For the rest of the populace, it's just as bad or worse because unlike this girl, they value their jobs. If not, they're thinking how lucky they are to have one. That is, until DOWN comes the hammer, and suddenly they're sitting on the couch watching Guiding Light, calling ads in the help wanted section that say "make $5,000 a week from home," and collecting piddley unemployment checks that just might run out well before the recession ends.
STATE OF THE UNION
In the last two months, 628,000 people have been laid off in the US--415,000 in October, which is the highest number of jobs lost in one month since May 1980. Since September, the unemployment rate shot up a quick half-percent from 4.9 to 5.4, as corporate staffing became ultra-lean and mean. Last Tuesday, the frantic Fed cut interest rates to two percent, making this the tenth short-term rate cut of the year, and the lowest since 1961. This, of course, does absolutely nothing for those broke, non-home-owning, jobless people who can't afford to buy a can of Spam, let alone a new Honda.
As of September 2001, Oregon unemployment rates were the third highest in the nation, trailing only behind Alaska and the District of Columbia. Everywhere you look, your friends are getting canned, and for those rejected from high-tech jobs, there are no new positions taking their place. Not only that, there is little point in applying for a less skilled job if one is making less than they're collecting in unemployment. Of course, once the unemployment runs out, that will no longer be the case.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, one year ago, Torrefazione Italia in Seattle's Pioneer Square received only four applications in three weeks for an open barista position. Last month, they received 100-plus resumes in two weeks--70 percent from former high-tech workers. This desperate season has led to an overall feeling of shock, anxiety, and despair--relieved only by momentary bursts of optimism (from watching The Great Muppet Caper, or driving back and forth to and from the 7-11 in order to trade in winning scratch tickets).
THE PHASES OF UNEMPLOYMENT
The fear of being fired is running rampant. It's been coined "job anxiety," "insecurity" or, in certain circles it's known as, "Please don't fire me. I just bought a new Marshall Stack amplifier on my Discover Card" anxiety. There are many who pray they'll get fired and, in theory, would be thrilled as monkeys to be unemployed. Yet, when it's a surprise, nothing feels more miserable. The first, most startling phase of unemployment is shock.
Natasha, an employee at a local coffee house, came into work for a staff meeting about a week after the WTC attack. Instead of discussing work issues, her employer said "This is it," and told employees to take anything they wanted that wasn't nailed down. She reported an initial feeling of deep sadness (which she combated with a healthy serving of whiskey), and a delayed but happy reallization that she was tired of making mochas anyway.
Lawrence--a laid-off office manager and job-lover--had it considerably worse, taking the surprise layoff badly. "I grabbed my coffee cup and left work immediately. Then I drove around looking for an open liquor store, and when I couldn't find one, I went straight to the Jockey Club and drank until I was full. I recounted the story to the bartender, and that kind of made me feel better."
James Hancey, M.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the OHSU School of Medicine, explained that the inclination to get drunk after a layoff is so strong "because the hurt is so large. It's a tremendous insult to one's identity. Once that is shattered, people want to deaden everything." The situation is made worse when attending a social gathering or going home for the holidays, because of the number of times one is forced to recount the humiliating tale of dismissal.
Beth, an Operations Manager for a tech-consulting firm, got laid off suddenly in July, when her company went bankrupt. Not only was she unexpectedly out of a job, but she was stiffed on four weeks' back wages, as well as her accrued vacation time. Her response to this quick plunge into poverty was, "'Shit fuck, shit shit FUCK!' You can print that."
Like most people on unemployment, Beth is unwilling to go back to work at a lower-paying job. "I haven't been willing to take anything, because I have to make more than I do on unemployment." This practical attitude tunnels people into the second, most harrowing stage of unemployment: the Yo-Yo.
MANIC DEPRESSION GOT YOU UP AND DOWN?
The Yo-Yo happens when one bounces between intense motivation and complete stagnation/depression. Many of the unemployed start business plans during this stage, never to finish them. Some write 40 pages of a screenplay, only to light it on fire the next day and declare, "This sucks." Some spend their waking 12 hours thrift shopping or cleaning the apartment. Down days are often spent excessively napping, picking ingrown hairs, or watching Family Feud and sighing loudly during commercials.
Lawrence--who you remember was drinking himself under the table at the Jockey Club--went through what he calls "hobby eclipse denial."
"I would read a novel a day, or watch five library-rented movies, because I didn't want to think about looking for a job or do horrible money equations," he said. "I mean, there are days when you wake up and get your resume ready and make fresh coffee, and then you see what's out there and you're depressed, and the next day you can't do shit."
Beth, in an unavoidably stagnant state, and with no open jobs in her field, was leaving for Thailand two days after her interview with the Mercury, despite her dire financial straights. "I bought the tickets when I was wealthy," she said. "Now, I figure it'll be cheaper to live there for two weeks."
Stephanie, fired from an administrative assistant position, was armpit-deep in the Yo-Yo a month after the axing.
"There's a point when it's really fun to be unemployed, but you can map the trajectory of the depletion of funds on your mental state," she said. "For a while, I was making halfhearted attempts to get a job, but I would intentionally pursue avenues that weren't going to work. The only things I was motivated by were fear and guilt. It was completely ridiculous. I started developing this intense hatred for our apartment maintenance worker because I knew that he knew I was unemployed, when really it was just my own insecurity."
HOPE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)
The final stage of the unemployment spiral results in one of two things: utter hopelessness, or a smidgen of hope. The first, and obviously more severe can, in some cases, lead to suicide. According to James Hancey, M.D., "Hopelessness is the single biggest indicator of suicide. Suicide is higher in males and increases with age. The male who is scheduled for retirement at age 60, but gets fired at 58 [and is feeling hopeless], is at high risk."
This hopelessness prevents many unemployed people from looking for jobs. They may feel like the competition is too great and choose not to sacrifice their dignity by working as a line cook at Chix-a-Bob in Beaverton.
However, many people detour around hopelessness with "under-the-table" work, or contracting out services if their experience is specialized. (And then, there's always selling one's belongings on E-Bay.)
No one who spoke with the Mercury expressed any guilt for collecting under-the-table pay on top of unemployment--an illegal activity called "unemployment fraud." In fact, for a lot of people, this dual income is their "smidgen of hope," and often the only way they can make rent. Networking (also known as calling up your uncle's rich friend) is how many people find these unconventional positions--or, in Natasha's case, someone overheard her complaining about her layoff, and offered her an under-the-table job delivering pet supplies.
THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE
Among the throngs of jobless professionals painfully engaged in afternoons of Paint-Your-Own Christmas cards and the psychotic checking of their e-mail, there is one strange and amazing man who takes a different approach. He is James--one of the proud, one of the few, one of the professionally and contentedly unemployed. Not only has he been unemployed for seven months now, he has no aspirations of finding a job.
According to his last employer, a behemoth insurance company, James was capable of doing a satisfactory job-- but chose not to do so. He was unsympathetic with clients, and took shortcuts to solve claims. He was most definitely on the verge of being fired, but alas, in an act of divine mercy, he was grouped in with a large-scale, 200-person layoff that eliminated all positions on the office's second floor.
James was awarded a hefty severance package, unused vacation pay, and guaranteed unemployment. He went to the employment office immediately and filled out his paperwork, categorizing himself for their records as an "expert letterpress typesetter"--a job that has been nearly obsolete for 60 years (one can also try "beekeeper," another extremely difficult job-match request). This bought him some much-appreciated time without the hassles of unemployment referrals. When the department did call to inquire about James' job search, he told the woman that his apartment had recently blown up (true, faulty heating-system maintenance) and that his mother had died (not true). He then inquired about whether she could direct him to a psychological counselor, because he felt he might be "a little unstable."
Insurance money from the exploded apartment, plus unemployment checks, gave him a nice buffer to live on. Having managed to swipe his badge from the insurance company, he was also afforded free bus rides. Randomly, he also happens to be an expert on citrus fruit and the genetic engineering of kumquats, so he often makes extra cash writing for agriculture journals.
For free services and occasional dough, James spends some of his time crafting well thought-out complaint letters to major corporations; complaining about their products, services, or injustices performed against him. For example, at a local grocery store chain, when a checker wouldn't sell James a bottle of wine because of his faded ID, he calmly put the wine back and left the store. He went home, rooted through his things, and came back with seven or ten pieces of ID, some superfluous recommendation letters, and video cards. When the woman asked him for an ID the second time, he meticulously laid out the cards and papers on the counter. She got so mad, she left the register. James then wrote a letter to the store's headquarters, and is currently waiting for a grocery voucher. When asked why he goes to such great lengths, he replies, "They're just punk rock, cheap-ass ways of frauding companies for a little bit of cash. I do it for the fun."
But doesn't James ever want to own his own business, or buy a house? "I'm decidedly non-entrepreneurial," he says. "I'm just not money-motivated. I don't mind working for other people, I'm just against working all the time. Most people are driven by money instead of creative goals. I've been unemployed for so long now, I think a job might be kind of fun but I'm never going to think of it as a necessity."
Unlike many of us, he isn't expecting an eventual rise to fame and fortune. "I believe in stumbling into little kinds of things. Some people think they'll stumble onto their big break, but I'm too pessimistic or pragmatic. I just believe in stumbling into little things that'll keep me afloat."
It's an amazingly carefree, bizarre, punk rock way to live. However, for the sanity of stir-crazy dot-commers, we should check back in with James in five years--even though, in all likelihood, he'll probably be fine.
TRUST NO ONE
It's likely that the massive corporate layoffs America is experiencing will only further the growing feeling of employee mistrust towards management. While our grandparents spent the majority of their lives at one company, we can hardly work five years without getting canned, laid off, or--in the case of Intel--placed into the "redeployment pool" (whatever the hell that means). And that's if we don't have a complete mental breakdown from taking on the jobs of fired co-workers while living in constant fear of getting fired ourselves.
While there isn't any hard data on the psychological impact of working in such a tumultuous environment, Dr. Hancey notes that it "causes people [to be] afraid to take risks that are normally associated with employment. People are afraid to speak up. Or, they start to think 'Who cares?' [People exercise] excessive caution or decreased motivation."
According to a recent Arthur Andersen survey (taken when the job market was still good), 47 percent of workers had learned about layoffs through rumors or word-of-mouth, and close to half of the people polled noted that "management handled layoffs in a fair to poor manner." These types of feelings can often lead to an "us against them" mentality, making people more likely to turn against their employer or quit without notice.
In 1998, an employee at a large shipping company was fired and sent to jail for scamming money on fraudulent damages. He was a temporary employee and, as many know from experience, alienated and under-appreciated by management. He had collected so much money from his scamming that the former bus rider began driving to work in a Mitsubishi Eclipse.
This is a common syndrome, although not always on such a large or pointed scale. One Portland girl used to steal fistfuls of tampons from the storage room of the corporation she worked for, because she felt mistreated and underpaid. A friend of the Mercury in D.C. collected two thousand dollars from a major airline by having a friend steal his bags from the carousel. Another has opted to grow weed in his basement in order to finance a long stay with unemployment. The current state of financial affairs has caused an even stronger screw-the-establishment mentality to take hold.
What this clearly says about the future of corporate America is that the younger generation--especially those burned by the tech boom--don't trust it anymore. This is the 20-30 somethings' first bout with a recession, and it's possible the experience will prove painful enough that they'll do anything to avoid falling victim to another--even if that means resorting to illegal activities. Though currently depressing, hopefully this rejection or distrust of big business will lead to a rebalancing of corporate control, more small businesses, and increased, untaxed under-the-table labor (if not an outbreak of anarchy and crime)--a much-needed regeneration of the US business structure. And at the very least, we can expect better home-grown weed.