Even Harvard couldn’t protect me

Neither my degrees nor my prestigious jobs prepared me for the endless anxiety of job hunting

Topics: Great Recession, Economics, Unemployment,

Even Harvard couldn't protect me

“We live in a society where it’s hard to maintain self-respect if you don’t have a job,” Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher at Princeton, said in a recent radio interview, and I can certainly identify. All of my life I’ve been an achievement junkie. I have two Harvard degrees, practiced law at elite Manhattan firms, and wrote and published two novels, among other things. But of all my accomplishments, by far the most impressive is absent from my résumé: It’s my more than two-year stint of job searching and unemployment.

If you’ve been unemployed you already know this, but if you haven’t, here’s a news flash: Coping with prolonged joblessness is hugely demanding. It requires deep reservoirs of fortitude, faith, patience, courage and self-control, traditional virtues generally accorded high regard in our nation’s pantheon of values. Of course, we’re a country that values hard work, and that’s as it should be. But don’t our values also dictate respect for the efforts of the struggling unemployed?

Two years of job hunting has required infinitely more of me than any of my lauded past achievements. And I, of course, am among the relatively fortunate, with a cushion of savings and a supportive group of friends. And here is what I think: If the experience is still this hard for me, how much harder must it be for the millions who lack these things?

There is a distinct Groundhog Day quality to days spent looking for work: Write letters. Prepare résumés. Search job boards. Make phone calls and brainstorm over coffee. Sleep. Get up. Repeat. After sending off my materials, I often hear nothing back. I’ve long since lost count of the number of jobs I’ve applied for.

As an “older worker” — When did that happen? — I try to ignore a drumbeat of statistics telling me I face an uphill battle. It’s hard not to feel worn down, to succumb to “learned helplessness,” our innate tendency to give up when our efforts fail to yield results. Still, like millions of others, day by day I keep going.



My exertions often seem strangely invisible, not only to my family and friends but increasingly to me — an experience that turns out to be widely shared in job-loss land. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. As Atlantic journalist Don Peck recounts in “Pinched,” his sobering account of the changes wrought by the Great Recession, studies show “a growing isolation, a warping of family dynamics, and a slow separation from mainstream society” among the long-term unemployed. Strikingly, no other circumstance triggers a larger decline in well-being and mental health than involuntary joblessness. Only the death of a spouse compares.

Such findings are all the more disturbing given that unemployment is a fact of life for a fast-growing segment of the American population, as reflected in last month’s 0 percent net job growth. As has been widely noted, this is some 150,000 shy of the number needed simply to keep up with the growing population. By the middle of last year, 55 percent of American workers — that’s a majority of the workforce, in case you missed it — had either lost a job, had their hours cut, been forced to go part-time, or been hit with a cut in pay. At the start of this year, the average unemployment duration of more than nine months was longer than it’s been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the figure in 1948, according to Peck.

And yet, daunting as these numbers may be, they only hint at the human suffering that they reflect. In his 2010 book “The Honor Code,” Appiah places honor at the heart of what it takes to lead a successful life, noting that throughout history, societies have adopted guidelines for how people “can gain the right to respect, how they can lose it, and how having and losing honor changes the way they should be treated.” The result: “[P]eople in an honor world automatically regard those who meet its codes with respect and those who breach them with contempt.”

This stark dichotomy — between respect and contempt — got me to thinking. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to see that when there are six job seekers for every job, it’s simply not possible for everyone to find work. And in fact, as others have noted, the reality is even tougher on the unemployed than these numbers suggest. For one, they (we) are competing for positions not only with other unemployed workers but also with applicants already in the workforce who are looking to move on. They (we) are also contending with subtle — and not so subtle — biases against the unemployed, including the proliferation of “unemployed need not apply” caveats on job ads for positions ranging from electrical engineers to restaurant managers. Thanks to my legal background, this shocked me less than it did some of my friends. I knew that current laws don’t prohibit discrimination against the jobless.

So how is it that so many have come to disdain the unemployed? To equate unemployment with failure and shiftlessness? If the barometer of popular culture is any indication, this wasn’t always so. In the 1962 film classic “A Touch of Mink,” plucky all-American Cathy Timberlake (aka Doris Day) is on the way to collect her unemployment check, when a chauffeured limousine splashes her with mud. It’s Cathy Timberlake — not the feckless industry titan played by Cary Grant — who represents the traditional American values that in the end carry the day. Firmly planted at the dark pole of the film’s moral compass is the creepy unemployment office bureaucrat who alternately taunts Timberlake for taking government money and hits on her. The film has plenty of disdain for the titan and the bureaucrat and plenty of sympathy for Timberlake.

Fifty years later, the world feels grimly different. Contempt and shame are becoming inseparable from the fact of unemployment. Fueling such attitudes are multiple strands in American culture — not only the Protestant ethic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy so widespread among conservatives but also the if-you-believe-it-you-can-have-it philosophy espoused by self-help gurus and skewered by cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich in “Bright-Sided,” an impassioned attack on our nation’s dysfunctional love affair with positive thinking.

Not everyone will agree that the nation’s unemployed are entitled to be treated with respect. To skeptics, I have this to say: Consider your self-interest. Things are likely to get worse before they get better for the U.S. economy. More jobs will be lost; your turn may be next. And if not you, then someone you care about: your child. Your parent. Your friend. Honoring the unemployed will enhance our collective well-being. An encouraging word, a phone call: Small things make a difference. Try making these connections. Then watch the ripple effect. 

Amy Gutman served as a special assistant to Harvard Law School Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court justice) Elena Kagan until April 2009. She now lives and looks for work in western Massachusetts.

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