The Brutal, Debilitating Costs of Long-Term Unemployment

By Sheldon Greaves

This post previously appeared in Unexpected Leisure, 13 February 2011. I’m reposting it here as a preface to some additional material I want to post on this and related subjects, especially in light of the moral obscenity of the Trump budget proposal, along some other troubling trends. -sg

jobless-benefits-running-out-for-long-term-unemployed-10060201-200x300More and more studies are appearing about what happens to people facing unemployment for a long time.  The universal consensus is that very real psychological damage results when someone is unable to find work after several months. What is particularly sobering about this research is that the damage can be lifelong and often includes significantly reduced income for years or even decades afterward.

Six months seems to mark the point at which the damage starts to show. In an earlier post I cited some figures about how many premature deaths can be linked to long-term joblessness, and it’s in the tens of thousands for every additional percentage point of unemployment above the long-term average. At about six months your  confidence starts to slip and you wonder what it is that you are doing wrong.  You resist the notion that maybe the job market is just not there, that you’re effectively panning for gold in a snow bank. To accept that idea is to relinquish even the illusion of control over your situation.  Even if you realize that your hands are weak, the thought that your destiny is in your hands implies–albeit feebly–that maybe you can find a way out of this.

Depression comes and goes as you approach the one-year mark.  Anger starts out behind but catches up fast, now and then surging into searing rage. By now you are routinely second-guessing yourself, trying to twiddle the minutia in your resume as if there was some magic incantation, that will open doors and get you that job.  The effects of doing something over and over (applying for jobs) and expecting a result different from constant silence or rejection are literally crazy-making. It’s also about this time that you starts to see email from sites that will find you that job if you fork over a subscription fee, as well as other contacts from scammers who prey on the desperation of job-seekers who have been at it for a long time.

Physical vigor can slacken. The state of long-term unemployment can drain you of ambition for things like exercise, although in my case my Friday evening Jiu-Jutsu class gave me a great opportunity to work off stress by throwing people around and having them return the favor. There is also a sense of mutual respect among my fellow martial artists in the class that provides a psychological boost, knowing that all are concerned about each others’ welfare.

Rather than go into additional detail, which you can find in any number of articles on the subject, I’d like to point out something that I haven’t seen too much of yet, but am hopeful to see soon (or have someone else point out to me) and that is some kind of advice on what we who have been out of work for a long time can do to combat the effects of this mentally caustic situation. I have my own things, which I’ll write about in more detail soon.

Personal Experience

For my part, it’s been two years now since I was given my layoff notice. I’ve tried to fight its effects by learning new things; I’ve taken some math classes, I got my ham radio license, studied Modern Greek, and done some reading in other esoteric subjects. But I happen to be insatiably curious, which is not true of everyone. I heartily endorse the words of Merlyn the Magician in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King: “The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”

The problem is that this works only up to a point.  There comes a time when the serendipity that is the birthright of a joyfully prodigal curiosity must give way to a mandate that all new learning must have a job or income as the end. That for me is the worst, when everything becomes equidistant from the once and future job.

Our lawmakers need to understand that denying funds and legislation for real job creation (not more useless tax cuts) and lending a hand to the long-term unemployed is literally a matter of life and death.


The Brutal, Debilitating Costs of Long-Term Unemployment — 2 Comments

  1. This is true. I was unemployed twice in recent years: once for a year and a half, then after six months at a bad job I was let go and spent another six months unemployed. For the past six months I’ve been working at a very good job, and things are going well, and it’s still taken time to heal from the effects of those months of unemployment.

    I had happy times and enjoyable experiences while unemployed, and pursued enriching things, but you’re right in saying it only goes so far. All the good times and good feelings rested on a foundation of rage and it didn’t take much to scrape away and expose that. I felt that the world was telling me in plain terms that I had nothing to offer it, and that my life was irrelevant, at least to the institutions and people who really matter.

    It became very hard to hold on to the faith in God that I had been taught. I came to suspect that God was an indifferent manipulator of human material, in collusion with all the cruelty and atrocity of earthly power despite all the pretty words to the contrary. Every time I heard or read someone in church meetings or employment resources say “God didn’t send you here to fail” I felt like screaming “yes he DID!”

    It should be possible for a brave person to keep a sense of personal worth and purpose through temporary trials – that’s what we’re always told, right? But then when you’re going through unemployment you can’t tell your fellow believers what a hard time you’re having, because then you’re afraid they’ll judge you as unfaithful, and therefore unworthy of their compassion – leave you the buffetings of Satan until you can submit cheerfully to the will of the Lord . . .

    Those in power want to make policies that punish people for not having jobs, because in their eyes not having a job is proof of a defect for which one must do penance. They’re trying to realize the ideology of individual merit being the only factor in a person’s success. I don’t feel the despair I did before, but I still think I have a clearer vision of how the world works: when people rise to a certain level of power, they have to work very hard to keep a sense of the innate dignity of human life. Power shouts in the ears of everyone who consorts with it that eminence and achievement and wealth are the plain and simple measures of human worth. To wield power while disobeying its insistence must be a Herculean task – how does it compare, I wonder, to the task of living unemployed while refusing to believe the evaluations of your worth from all around? What warrant do the lawmakers and executives of the United States have for persisting in that task, or even attempting it? Especially since their contempt for the “unworthy” is buttressed by pretensions of divine approval: to many people, showing compassion for those who have failed – in a real systematic way of any consequence – is a form of spoiling the child by sparing the rod.

    It sucks to live under the blows of such a rod. It sucks to be governed by gods and their servants who think we can only be motivated by greed and fear.

    Didn’t mean to go off like that. I read your post and was glad to feel a connection with someone who understands what it’s like to go through unemployment. Thanks for writing.

    • Thank you for your thoughts and insights. No apology needed; this sort of thing needs to become a dominant part of our national dialogue. If there is a critical test of a society’s fitness to continue, it’s how they treat their disadvantaged and vulnerable. Sadly, it’s a test we fail all too often.

      Keep the faith, watch your back.

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