I started working when I was fifteen (or, several years before that if you count baby-sitting). Back then, if you were under sixteen, you could get permission to work from your parents. I was already living on my own, so forging their signature(s) was easy. I applied for a minimum wage job as a grocery store cashier and was issued a powder blue nylon jumpsuit and name tag.
The $3.10/hour I earned was sufficient to cover my expenses for school, clothing and a personal life. If I worked, I could live with my grandparents, rent-free, but received no other financial support from the so-called “adults” in my life. (Whether this qualifies as “living on my own” could still be debated, but, suffice it to say, it was a great deal of responsibility to assume at such a young age.)
I graduated high school at sixteen and went to work at an insurance company full-time in order to save money for college. (My absentee parents talked a good game about a “college fund,” but it turned out to be as big a myth as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.)
After working nine months, I had saved over $3,000.00 – enough to live on for a year. Unfortunately, because I was underage, my bank account could also be accessed by my mother. She spent all of my savings within two months, leaving me with no money for college.
Nevertheless, I worked all through college at any minimum wage job I could find. Plus, I applied for student loans (which were denied because of Regan’s anti-education policies and the fact that I was automatically presumed to be a dependent of my parents whether they supported me or not). When I failed to qualify for student loans independently of my parents, my scholarships were taken away to pay for money I had received through financial aid. I was forced to drop out of school and work another two years to pay for college.
Receiving my degree was important because with it, I expected more gainful employment and long-term success in my chosen career. At least, that’s what I was promised. Early on, it seemed as if this might be true.
My first “post-college” job was as a financial analyst earning $20,000/year in 1987. I worked 90 hours a week, received outstanding performance evaluations and within two years was earning $65,000. By 1990, I was being paid $100/hour as a consultant. Prospective employers called me an average of twice a week, hoping to hire me. I turned down five times as much work as I accepted because there just weren’t enough hours in the day to meet the demand for my services.
The first time I lost a job was in 1993. It was easy to blame the recession, the economy or whatever, but the real reason was more complex. Caught up in the thrift crisis, the bank where I worked was taken over by federal regulators who then proceeded to violate federal employment laws. It would not be the first time I would pay the price for management’s failures.
I struggled to recover from this setback, received another college degree and finally found steady work five years later as a consultant earning $60/hour. (My original contract was at $48. The client then raised me to $58 and finally to $60 based on my outstanding performance alone. In other words, these were raises I never asked for, but gladly accepted.) This gig lasted two and a half years until another recession at the end of 2000 prompted massive layoffs throughout the organization. (I had survived the previous round of layoffs a year earlier, but my original supervisor had been reassigned and was no longer around to advocate on my behalf.)
When I went back to job-hunting, I quickly found my previous success precluded me from consideration for most jobs in my field. Even though I made it clear that I did not expect to return to my former level of compensation, prospect after prospect seemed to disappear as soon as the employer got a glance at my old income. I finally ended up working for minimum wage at a now-defunct retailer for the next two years.
A part-time employee at the retailer also worked for a national media organization and offered me a job in her department doing customer service. The position only paid about $30,000/year, but was still more lucrative than minimum wage. I worked in customer service for two more years, then found work again as a consultant earning $70,000/year.
I moved from consulting firm to consulting firm, slowing working my way back up the compensation ladder, until I accepted a full-time position with a former client at $120,000/year in 2005. Two years later, the company went through a merger and laid off all the corporate employees (myself included).
Back on the job market, it took almost a year for me to find work again (as a consultant) this time earning $85,000/year. Still, I had no complaints. This was a time to be grateful for work and my paychecks still let me live comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment and drive a luxury car. Unfortunately, the consulting firm I worked for had serious management issues and in-fighting between the principals led to massive layoffs and the company’s eventual demise.
It was now early 2009, and despite all my hard work, advanced degrees and professional experience, I had been sliding backwards for almost a decade. But, the worst was yet to come. Caught up in the failed economic policies of the past thirty years, I was one of millions thrown out of work through no fault of their own.
I was financially savvy and never bought a home because I knew housing prices were inflated well past their true value. I used credit cards only in emergencies because I feared losing my job every couple of years. I lived within my means and never allowed myself to get caught up in extravagance (even my luxury car was purchased used) because I could see the impending disaster on the horizon. Yet, all my precautions could not prepare me for what lay ahead.
In late 2009, after almost a year of searching, I took a job for a small business firm earning $60,000/year. Over the past ten years, my rent had more than doubled and prices (such as gas) had more than tripled. Instead of $700/month for a two bedroom, I was now paying $1,400/month for a studio. Instead of filling my tank for $20, I now spent over $60. I was struggling to survive, let alone thrive.
Even this job did not last. Sky-rocketing overhead, poor management and lack of business forced massive layoffs in September, sending me and dozens of others to look for work in the worst economy since the great depression. Unemployment compensation did not even cover my basic living expenses, sending me out into the street to live in my van. I am now homeless and unemployed with no hope for the future.
As I look back on my life, I see the promise of prosperity was nothing more than a lie told to gullible children to convince them to submit to authority. We were indoctrinated into a cult run by corrupt officials and tried to hang on as they strapped us into a roller coaster of booms and busts.
Yet today, these same corrupt officials are quick to blame the unemployed for their plight. If working 90 hours a week is “lazy,” then call me lazy. If accepting low-paying jobs, just to get off unemployment, is a “handout,” then I’m first in line. The picture these politicians want to paint of the unemployed is a myth, transparent in its attempt to deflect responsibility for the current crisis away from themselves.
Fresh out of college, I expected job security in exchange for hard work. I expected fairness in exchange for loyalty. And, I expected respect in exchange for respect. I lived up to my side of the bargain. It’s the other side that failed.