Unhappy If You Have a Job, Miserable if You Don’t

Despite all the happy news on jobs these days coming out of Washington, there’s a whole lot of misery going on out there where work is concerned. Studies show a significant number of people who are staying in jobs solely because of the difficult economy, and not because they’re satisfied with their current jobs. And of the people who are still unemployed, many are giving up hope while they continue their struggle to find the resources just to survive. So don’t believe all you’re hearing right now.

First the good news: headlines trumpeting an economic turnaround: New Jobless Claims Fall, Fueling Optimism (Chicago Tribune); Finally, a Break in Unemployment (Kinston Free Press (NC)) are much more common these days than they have been in recent months. Desperate for signs of good news, economists and Administration officials praise the recent unemployment statistics. But as Bob Herbert’s excellent New York Times column reminds us,

The president tells us the economy is accelerating, and the statistics seem to bear him out. But don’t hold your breath waiting for your standard of living to improve….In the real world, which is the world of families trying to pay their mortgages and get their children off to college, the economy remains troubled.

(See There’s a Catch: Jobs)

From Bad…

Those who have jobs don’t show up in the weekly unemployment statistics, yet their misery can be measured in other ways, and should be of significant interest to those who care about the well-being of the American workplace. There are far too many people like John Van Ness. Two years ago, Van Ness earned six figures and supervised employees as a Sun Microsystems manager. Now, the laid-off manager sells plumbing supplies at Home Depot. (See USA Today article.) Or Barbara Saunders: Saunders, 36, has a degree from Stanford University and attended graduate school for two years. She formerly earned $48,000 annually as a writer, but now holds several low-paying jobs: grant-writing for a non-profit, and selling candles, incense and post cards at a head shop, and working the door at a nightclub. She says of her plight: “I’m not really getting enough money to get by. I’m frustrated that so much of my time is spent hustling for money.” Bob Herbert reminds us:

According to government statistics, there are nearly 4.5 million people working part-time because they have been unable to find full-time work. In many cases…the part-time worker is “earning far less money than his or her background and experience warrant — i.e. a computer programmer working at a coffee shop.”

(See There’s a Catch: Jobs)

When workers are surveyed about job satisfaction, their dissatisfaction is rampant. According to a recent article, “workers are registering the highest levels of job dissatisfaction in years. Experts in the field…say workplace anxiety is near epidemic.” (See Chicago Tribune article.) In one recent survey of 5,000 U.S. households, less than half of respondents described themselves as satisfied with their jobs. That was the highest percentage of disgruntled workers since 1995 in the survey by the New York-based business research group Conference Board. In a Monster.com Web survey, 57 percent responded that they feel overworked and 83 percent of them are not satisfied with their jobs.

To Worse…

As bad as it is to have a job you don’t like, it’s obviously much worse to have no income coming in, and to feel like your situation isn’t about to change any time soon. Just ask Wichita resident Kris Ta, who has to figure out how to provide food and formula for four young children on $333 a week, which is supposed to cover her husband’s tuition at a local university. Ta, 31, was laid off in December 2001 from her job at Raytheon, while her husband, Kent, 34, was laid off from his job as a Boeing machinist in February 2002. When they were working, she earned $300 a week at Raytheon, her husband $1,200 every two weeks at Boeing. She says of her current situation, “Compared to what we’re living off right now, it’s different as night and day. When you have kids, they ask for things, and you can’t provide it. Kids are too young to understand.” (See Wichita Eagle article.)

Desperation is driving some people to employ bold strategies to end their unemployment. One man, borrowing his technique from the homeless, stands in high-traffic areas with a sign: “Have graduate degree, homeless, need living wage nonprofit job” and a stack of résumés. Dana Briggs, with a master’s degree in management, and a background in technical writing and corporate training, has been unemployed for 17 months and now moves between homeless shelters and friends’ homes after selling his Washington home at a loss 10 months ago. While he acknowledges the sign has not yet proven effective, neither have his 2,500 job applications nor his 165 visits to local businesses. (See Seattle Times article.) Another Seattle resident, Torsten Reinl, has purchased signs for local buses, which contain his picture, phone number, and the words “Hire Me!” For every Dana Briggs and Torsten Reinl, there are those such as Kris Ta who have largely suffered in silence while their means are exhausted and they lose hope of finding work that will even cover their childcare expenses, much less support their families at an adequate level. But many of them vote, and will be a force to be reckoned with in November 2004 if their plight does not significantly improve.

Will it improve? Despite what the numbers might say, there are those who think the situation for unemployed and underemployed workers may not improve any time soon. The jobs that are now being created are a mismatch with the skill set and former income level of the unemployed and underemployed. As New York Times reporter David Leonhardt analyzes the situation,

Many of today’s longtime unemployed, whether they are outcasts from the bubble in the technology and finance sectors or laid-off factory workers, are unlikely to find new work that pays as well anytime soon. For people who have held onto their jobs, by contrast, an economic pickup would keep wages rising and start extending the workweek, too….the disappearance of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs, vanquished by some of those technologies and jobs moving overseas, means that people who lose a job are facing far tougher prospects.

(See A Rosy Picture, but for Those Who Saw Pink, Pain Lingers) As John Petergal, a Chicago graphic designer who was laid off in January puts it, “The jobs that have been lost are not coming back.” Petergal now works part-time at Best Buy, after 10 months of looking for comparable employment. Labor law professor Charles Craver, notes that a sense of job permanence and solid pay has eroded with the shift from manufacturing to a service economy, dominated by low-paying jobs at stores and fast-food chains. (See Chicago Tribune article.)

It’s hard not to be miserable and despondent, although those advising the unemployed say that feeling that way is counterproductive to finding a new position. One advisor reminds the unemployed not to cut their expenses too much, saying,”I always remind people doing job searches that their state of mind has a lot to do with their salability. If you cut too much, then you become miserable and depressed and that makes it difficult to your being hired.” (See Jobless: Survival Tips for the Short Term and the Long) And retraining and additional education may seem futile, when the available jobs seem to call for less education and training, rather than more, and so many highly skilled workers have found that their surfeit of skills and education has contributed to, rather than insulated them from, long-term unemployment.

There may not be any easy solution, but the unemployed and employed alike need to remember the misery caused by unemployment, and demand economic solutions that directly create jobs–not just menial jobs far beneath the education and experience of the unemployed, but real jobs that make it possible to support families. Your members of Congress and the President need to know that the statistics will not mean a thing in the voting booth unless the needs of working men and women now take on a primary urgency, rather than waiting for a trickle-down effect. Tax policies putting more money in corporate coffers only work when America works. Right now, America isn’t working, because far too many of its citizens are pondering daily survival instead of working in productive jobs.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.