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”.