing and deeply-ingrained that they inhabited and dictated his every waking hour.
He would go through the fiction of being a ‘middle-class working man/good provider’ every second of every day. I understand that he kept a ‘schedule’ whereby he would wake up early and go to bed early (like any adult with many responsibilities would do). He always dressed formally (even at home), he pretended he was always ‘busy’ with tasks and errands (what these duties entailed nobody could actually discern).
Even more bizarre, this daily deception would also be performed for the benefit of his family (who, of course, knew the bleak truths).
For example, on Friday evenings (the end of the work-week), Jim would often loudly declare to his family something like: “Whew! That sure was a hard week! I’m gonna look forward to a relaxing weekend.”
Similarly, on Sunday nights, he would lament: “Oh, that weekend sure went by so fast! Well, I guess it’s back to the grind tomorrow.”
And on and on and on...
I have speculated as to why Jim was unable to hold onto a job. Let me divulge here that he is quite an ‘eccentric’ character. He lives in a complete fantasy world and simply cannot cope with other human beings. I am no psychiatrist, but I can safely assume that Jim is probably mentally ill.
I suspect that, while working in an office, Jim found it difficult, if not impossible, to take orders from others and carry out simple functions to their conclusion (both of which are taboo in corporate culture),
Moreover, Jim is so obsessed with trivial details and mindless minutiae that he is likely incapable of concentrating on the practical tasks at hand -- rendering him largely useless in any business entity.
The larger picture here is that Jim is lost in American society – he has no place in it (and perhaps never did). The world he grew up in during the 1950s have vanished forever and will never return. He has become utterly obsolete.
Like many Americans of his generation he has seen the country change so drastically he can hardly even recognize it, much less feel he is a part of it.
However, Jim’s case is rather extreme – indeed, I think he was alienated from the society ever since he was young man. I don’t think he has ever made any real friends whatsoever, nor belonged to any groups nor had any kind of social life outside his immediate family.
His ‘connection’ to the outside world was principally through mass media (TV, newspapers, etc.). Thus, he developed an extremely distorted view of reality, which only served to deepen his isolation and increase his paranoia.
Therefore, I think we can conclude that two of the major currents running through contemporary American society -- the grinding economic crisis and the increased alienation brought on by mass media -- had already marred Jim’s life long before it infected the rest of the nation.
For example, it would be fair to say that Jim has always been living in a recession -- even in the 1960s and early 1970s when jobs in this country were plentiful, he couldn’t find steady work. Plus, long before suburban subdivision housing, the private automobile and television turned neighbors into strangers, Jim had already developed a healthy disdain and suspicion of all people around him.
Perhaps we could even say that Jim was ‘way ahead of his time;’ and that his ‘lifestyle’ (such as it is) was a precursor to the type of society we now find ourselves in.
Yet another aspect of Jim’s delusions is his huge sense of entitlement. I have heard people complain about the current generation of youths as being spoiled, self-entitled and unable to cope with economic realities. Well, Jim (who is now old enough to be the grandfather of these 20-somethings) made an art form out of self-entitlement long, long ago.
Part of Jim’s ‘middle-class fantasy’ exercise is that he believes he deserves all the good things this society has to offer – that he has ’earned ‘ them simply by birthright (which clearly he hasn’t). Unable to deal with the harsh facts of his life, Jim remains ensconced in a deep pit of denial. For example, he thinks he’s a ‘hard-working, patriotic, taxpayer’ (even though he had never served in the military and he has railed against paying taxes to a government he doesn’t trust).
Moreover, instead of being grateful for living in a country that provides a comfortable ‘safety net’ for people like him, Jim is bitter and resentful. (Doesn’t that sound like the behavior of today’s youth?). Again, Jim was way ahead of his time.
Jim is by any reasonable measure a complete failure in life. But he cannot possibly come to terms with such a harsh self-assessment, so he has built a spider-web of lies and deceit that has become so massive that he is permanently (and quite blissfully) ensnared in it and unwilling to face the truth.
I doubt a person like Jim could exist anywhere but in modern America.