Thursday, July 30, 2009

Economic Rave

(Reader caveat: this is NOT about dance but you’ll have to indulge me.)

I just got turned down for a job driving an invalid to his intravenous therapy four days a week. That’s all; just driving and a little housework. He said I’m overqualified (I’ve heard that a million times). He must have guessed from my manner of speaking because he didn’t even know about my degrees. I’ve been trying to appear less qualified: modest dress, no make-up, I leave my degree dates off my resume, sometimes I leave education off altogether. Besides, wouldn’t you want to have someone overqualified for a job rather than underqualified? Does my degree make it more difficult for me to drive my car across town? Do these employers think that because I have a doctorate that I don’t do my own laundry? How dare they assume that I’ll get bored and leave. Frack them all! What’s an old broad like me suppose to do to get a job?

I have been underemployed for 20 years, beginning when I returned to college to get my bachelors degree. Since then, I had one short-lived, full-time, full-benefits job from which I was laid off during the 1990s economic downturn. I listened to the advice of my college councilors and signed up for graduate school. (I should have listened to the college Cassandra’s who kept saying “Graduate school is hell,” “Don’t do it” and “You will regret it.” They were right.)

Aside from the mental and physical exhaustion caused by graduate-level studies, the economic effects of this move (literally from Massachusetts to California, and figuratively from layperson to scholar) were disastrous. I left the work force during my peak earning years and accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I have had to cobbled together teaching assistantships, fellowships, and temporary teaching jobs. I worked at an office supply shop, a video store, and I managed an import shop: all part-time, all underpaid. I did have a 6-week gig last summer as an editor but that business relies on government contracts. So that ended prematurely.

For the last year, we (my husband, whose inadequate salary keeps us just above water) and I have borrowed money from his parents, emptied our moderate retirement funds to pay our income taxes (and you can bet it chapped my ass when Washington was bailing out Wall Street with my tax money), and are living off the remnants of a workers compensation settlement.

I developed disabling tendonitis and arthritis in my hands while working in retail. My job options are thus limited by a small physical disability, and by my higher education, but also, I am convinced, by my age and gender. No one wants to hire an old woman (57), regardless of her skills.

Over the past two years, I have made every possible effort to secure any kind of job. I paid for the services of a career councilor, spit-polished my resumes, broadened my employment scope. I tried networking but that’s BS in an area as depressed as this one (San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley). I started a blog and signed up on Facebook and joined LinkedIn on the recommendation that this is the new way to network. I have lowered my expectations and lowered my standards. I still look for jobs but aside from medical and technical opportunities, there just aren’t any out there. And its even worse now than a year ago

We have tightened our belts (sold the boot-straps for a sandwich). I stopped going to dance classes, stopped renting movies, stopped eating out. We make our own pizzas on Friday nights instead of ordering one. We groom our dog at home and I only get my hair cut every 8-10 months. Changing our lifestyle was easy compared to changing our lives. We considered getting rid of some of the expensive technologies that our new society demands we own, but that would only cripple us more. I’ve sold many of my books and bellydance jewelry and costumes for spare cash. I’ve considered selling more precious items but when I examined the sales for these sorts of things on eBay and Craigslist I noticed no one was buying.

This story is not unique. I know plenty of other women struggling desperately to find jobs (or even those jobettes the Feminists used to decry). My husband and I are not destitute—we have a lovely rented cottage and we haven’t gone hungry. And we have many good friends here. I count heavily on those blessings.

So the moral of this story: if you have been unemployed for more than 6 months and are beginning to despair, know this: it ain’t your fault. It isn’t because your resume isn’t written well, or because you have too much or too little experience, or because you didn’t follow up with a phone call, or because you have a character flaw, or because you aren’t trying hard enough. It is a brutal market out there and there may be nothing you can do about it. I’m not saying you should stop looking for a job, but—and I know this is hard—try not to take it personally.

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