The Pain of the Long-Term Unemployed
January 31, 2011
The phone call interrupted the quiet routine into which I have settled over the past 16 months of unemployment. Each evening rolls into the next with little to distinguish one from the other except for the prime-time television lineup.
The lady asked if I would take part in a focus group looking at the social and political concerns of people living in my Texas county. And, I’d get $100 for three hours of my time and opinions. But first, she had a few routine questions to ask, which I thought would be the usual: age, gender, education, political leanings.
“What do you do for a living,” she asked instead. Nothing right now, I replied. I’m unemployed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My client wants only people who have jobs.”
She hung up before I could ask why the opinions of an unemployed professional communicator with a graduate degree were not as important as, say, a working fishmonger. Not that there’s anything wrong with fishmongers, just as, I would hope, there is nothing wrong with jobless communicators or journalists.
The sharp click from the phone sent an emotional stab to my gut. Once again, I was needed, but not wanted. And that seems to be the underlying condition facing today’s long-term unemployed of a certain age. It is a condition that creates the proverbial vicious cycle: you can’t get a job because you don’t have a job because you can’t get a job because you are long-term unemployed of a certain age.
The Huffington Post recently ran a piece pointing out how employers use joblessness as a legal criterion for discrimination. The article began with a restaurant posting on Craigslist for a bar manager that required current employment before applying.
Employment status, according to Bob Rose, an attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is one factor employers and recruiters use to discriminate against job seekers, along with disability, race, age, and gender. EEOC figures released this month suggest people in my boat across the country are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. The agency received nearly 100,000 discrimination complaints in 2010, up 6.6 percent from the previous year, with at least 20,000 deemed valid, resulting in a record $404 million in monetary relief paid by employers.
Age, gender, and, by default, experience seem to be the obstacles I share with millions of other able-bodied workers on the streets for more than one year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classified 4.5 million Americans, or 31 percent of the nation’s jobless, as long-term unemployed. That’s nearly twice the population of Houston, or roughly the entire population of Kentucky. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts released this week found those BLS numbers held through the end of December.
The BLS shows 816,000 workers 55 years of age and older account for 18 percent of the long-term unemployed. Men in this category total 2.77 million or 61.3 percent.
Alan is a Website publisher in the San Francisco Bay area when he’s working. He posted to a LinkedIn discussion board that he last interviewed with a woman who appeared to be in her mid-30s. “I discussed my qualifications point by point with the job requirements, showing how I met or exceeded the entire list. When I was done, she went through the entire list as if I did not just say I had those qualifications. As I see it, a 35-year-old woman looked at me as if I were her dad. I can't say it is age discrimination but, really, who will hire their dad to work for them?”
Kim, an unemployed sales coach in the Washington, D.C. area, replied that she believes the best way to deal with discrimination against age and experience is by facing it head on. “After all, we Baby Boomers have so many remarkable qualities: expertise, loyalty, persistence and an uncanny ability to learn new skills.”
We Baby Boomers make up about one-fourth of our nation’s population. The U.S. Census Bureau says an American turns 50 every seven seconds. And the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) says people over 50 will make up 45 percent of the population by 2015.
Baby Boomers gave the world rock music, marched for civil rights, fought our nation’s wars since Vietnam, and provided the high standard of living enjoyed by our offspring who now screen our resumes and toss them into the discard pile. Come to think of it, maybe we didn’t do such a good job teaching common sense to this next generation that will need our Social Security contributions (which we can’t make if we’re not working) to fund their retirement.
There’s that word “need” again. They need our retirement contributions and we need their jobs. They also need our skills, our experience, and our wisdom gained and honed over decades.
I know employers large and small, public and private need my skill sets and experience, because I see their postings every day. But needing is altogether different from wanting. And when you get right down to it, that’s probably the most depressing aspect of being among the long-term unemployed: realizing employers need what you can provide, but they do not want you.
John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is email@example.com.