“We deserve a little more respect than being labeled lazy and looking for a handout.” [An Unemployment Story]

The following email was sent to me about a week ago and every word resonated. It speaks to the nature of job searching right now and what is available and how unbalanced the solutions are. This was written by John Fusto who gave me permission to use his story and mention his name. The rest of this post is written by him and unchanged by me.

There is something uniquely insidious to the soul of the white-collar professional from the loss of a job in this day. Don’t get me wrong, an out-of-work plumber or construction worker has a family to care for, bills to pay, and lies awake at night fending off the same grotesque nightmares I do. In broad strokes, we are the same, and live the same unemployment nightmare. But our life, and our fall differ in kind:

The professional’s dreams begin way back in high school, starting with our college acceptance letters, then graduation with so much promise and unlimited opportunity, our family’s pride beaming at us in cap and gown, armed with advanced and expensive degrees to make it all happen. Then come our marriages, our first job in our profession, our student loans paid, our circle of friends formed from our professions, our homes purchased, our children raised, as we progress into our careers. Some ambitions are realized, we accomplish goals, personally and professionally. We take pride in our lives, where we’ve been, where we’re going. Our life was not an entitlement, but it was earned. And the unraveling of this life is ghoulish, our expectations from the life we planned and worked years for, our professions, and worst of all, our identities have vanished.
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I’m 54. I was a lawyer for 27 years, at one time an Assistant Attorney General. My last position was as a Vice-President and Senior Trial Counsel for a Fortune 500 company. I was jettisoned, without severance, last February. I knew intuitively from that day that life would unravel at shocking velocity.

Why? Because we’re not stupid. We’ve worked for corporations, we know how they think. We know they “create” profit by cutting expenses (us), we know the world is getting younger and cheaper, we know that, at our age, we are the most expendable. We’ve seen it happen to others, we’ve read the stories. We live in fear of writing one ourselves. Like now.

My profession is not unique in this sense: At a certain age, you are no longer wanted. You put forth every logical reason to convince otherwise–No, I will certainly work for less than my previous salary, I have a world of experience that can both help you and help the younger, less experienced, my gratitude for having this job will make me as dedicated an employee as you could hope for. No one’s listening.

Piece by piece, like a Jenga game, my life came apart from that day. First on the chopping block, the apartment. No money, no rent. An old high school friend graciously allowed me to stay in his son’s bedroom. Next, the dog, since having to crash with various friends and family is not conducive to also housing a dog that, though I loved him to pieces, was a bit of a handful. Then telling my daughter she could no longer attend the college she had been happily ensconced in for the past two years. Follow-up with dodging phone calls with strange area codes (collection agencies are adept at this), then the collapse of a credit rating built over a lifetime.

On to networking, calling friends, blah, blah, blah. After a few weeks of sympathetic sentiments, most simply moved on, either because of their getting on with their lives, or, I suspect, I became an unpleasant reminder, a symbol, of just what could happen to them, even in their most smug sense of their own security.

Next up, job websites, with their trite and banal tips from “experts” as to why I am not getting offers. “You must expand your networking circles!” they exclaim with utter fatuousness, all the while mocking me with links to “How to increase your salary negotiating leverage.” Wow, I’ll file that away for when I want to squeeze that extra 50k on my next offer.

So yesterday, for the third time, extending unemployment failed to, shall we say, hold the interest of that august body of Supremely Rich and Arrogant White Men We Have Come To Call The US Senate. My days of lying on the couch and eating bon bons (why they use that as a description is beyond me, and none too funny either) came to an end. On $328 per week, bon bons.

For the record, $328 put some food on my table, enabled me to contribute to the households of friends and family who put me up, put some gas in the car, paid my monthly phone bill and car insurance, and not a fucking thing else. Lying on the couch eating bon bons? I spend my day looking at job websites, wondering how to convince someone that “my skills from my previous position are easily transferable” to the job requirements that in no way conform to my experience.

Lately I peruse web-based news fixated on stories about unemployment benefits, and read readers’ comments on what a lazy slob I am. Or how, as per Donald Trump, I should move to North Dakota because, apparently that’s where the jobs are. Or how I should change careers, which for most of us, is like making a hard right with a battleship. Or my new favorite, take a job, ANY job. Like what? The twenty-two year old manager at Wendys will think having a 54 year old lawyer manning the drive-thru window is just the perfect fit. The rest of the day, and certainly night, is fending off despair and hopelessness. Is it really possible I may never actually have f/k/a a job again?

Look, I have been, and continue to be, blessed. I’ve had a good run, have a few friends and family who really love me, and a beautiful daughter I adore. But I know the run has ended. There will be no soft retirement, nothing resembling the life I once had. I am reduced to praying that $328 per week in benefits will be restored. If not, at which point I ponder the musical question with grim seriousness: How did my middle-class youth cum middle-class, middle-aged adult teeter on the brink of homelessness? With a fucking law degree?

And one other thing for the record: I worked since I was 13, paid more in tips than some of the knuckleheads who blather that I am on “welfare” and want a handout have in taxes. I did good work, much of it in public service, raised a family, and built a good life, on my own. I think we deserve a little more respect than being labeled lazy and looking for a handout.

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