Two years ago I was on top of the world – at least from exterior appearances. Barely past 30, my salary was approximately a quarter million dollars per year, I was living in a luxury high rise with a view of Central Park from my balcony, and it seemed I was on the fast track to a successful career. Now 15 months after losing my job at the end of 2010, I’ve learned a lot of valuable life lessons but find myself wondering, constantly every day, is there any hope left? The Manhattan apartment is long-gone and replaced with a room at my father’s house in the exurbs of a city in the Deep South, a house I helped him buy five years ago. I’ve applied for nearly 700 jobs in the last year, but still I wait. This is my story.
We hear a lot of talk about the employment crisis these days, from both sides of our so-called political spectrum. No one has much in the way of solutions, and the options for the unemployed seem to be Republicans that tell me what I need is to have my unemployment cut off – then surely I’ll get motivated to find a job. Democrats at least don’t think starving me will improve my job hunt, but beyond affording me my luxurious life on unemployment, I hear scant suggestions for anything to actually improve the employment outlook. I remain a voracious consumer of news and from what I see and hear portrayed in the media, the unemployed in this country are generally older, often former factory workers. We hear much discussion of how to address these workers in a nation that may no longer offer employment they have experience in. I feel for these workers and don’t mean to diminish their situations – but I was supposed to be exempt from that. In fact, based on what the media says, I don’t exist. I attended an Ivy League college and a top 5 law school (at least according to US News’ rankings). My first real job, which started shortly after my 25th birthday, paid a salary of $125,000. That salary had doubled within 5 years. I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to some of the top schools in America, and it seemed I was enjoying the rewards of obtaining such a pedigree. Then it ended.
I wasn’t raised in a wealthy family with the rich connections many of my college classmates came from, but I was certainly raised in a comfortable middle class background that allowed me to always dream big and believe I could accomplish anything in this country. After all, I was smart and willing to work hard. I borrowed tremendous amounts of money to pay for my education, but I thought it obvious that my education would quickly pay for itself. I recall a cousin once telling me that no one could ever take away my education. At the time his words seemed like a great endorsement of pursuing education to ensure a lifetime of comfort and stable employment. Now I think of it ironically – why would anyone want to take something away from me that demonstrably has no market value?
The question I find myself grappling with these days is “is this the best we can do?” I’ve spent months focusing on not being jealous or angry, and I’ve largely succeeded. I really am happy for my friends that are having children, and going on vacations, and otherwise moving forward and living their lives. But is this a country where one false move (in my case, working at the wrong law firm) can essentially end your chance at a productive life? I admit I had an arrogance prior to my layoff – I never imagined this could happen to me. I was no conservative, and I sympathized with and believed we could and should do more to help the unfortunate in this country – but I never believed I would be in that situation myself. I was told from childhood on that a good education was the path to a better life – and that if you were willing and able to work hard and had something to contribute, you’d have opportunities in this country. Where are those opportunities?
The most striking thing to me during the coverage of the Occupy Movement last fall was the “counter-protestors” (read: miserable assholes) yelling things like “Get a job!” I would love one! As I mentioned previously, I’ve applied for nearly 700 jobs in the last 15 months and continue to apply for 30-100 jobs each month. I’ve applied for jobs at law firms, scores of jobs with the government, jobs at corporations, jobs for lawyers, jobs for non-lawyers, jobs as a paralegal, jobs as a writer, jobs, jobs, jobs. I’ve applied for jobs from Seattle to Miami, from San Diego to Boston, and I’ve applied to jobs overseas. Have work? Will travel. Of course, while employment ticked up in March, it actually dropped in the legal sector. Total legal employment is lower now than it was in 2008, despite the abundance of law schools in this country pumping out nearly 50,000 new lawyers each year. I admit that I have not yet applied to work in fast food or retail as I maintain the hope that somehow, some way, I’ll eventually find a position which could eventually lead me back to my old life. That said, I don’t see an abundance of “Help Wanted” signs at McDonald’s or Best Buy. The notion that people can just “Get a Job!” in this market is laughable. The government’s own numbers pretend that over 8 million Americans have dropped out of the workforce in recent years; while you may know of someone that struck oil in their backyard and actually retired in their 30s or 40s, I’m confident most of these people are simply unable to find employment. I wonder how they afford food – I fear for my own future when unemployment is cut off.
I continue to have some hope – I keep trying to tell myself that I have great experience and a great background, and eventually that will mean something to somebody. I know I’m hard working - I billed well over 2000 hours as my mother died of cancer in 2009 because the firm expected nothing less. (For the non-lawyers reading, that translates to working 60+ hours most weeks.) I also wonder and worry about the larger country – if finding work is so hard and seemingly hopeless for someone with my background, someone barely into their 30s, what is it like for older workers with fewer credentials?
As another day starts in the exurbs, I sigh. It’s another day of nothing. I’ll look at the usual job boards. I’ll read the 10+ emails I receive each morning with updated job listings. I’ll head to the gym. But in general, another day will come and go and nothing will change. Maybe I’ll receive a rejection letter or two. Maybe I’ll find a new posting for a job that would be perfect – if only they decide to interview me. But really, I just wait. I watch the clock spin in circles. I watch my life pass me by. I wonder how much longer this can last. And I wait.