A Tale From the Trenches: Unemployment 101

David Perry

The irony was disturbing. I only caught a glimpse, but it was enough. There was a commentator on some news program, an expert on the subject apparently, describing the mental state of the unemployed person. It struck me that this expert, possibly already making gobs of liquid cash, was being paid more gobs of liquid cash to talk about a situation that he had probably never experienced. 


Thanks to two economic recessions (2000, 2008), two company restructures, and a terrorist attack, I’ve been unemployed a total of four times, for a total of nearly six years.  Want to know the mental state of the unemployed? Let me be your guide though this particularly pot-holed landscape…



“We’d rather die than hire you.”

“The universe hates it when I’m happy.”

“My happiness causes pain to Creation.”

You’d be amazed what thoughts go through our heads, and we don’t even notice them until it is too late. But look at it from our perspective: We have the skills. We have the references. And yet, no one hires us, they never call back, and, of course, they never say why (that would actually be a big help). If by chance we run into an interviewer on the street, they have a panicked “get away from me” look on their faces. However self-defeating and self-destructive, it does not take long for the idea of a conspiracy to start floating in the back of your mind.

            This is a catastrophic tipping point for us. We already hate HR, but at this stage, you begin to see the person interviewing you as The Enemy.



It looks like selfishness, but neither is better than the other. Yes, we are perfectly aware that a lot of people have it worse than us. We watch the news and know full well that children are starving in Africa. It is a terrible thing. But that awareness still does not pay the water bill, so do us a favor and avoid the whole “perspective via guilt” ploy. And if we hear one more perky rendition of “When one door closes, another opens” we are slapping you. Viciously.



I once interviewed for a position billed as “a part-time travel writer.” When I showed up, I discovered that wasn’t the job at all, rather, it was writing schedules and itineraries for travelers. Moreover, I was told I had to bring in my own computer, be paid a pittance (and, being part-time, there was nothing in the way of benefits) and, to top it off, I had to agree not to take another job for a year.

            Believe it or not, this wasn’t even the first time I’ve been bait-and-switched. And no, I did not accept that position.



You’d be surprised how many people have their job as an identifier to their personality. Take away the identifier, and the person becomes a blank, without purpose. It is this state of mind that gives birth to the wail of “But I don’t know how to be anything else!”



This is a no-brainer. Other related conditions are hopelessness, cynicism, and misanthropy. And boy, do we radiate ‘em.  If you thought Debbie Downer was a drag, just invite one us to a party. Actually, don’t. We could suck the life out of Mardi Gras. Which leads to…



Money makes most, if not all, of life easier. It certainly makes your social life easier. But when there is no money, there is no dating, no new clothes, no bars, no movies, no nights on the town, no day trips to the beach, no vacation to parts unknown. There is, however, a lot of sitting around. We can’t afford to do the smallest things, and watch the world rush by faster and faster. The statement “I’m unemployed” will inject an unrecoverable awkwardness into even the best of dates.



The ultimate Catch-22. At a certain point, things have become so dire that you start taking any job you can get, even if it is not in your field or something you simply have no passion for. It’s the whole “Swallow Your Pride” scenario. And that sets off a nasty series of events…

I have yet to meet anyone who can force himself or herself to like anything, including their job. If you take a job you don’t like, it shows. Maybe not right away, but it does, and when it does, you are back out on your ass again, now with a serious black mark on your resume. “Laid off” and “Fired” may have the same end—unemployment—but say you were “fired” and the dark looks gather.


Or, say you take a position that is “below” your last, in pay, in responsibility, whatever. That looks bad as well, because it results in a resume that “wanders” and “lacks direction.” The plain fact is that when you go on an interview, nine times out of 10, the company is looking for reasons to not hire you.



Let there be no doubt: We are scared. Of losing our homes, our possessions, our lives (suicides spiked after the 2008 crash). Everything we spent our lives building is teetering on the edge. And there is no white knight. Just a big, yawning darkness.


Preternatural Happiness

Paranoia. Hard-heartedness. Exasperation. Uselessness. Pessimism (and related). Isolation. Desperation. Terror. These are all legitimate feelings, conditions, and states of mind. They are constant and, at times, overwhelming.


And we can’t show them. Not ever. Not to our friends—at best, it only serves to highlight their own impuissance over the matter.  All they can do is offer a shoulder to cry on, and while their kindness is appreciated, we can’t pay the bills with it. And certainly, we cannot, under any circumstance, express  these feelings at an interview. We are well aware. On the contrary, we have to happy. All. The. Time. Which makes us look permanently wired, if not flat-out crazed.

Think you understand unemployment? You have no idea.

Author Bio:

New York City-based writer David Perry once taught English in Japan and was a writer for NASA. His work has since appeared in The Advocate, Instinct, Trader Monthly, and Dealmaker magazines, plus publications for the American Foundation of Savoy Orders and the Huguenot Historical Society of New Paltz, NY.

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Mike Licht, Flickr
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