As our daughter goes into her final year of college, I have begun to feel a sense of trepidation about what comes next. The seniors I taught this past semester are already going into panic mode as they face a very uncertain future. Regardless of all the internships and community service experiences they are accruing, there’s no avoiding the dour statistics for young college graduates. When one student came to me, asking for advice about applying for a consulting job that was way beyond her reach, I found myself counseling her about the virtues of working in a coffee shop. So what if she’s an international relations major!
My first “real” job after graduating college was working in a state psychiatric hospital. This seemed like a “natural” place to be, since one whole side of my family was riddled with serious psychiatric disorders. Between an aunt with agoraphobia who never left her house, an aunt and an uncle who had “manic-depression” (now called bipolar disorder, a much more “respectable” name), and a mother who struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism, I was quite at home working in an institution for people with severe mental health problems.
I had been a dancer for many of my young years, and my professional goal – if one could call it that– was to somehow combine my interest in helping people with my passion for dance. I lucked out, since the field of dance therapy was just emerging, and one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. was willing to train me during my senior year of college. When I graduated, the state psych hospital was hiring tons of young college graduates. This was the early ‘70s, when thousands of patients, people who had spent years, sometimes decades, living in inside the walls of state hospitals, were released into the community in a move to “de-institutionalize” them. The motive was humanitarian, but the upshot for many of the patients was downright cruel. Nonetheless, it did mean that a lot of my friends and I had jobs.
I was hired as the institution’s dance therapist – and worked with people who were still living “inside” the institution, as well as out-patients that were being transitioned into a day treatment program. I fell in love with schizophrenics who were smart and spoke in metaphors that seemed poetic and deep. Because I was a professional dancer in a mental hospital, many of the institution’s rules did not seem to apply to me. Or at least that’s what I thought and how I behaved… More than once, I led a group of patients in a snake line through the hallways, and we seemed off-limits to criticism, as this “crazy” activity was “therapy”! It felt downright revolutionary!
While this experience – working in an institution – wasn’t where I “landed” professionally, it was nothing short of a profound experience. I will never forget one of my out-patients, a diminutive woman named Ruth, who had spent her entire adult life imprisoned in the psych hospital. Ruth held her body like a tight fist, and stood all day, rocking rhythmically back and forth. I still feel teary when I think about her. There was another man who is seared in my mind: a tall, broad gentleman in a perpetual cowboy hat who people called “the Captain”. He was a man of few words, and those words were garbled, but he had a jovial demeanor. One of my most glorious days with him was when I took him for drive in the country, with two other patients. Outside it was minus forty degrees; but inside the car, with sun shining through the windows, it felt warm and protective. He said little throughout this drive, just smiled…
By the time I had been hired to work as a dance therapist at the state psych center, sociologist Erving Goffman had already published his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. One of Goffman’s greatest contributions was his critique of what he called “total institutions”, which included mental hospitals and prisons. Goffman argued that total institutions had a high degree of regimentation, and an elaborate privilege system. He described relations between staff and patients (or inmates) as caste-like, with detailed “rules” of deference and demeanor. One of the my favorite co-workers at Hutchings, a friendly and clever guy named Willie who was the janitor, surely understood Goffman’s analysis when he changed his first name from Willie to “Doctor”. Whenever anyone wanted his services, they would yell “Doctor” and he came running with a smirk on his face.
I knew nothing of Goffman while I was working in an institutional setting. But now, as I reflect on my first post-college job, and after studying this brilliant sociologist in graduate school and using his analyses in a class I now teach about the sociology of aging, it all comes back to me. First, I lived what Goffman described and then I was able to understand his theoretical frameworks, drawing upon my own experience. As my father used to say, everything we do in life accrues and has meaning. This has to be true, as well, for college students who are graduating to a lousy economy and a dearth of employment opportunities that “fit” with their majors.
Despite the draw of my first job, I realized within a year that I wasn’t going to last. I was too young, too inexperienced and too critical of the institution to stay. While I found the out-patients I was assigned to counsel interesting, I had no real training. And even though I was a good listener, I fought back tears every time a “client” expressed sadness or joy. What drove me to work at this state psych hospital – working with really troubled people – ultimately became the reason I had to leave. Ultimately, it wasn’t the right fit, even though it seemed right at the time. With a far more robust economy than we have today, I had saved up enough cash that year to travel in Europe for nearly a year, and that’s what I did!
While my career as a dance therapist came to a halt, my original passion – dance – continued to be my life-line for decades until around ten years ago, when I experienced a serious injury. For a year, I was in persistent pain and could barely move, much less dance. With the sudden loss of the activity that centered me and gave me such joy, I plunged into a deep depression and felt overtaken by panic, fearful that I would never heal. Like many back-pain sufferers, I bounced around to various practitioners, many of whom got frustrated with me because I wasn’t getting better. In one pain clinic, a doctor yelled at me, saying that I was fine. In another back healing program, a doctor challenged ME to figure out what the problem was, because she could not. Other practitioners told me that I wouldn’t heal if I stayed depressed and anxious. A true chicken and egg problem…
During this time, I had a glimpse of what my patients from many years before had experienced. The one person who comes to mind, in particular, is a young woman who was around my age and had participated in an ongoing dance session I held for outpatients. I never knew what her story was; only that she was struggling with depression and had obviously spent time in the hospital itself, which meant that she had been in the role of “patient”, complete with the dehumanization that comes with that experience. She came up to me after one of our dance sessions and thanked me, saying it was the one thing in that setting made her feel “normal”.
How are young, college-educated people dealing with this lousy economy, saddled with debt and poor prospects for a job? A number of young people I know are living at home, and working in unpaid internships that they hope will lead to a paid job. I know one young person who dropped out of college in her freshman year and learned how to do organic farming. Now she’s running a business where she creates peace gardens for interested clients. And I know another young person who couch-surfed for a few months, and then got a job sailing someone’s boat down to the Virgin Islands. At one point, during an intense storm, he wondered if he was even going to make it… I can imagine that he is not the only one feeling that way.
Over time, I have come to realize that we humans are drawn to different types of work at different stages of our lives, and often there is a reason. I happened to work at a mental hospital because it grabbed me emotionally – and that’s where there were jobs. But even then, when the economy was decent, that first job out was hit or miss. The thing that sustained me was dance. It continues to be my way in, and my way out. When I think about my own daughter – and all the young people I encounter these days – what I wish for them is the courage to follow their passion, and then feel okay about whatever job or internship (or whatever) they find, knowing that those things may not be the same thing. At least for now.
Every so often, someone – generally some man – will ask me if I work, or even better, if I still work. In the past, this comment meant: Are you a “stay-at-home mom” (first reference), ergo, not doing “more important” work in the paid labor force; or are you retired because you’re old or don’t “need” to work (second reference)? Jeez! Most women – including those with kids – work for pay. And I’d like to think that I’m still “in my prime” in terms of my labor market participation. The truth is that, like so many Americans, I work like a maniac. Why? Because I have to; I derive pleasure and purpose from it; and hopefully I can contribute something meaningful to the world… But there’s a new interpretation to that question about whether I – or any of us – work, and it has to do with the increasing normalcy of unemployment.
Despite all the government’s attempts at jump-starting the economy, the rate of unemployment has remained stubbornly high at around 10%. A recent rise in the job rate was more related to the creation of temporary jobs. In fact, some of my friends who got hired as census workers were part of that faux decrease in the unemployment rate, and when their jobs end, the unemployment rate will likely go up. Unemployment affects people from all walks of life, but it disproportionately affects people of color. For example, the unemployment rate for white men is 8%, compared to a whopping 17.1% for African-American men and 11.1% for Latino men. The unemployment rate for white women is 7.4% versus 12.4% for African-American women and 10.3% for Latinas.
In this current recession, men initially experienced higher job losses than women, because the industries first hit – like housing, construction and manufacturing – are dominated by men. But downsizing has become an increasingly gender-neutral phenomenon. As the recession has expanded, women are losing more jobs and at a slightly faster rate than men in key sectors like retail and service work. According to Valerie Norton, a Public Policy Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, in January, 2009, women’s unemployment was at the highest rate in 16 years and had the largest single-year increase in 33 years.
In the past few weeks, I have had numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances about the difficulty they’re having finding a job, or how they’re worried about being laid off from their current job. There’s the 20-something armed with degrees who has been thinking about launching a business and meanwhile is working in unpaid internships. There’s the highly educated manager who thought her job was stable, but her organization doesn’t have the funds to cover her, so she’s scrambling to network with contacts near and far. And there’s that person I knew ten years ago and haven’t heard from in ages who suddenly asked me to “link in”. I don’t blame her; I’d be doing the same thing.
I empathize with each of their circumstances. I’ve been out-of-a-job or underemployed a few times in my life, and because I make my living as a consultant, it could happen again. The first time I was without a job, I was in my early 20s. I had worked for a year in a psychiatric hospital and saved enough money to travel in Europe for nearly a year. I came back home – job-less – to an icy, grey Syracuse, New York winter, with no prospects or plans. Poor me… (you think). I had the time of my life, being carefree, so it’s probably hard to “feel my pain.” But I discovered a very dark place emotionally that lingered for months. Although I only had me to support, I was still terrified of the abyss that seemed to lie in my future. Ultimately, I ended up in graduate school, that legitimating haven for the unemployed (that is, those who can afford it time-wise and financially). With a nice scholarship, I had returned to the familiar womb of education, which paid off when I re-entered the job market. My second experience of unemployment was equally tough and unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have learned anything from my first experience. I was quite adept at internalizing the depression of the economy, fighting an internal battle about my value to society, until I again landed back on my feet with a new job.
Like many a sociologist, I have sought to understand life’s experiences by broadening the palette of my own mind and studying the phenomenon. Over the years, I have done a number of workplace studies, and invariably, even if the study isn’t about UN-employment, it becomes about unemployment or, equally difficult, about the challenges of working in dysfunctional workplaces. From my vantage point, most workplaces have a touch of crazy, and well-adjusted employees recognize this and maintain some perspective.
In one workplace study I did in six major corporations, examining the impact of flexible work policies on bottom line issues, two of the participating companies announced lay-offs during the course of the study. In one case, managers from around the country were brought into an auditorium, where the CEO announced the downsizing plan, charging the managers with the task of executing it. As you can imagine, the waves of fear and anger rippled throughout the corporation. In another company, the two top guys in the firm released a video which all employees watched at the same time, in which they sat comfortably in their mahogany wood-paneled office and speaking directly into the camera, announcing major lay-offs, and audaciously suggesting employees now had the opportunity to spend more time with their families. Seriously?! All the people I interviewed at that company were scrambling to figure out their next move, all second-guessing who was on “the list”. They were furious and they felt betrayed.
In another corporation, I was hired to conduct research on why people were leaving their jobs, and then the corporation announced it was downsizing thousands of employees. What were they thinking?! My work partner and I spent three years conducting phone interviews with 350 people about “why they were leaving” and invariably, the interview became a phone therapy session about how they felt betrayed by the company. In one unit, contract workers were brought in before the long-term employees left. Most (yes most) of the workers we interviewed in this unit confided in us that they were seeing a psychiatrist and taking Prozac. We just wanted to say to them, ‘Talk to your co-workers! You’re not alone!’ But confidentiality didn’t allow that…
One of the hardest hit groups is unmarried women, many of whom are mothers or caregivers. According to Liz Weiss and Heather Boushey, economists from the Center for American Progress, “The high unemployment of unmarried women, and particularly the 1.3 million unemployed female heads of household who are primary breadwinners for their families, is devastating to their financial circumstances and standard of living.” Unmarried women have much higher unemployment than married women. In October, 2009, 10.3% of unmarried women age 20 and over and 5.7% of married women were unemployed.
Losing a job usually means losing employer-supported health insurance, which is one reason why national health care reform is so critical. Weiss and Boushey report that there are an additional 276,000 children of unemployed single mothers who no longer have access to health insurance. Poverty rates for unmarried women are usually much higher than for married women (20.8 percent versus 6.2 percent of women 18 and over in 2008, the most recent data available), and poverty rates are probably higher because of growing unemployment.
At the policy level, we need an infusion of funds into job creation and job training programs, and better family policies to support women and men when they are “inbetween” jobs. Universal early childhood education, paid family leave and universal non-stigmatized family allowances would go a long way. At the personal level, it looks like those with more education experience less job loss, so this is another area that requires government policy and support.
Meanwhile, the next time some one – probably some man – asks me if I’m working or still working, I will ask for clarification. Are you asking if I’m unemployed? Do I look like I have a sugar daddy or momma? Do you really think I look old enough to have retired? Or maybe I’ll just smile and say “yes”.