Joblessness is not a number. We know unemployment is at 8.2 percent, but who are the Americans out of jobs? How bad is it? Writer and documentary filmmaker D.W. Gibson spent the summer and fall of 2011 journeying across the U.S. to talk to people who have lost their jobs. The result is the new book Not Working, published by OR Books.
One can become unemployed through no fault of one’s own, due to circumstances beyond one’s control. That’s an exact but twisty sentence designed to avoid all of these words and phrases: laid off, excessed, downsized, surplused, separated, sacked, terminated, reorganized, released, reallocated, managed out, fired, let go, discontinued, displaced, discharged, dissolved, RIF’d, canned, hosed, and blown out. This is the language used by the people who endured it, and none of the verbs fully serve the experience of having your work, identity, livelihood, and dignity swept out from underneath you. As one human resources manager put it, “There is no way to say it so that anyone can hear anything but ‘you don’t want me here anymore.’”
Layoff seems to be the most commonly used word despite—or maybe because of—a passivity that cheats the impact of the experience. As recently as 1989, the Oxford English Dictionary defined layoff as “a spell of relaxation; a period during which a workman is temporarily dismissed or allowed to leave his work.” But to my understanding losing work does not contain spells of relaxation, and not one person I talked to characterizes the event as something he or she was allowed to do. It is something new, the layoff, and something ubiquitous; as the writer Louis Uchitelle puts it, it has become “a mass phenomenon of American life.”
Despite capitalism’s propensity for exciting tension between ownership and labor, for much of the 20th century “the thrust of American labor practices had been toward lasting attachments of employers to workers and vice versa,” Uchitelle writes in The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. “The direction was toward job security, not away from it. Efficiency seemed to require it.” And to optimize productivity from both camps—risk-taking entrepreneurs and motivated workers—the American government embraced responsibility for providing rules and regulations. This philosophical approach—cultivated by an assortment of pre-New Deal progressives from Teddy Roosevelt to Al Smith—proved effective until the mid-1970s, when the country experienced the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, prompting corporations to abandon the more polite “early retirements” of the 1960s for outright layoffs. And in 1981, when President Reagan awakened the slumbering Taft-Hartley Act to demand that striking air-traffic controllers be fired and replaced, the new approach was vetted. A company’s right to hire permanent replacement workers had been legal since the 1930s, but major corporations did not aggressively exercise the right until Reagan winked in that direction. And the governmental sanctioning of layoffs has continued through every administration since—Republican and Democratic—becoming not only accepted practice but also supported practice with programs like the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which provides a purse to train those who have been unceremoniously dismissed. We have systematized the layoff, built up industry around it, written about it in movies and songs and novels: the layoff has become an integral part of the American experience.
We’ve accomplished this feat in almost the exact window of time—38 years—since Studs Terkel published Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, an oral history with an exemplarily expositional subtitle. The voices in Working confirm just how tied our work is to our sense of identity—an entanglement that goes back at least as far as the 12th century when we began taking the name of our labor: Cooper, Smith, Weaver, Cook, Thatcher, Carpenter, Baker. What happens when that center post is yanked? Over the last four decades we have learned to prop up a revised identity often weighted by the experience of not working. As the cultural analyst Andrew Ross puts it: “Today’s precarity is, in large part, an exercise of capitalist control. Postindustrial capitalism thrives on actively disorganizing employment and socio-economic life in general so that it can profit from vulnerability, instability, and desperation.”
This capitalist control—this vulnerability, instability, and desperation—hit some kind of crescendo around 2007, when built houses didn’t sell and planned houses stopped getting built; when 158-year-old financial intuitions imploded, and money started disappearing in $18 billion clumps.
It was sometime shortly thereafter that we crawled into the arms of this phrase the Great Recession, initially blinded, then overcome, by the realities of the first—and here’s to making it the last—depression of the 21st century. The collapse of banking in the fall of 2008 created the conditions for a depression in economic terms—as underscored by Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner, and economist Elliot Parker—and a depression that functions on a visceral level. We the people, we the economic system, we the precariat are depressed. The only challenge to the depth of our depression is the strength of our character. They are both to be taken seriously.
Many people like to distance themselves from the severity of their circumstances. People tell stories of someone they know—someone even worse off. They really have it bad, not me.
From the beginning of 2007 to the summer of 2011 the national unemployment rate shot up from 4.6 percent to 9 percent. It reached 10 percent in October of 2009 and stayed well above 9 percent for 28 straight months (with the exception of March 2011, which was 8.9 percent). Two and a half years of increases and sustained high percentages demonstrate the only useful information yielded by the unemployment figures provided by the U.S. Department of Labor: trends over time, measuring this year against that year. And it is safe to say that since 2007 we’ve climbed at a sharp angle in the wrong direction.
“First of all, it’s a survey,” says economist Elliot Parker when I ask him about the national unemployment rate. He looks slightly put out, as if disappointed by the incompleteness of the statistic. “‘Cause we don’t actually count all these people. In this monthly survey ... if you’ve worked even a few hours, you’re considered employed. If you stopped looking, you’re not considered part of the labor force, you’re ‘discouraged.’ And so the unemployment rates are always much higher than the official rates. Better estimates suggest that maybe a decent measurement would be closer to 17 percent unemployment. And that still does not capture the people who are underemployed, who are working at McDonald’s when they used to be an engineer.”
The national unemployment rate is an infamous underestimation. I’m inclined to believe that we stunt the number so severely only so we can keep calm and retain whatever will we still possess. Consider not only those who have downgraded jobs or lost jobs but also those married to, dependent on, responsible or concerned for someone who becomes unemployed. Consider those surrounded by vacated cubicles, absorbing the work of those who were let go, anticipating their own unkind fate. The sum total of these precarious circumstances is unknown. Whatever the number, it is our majority.
Many people like to distance themselves from the severity of their circumstances. People tell stories of someone they know—someone even worse off. They really have it bad, not me. “It’s not like I can’t buy groceries, you know?” Even those who have gone without food or shelter speak of those who have done so for more time, or with less help from friends.
After talking, many people confessed anxiety—“You know, I haven’t been sleeping so well since you called me”—and an unexpected gratitude, which I always seemed to share: whether speaking or listening, there is some strange edification in the expression of these experiences.
There was the wife who sat in the far corner of the coffee shop and waited for her husband to exit before darting over to hand me a small bill payment envelope with my name written next to the see-thru window. This is the typed note contained inside:
Dear Mr. Gibson:
Thank you for meeting with my husband H— today. He has been in quite a funk over the last couple of months, but his demeanor improves each time he has a conversation with you. I think it makes him feel better knowing that someone is finally giving his situation the attention it deserves. You have my best wishes for the great success in your latest endeavor and my gratitude for bringing out a bit of the H— who I fell in love with some 12 years ago.
In a downtown St. Louis career services center, while I tried to connect with some of the people working on their resumes, one of the employees in the office tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I know why you’re here. Come with me, I have something to show you.” He had gray hair, a white short-sleeve shirt, and a dark tie. When he marched down the office hall, I followed. He led me all the way back to his cubicle where he did a Google search that yielded a page full of previously clicked results, all the text had already shifted from blue to purple. The gray-haired man clicked one of the first hits, which led to video of a local news segment about a young dad who lost his high-paying job, endured months of unemployment, sold his house, downgraded to a job repairing highways, and got sideswiped by a driver—killed soon after he took the job. At one point in the news segment, the father of the deceased man is interviewed, and I can see this is the gray-haired gentleman standing behind me. He pulled me into his cubicle to show me his deceased son’s story of unemployment. And then he gently shooed me away as soon as the video was finished playing—he didn’t want me to have the chance to express condolences or sadness.
He wanted his son’s story to be told and he wanted to leave it at that.