Underemployment, downward mobility and what’s coming next

Over the past week, I’ve just been living with a constant knot in my stomach and a sense that something is coming. Some big change is about to occur, either in my life or in the larger world.

Could I be feeling terror over the looming Libor interest-rate manipulation scandal? It’s been called “the Wall Street scandal to end all scandals?” I only just heard yesterday about the London Interbank Offered Rate, the benchmark interest rate used broadly all over the world. On Wednesday came news that cities and states are suing over Libor — with its acronym that sounds worthy of a James Bond villain organization. Who knows what the repercussions will be for the global economy? Is it another sign that things are just going to get worse?

Or maybe I’ve been feeling terror ever since I heard a story on the radio that eloquently explained the situation I find myself in: “Downward mobility an economic reality.”

On NPR’s Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan and New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse talked about the millions of Americans who can’t find work in their fields, or who take part-time or lower paying jobs to stay afloat. They are the underemployed. “For too many, this crisis has extended so long that cherished plans have been set aside and sights lowered: owning a home maybe, a college fund for the kids, family vacations … Many who expected to move up find themselves in the harsh new reality of the downwardly mobile.”

The downwardly mobile: I guess that’s me. And, I wonder if my confronting this new reality is what is feeding my sense that something is coming, that something is going to change, and maybe not for the best.

There’s a song that’s been whirling in my brain. It is “Something’s Coming” from the musical West Side Story. The  young hero Tony sings it early in the show. He just has this feeling that “something’s coming” in his life. It’s due any day, and it’s only just out of reach. He’ll know this something when he sees it.

Tony is optimistic about his something: “I gotta feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true, coming to me.”  We’ll give Tony his optimism. He’s young, he’s can have big hopes. It’s true that in a few short hours he goes to the dance at the gym and falls deeply and sweetly in love at first sight with a girl named Maria. So, Tony’s miracle does come true. Briefly. By the next day, Tony is dead.

His great miracle and his great something brought about some decidedly bittersweet results. 

Over the past few days, my mind has been locked into the belief that my coming something won’t bring good news. Callers to the Talk of the Nation show described their long-term unemployment or underemployment: scrambling with two or three jobs at once, barely to make ends meet. Their savings are slipping away, they are losing their homes, parents can’t save for college or even pay for their kids to do sports at school. They don’t know from where their next paycheck is coming. I have several friends who are either about to lose their unemployment benefits or who are trying to figure out how to not lose their business and their house.

Greenhouse, the New York Times reporter, said the problem isn’t just high unemployment but that the structure of jobs has changed, which has made it very hard for workers. “There’s an increasing number of temp workers, an increasing number of part-time workers. …  I think a lot of people they’ll just be working as freelancers or part-timers or temps in their 20s, but unfortunately because of the economic crisis, the high employment and because of changes in the job market, a lot of people are now doing this in their 30s and 40s and 50s. And a lot of people are, you know, kind of living hand to mouth, don’t have enough money to save for retirement, don’t have enough money to save for their kids’ education.”

Right now, I fear that financial insecurity will plague me and my family the rest of our lives. Financial insecurity is poisonous. Whether it comes from unemployment or underemployment, it is damaging to the body and soul. It greatly undermines one’s self-confidence. You go through life — especially in a town that has customers willing to buy $750 Laboutin shoes at Neiman Marcus — feeling shame. You think of all the ways you brought this on yourself, or all the ways you should have handled external situations better so you wouldn’t be in this mess.

You have to work really hard to not let others see your shame. But then you wonder if it’s just something you can’t help but carry about your person — a smell of desperation. The shame comes less from not having certain material things but from believing that you are a disappointment because you are not achieving the things in life you believe you should have at this point.

“It’s been hard in regards to, you know, where we had looked to take our life,” says Monica Ross-Williams, a guest on the Talk of the Nation show who was laid off in 2008 from a telecommunications job. “We planned on moving out of our house in like six years, once our kids got grown. Unfortunately, that has not been able to be done. The house is underwater, and even if we, you know, could move, we can’t.”

Michigan-based Ross-Williams started a blog, ROJS News, a news and political job board website that strives to provide the latest information on politics, news and other stories that impact unemployed or underemployed American workers. She expressed the anxiety that has been keeping me from sleeping much the past five nights: “After four years, it’s been very hard not to get discouraged and get depressed and wonder is this ever going to end.”

This morning, however, I’m a better frame of mind. I finally got a good night’s sleep.

In this better frame of mind, I am able to see that my life of late has also been filled with one or two of the miracles that Tony of West Side Story hoped for.  Well, I’ll call mine small miracles.

Some amazingly good things have happened. My family is wonderful, including my mother, siblings, nieces and nephew. My husband is doing well, coping with his disability, and he’s proud to have lost 40 pounds. (Honestly, what is it about men and the seeming ease with which they shed pounds, just by like, giving up dessert?) Meanwhile, my son is enjoying a lazy, movie-viewing summer, in between doing conditioning for freshman football. Hey, that’s how I spent my summer before high school — being lazy and immersing myself in movies.

And, my health is good, after several major health scares over the past year, including having to get a pacemaker. 

Finally, I do have work, very interesting, engaging work. I write for various publications and organizations, and on topics that are really interesting: education, the arts, health. The people I work for are all bright, talented, enthusiastic. So, I’m lucky in that regard.

It’s just that I don’t have enough work yet. This is the life of a freelancer/contractor. The ups and downs. I’m rather new to this business of being self-employed and am not sure I have the stomach or business instincts for it, but when I have the work, life is very good. 

I do apply for “real” jobs, full-time work — with benefits — but those full-time jobs in writing/editing or in a journalism-related field are few and far between. I’m told I need to re-invent myself, or go back to school and attain new skills. There are a lot of things I could learn and would be happy to learn. But the question is: where do I focus my time and my limited dollars for any retraining? 

So much I still don’t know. 

6 thoughts on “Underemployment, downward mobility and what’s coming next

  1. Martha, this post could not have been more timely for me. I am lucky to have a full-time job with benefits in the corporate world, but my husband was laid off two months ago and money has been very, very tight since. The strain of “keeping up appearances” here in the land of plenty can be extremely stressful and dejecting. On Monday I attended a “purse party” at a friend's house where people were snapping up $80 bags, meanwhile I could barely afford the chips and guancamole for the potluck. I have had to turn down a goodbye party for a friend who is moving out of the country because it is being held at Sasa . . . wayyyy out of my price range right now. As a manager I am expected to take my team to lunch, host client happy hours, etc and get reimbursed later, and I always have the fear that my debit card will be declined.

    I try to stay positive and, to the extent that I can, enjoy the challenge. The library website has great coupons for museums and events around the Bay Area, I can get creative about using up the leftovers in the fridge, etc. And I AM fortunate that I do know where my next paycheck is coming from, at least. Still, it is often just plain tough – just know you are not alone!


  2. Hey Anonymous,
    Thanks for the reminder about the library website and its coupons. I had been thinking, we can't afford right now to do any of those things we like to do. But maybe we can get a break. You and your husband are not alone either. Had coffee with a friend earlier this week, and her husband had been out of work for more than a year. Fortunately, he just got a new job, so she's relieved. We're trying to find a new health care policy. We've been on Cobra, but now we have to deal with the fact that I have a pre-existing condition — my irregular heart beat and pacemaker. I never expected to be in that position.


  3. I'm happy enough at the moment to muddle through life in the knowledge that if I'm not getting richer then poverty seems to be keeping its distance. I luckily chose a career that has been left relatively unscathed by the down turn so I count my lucky stars and plod on.My annual escape to W.C. is coming up soon so at least I'll have a little sun in my life. As an aside the libor scandal has been somewhat of a storm in a teacup here.


  4. Municipalities across the US have lost mega bucks because of the lying done by London banks in reporting their rates as part of the LIBOR tabulation. But the BBC Business Editor, Robert Peston, defends the lying because it helped the London banks which did it. I'm sure the BBC will keep this PEST ON. His article..: “The elusive truth about Barclays’ lie“…
    has this statement: “Barclays’ defence is that it was dreadfully unfair that its perceived borrowing costs were higher than other banks. And it is convinced that many of these banks were even bigger liars than it was about what they were paying to borrow.” Economist William Black replies: Barclays’ defense asserts the existence of what economists, criminologists, and (real) regulators describe as a classic “Gresham’s dynamic” in which bad ethics drives good ethics out of the markets. The paramount function of financial regulators is to serve as the “cops on the beat” who engage in vigorous regulation, examination and supervision, enforcement, and who make the essential criminal referrals to the prosecutors in order to prevent the unethical from gaining a competitive advantage. The alternative is that markets become perverse and fraud can become the dominant strategy. A Gresham’s dynamic ..produces endemic immoral conduct, not for the greater good but to enrich the senior officers leading the fraud. [end paste from New Economic Perspective's website]


  5. Don't blame the managers, blame the unemployable housewives who work as headhunters and personnel, who destroy careers by churning people between firms and then refuse to hire them if they took time to care for dying parents.


  6. Don't blame the managers, blame the unemployable housewives who work as headhunters and personnel, who destroy careers by churning people between firms and then refuse to hire them if they took time to care for dying parents.


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