A few days ago I sat down in the mid-afternoon to have coffee with a recent acquaintance, G. I met G at my friend J's house. G and J are old friends, and G, who has lived in New York for the past ten years, has been staying with J while he looks for work here in the Bay Area. G has been here looking for work for over six months now. In that time he has interviewed for over fifty positions, one of which encouraged powerful hopes as he had sixteen interviews with that company. In the end, they hired internally, and except for a couple of short-term contract jobs, G has not been able to find work. G is 49 years old.
As we sip coffee, and stir it, and sip a little more, we get to talking about the current job market, the economy in general, and our personal experiences in trying to find work. What strikes me about G's story is that he has done everything right. I look back at my own long slide into poverty and see the errors of my ways: bad relationships, procrastination, laziness, magical thinking, over-confidence, and spendthrift habits. G, however, has managed to support his wife and daughter as the family's sole breadwinner, to save money, to buy a house in Warwick, New York, and to build a sizable retirement nest-egg, all at the same time.
G graduated from college with a degree in design and went into marketing. When computers first entered the business arena, he immediately devoted himself to mastering the new way of doing things, and he has stayed current with technology for over two decades. At the height of his fortunes, during the period from 2005 to 2009, G was Executive Creative Director for a digital marketing firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.
At the beginning of this period, in December of 2004, G suffered a massive heart attack. Luckily, he did so in front of a cardiologist who saved his life. Luckily, too, he had just purchased a 20-year life insurance policy which he has managed to keep in effect to this day. So even despite that huge piece of bad luck, G had every reason to believe that he was managing his destiny responsibly. Although the heart attack in December might have led him to worry about the fact that he had purchased his house just two months earlier, in October, G did have unemployment insurance and health coverage to see him through the six months that it took him to recover. Soon thereafter, the job in Greenwich came through, and G was once again sailing along a rational, responsible, and honorable course.
Not far from Greenwich and Warwick, and some 25 years earlier, I began my first full year of teaching at Union College in Schenectady, New York. In the first term, I taught, among other things, a course in the foundational literary works of Western Civilization. I vividly remember teaching Sophocles's play "Oedipus", a work with which I thought I had been familiar for a decade by then. But it was only then that I understood the heroic virtue of Oedipus. Like everyone else, I knew that he had saved the city of Thebes from the ravages of the Sphinx and that he had ruled the city-state as a good king. But on that reading I realized how hard he had struggled to be good.
Having heard as a young man a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he ran away from home, not knowing that the father and mother he left were his adoptive parents. It is in sacrificing his home and family and position in society in order to be a good man and avoid his terrible destiny that he finds himself at a cross-roads killing a stranger with whom he has quarreled and proceeding to save the city of Thebes and marry that stranger's widow. It is in the very effort to remain good that Oedipus sets out on the path that leads him to kill his father and marry his mother. The tragedy of Oedipus is that right action, undertaken for the best of motives, with true moral integrity and a heroic heart, leads the best of all men to the most horrible loss and suffering. As Shakespeare's Gloucester says in "King Lear", "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."
And so my friend had done everything right, and yet 2008 came along, and the financial system imploded, and the company in Greenwich lost its major clients, and in 2009 G lost his job. Half of the men living in G's neighborhood in Warwick lost their jobs too. So G knew that it was not a matter of personal failure.
I heard Hillary Clinton say, after Bernie Sanders had criticized a capitalist system in which the rich suffer no penalties for their misdeeds and only grow richer while the majority of citizens descend deeper and deeper into poverty, that she celebrates small business entrepreneurs, who have created most of the new jobs in our country for the past few decades. This bit of proverbial nonsense is the nostrum offered up by the quacks of both parties: it relieves the government and the society at large of having any responsibility for the economic well-being of us citizens. What la Clinton is saying is "Let the little people take care of finding employment for one another."
A couple of years into his ordeal, G sank a good piece of his savings into starting up a new marketing company. He developed an app which would allow those who had food to sell that was near or at its "sell by" date to offer it at hugely discounted prices to nearby buyers who could make use of it before it spoiled. Realizing that much of this food ended up, at the time, in the pantries of various charities and non-profits that feed the poor, G built in an automatic donation of cash from the sale of this food to those charities. Despite great enthusiasm from all sectors that would potentially be affected, the business failed to take off. G did not have and could not get access to the capital necessary to develop this business to a point where it could survive and succeed on its own merits.
And so G went into debt for the first time in his life. He has had to draw down nearly all of his retirement savings. He was able to refinance his house, lowering his monthly payments by getting a new mortgage at a lower rate, but the length of the mortgage was extended from thirty years to forty years. As G pointed out, the banks lose nothing. G has lost his savings, his retirement, and, by the way, his marriage as well. He has not lost his house -- yet. But unless something changes soon, even that will go.
Jamie Diamond remains at the head of J.P. Morgan/Chase and continues to rake in hundreds of millions in "compensation" annually. He has become big buddy-buddies with President Obama. Alan Greenspan, Henry Paulsen, Tim Geitner, and Ben Bernanke remain at large.
"Everybody knows the fight is fixed:
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
And everybody knows."
"What really gets to me," G says, "is having to wake up in the morning and do another round of applications and interviews, to smile and act enthusiastic and energetic about these prospects that remain only prospects. Sixteen interviews -- sixteen interviews -- and they hire someone else. Or they decide not to fill the position. Or most often they don't even tell you what they are doing. You go to interviews -- I had one with the CFO of a company, supposed to be the final green-light moment, and she seemed to really like me, we were scheduled for a half-hour and she kept me there for over a full hour, and then you hear nothing. These companies don't even have the courtesy to let you know that they are not going to hire you.
"And if you are hired, they expect you to work for them 24/7 but there's no loyalty from them in return. I remember when I was just starting out and I was working at a big corporation in New York, a global marketing firm, and at one point they let all these senior people go. I saw these guys who had given thirty years of their lives to this company filling cardboard boxes with all the personal stuff from their desks and crying. I saw that and right then I knew that you couldn't trust any of them. They'll throw you out like trash any time they want.
"But harder than that -- let me tell you a story. So my marriage has fallen apart, and I'm out here dealing with all this stress, and I've already had a massive heart attack. So I just don't know how long I can take it. I can stay on J's floor on his air mattress, or I can stay at my sister-in-law's apartment when she's out of town, and J's a great guy but I need some more human contact than just that.
"So I go on a date with this woman, really beautiful woman. I met her on Match. And she's going through a similar thing where she and her husband are separated but they're still living in the same house because real estate is so crazy out here. And on her profile are pictures of the house which is really big and beautiful, and she's wearing beautiful clothes that are obviously really expensive, and she's driving a Lexus.
"And we had great conversation, really connected, talked about all kinds of things, but, you know, I took her out for drinks at this place in the Mission -- and she offered to pay but I'm old fashioned and insisted on paying for us both -- and we had two drinks each and the bill was $60. When it ended. she offered to give me a ride home. I tried being evasive but she insisted. So I had her drop me at J's place and, you know, the front door is under the stairs to the flat above, the original house.
"We got together again and had a good time, but I could tell she was wondering about my situation. She knows that I'm not currently working and she was asking about J's place. She wanted to know if that was the basement or something. I told her that it was a ground-level flat, but still I could tell. And she knows that I don't have a car and I'm staying with a friend. So at the end of that date I said something about getting together during the week and she said that she was busy.
"I said, 'I know, I know, I get it. Listen, you're a very attractive woman, and I enjoyed our time together a lot . . .' and I said goodnight and I'll never see her again. I've always supported my wife and daughter, just a one- income family. But people don't know that. That's not what they see. And I get so depressed and even suicidal . . . ."
G's eyes looked wet. We were silent for some minutes. I don't know what banalities I muttered then, to bring our conversation to a close. I felt honored by his honesty, by the trust in me it evidenced. And I felt moved to share his story, or rather this ragged approximation of it, with you here.
Listening to G, I felt my rage at the moral bankruptcy of this America in which we live. I thought of the hordes of young people who have no idea what is going on as they order their Uber cars, condemning hundreds of thousands of good men all across this country to fates like G's. I thought of the politicians and the pundits who assert that the solution to such woes is to provide educational opportunities so that the unemployed can learn new skills and find work in the information economy. All of which is not just bullshit but elephantshit. I can see in my mind's eye the lines of men and women who enroll in and complete the re-training courses offered by county services and non-profits filled with utterly false hopes and coming face to face with those disappointments when they enter a job market where even those with decades of experience and up-to-date knowledge, intricate expertise, in technology cannot get work. I shudder to think how, when they have been sold false dreams by callous civic leaders, their inevitable disillusionment may break their spirits and even end their lives.
And then I think too of those hordes of young people who believe that they sit atop the world and that they have earned the tremendous sums they are paid, who believe that the labor market that pays them so handsomely is proof of their worth, and who believe that they will always be worth -- and be paid -- what they are receiving now. I think of their disdain for unions and their refusal to identify with their elders, like G. He understood, all those years ago, that one day he might be cast aside as were the men older than he who were clearing out their desks on that sad morning in New York. I have doubts that the present crop of (blissfully unaware) wage-slaves understand their position at all. I suspect that they believe in their cohort, the Millennials, as a highly aware, highly creative force that is giving birth to a whole new world, the digital world, which will itself bear fruit as a whole new way for human communities to flourish.
Their generation is likely to be brought up short by the cruelty of America's deified market economy at an even earlier age than my generation has been. Despite having studied "Death of a Salesman" and "Grapes of Wrath" in school, we failed to understand our own lives as re-enactments of those stories. We thought that organized labor was irrelevant to the shiny and brave new world that we were building. We thought that Apple was liberating us from Big Brother when in fact Apple has developed even more effective means of totalitarian control than any that Orwell imagined. In a culture that reveres youth and the new, the wisdom of age goes unheard. The generations repeat the same mistakes just as the generations of a dysfunctional family repeat the same abuses endlessly.
And a dark corner of my heart is gladdened to imagine the Millenials suffering when their companies and their technologies and their children abandon them in turn. Such is the solace of schadenfreude.