Dejobbing society

99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation

Facing eviction from her Tennessee apartment after several months of unpaid rent, Alexandra Jarrin packed up whatever she could fit into her two-door coupe recently and drove out of town. Ms. Jarrin is part of a hard-luck group of jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.

Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent… Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.

“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.

I don’t know why the NY Times keeps finding women of a certain age to talk to. Maybe it’s because these women are truly desperate and agree to talk, and men won’t. But over and over, the profile is the same: fiftysomething, single/divorced, usually with more than two kids, in debt because of mortgages, vacations, new cars or pricey graduate degrees. They’re intelligent, well-educated, and have plenty of job experience, but no one wants to hire them.

I don’t know what to say, because chances are these women are never getting anything resembling their old jobs back. In fact, employers find them attractive layoff prospects even in good economic times. The closer she gets to the age she can take early retirement, the more apt the company is to dump her. And companies also don’t want to pay out the health benefits, so it’s easy to cut off the aging woman who hasn’t got young kids to raise any more. Is it a female thing? Maybe not, but women also tend to network less in the workplace and carry more of the water, which may get some of them to a certain point on the corporate ladder, but might not serve them well enough when cutting time comes.

What is troubling to me is how many women don’t get this picture. It’s scary how many nonmarried (single/divorced) women lose sight of how expendable they are in the eyes of society, though, and enter their last real earning decades amassing more debt than they should. I won’t comment on the mortgages and Caribbean vacations, but the bright shining lie of “more education” in the form of expensive post-baccalaureate degrees is something that needs to be shattered. The woman in this story now has $92,000 of non-dischargeable educational debt. She’s very probably never going to be able to pay that back.

There might be a serious lesson for the younger single (nonmarried) woman here: These are effectively your best earning years. Don’t squander them. Don’t waste your money on things that will have no long-term return. Strengthen your finances and especially whatever personal relationships you have. Prepare for what you know is coming. Always know what time it is. This is Logan’s Run, and forget your biological clock — that flashing crystal on your palm has to do with money.

Modern feminism ought to be speaking to this. I don’t pretend to know what happened, but in the beginning, feminism was about making it easier for women to make choices – not to “have it all,” which is what the message is today. Early feminism sought to liberate single women from servitude not of their own choosing. It sought to give single women the tools and confidence to live with dignity and self-reliance, if they so chose. It was about living smart as a single woman, not about living large. Early feminism also had much to say to the married woman. This is why the institution of American feminism is so beautifully represented by the statue in Seneca Falls, of the married Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the single Susan B. Anthony first meeting in friendship.

So what happened? It’s sad to see how alone these older women are in these anecdotal news stories. Many times, their children are not helping them. It isn’t too late for women of a certain age to make a better future for themselves, but it’s going to involve turning away from a society that has pretty much shown its true colors in a time of stress, and has rejected them. In the Middle Ages, widows had the same problems, and in some parts of Europe they banded together and formed lay communities. Some of these communities became surprisingly big “players” in the wider community, much to the consternation of the Church. In American life today, this is a missing institution (as is traditional feminism).

Has the institution of higher education grown too large and usurped other institutions in importance (real or perceived)? I’m inclined to say yes. It’s not that there is anything wrong about higher education. But American higher education now purports to be all things to all people — the Great White Hope that, morally and practically, stands all alone against our corrupt financial institutions and a democratic system that is largely pay-to-play now. It doesn’t pass on knowledge, quite so much as it dispenses “educational treatments,” as Ivan Illich pointed out in his radical book Deschooling Society – inoculations of frankly questionable value, rather than necessary healing; an obligatory sheep-dip through which all the wayward flock must be herded. (“Take this shot of Education, or you will surely wind up in an economic hell from which there is no escape. Dominus vobiscum, suos cultores scientia coronat, oolee oolee oo.“)

When you put all your eggs in one basket, and all your trust into one social institution, that’s a recipe for disaster. Our society isn’t there yet, but with the decline and stress on so many other institutions — K-12 education, religious life, labor unions, the military — it’s getting dangerously close. It certainly was a disaster for the lady in this story.

Maybe someone also should write a treatise on Dejobbing Society – since the jobs are going away for all demographics. Is it possible that in the end all our former institutions will have to be upended and alternative ones formed, or re-formed?