"My kids were embarrassed that their dad worked at Target": My American economy nightmare

Two years, almost 750 job applications. Not one viable offer. This is what the American Dream has been reduced to

Published March 15, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)

       (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/profile/moreiso'>MoreISO</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(MoreISO via iStock)

Excerpted from "Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce"

Ron Dziuda’s family calls it "the black cloud.’’

When Ron applies for hundreds of jobs and no one calls back with an offer? The Black Cloud. When his daughter applies for her dream position and someone else gets it? The Black Cloud. Or when he and his wife Sue celebrate their anniversary with a dinner out and they suffer pangs of guilt over the bill?

Sue shakes her head and tries to explain this concept at her dining room table.

"There’s that black cloud again.’’

The black cloud – this nagging sense that things will go wrong and never get quite right again – appeared over the Dziudas’ life in July 2009 when he lost his sales and marketing job at industrial components-maker Misumi USA. At first, it didn’t seem that bad. This father of four had lost jobs before. His experience, smarts and can-do attitude always helped him bounce back.

But this was in the depths of America’s most punishing economic crisis since the Great Depression. Unemployment was rising fast and job-seekers of any age were having the toughest times of their lives finding work. And Ron wasn’t just any age – at 54, he started finding his gray hair and crow’s feet overshadowed his expertise and energy.

So the black cloud moved in to stay. For three years – 33 months, to be exact – Ron endured a drumbeat of humiliations: he lost his job, his savings, his confidence. He and Sue burned down their retirement accounts one by one; they borrowed from their own son to pay the mortgage; they racked up credit card debt to put food on the table. Ron applied for 800 jobs. One night he turned to Sue and confessed he didn’t think he’d ever get back on his feet.

He finally emerged in the spring of 2012 with a position selling sandblasters for Pangborn Group. At last he was out of the woods. But the black cloud barely budged. They shake their heads when I ask if they’ll ever feel secure again.

"Now to rebuild everything I had, and build from there and even try to build for retirement? It's going to be incredible,’’ Ron says. ``I mean all the credit cards are maxed out, so those got to be paid off, and there's no equity in the house ...’’

Sue is blunter.

"I’ll still live in fear,’’ she says. "I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable.’’

The Great Recession took down millions of people like Dziuda, bringing devastation in very specific ways to older workers. It upended the final decade of their careers, drained their nest eggs and sentenced them to years of joblessness. It sapped the confidence of a generation of Americans on the cusp of a comfortable retirement. Above all, the recession has helped create a core group of Americans in their 50s and 60s who need to work many more years to make back what they lost.

Many may never get there.

The most immediate effect of the recession on older Americans was a sharp spike in joblessness. In May 2012, the unemployment rate for workers aged 55 and older stood at 6.5 percent—less than the overall rate that month of 8.2 percent, but double what it was for older workers five years earlier. By January 2015, it had come down to 5.1 percent, but still significantly higher than pre-recession rates.

And that might not be a disaster, if it didn’t take jobless 55-year-olds so long to get hired again. An AARP analysis of April 2014 labor numbers showed unemployed workers aged 55 and older were jobless for an average of 51 weeks, compared to 35 weeks for younger Americans.

So an older worker who loses a job can look forward to many months—or even years—struggling to get hired again.

That’s exactly what happened to Ron Dziuda.

* * *

The axe was about to fall. He could feel it.

It was July 2009 and the economy had bottomed out. Unemployment was at 9.5 percent and still headed south. Dziuda had been working for Misumi USA in Schaumburg, Illinois, about 40 miles north of his home in Plainfield, for more than five years, selling components like switches and sensors and ball screws.

But he had a bad feeling. In the spring, managers told him his performance was falling short. Dziuda thought that couldn’t be. To his mind, the problem was unrealistic expectations. Misumi’s sales targets were just too high, he argued. They weren’t convinced.

“It was coming,” he said. “The writing was on the wall.”

Still, Dziuda didn’t panic. After getting a night-school degree in marketing from University of Detroit in 1985, Dziuda—the oldest of five children—worked at a series of employers across the Midwest. Each job change usually meant something better.

In the late 1990s, he and his family settled into a four-bedroom home in a subdivision called Wesmere Estates. Portraits of the Dziudas and their four children hang in the wall along the carpeted stairs in their home. Stenciled in script above the photos is the legend, “All Because Two People Fell in Love.”

Still, Dziuda was subject to the ebb and flow of the economy. In 2001, he picked up a part-time job at Target to tide him over between jobs. Then Misumi came along in 2004 with an offer that fit perfectly. He liked them, they liked him, and Dziuda hoped the years of bouncing from job to job were over.

But by July 2009, his prospects had dimmed. One morning a human resources manager called him into a meeting where company officials told him it was over. He signed an agreement not to take a job with a competitor for a year in exchange for a three-month severance package.

He was 54, out of a job at the bottom of the worst recession since the 1930s, with one kid in college, another one about enter. And it would be a long time before he got back on his feet.

* * *

Dziuda could see he was part of a growing wave. From the outset of the recession in December 2007 until his last full month at Misumi, the number of unemployed 50-plus workers more than doubled, from 1.4 million to 3.2 million.

Thanks to previous bouts of unemployment, he knew the drill. He updated his resume. He signed up at job clubs like the one at the nearby St Mary Immaculate Church. He called up people he used to work with, applied for every job he could find. He registered on Internet job boards like Monster and Careerbuilder. He went to collect unemployment, despite the humilation; he had a family to feed.

Interviews were a little harder to come by than they had been in the past, but things were moving. He’d sold himself, communicated his ideas and the value he’d bring to the company. He’d met company officials over several hours in the morning, gone to lunch, parted with warm handshakes.

And then nothing happened.

By the opening of 2010, Dziuda could see the economy wasn’t going to roar back into shape anytime soon. Instead of getting better with the official end of the recession in June 2009, things seemed to be getting worse. Unemployment was higher than when Dziuda was laid off, edging up to 9.7 percent. He was plugging away part-time at Target at $13 an hour. When he wasn’t working, he pounded the pavement.

His family struggled to adjust. Sue loaded on the jobs. She subbed at the local school district and worked as a teachers’ aide. In the late afternoons she sold fragrances at the mall. After dinner, she gave fitness classes. Back home at 10 p.m., she worked till midnight marking standardized tests online.

"My fitness training was actually my sanity,’’ Sue recalls. "I needed to work out at that point – otherwise I would have cried.’’

Dziuda’s doubts began to gnaw at him as the months went by, and the Excel log of job applications he kept on his computer ran to the dozens, and then the hundreds. Before he knew it, he was part of that statistic he’d never expected to join: the long-term unemployed. Dziuda says Sue kept any doubts she had largely to herself, but he could almost hear the tape of thoughts running through her mind:

What do you think? You think you’re going to find something? Really? Do you really think you’re going to find something?

By the second half of 2010, Dziuda was in deep unemployment. He and Sue began to consume the nest eggs that had been meant to grow, hatch and mature in retirement. One by one, these keepsakes of Dziuda’s employment history were taken from the safe and sold off.

The $4,000 pension left over from from Panasonic.


The $4,000 IRA.

Cashed in.

The $5,000 in stock from his days at GM and Detroit Edison.

Turned to dust when GM filed for bankruptcy.

Then came 2011. Another year of dwindling faith.

* * *

While his wife worked at the school, or in the aerobics studio, or at the mall selling fragrances, Dziuda was at home loading the washer or unloading the dryer, vacuuming the living room carpet. They bickered over the way he folded the laundry. The new job wasn’t materializing, and the money just wasn’t coming in. But the water bill arrived every month on time. And the electricity bill. And the gas bill. And the mortgage.

With their savings depleted, the couple took a deep breath and did what many desperate families of the Great Recession did: they went into debt. Dziuda turned to his own son, the eldest, a Purdue grad with an engineering job, for a $5,000 loan to make the house payment and avoid foreclosure. Then came a second mortgage on the house. They dipped into their daughter’s student loan fund and ended up owing her $3,000.

All the while, prospective employers seemed impossible to please. The companies were just too scared to hire, holding out for a sure thing, leaving hopefuls—by August 2011, 3.3 million 50-plus workers were jobless and looking for employment—to wallow for months while they deliberated. Or, Dziuda found, employers would hold his experience against him. You’re over-qualified, they told him, and even if we hire you, you’ll be out the door once something better comes along.

In September 2011, his unemployment insurance tapped out. Now the Dziudas were truly on their own. He would have to take whatever full-time work he could find to stay afloat.

Target, where he’d worked off and on since 2002, was the logical choice. The position was called Store Facilities Technician, but some of the duties—tending to clogged toilets and blown-out light bulbs—weren’t so technical. But Dziuda was desperate and willing to work hard for the sake of boosting his hourly pay by three bucks, from $13 to $16.

So he applied – and endured nine interviews for the sake of an annual salary of about $30,000—a fraction of what he’d made in his former life. That was above the poverty line for a family of four in 2011, but not by much. He filled in the gaps by substitute teaching at the local school district.

Rock bottom was not that far away. Dziuda had applied for 653 jobs in two years, fully documented on the family computer, with at least another 100 or so on top of that – with not a single viable offer. They had stopped buying anything beyond bedrock essentials, scraped by just to get clothes for the kids at Christmas. Retirement gone. The credit cards were close to maxed out; Sue was using them for food and gas.

Their children struggled to understand.

"My kids were embarrassed that their dad worked at Target and their daddy substitute taught and they were like, 'Don’t come to my school, I don’t want anybody to know,’’’ said Sue. "It was very embarrassing.’’

Dziuda wondered: Was Target the best he could hope for? Was this the end of the road?

He turned to Sue.

“You know what?” he told her. “This might be it. I hate to say it, and I’ll never stop looking for something better. But this might be it.”

Sue shook her head.

"No, you’ve gone this far, you can’t stop,’’ she told him. "There’s something out there for you and you have to believe and you just have to keep going for it.’’

* * *

By early 2012 Dziuda was trying really hard to feel lucky. He was turning to the basics for sustenance: His 30-year marriage; the health of his four children.

And his faith. Dziuda had been a steadily practicing Catholic, carrying on the religion his family had brought with them from Poland in the early 20th century. He’d memorized a prayer for the unemployed which he recited to himself. And now, in his resignation, he and Sue were ready to put their fate in God’s hands.

Can God get you a job? Dziuda says He can. That’s how he explains the mystery that once he acknowledged his exhaustion and leaned on his faith for help, a door opened.

Dziuda came across a job ad on the Internet for selling sandblasters. Pangborn Group. Around since 1904. Then a guy at St. Mary pointed out the same job. Did you see this ad? Was this the sign Dziuda was waiting for? He applied.

Before he knew it, he was at a hotel in Chicago for an interview with two managers. Two guys his age, no impression that his gray hair or wrinkles around the eyes bothered them. Then a plane ride to headquarters in Atlanta for more talks.

Nothing happened for a while. Just like all the other times.

One day the phone rang.

One of the recruiters Dziuda had met in Atlanta was going up to Chicago for work and he asked to meet. He put on a tie and jacket, drove to a Longhorn Steakhouse off I-55. The recruiter took one look at Dziuda and shook his head. There was no reason for a tie. After all, the tough part was over: the recruiter was there to make Dziuda an offer.

Dziuda listened to the details, but his head was already drifting into the clouds. He got in his car and pulled carefully out of the parking lot, trying to contain his excitement. He drove home with the same thoughts over and over running through his head: My God, I got a job. I actually have a job. Oh my God, I never thought this would happen.

I have a job.

Three years of searching were at an end. The eating up the savings, the racking up of credit card debt, the sad, desperate move to borrow money from their own children. The dinners of instant ramen and hot dogs. But Dziuda says there were no tears of gratitude. Instead, he and Sue just sighed heavily with exhausted relief. They could start making the house payment again.

* * *

It was a few days later when I watched him stand up at the job group at St. Mary and make his announcement: after three years in the wilderness, he had finally landed a job. At 57, he was back in the game.

“I had to let go. That’s the toughest part. Let it go. Let God. We continue to use our God-given skills to find that job,’’  he said as heads around the room nodded.

“Continue to find that job – it’s out there.’’

The celebration was short. He had a long struggle ahead to dig his family out of a financial hole. Dziuda and his wife have started making payments on their mortgage from their income again, and their youngest child, a son, left the house for the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in August 2012. His children have resigned themselves to facing college debt loads when they go out into the work world.

The scars—financial and emotional—from his three-year battle with the job market are still there. They may never fade entirely. He’s kept his part-time job at Target. Will the job at Pangborn still be here next year? Can he learn shot-blast equipment fast enough and well enough to be successful? Will he be able to retire from this job, or will he again be on the job-search rollercoaster at an even older age?

Dziuda’s answer to all those questions is the same: I don’t know.

“I guess my biggest thing is: how long is this going to last?”

The world, in some ways, has dimmed. The past several years have been ones of disappointment and humiliation. The future is uncertain. He sees his kids graduating with loads of debt, moving into a shaky  job market. It doesn’t seem fair.

And the black cloud is still there, just over their shoulders. It hovered over them at Ron and Sue’s 30th wedding anniversary celebration in the fall of 2013, when they hesitated to buy themselves a nice dinner out, thinking about how much it would cost.

"There’s a guilt that comes with everything we do now, and my kids are like, 'You gotta stop that,’’’ says Sue. "Because sometimes I think it’s too good, it’s gonna end. Is it gonna be taken away from us again? I don’t like that feeling, but that’s what this experience has done. It’s like I don’t ever feel secure.’’

At the same time, though, Dziuda is deeply thankful. He kept his house. He has a solid job.

But he’s clear about one thing: he won’t be retiring anytime soon. At this point, he’s hoping to stay healthy enough to work for at least for 15 years to rebuild—putting him in his 70s before he can downshift. For now, he’s putting all expectations of retirement out of his mind.

“In one way, shape or form, or another,” he said, “I will probably work for the rest of my life.”

Reprinted from "Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce" by Joseph Coleman, with permission from Oxford University Press, USA, ©Joseph Coleman, 2015. All rights reserved.

By Joseph Coleman

Joseph Coleman has been a journalist for more than two decades, spending most of that time as a foreign correspondent for Associated Press, including 11 years in Japan. He's reported from more than 20 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America, covering stories ranging from the Colombian government's battle with the Medellin drug cartel to the Kobe earthquake, the Asian tsunami, and global warming. A graduate of Vassar College and Columbia University, Coleman is the Roy W. Howard Professor of Practice in the Indiana University Media School.

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