One of the things I've been noticing during my term of unemployment (which, fortunately, appears to be coming to an end) has been the sheer anger expressed by so many of my fellow job-seekers. It's the kind of thing that comes out as we're discussing our shared experiences of the Great Recession and comparing notes on the job-stalking process. With this in mind, I can't help but wonder how all of this is going to be seen and analyzed by future generations, which will have a sharper lens.
In the early pages of his wonderful book Fear Itself, historian Ira Katznelson opines the passage of two generations has allowed for a better recounting of the Great Depression, its policies, their effects and legacies. Anyone in my general age range (I will be 60 this year) can relate stories of our own parents and their contemporaries who were forever affected in even small ways by what they went through. My own father, for instance, had difficulty looking at a recreated Depression-era farm kitchen at a museum. My former mother-in-law had a near obsession for collecting umbrellas, apparently rooted in 1930s rural Georgia.
Now, I am well aware the numbers show unemployment rates have declined from the high points of a few years ago and those numbers, even at their zenith, were less than half the 25 percent joblessness rates seen during the Depression. But it's difficult to explain this relativity to the 50-year-old who was laid off, has been out of work for a year, and is losing his/her home. The reason for their release is immaterial, they've been cast adrift despite their own adherence to "the rules" and someone or something is to blame. While the nation overall has seen much tougher economic times, one's personal experience and difficulty suddenly looms very large indeed. No wonder they're pissed off.
The effects of this became the topic of study early on. One of those effects is a kind of loss of promise, and such effects are easily passed on to the subsequent generation that competes with its parents for jobs and sees the personal and economic impact as savings evaporate and parental reliance on Social Security arrives much earlier than anticipated. As 401(k)s dried up and home values plummeted, the confidence about both government at the private sector have gone with them -- not only for my generation but for the Millennials and Generations X and Y.
Personally, I don't have this free-floating anger despite my difficult job situation over the past 18 months. The reason is because all this anger was blown out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which cost me my successful business in New Orleans. Upon returning shortly after the storm, the months of driving past devastated neighborhoods, homes, shops and lives served as a repeated and physical reminder that some things are simply out of our control, and best confronted by pushing ahead and understanding what had happened was not my fault. I subsequently set up a new business in the worst economic time for doing so since the 1930s in a city still struggling to recover. Unfortunately, personal resiliency does not meet payrolls or pay a mortgage.
So not only is the loss of job, career, feeling of self-worth and belief in the future now on the line, but also the idea of being able to just get past it. Not only do our president and Congress seem unwilling and unable to confront what's happening, but there is only continued argument and speculation (though much of it exhaustively researched) about what comes next and how to deal with it. Increasing income inequality seems to demand an increased government role, but the loyal opposition goes into economic hyperventilation mode and everything grinds to the halt we now confront.
Those who have jobs that pay reasonably and provide benefits can, by just showing up at work and bringing home a paycheck, further anger the long-term jobless and underemployed by simply going out for dinner and a few beers or taking a vacation. It's unreasonable, of course, but understandable. Caught between a life they no longer have and a government support system that's constantly under rabid attack, the result is anger and personal and professional inertia. It's frustrating.
The solution is there somewhere. But we're not going to find it until we stop yelling and start listening. Moreover, we've got to stop being angry about what's already happened and afraid of what might. We've got to learn to find and then own our answers.
Hopefully we aren't losing that ability, but it's difficult to tell. There's too much noise.