The Shame Of Unemployment

There are few things in life as soul-crushing and depressing as being unemployed. In our modern society, people are defined by their work; your job is who you are. Those without a job are therefore excluded from society and feel as though their very identity is in question. Words cannot fully express the overwhelming sense of shame and humiliation that the unemployed feel. Even in times of severe recession they still blame themselves. There is a severe stigma attached to unemployment that makes them outsiders in society. Unemployment is a social curse that robs people of their dignity and self-respect.

As a student, I am occupied for most of the year, but every summer I go looking for work. Some years are better than others. 2011 and 2012 were not good years. I walked all over Galway city and neighbouring towns of Oranmore and Athenry handing out more than 100 CVs. I got the same reaction most of the time. I’d go in as enthusiastic as possible ready to dazzle the manager into hiring me into an unskilled minimum wage job. Unfortunately, I rarely got that far. Instead someone at the desk would take the CV and add it to the pile. There was usually a sad shaking of the head as I was told that many places were so inundated with applicants that there weren’t even taking CVs. Shops just weren’t hiring. Those two summers of job hunting and hundreds of CVs netted a total of only a single interview (for a job in a fast food shop) and about five rejection letters. I heard stories of offerings of a single low paid job getting swamped by a tsunami of applicants.

Every rejection hurt. There was no way to pretend it didn’t. You threw your best at an employer and they dumped you in a bin. There is no nice and easy way of saying you’re not good enough. You couldn’t harden yourself to the inevitable rejection because without enthusiasm you wouldn’t get hired. So I had to repeat the pain continuously over and over. It was like going to a club and having every girl line up and reject you. The feeling is comparable to that of being bullied. You do not feel like a victim but rather someone who brought it on yourself through your own incompetence. You feel defeated and crushed. The worst part is where you think you deserve it. You agree with the humiliation and start to think you are not good enough for a job. You can’t give up but you can’t continue.

The people who are hardest on the unemployed are themselves. My number one critic was inside my head. Every time the staff politely took my CV and placed it on top of a large pile (probably destined for the shredder), I was criticising myself. It was as though a voice in my head was mocking me for not being good enough. I would see my friends who had jobs and the pain was worse. How could they find work and I couldn’t? What was wrong with me? Even though unemployment was 14.5%, I internalised it entirely. Blaming the economy seemed like a weak excuse. No, the reason I couldn’t get a job was that I wasn’t good enough. Rejection made me timid and battered my self-esteem. I was crippled by a sense that I was inadequate and worthless. It was as though I had failed. All the time I blamed myself. It must be because I wasn’t looking hard enough, smart enough, wasn’t being friendly enough to managers, wasn’t presenting my CV right etc. Somewhere along the way I had gone wrong. Even in times of mass unemployment, the belief that there is work for anyone who is willing doesn’t go away. There was work, but there must be something wrong with me.

I was lucky in that I come from a middle class family who could support me. My parents ensured that I stayed in university, had a roof over my head and dinner on the table. For that I am immensely grateful and conscious of the hardship of those who do not have any backup support. However, it was also an affront to my dignity that I pretended to be a responsible adult, yet had to rely on my parents to pay for, well, everything. The only thing more damaging to your dignity than having your parents’ drive you everywhere is when you can’t go because your parents aren’t free.

I don’t know what unemployment is like for women (probably still pretty terrible), but it is very bad for men. Men are supposed to be the bread winners, the ones everyone else can rely on. Men don’t fail. Men rate their successfulness based on their job and how much money they earn. Women can have non-monetary successes like family, but a real man has to be a working man. Not having a job robs a man of his dignity and pride. Even in this 21st century, it is still humiliating for a man to rely on a woman for money. If you job is a measure of your worth then being unemployed makes you feel worthless. For a gender based on strength and success, it was humiliating to be in a position of powerless and rejection.

A job is more than just a way to pay the bills; it is part of your identity. It is part of who you are. When you meet a person for the first time, the two standard opening questions are where are they from and what their job is. Note that it is usually phrased as “What do you do?” implying those that do not work, do nothing with their lives. The absence of a job leaves a void in your life rendering it empty. This is certainly how it feels to many people and why retirement is so difficult. Whereas people who have jobs rarely respond by saying “I work in a school”, rather they say “I am a teacher”. Their occupation is a defining part of their identity. Your job gives shape to your days and direction to your life. Unemployment on the other hand feels empty and directionless, like you are wasting time. Unemployment is linked with mental health problems as the stigma causes stress and misery. The shame is overwhelming and unavoidable; it leads to lower life satisfaction and even lower physical health.

One of the most important things I learned was the importance of contacts and networks. If you want a job, you have to know someone. This was explicitly told me at one place when I went to hand in a CV. There was no point as the boss had two nephews who had the summer jobs secured. Most jobs I have had were gotten because I or my parents knew someone working there, a common experience among my friends. This is another cause of inequality in society; rich people can use their contacts to get themselves and their children ahead, whereas the poor know few employers. Unfortunately, my parents work in the public sector in GMIT, a place that doesn’t hire many young unqualified people, to my great disadvantage. The unskilled job market is unfortunately just as much a case of who you know as what you know.

The other decisive factor was luck. You literally had to just be in the right place at the right time. Getting a job often came down to walking in just as the manager was there or the just as an employee quit or having your CV top of the pile. That getting a job is so heavily based on contacts and luck should be deeply worrying, but it is to an extent unavoidable. As I haven’t yet graduated, the jobs I was applying for (working in cafés, bars kitchens etc) are relatively unskilled. Most of them you learn quickly on the job and no qualifications are required. This means there is no particular way to stand out from the thousands of other young people looking for work, so employers’ choices will be random to some extent. Likewise seeing as the jobs are not overly complicated, cronyism in the hiring won’t make much of a change to the overall efficiency of the business. Of course for higher skilled jobs the situation is different, but I was below that level.

My story is better than most. Thanks to the support of my family, I never had to go on the dole (receive unemployment benefits), the ultimate shame. I was able to find some sporadic work. However, the thought of another summer of unemployment filled me with dread so I am spending this summer in San Francisco, America where I have luckily found a full time job. However, I will soon graduate with an Arts degree and have to enter the working world, a prospect that my classmates and I find foreboding. Unemployment is still stubbornly high and has barely changed even after five years of recession. It looks like Ireland is headed for a decade of despair.

Unemployment is such a shameful and depressing experience that most people try to avoid thinking about it. This is the least painful choice, but also the one that is least likely to solve the problem. This is why unemployment is something of a black hole that is easy to fall into and difficult to climb out of.  The unemployed are thus left with the difficult choice of daily experiencing the shame of rejection or turning numb to their situation. Either way they lose.

Let no one ever say unemployment is easy or comfortable. The loss of a job is one of the most distressing and dispiriting experiences that can be suffered. It robs people of their dignity and self-respect. It bares a crushing stigma of shame. Pity the unemployed who must suffer in silence.


Filed under Economics

29 responses to “The Shame Of Unemployment

  1. Wonderfully said, Robert.

    • Thanks, this is one of my favourite posts. Do you know that feeling where look at what you’ve written and (at the risk of sounding vain) thought, damn that was good. Unemployment is such an emotional problem, I’m glad I could do some justice to it.

      • It’s true, good writing does spark a shower of happy chemicals into the brain… a sense of quiet satisfaction. I think that’s why i (at least) can easily/happily obsess over the structure of simple sentences. I’m addicted! I guess you are, too.🙂

        How’s it all going over on Praysons blog?

  2. Question, Robert: “What do you do?”
    Answer (should be): “I write. And I’m good at it.”

  3. Excellent post! People take work far too seriously, in spite of the fact that they often don’t enjoy it at all. But the flip side is that when you’re not ‘doing’ something, it can be ever-decreasing circles in terms of lack of confidence and self-esteem.

  4. Have fun in San Francisco! It’s definitely a much better place to spend a summer (even working) than looking for a job. Have you been able to find a place to stay?

  5. Excellent post mate. I thought this was just a problem here in the neck of woods.

  6. Good written. I took a break from looking for a job offers, and found your post. It’s the same how I feel now. The only difference is that, when you meet friends, you know that at least half of them is in the same situation. This is how unemployment look in my country (Poland).
    The ironic thing is that my thesis was about Graduate Unemployment in Poland and European Union.

    • From what I have hears the problem is even worse in Poland (which is why Ireland has a large Polish community). I have the same feeling of irony studying unemployment every day in college knowing that a lot of my friends will not be able to find work. I think having friends who are in the same situation makes the problem much better and reduces the feeling of isolation.

  7. Annie

    Thanks Robert.
    I feel so bad some days and can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.The hardest thing is pretended that all is ok.I can’t talk to anyone and have never felt so isolated as I do now.
    I’m 7 months unemployed. Always had a good work history.I feel I’m on a downhill spiral.

  8. Aly

    Thank you for writing this. I’d imagine for us women, it’s all the same. Many of us feel the need to be the breadwinners too, and unemployment is just as crushing and awful. I needed this so much because I’ve been without work for 3 months, and I just recently graduated from college in December. I have had such intense feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and I’ve applied to so many jobs that I lost count. No one will call me for an interview, and It feels almost like there is a big red flag on my applications. I’m applying to some of the most basic of jobs, though I have a B.A. but I am afraid I over qualify for these. I don’t have enough work experience to fully qualify for many positions with my education level (the biggest mistake I ever made). I had been lucky enough to land a job for a few months with a start-up company who found my resume online, but they laid me off without warning 3 months ago. Since then, I’ve been so useless. This article is just what I needed to keep going and I am hoping the best for you as well.

  9. kirsty

    Very well said and written perfectly. I think it can be just as hard for women to some extent as so many of us are taking a step towards more successful careers and so on. I have been out of work almost 5 months and its very stressful. I think It makes it more tough when your surrounded by others in such prosperous jobs and that’s al they talk about, leaving you with nothing to bring or say. (that’s my feeling)

  10. Ezekiel

    “As a student”?

  11. V

    You just described exactly what I am going through. In my recession-hit country, unemployment in my age group is nearly 50%. I have two bachelors degrees and a masters with distinction from one of the top 10 UK universities,and I worked for six months for free following my last graduation. I have now been unemployed for almost 4 months, and not a single day goes by without me feeling completely worthless.

    It’s amazing how being unemployed makes you feel like you never succeeded in anything – it’s like all of your past accomplishments have no value at all, you just feel useless.

  12. Long Term Unemployed

    2.5 years unemployed, and not sure how much longer I can keep this up. It has taken a severe toll on my mental health, and I feel left out and worthless.😦

  13. Anne - USA

    This article is a blessing to us experiencing this exact situation and feel that we’re alone. I can assure anyone that this is huge problem that is going on everywhere. You are not alone, you are not worthless, or “not a good fit” as they like to say to cover up their bs excuse. Please don’t fall into the mental doubt games that your mind wants to play with. Find solace in that if even if you went as far as getting called for an interview and got rejected – there is a long list of INSANE excuses. Not valid reasons but flat out insane excuses these companies use to manipulate and appear as if you were not good enough – all bc these positions are not even open. Please remember that. Please don’t allow them to get into your head and tear you apart all bc they are covering up the bigger picture. As for my experience and can confirm this to you guys – I have a BS in Finance w over 7 yrs experience in 2 very highly ranked firms dabbling in hedge funds and high net worth portfolio management. Only to be constantly told and humiliated in panel interviews for entry level positions as to why I don’t have a masters degree. Clearly these firms reviewed my resume prior to calling for interviews – why waste time in me when it’s obvious I only have a bachelors? The bigger picture can go as deep as companies posting jobs/canceling/reposting w a new ID to appear to be hiring. To make the numbers look good – to make that weekly “new jobs report”‘we all see on the news look so great. When in reality these are recycled jobs from the months before which were never even filled. Hence why so many of us get declined over and over. They may even need to meet a quota to fake that they attempted to interview candidates but none met the “exceeding” qualifications. To justify the cancel/decline all applicants/repost same job a few hours after that “deadline”. I can confirm to you guys that i have received a rejection email stating I was not a good fit for a job I had applied to weeks ago….to only get an automated email from that same companies career/recruitment filter system of a new job listing that matched my skills/resume. It was for the EXACT same job as the one that hours prior said I was “not a good fit”. You see the game people?? The constant contradiction an insane sociopathic manipulation these companies are throwing at us is just flat out wrong and utterly insane! If you guys apply for a job that you know deep down are overqualified for do not let them twist it around and make you feel worthless! It’s a way to cover up their insane game. Don’t not go run over to your alumni university and feel bullied into getting into a graduate program and signing a 100,000 loan bc you think that’s the ticket to landing a job. It’s not. A lot of graduates are also unemployed and in a load of student debt bc they were promised the world. Please, please do not let this make you feel horrible or worthless. There are a lot of us out there having to deal w this humiliating game and it’s not our fault. Don’t feel like it was a bad decision to go to school. Education debt and it’s ROI should not be making us feel guilty. As if we were irresponsible lunatics that spent 100k at a casino. I know it feels that way after you start getting laid off and rejected shortly after graduating. Don’t fall for it. I know it’s hard. Surround yourself w like minded people that share the same issues. In my opinion, don’t allow people to feel sorry or any “it’s not that bad, relax” comment from any one who isn’t or has never gotten their ass kicked in the same arena you’re in at the moment. Companies are projecting fake reports to create positive numbers so the markets don’t show the truth. Don’t feel bad or ashamed bc I am 27 and I have been given the run around from “too qualified” to “sorry but we are only looking for CFA 20 yr olds for this entry level roll” – I kid you not! So don’t feel all hopeless that’s what apparently they want us to feel. Just know you are not alone in this and hopefully this type of crisis gets more attention bc it is a very huge global issue that they are keeping very well hidden. Stay focused and never lose hope bc it’s all bs – we are beyond good enough…if those positions were even truly available to begin with! Do NOT fall for the excuses or manipulation and believe those are real and how the workforce portrays you – keep going strong. That’s the best advice I can give all you while we try to deal as best as we can and stay mentally healthy!

    • JH

      Thank you for this post a million times over! I’m so glad to see a peek into the inside of what’s really going on from someone with a financial industry background. I felt a strong suspicion that is the way the current job market is going, but because my degree was not in business or finance (I’m a B.A.), I felt my background didn’t qualify me to have a credible opinion on it. I’m glad to see I’m not crazy to think these employers are lying through their teeth about “not having enough skilled workers”. I read stories from tech workers not getting work or only being offered peanuts for several years of experience. Yet the employers are outsourcing to get cheaper labor.

      It’s depressing but things will be changing. If you believe at all in the Kondratieff Economic theory, then we are in the dead of Winter now. Spring will come again.

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