Is This What We Were Sold? (October 9, 2010)

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For the second time in a 10-year professional career, I find myself in the position of having to collect government cheese. By that I mean I have joined the ranks of the approximately 11 million people who currently collect some type of unemployment benefit. Every other week, like so many of my fellow Americans, I call-in or go online to “certify” that I am not a complacent, louse of a person content to rake in $275 a week before taxes, instead of looking for a gainful occupation. It is truly a dehumanizing ordeal, as has pretty much always been the case.

However 2010 is no ordinary year. We are now a full 24 months into an economic collapse of epic proportions. Through the use of some magic formula that millions of suffering and out of work Americans (including me) don’t comprehend, the unemployment rate has remained steady at 9.6% for several months. I think I speak for a lot of us when I declare that more than 9.6% of my inner circle are either looking for work, or have taken a job with ludicrously bad pay, hours and/or benefits simply because they have to survive. Be that as it may, we’ll go with 9.6% for now. Even those with jobs have lost their homes by the truck load, or are in the process of doing so, less fortunate than those so far “underwater,” owing to the rapid decline in home prices, that they can reasonably expect to be stuck in place for a decade or longer. It’s not pretty for members of the middle and lower classes, to end this paragraph with a gigantic understatement.

In fact upon reflection, there are many differences between my experience as a newly unemployed worker today versus October 2001, the last time I received a pink slip and an invitation to purchase ridiculously expensive COBRA health coverage. I am not saying that being handed my post-9/11 walking papers was easy, especially with no work experience outside the foundering travel industry. The two months it took me to find a new job were no doubt anxious times. Yes, I said TWO MONTHS. And I was 23 years-old. And the job I accepted paid more than the one I lost. Seriously, in this decade, can you imagine?

So with that in mind, for your reading pleasure and my need to make sense out of the current tailspin in which I find my career, I have prepared the following bulleted list of varying experiences as a person standing in the bread line, 2001 versus 2010.

  • 2001: Age – 23
  • 2010: Age – 32

I assume it goes without saying that this difference is more than just numbers. At 23 years of age, I was too dumb to be terrified after losing my first post-collegiate job. Not to mention I didn’t appreciate what I had. In a short time I had worked my way up from corporate travel agent at a large firm, to a communications coordinator role, which means I had the thankless task of being wined, dined and partied by ostentatious hotel representatives. I was routinely plied with free cocktails and comped luxury suites, for the favor of publicizing a particular chain’s “hot rate” in Salt Lake City via newsletter. When I was released with the freedom to “find myself,” I had the nerve to be relieved.

In 2010, I’ve lost a mind-numbingly stressful administrative management job, far from creatively satisfying and definitely minus the chi chi parties and fruity drinks. Oh, and I earned roughly the same as I did in the position I lost in 2001. Stagnant wages anyone?

  • 2001: Cause for Dismissal – Bottoming out of travel sector after 9/11 use of airplanes as weapons.
  • 2010: Cause for Dismissal – Disapproval of my outfit one day (or something equally arbitrary)

It’s certainly an employer’s world, isn’t it? I recall vividly the heady days of Summer 2000 when I posted my resume online, cobbled together from work “experience” at Bob Evans and an adult bookstore, sat back and relaxed. Interested employers came to me and in the end, my fresh out of college ass had more than one job offer to consider. When I was laid off, I knew it to be little more than bad timing in the wrong industry. I couldn’t take it personally, and as we have already concluded, I wasn’t worried in the least about finding another position.

But this time, it took me 11 months of constant hustling after leaving my previous employer to find a “good” job, and once earned, I found it nearly impossible to keep. As part of a two-person operation where the only other full-time employee, my boss, held all the power, I was sacked after enduring a half year’s worth of working lunches, late hours, ungodly deadlines and emotional blackmail that would have made Miranda Priestly, the uber bitch slave driver of The Devil Wears Prada, proud. It is telling the level of insecurity with which I view my future prospects that I still burst into tears upon learning I was being “transitioned.” Instead I should have been sashaying out of the building, vacation pay firmly in hand to put toward the cost of therapy.

  • 2001: Method of unemployment claim filing – Analog paper and pen at the offices of the Illinois Department of Employment Security
  • 2010: Method of unemployment filing – Internet(?)

How relieved I was to learn that government bureaucracy had entered the digital age. I could sit at home indulging in a major depressive episode with unwashed hair and a wicked case of acne, escaping the thick film of sadness that clings my body after each trip to IDES. Online avoidance contained mass appeal for me.

Yet when I received a letter two days after filing my web application, stating that I was “ineligible” for benefits because my employer had yet to report third quarter payroll to the State, I felt horrifically duped. Why had I fallen through the obviously naive trap door? The government, efficient and easy for taxpayers? The hell you say! Of course I had to go and stand in a 90-minute line, cloaked in that familiar and desperate sadness that only a 30 year-old dimly lit building can provide. Now I must hope and pray that the check stubs I submitted as evidence of my work from July 1 to October 13 will be deemed acceptable to the unemployment gods.

I could go on with my little exercise, but you get the idea. Times have changed. But beyond using the space of this page to pander to my personal need for a pity party, what exactly is the point?

The answer is simply another question. Why? Why have all the rules changed? Why is it no longer enough to obtain a higher education, amass a solid work history, and attempt to play by the rules? And most of all, why do we sit around complacently and act like it’s out of our hands?

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