One warm spring evening, after my teenage daughter and I had spent two hours browsing job boards, the two of us sat at on a bench on the lakefront path on Lake Michigan, watching sweating commuters bike, jog or walk past us. Most of them wore headphones or earbuds.
“Let’s try to guess what they’re listening to,” I suggested.
A shirtless young man ran by.
“Bruno Mars,” my daughter said.
A similar looking guy rode by on a bike.
“Maroon Five,” I said.
A red-faced woman who looked sort of like me, with loose flesh on her upper arms and an expanding menopausal waist, marched past.
“Chapo Trap House,” said my daughter.
A huffing middle-aged woman isn’t the first person one thinks of when they think of Chapo Trap House, a raunchy politics and comedy podcast that lambasts the Trump administration, conservative media, liberal media and most of the rest of American culture.
Early in Chapo Trap House’s existence, the New Yorker profiled the show and the voices behind it. Will Menaker, one of the five hosts, described their typical listener as a “failson.” Co-host Felix Biederman went on to define a failson as the guy that “goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and peanut butter.” His definition went on to mention gaming and masturbating.
The first part of that description could almost be me, an unemployed fiftysomething — or what, in Chapo parlance, might be called a “failmom.”
Of course, I don’t sit in my room eating peanut butter on Thanksgiving, but most other days I can. When my family goes off to work or school in the mornings, I spend a little time sending out résumés that disappear into an ether that has no use for middle-age women. Sometimes I look for gig economy work: walking dogs, when I can get the work, through Rover.com, or the occasional tutoring gig on Wyzant. And then I’m free to mumble and eat peanut butter.
In the same New Yorker profile, Matt Christman, my favorite Chapo host, saw the show and their audience as constituting a population of young people, mostly men, who are “nonessential human beings, who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers.”
Yet it’s not just young people who are nonessential.
When I was employed as a copy editor, I thought more about comma placement and modifier placement than I did about economic and political displacement. I had faith in the establishment. Then I got laid off. Twice. There’s nothing like a years-long job search to make a person feel nonessential.
Applying for a job now is different than it used to be, when I could send email directly to the hiring manager or HR person. It’s hard to circumvent online applications, which can take an hour or more to fill out, including addresses of businesses (this requires searching for print publications that have moved as they’ve downsized) and names of supervisors, even though those supervisors moved on, either into retirement or more prestigious positions. The forms demand text in fields, whether there’s an answer or not. For some older job searchers, drop-down menus don’t include the years of employment or graduation. Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan’s office investigated recruitment sites Monster.com, Indeed.com, CareerBuilder and other aggregators after finding that dates didn’t go back far enough for older applicants. Propublica and the New York Times, while investigating Facebook ads and their effects on the 2016 election, discovered employers like Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Target and Facebook targeted recruitment ads to users under a specific age. The age varied by employer, but generally stopped short of 45 or 50. As part of their research they also placed ads on LinkedIn and Google that excluded audiences over 40, and the ads were approved instantly.
What makes this even more insidious is that fact that one in five Americans can’t afford to retire. The Washington Post got a lot of traction last year with a profile of the growing population of formerly middle-class older adults who travel in RVs for seasonal jobs.
I write from a place of privilege. My husband earns a good salary, so the fact that my résumés never get a response is professionally and personally painful, but I haven’t faced the panic many others have, worrying about how to buy food or pay rent.
The lack of employment opportunities for young adults is a frequent topic on Chapo Trap House, up there with jokes about masturbation and video games. Christman, like me, spent years unemployed and supported by his spouse. Menaker left a publishing job to work on the podcast. Amber A’Lee Frost, the only female on the show, has said on air that her wages are garnished because of college debt. The Chapo hosts spent half an episode in the spring of 2017 interviewing Miya Tokumitsu, who had written a recent article in the New Republic about work, discussing how many college graduates are stuck in unpaid internships, or cobbled-together gig-economy jobs, or semi-skilled retail jobs. I know this story well.
Since being laid off, I’ve had a handful of freelance gigs. I wrote a booklet about olive-leaf extract for promised royalties, but so far I’ve earned mere pennies for months of research. I took a job in a friend’s flower shop. Yet the learning curve proved too steep, particularly with a schedule that included four days off in between the three days I worked. I was let go. I also returned to school for an MFA in creative writing, thinking I could teach. I currently tutor and hope it will lead to a teaching job.
The May jobs report showed an unemployment rate at an 18-year low, exciting economists and (employed) news consumers. This looks excellent on paper. But off the page are my failpeople, who have given up on searching for work or are earning what they can by cleaning or running errands via sites like TaskRabbit; delivering food via sites like Postmates; selling stuff on Craigslist or eBay; renting out rooms on Airbnb; or driving strangers around town. The Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, from May 2018, found that 31 percent of working adults work in the gig economy, and two-fifths of those people are doing said gig-work to supplement income from their paid jobs.
Economist Theresa Ghilarducci tracks unemployment among older adults, particularly women. In an interview with PBS Newshour in 2016 after the publication of her book “How to Retire With Enough Money,” Ghilarducci explained that women’s lives are often punctuated by time outside of the labor market because they care for family members — not just children, but aging parents as well. She describes a typical male hiring manager who sees an older female applicant. “He’s thinking about his partner, who he probably loves very much, but whose work he probably devalues, and he’s thinking about this job applicant that doesn’t have the experience he can recognize. And we all live, including this employer, in a patriarchal society, and the very definition of patriarchy is that women’s lives, women’s skills, what women are offering up, their potential economic value, is all devalued.”
I read a lot about how little our capitalist society cares for mothers while pursuing my MFA. My thesis project was about mothers. I’m interested in how creativity and motherhood coexist, and how society places mothers on a pedestal until they show signs of distraction or messiness (emotional and physical) or ambition. I’ve been in job interviews where the person opposite me has caught a whiff of motherhood and questioned my commitment to work.
Mothers are often the buffer between the corporate government’s austerity programs and children and families. They have to scramble to find ways to compensate for reduced access to food aid and childcare. Cuts in teacher pay and special education services have mothers and teachers marching in the streets. Layoffs mean parents have to work weekends and holidays to make up for the missing bodies in the office. For mothers, the personal is political.
“You should just do what the woman on your show did,” my husband said to me one night at dinner. That show is “Younger,” a comedy about a 40-year-old woman who tries to return to the publishing industry after spending almost two decades out of the workforce, raising a daughter.
In the opening scene of the first episode, 40-year-old Liza is in an interview with two twentysomething women, trying to sell herself.
“I’ll start as an assistant,” she says.
“Oh, that would be weird,” says one of the young women, looking concerned. “I mean, assistants are generally right out of college. You’re way too o—”
“Oooover qualified,” finishes the other young woman with a condescending smile.
By the end of the first episode, Liza has new hair, new clothes, a new driver’s license and a new job.
I described the show to my therapist. (I recommend a therapist for every woman in menopause. It saves lives.)
She nodded and said, “That’s reality.”
“No,” I clarified. “It’s made by the guy who made ‘Sex and the City.’”
“It’s also reality,” she said, nodding. “Do you know how many women sit where you’re sitting and talk about the same experiences?”
The thing that makes Liza successful in her new office isn’t her pretend youth. It’s her experience as a mother. When the people around her act rashly, Liza is the one to talk them down or to help mend bruised egos. These are skills useful in any situation, professional or personal — but look useless, or worse, on a résumé.
When I listen to Chapo Trap House, I know there’s a mirror image of me — a cranky person over 50 nodding in agreement at a polemic on-air voice — on the opposite side of the political spectrum. This feeling of being devalued or nonessential is what drove those opposites to vote for Trump. I might have done the same, because he talked so much about jobs and the forgotten people, but I couldn’t stomach his repeated statements about Mexicans and Muslims being criminals and terrorists. I couldn’t stomach the way he cheered on violence at his rallies, his disdain for environmental science, women, the mentally ill, and the fact-checking newsrooms where my still-employed friends work.
It’s no longer surprising for my husband to come home from work and find me standing in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, nodding as the Chapo Trap House hosts talk about the failings of capitalism and the government it buys. He told a mutual friend that I’d become radicalized. My views have changed enough that I went on a February afternoon to a Communist Manifesto Class held by the Party for Socialism and Liberation. I sat without about 30 people of all ages at long conference tables in a meeting room in a building that also houses the Mexico–U.S. Solidarity Network.
We took turns reading passages. We didn’t make it through the whole thing because there were so many pauses for discussion. What I learned is that communism is a practice; it’s not static.
To add to my radical bona fides, my son made a collage of my face, added to the famous image of Lenin, Engels, Marx, Mao and Stalin, for Mother’s Day.
Around the same time as this class, Chapo Trap House interviewed the economist Richard Wolff. They started out examining the film “Boss Baby” and its political leanings. This, of course, led to a discussion about America’s economy, and the fact that polls show that millennials prefer socialism to capitalism, perhaps because the market crash of 2008 happened during their formative years. When I hear or read about millennials and their love for socialism, I wonder why more people my age don’t embrace it. We came of age in the Great Recession. We were the ones laid off in 2008.
Wolff predicts a shift to socialism in America, because young people will push for it. A lot of mistakes were made in the name of socialism and communism, he says. We have to learn from history.
“I’d like to remind people the transition from feudalism to capitalism didn’t happen in some smooth way,” he says. “Capitalism came into the world after lots of fits and starts and trials and errors. Why do we imagine it will be any different going from capitalism to socialism?”
We can do better than capitalism, he says at the end of the show.
The possibility that change is coming is as appealing a fantasy for me as the show about a woman who restarts her career with a lie about her age. I’m beyond the age where I can pass for 26, like Liza. But with the free time unemployment allows me, I can to take to the streets, my state capital, and the page to dismantle the system. With breaks for peanut butter and mumbling while I listen to Chapo Trap House.