Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How Do You Maintain Your Manhood and Dignity While Living Underemployed?

Another rejection letter came in the mail today. This one from a local government agency, for a job only requiring a High School diploma. I am already doing more challenging and stressful work in my current position. Yet, someone couldn't see my potential worth. While in the lobby area waiting to be interviewed for the position, I can recall sitting across from a scruffy white male wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans (at an interview). He was competing for the same position. I cannot help but think that the job went to a less qualified candidate. The rejection letter before that came from a major University in St. Louis. I won’t name the University…but I will say that it is the oldest Catholic University west of the Mississippi river. Again, I applied and was interviewed for a position that only required a High School diploma. The pay was very modest…but was a little more than I what currently earn, and it would have allowed me to tackle student loan debt and stay above water. Just as important, the job would have provided excellent benefits. Earning less than what I consider to be a livable wage and having no real health benefits (my plan basically only covers checkups) I thought this position would be a step up.

Despite nailing the interview and being well qualified for the position, management went with a less qualified candidate. When I called to follow up with the HR representative, I wasn’t told that I was not among the most qualified - she admitted that there was no way that she could tell me that. I have an advanced degree and almost twenty years of experience in the field applied for, with roles ranging from line employee, trainer, and supervisor. Instead I was told that I “was not the best fit”. Not the best fit? I am not used to the code language that has emerged since the economy tanked. I thought to myself, what in the world does that mean? Unbeknownst to the HR representative and the interview panel I had a source inside the department who was able to confirm that the people they hire pretty much had qualifications well below my own. I took this as a sign that it was not meant to be. I resolved that if they aren’t able to see the worth in a good applicant, then it was probably not the best place for me.

This is a situation that has replayed itself at least half a dozen times since the Spring of 2011. I have gotten these for years, but lately, as my job search has intensified, so have the rejections. The rejection letters seem to come by the bucket load, sometimes several a day. So I am used to it at this point. But the stress of it all has reached levels that I could not have imagined 10 years ago. I am not sure what role, if any, race may be playing in my struggle to find meaningful employment, but I suspect being a Black American male plays some role. It definitely isn’t an asset, just as in other parts of my life. Never has been an asset. I see it as a hindrance in many situations - social and professional. But I am also one who believes that hard work, education and a good work history should overcome all those barriers. I hate to use race as an excuse, although the numbers on minority unemployment and under-employment are real and consistent. Instead I have been looking at other things that may be the cause of so much difficulty.

Despite being a strong-willed, hard working, go-getter since the age of sixteen, I have recently hit a brick wall. I realize that even a hard working, go-getter spirit has its limits and can only take you so far in an economy like this one. I have been chronically under-employed for several years, but I have never dealt with the kind of adversity that has come my way recently. My student loan debt has skyrocketed to at least $75,000 (more by now with interest) and the creditors want their money. I have no way to pay them, although I have a desire to pay…and I am someone who has always paid his debts. Add to that, there have been major staff shake-ups at work. I have survived the ax so far, but my position is not as secure as it was before. Far from lazy… I landed my first job days after my 16th birthday in a Federal government Summer work program when I lived in Europe. I have worked continuously for the past 20 years. I toiled for years working full-time while going to college, taking classes both full-time and part time. I am used to taking care of my financial obligations. So this experience is wrecking my psyche. Not having a good family bond or support network has made things even worse.

Over the past few months I have hit bottom. I’m not talking about a normal case of reckoning. I’m talking about hitting bottom like the Will Smith character in the film ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, based on the life of Chris Gardner. I have had my subway station bathroom moment, although I am not homeless. The fear and hopelessness…the idea that I have run out of options, having no idea what to do next and what will come next… I have punched walls, fallen to my knees and had that same kind of moment. For a strong man who is used to finding solutions to problems, it has been strange being on the side where solutions aren’t always available. I have stared death in the face a couple of times in my life. Survived abuse in my youth. I can recall going to bed cold and hungry in my early childhood, and not having a competent sober mother to take care of me. Survived an experience with a kidnapper - successfully talking him out of getting rid or me - and had at least one other close brush with death in my lifetime. But I can honestly say, the past several years, particularly the last three, have been the worst years of my life.

Being under-employed for so long has had a negative impact on every aspect of my life. I have become even more withdrawn from family and from life for that matter. I was always the withdrawn family member… but I have added more layers to my shell. I haven’t spoken to my brother since September 12th, 2001, and have not seen him in 19 years. I have two sisters who I have not seen or spoken to in at least four years. There is a step mother (only surviving person besides my grandmother, who has taken any part in raising me) who I have not seen or heard from in years. And my grandmother… the woman who basically raised me until age 11, I haven’t seen since approximately 2004. I rarely see my own relatives right here in my home town of St. Louis. Part of this has to do with the fact that my relationship with family is dysfunctional, and I have a job that does not afford me the opportunity to get time off for myself. But a large part of it has to do with shame. I am ashamed that I have not succeeded in accomplishing most of my life goals and I don’t have a successful career. I am ashamed and embarrassed to the point where I have begun to hate myself and hate to see my reflection in the mirror everyday. My step-mother and other relatives came to visit other family members in St. Louis over the past July 4th Holiday…and I did not go to see them (relatives who I have not seen in years) because I was too ashamed. I did not want them to see me this way. I did not want them to see the under-employed failure. I did not want them to know that I had not moved on from the same crappy job that I had the last time they saw me. I am the only one out of four children who went to college after high school and the only one so far with degrees. I expected to be a success story at this point in my life… a positive example to others in the family. But I have even failed at that. It turns out, I am doing no better financially than they are. In fact, a few are doing better than me. I used to preach the importance of education to my two younger siblings, and now I feel like a fool.

Being under-employed has challenged my life in other ways. It has made me feel less than a man. During the recent Arab Spring protests… the common theme among young men being interviewed seemed to be a sense of profound hopelessness, a struggle with poverty, the lack of employment opportunities for college graduates and the inability to find a partner and start a family as a result. Basically their lives were on hold….frozen as they sought work, leaving them unable to enjoy the rites of passage of manhood. I found myself empathizing with that sentiment. For much of the past decade, my life has been on hold for many of the same reasons. I have been unable to step into my manhood. Being under-employed has meant that dating, finding a suitable mate and starting a family have not been options for me. I have not had a date in over eight years, nor have I sought one. I had never dated before that. I just don’t see any point in even trying to enjoy that part of life because my financial situation creates so many limitations. The kind of partner that I want would require a man who is more financially secure.

The inability to claim my manhood, enjoy dating and build a family in my prime years is probably the hardest thing that I am dealing with at the moment. I get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I see men in their mid to late 30’s out with their beautiful families. It makes me sick because a part of me wants what they have, but it is out of reach for me. I cannot have what they have. I know that I am not likely to ever find a partner and start a family because soon I will be too old for even child bearing partners once I enter my 40’s, (something that will happen in just a few short years).

For men, under-employment also has a negative impact on intimacy. At least this has been the case for me. Intimacy is something that I have never been able to experience. This is another part of manhood that I have not been able to claim. At age 38, I have never asked a woman out… because I never saw any point in doing so. Rejection fears aside, I have always understood that even if she says yes… my financial position would only allow me to carry things so far. I am old fashioned in the sense that I believe lives of men should be built in a certain order - high school, college, job/career, financial security and stability, date, get married/engaged/or at least maintain a long term responsible relationship, then build a family. Things just have to go in that order. As I mentioned, under-employment and unemployment strikes a blow to every aspect of life, especially for men. It prevents you from developing the kinds of social circles that you want (which often lead to finding partners). It limits the kind of networking that you can do. It ultimately limits your dating options…. All of the things important to manhood are negatively affected.

This is why economic downturns hit men much harder than women. As a man, your whole identity and sense of manhood are tied so closely to your ability to provide financially. Men are so often judged and measured by what they do for a living. A man’s worth is tied directly to what he earns and how he earns it. When women are searching for a mate, the ability to provide is among the top two or three issues on her list…. That is the case for the vast majority of women. Those who tell you otherwise are probably lying to you. So men face unbelievable pressure to earn money at a certain basic level. The provider role is part of the male dna…and if you can’t do it, then you are considered less than a man. It is part of manhood in the same way that the ability to bear and raise children is part of womanhood. When women are unable to have children, there is a tremendous feeling of emptiness, hopelessness and worthlessness that some feel, because they cannot carry out this basic human role. The hopelessness and worthlessness is similar for men who are unable to step into their manhood and take on their role as provider. I would even say that in some cases, the struggles are even harder for men. In many cases, our self-worth is literally tied to what we do for a living and what we earn. Few women will want to deal with a man who lacks a certain level of income and who cannot provide enough to build and sustain a family. Certainly few quality women will want to deal with a man like that. It doesn’t matter how good the guy may be in terms of character… most women put job/career/earnings…looks and superficial trappings above the character of a man… unfortunately.

Women judge a man’s worth by what he earns. I’ll just be blunt here - women generally date for money and they like to date up. This is not true for every woman…but this is the case for a large portion of women. This is an unfortunate truth about American society…and to a large degree…Western society. If you don’t earn a certain income you are often considered a loser. The income to be considered a “good man” is probably in the vicinity of 45-50k. Who knows the what cutoff is.... The point is, if you don’t meet that cutoff, you are not considered a viable, marriageable mate. This is the world I am forced to navigate through….a society full of superficial relationships, Hollywood weddings, and women who are a reflection of the shallow, meaningless culture in which we live. And I hate every minute of it. My hopes for the future have been scaled back quite a bit. I now realize that a wife and family, or even a normal relationship, will probably not be a part of the picture, at least not anytime soon. Unless I can build a middle class life for myself, my dreams will have to wait, and they will probably die when I die. I may not necessarily want to get married anytime soon. What eats at me is the fact that I don’t have the option to explore marriage and family because of financial limitations & the lack of adequate employment.

Kate Bolick, the author of the Atlantic magazine article “All The Single Ladies“, basically describes men who are in their 30’s and still single, and those who have fallen on hard times, as unmarriageable leftovers. They are the men that she encourages women not to “settle” for. Her idea of a “good man” or a “marriageable” man is one who’s worth is quantified almost exclusively in financial terms. For many women, character doesn’t seem to be on the same terms as money or class status when they are sizing up potential mates (this may partially explain why most women are notoriously bad when it comes to judging character...and often end up w/ bad men). Men impacted by the economy are seen in her eyes as losers…despite the fact that a good match may be found among men who are underemployed or temporarily unemployed, many through no fault of their own. This is something I see with most women… the tendency to measure a man’s worth in terms of economic status. Bolick goes on to actually make some good points on how cultural changes have altered gender roles and marriage in American society. Since there is more economic parity between the genders, women don’t have to marry men for economic security, and women don’t have the same need to marry up. This is probably true in some cases, but even women who are financially independent tend to want men who earn more money. The ‘marrying up’ idea didn’t die over the past few decades as women have seen their fortunes rise. Women who have their own careers at least want a financial equal. One would think that more economic parity would make it easier for men to date and marry, but that hasn’t been what I have seen.

Dating for men is more complicated than ever. With incomes rising for women and stagnating for men, it is harder to meet financial expectations. The pressures on men have gone up, not down. Men now have to earn more money to match what women earn. A decent job 20 years ago, earning 30-35k with decent health benefits would probably be enough to meet the “good man“ standard. That is not necessarily the case today. Women (generally) look down on the idea of marrying or dating someone who earns less than they do. In fact, they often look down on the men themselves….not just the idea of dating a man earning less. They don’t see it as a situation where they are dating a “good man”, they see it as compromising and in their minds “settling”. They also call it “dating down” or “marrying down”. Again the context in which many women make dating decisions so often seems to be a financial context. Men tend to be completely different in that realm… Personally, I would be looking for someone beautiful inside and out, someone comforting & pleasant to be around, someone considerate, someone who isn’t completely vain, someone with brains, and someone who would make a good life partner and a good mother to my offspring. It’s just that simple for me. No financial deal breakers… no financial minimums.

I wish I lived in times that were less complicated, and where relationships with the opposite sex were built on love, trust, companionship, and character. Dating today is mainly class based, with larger barriers between levels as you move up. With a working class income, I am locked out of middle class & upper middle class social circles, and that includes dating. American life is starting to resemble the social systems in parts of the developing world such as the caste system in India, where social mobility is very difficult and people are relegated to certain socio-economic groups. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly nothing wrong with the working class, but such circumstances mean that dating options are extremely limited.

Needless to say my quality of life has been dismal. There have been many instances where I just wanted to give up. Sleep is a luxury - I usually get two, maybe three hours of sleep at a time. I wake up several times during the night and struggle to get back to sleep. I’m constantly worried about what the next day will bring… what will happen at the crappy job…what bill will arrive that I can’t pay… or what kind of catastrophe will come out of Washington DC…which politician will screw up today. My view of life, my country and the world has changed profoundly over the past few years. I no longer believe in “The American Dream” as it was packaged and sold to me earlier in life. It’s a fairy tale at best. I once believed that through hard work you could achieve anything and you could be successful. But no one told me about all the other variables involved for which you have no control. No one told me about the big role that luck plays in turning “The Dream” into reality. No one told me about the role of family legacy in reaching success… how some people are able to benefit from their family’s economic and social position and how the playing field of life is not the same for everyone. Somehow all of that was left out of the “American Dream” storyfairy tale. And like most Americans, I became conditioned and fell for the notion that “The American Dream” was something obtainable, as long as I kept up my end of the deal. I was basically sold a lie. I also no longer believe in the value of a college education. Unless you can afford to attend an Ivy League University, or unless you are studying medicine or law, then it may not be worth it.

In terms of career and financial security, we are supposed to do better than our parents. At least this is what we are told. But I am doing far worse than my father when he was my age, and he never graduated from high school. How can that be? I am worse off even with a Masters degree. I’m sure that part of the reason has to do with my father’s tenacity. I got my go-getter spirit from him. He left school at eighteen to join the U.S. Army in the mid 1960’s, during the Vietnam War. He would later earn his G.E.D. He became an Army Ranger, was a door gunner, and jumped out of helicopters in Vietnam, surviving two tours. By the time he reached my age, he was a drill sergeant and was just about to meet his second wife. He built a life for himself and his family through the military - a route that he said he took, so that his children wouldn’t have to. At least two of his children didn't listen...since I have a brother and baby sister who entered the military. But how could it be that I am having a more difficult time? Certainly I should have more options. Carrying tens of thousands in student loan debt and having nothing to show for it has caused me to doubt and second guess all of the decisions I made regarding my education. I think I am beyond doubting. I think I am flirting with regret at this point. With a Master’s degree, I should be earning at least 45k, but instead I earn what a high school graduate earns. I don’t even earn 30k. I feel like a piece of  s--- every single day. I am not the only one in my age group who feels that they won’t have a better life than their parents. Fifty five percent of respondents in an April 2011 Gallup poll believed that it was unlikely that their standard of living would be better than that of their parents.

Some of my co-workers believe that having college degrees and a good work history means that job hunting should be easy. But there are tons of people in my hometown of St. Louis who have BA’s and Master's degrees who are waiting tables. St. Louis is a great town, but there is very little industry here. St. Louis met the same fate that Detroit and other industrial cities have met. In fact, St. Louis was once the second Motor City in the nation, behind only Detroit, and was a defense industry behemoth. This is the city that produced the F-4, F-18, the legendary F-15, the nations first "Air Force One" planes, and played a key role in the Manhattan Project. But over the past 20 years or so, St. Louis has seen the loss of over a half dozen Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies and the loss of corporate headquarters including TWA, McDonnell-Douglass and Anheuser-Busch to name a few. There are just not as many options for College graduates today as there were in the past. This is a situation playing out all over the Country.

So how does a man maintain his manhood and dignity while living under-employed, especially when manhood and dignity are tied to “work“ and being the provider? How do you do it when unemployed for that matter? I don’t know. I have not found the answer. I have not been able to claim my dignity in the way that I should and I certainly have not been able to claim my manhood. But I believe in picking myself up and dusting myself off no matter how many times I get knocked down. Keeping myself busy seems to be an effective way to cope. You have to find what works for you.


Changing strategy.

I have focused my job search primarily on government positions. I would like to work in the Federal government, or for a State government in the area of administrative (internal) security, investigations, probation/parole, inspections/compliance, entry level management, FBI analyst, background investigator, security specialist, public policy analyst, DHS analyst… etc. However, I would be willing to work in some parts of the private sector as well, for colleges & Universities, for defense contractors, or for law firms as a legal/investigative assistant.

If you aren’t familiar with the federal hiring system, it is a dismal failure and can be a huge waste of time. Has anyone tried using USAjobs lately? Good luck with that. The federal employment system is not a system that recruits and develops new talent very effectively. In fact, little time and effort is directed towards hiring, training, and developing college graduates who have no prior federal work experience. Instead, the federal government tends to recycle current and former federal workers. If you don’t have federal work experience, and you don’t know someone within the federal government who can make something happen for you, it is extremely difficult to even get an interview for a federal position. Veterans are placed in line ahead of other applicants, regardless of qualifications. I believe Veterans should be rewarded for their service, but I also believe I should be able to compete as well. There should be a fairer way to recruit.

The other problem that I am encountering is increased competition because of the economic situation. Federal and State agencies are dealing with a glut of applications from people who have seen their private sector jobs disappear during the recession. Many of those resume’s are more impressive, because of the experience factor. A federal hiring manager will always choose someone who was a CEO or middle manager over someone with less experience. Education is also an issue. There is a sort of classism in higher education that has developed in this Country. Not surprising in this status driven society, but troubling nonetheless if you are a recent college grad trying to figure out why you are not even being called for an interview. If federal hiring managers have a choice between someone from Harvard, Yale or Princeton, and someone like me from a non Ivy League institution… well, I will always lose that battle. The federal government also lacks entry-level developmental programs, where you could receive training for your first six months or first year. Out of 800-1000 applications that I have submitted in the last few years, my positive response rate has been less than 1%. In other words, it has been a frustrating waste of time.

I am now directing my efforts towards networking. A large portion of people who have been able to find quality work during this economic crisis have done so through networking, not through traditional job searches. I will try to make good use of connections that I have allowed to go dormant. I will also try to post my resume and sign up for a LinkedIn account. Another strategy that I began to use over the past year or so has been to apply for jobs far below my abilities, but so far that has not worked as I had hoped. In this case, I have been told that removing educational achievements might help. I am also about a year and a half away from earning another Master’s degree. Six months from earning a graduate certificate. I am hoping that a combination of these new approaches will yield better results in the coming new year. Failure is not an option.

This is the original, full version of my commentary for The Good Men Project. See the edited version at GMP. Also see the twitter trackbacks. Noticed a few errors in the GMP article. Most are a result of the editing process. 

Related Links 

John Stossel’s 20/20 report on the worth of a college education. 
MSNBC Dylan Ratigan report on job prospects for college graduates 
BBC report on The American Dream 
Guardian report on the death of the American Dream 
Atlantic Magazine article “All The Single Ladies” by Kate Bolick 


rikyrah said...

I don't know about manhood, but I know how hard it is with personhood and unemployment. It's tough. The thing is, all the things you never thought were luxuries, but suddenly become luxuries. My stretch of unemployment broke me of a lifelong habit - going to the movies. it was the ' treat' that I gave myself. when I cut that habit, and I still haven't gone back to it. it's humiliating when you know you're going to eat cold cereal for 2 weeks until the next check. I know it's hard, but your core is better than 90% of the mofos working.

Anonymous said...

Hang in there, man. Don't give up.