J.R. Childress is up before the sun, bustling about in the French colonial brick house he built. He helps pack his wife’s lunch, downs some eggs or cereal for breakfast, pores over online and newspaper job listings and hopes — even prays — this will be the day when his fortunes turn around.
He’s determined to stay busy, job or no job, for sanity’s sake. Maybe he’ll help a neighbor. Exercise. Or check out computer blueprints of construction projects around Winston-Salem, N.C., to stay connected to the world where he thrived for three decades. Childress has been laid off twice since late 2009, most recently for 10 months.
“Every day is a struggle,” he says in a soft drawl. “The struggle is the unknown. You’ve worked your way up the ladder and you get to a point in life and a position in work where you’re comfortable … then all of a sudden everything goes away. It’s like being thrown into a hole and you’re climbing to get up, but it’s greased. There’s no way of getting out.”
The frustrations of one 53-year-old North Carolina man are multiplied millions of times over across time zones and generations in a country still gripped by economic anxiety, despite increasing signs of recovery. And they resound in a presidential campaign pitting an incumbent defending his economic record against GOP opponents who are attacking it.
Unemployment in January was at its lowest level in three years — 8.3 percent — and 1.8 million jobs were added last year, compared with about 1 million in 2010. But there’s still a long way to go: There are 5.6 million fewer jobs than there were when the recession began in late 2007.
About 12.8 million people are out of work and what’s especially troubling, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, is the large number of long-term unemployed — more than 40 percent have been jobless more than six months.
The long-term unemployed don’t fit into any neat category. They’re young and old. They have high school diplomas and master’s degrees. Some become so discouraged, they stop looking for a time or become mid-life college students. Others find temporary jobs, then return to the jobless rolls for long stretches. In 2011, the average length of being out of work was 39 weeks — about nine months.
But statistics tell only part of the story. They don’t gauge the despair of a thirtysomething office manager who has stopped counting how many resumes he’s sent out. Or the apprehension of a 60-ish tool-and-die maker who lost his job, returned to school, but still can’t find work — and doubts he ever will again.
Or the rejection J.R. Childress feels, declaring that unemployment “makes you feel you’re not a part of society because you’re not earning your way.”
Childress started working after high school, first in factories, then in construction, eventually earning a six-figure salary as vice president of operations at a company.
In October 2009, he was laid off when road construction and building projects came to a near halt. After a year without work, Childress took a huge pay cut to be a construction foreman, but that job ended last April. He’s convinced he has two strikes against him: his age and lack of college degree.
“I’m putting out resumes, but they’re going into a black hole,” he says. Prospective employees, he says “want 33, not 53. … They say, ‘We really like you, but if we spend our time training you, when construction comes back, you’re going to leave.’” He pauses, and adds: “That’s not paying my bills.”
Childress’ wife works and their 24-year-old twins are out of college so that eases their financial burden, but he says he asks himself: “‘Am I going to be 75 or 80 and not be able to retire? … What did I do to deserve this? When is it going to turn around for me?’”
Jerome Greene doesn’t mince words when he describes life without a steady paycheck for more than three years.
“It’s been like hell,” he says. “It’s very hard to see people leave and go to work in the morning and come home every night. It’s hard to see people spending money, going out and having fun and you can’t. It’s very stressing. But there are people in worst situations than I have and I feel sorry for them.”
Greene, about to turn 50, worked for 16 years as an Oracle software developer, most recently at a Pennsylvania company that made electronic components for cars. When he was laid off in June 2008, the recession was just taking hold, and he still had job interviews. By fall, with the economy in free fall, his phone stopped ringing.
Greene hoped the downturn would be brief and he’d weather it with unemployment benefits.
But the jobless rate hovered above 9 percent and Greene’s 99 weeks of unemployment expired. He had trouble sleeping. Depression set in. Without health insurance, he took precautions — carrying hand sanitizer and his own pen when doing errands to avoid getting sick and having to pay $65 for a doctor’s visit.
“There’s no room for error,” he says “There’s no extra money.”
At the same time, Greene, who is single and lives outside of Pottstown, Pa., has become an active social networker, online and in person. He participates in several groups, looking for job tips, sometimes doing presentations himself, perfecting his “elevator speech” — the 30-second pitch to prospective employers.
“Emotionally, it helps,” he says. “You see that you’re not alone. … I guess you can say misery loves company. But there are positive people, too.”
Mingling has other benefits, too. One holiday party led to freelance work on web development projects.
Greene is encouraged by the improving economy and has been getting calls for interviews, though they’re outside the Pennsylvania area and he’d prefer to stay put. “Maybe,” he says, “there is an end to this.”
No matter, the experience has changed his outlook.
“It has made me very cynical when it comes to the work environment,” he says. “People have to take charge of managing their careers. They should prepare for the next round of layoffs … The rest of the world is beginning to catch up with the U.S. Companies are going to continue to outsource, they’re going to continue to do stupid things … and I don’t think recessions are ever going to go away. Having a job just interrupts a job search.”
The memory stings even now for Jon Creek, all these years after the job interview.
He’d applied to be a bookkeeper at a property management company when one of the owners caught him off guard: “He said, ‘You’ve been out of work for a year now. You can only clean the garage so many times. Why can’t you get a job?’” Creek recalls.
“My answer was, ‘I’m trying to get a job now,’” he says.
Creek, who lives in Mason, a suburb of Cincinnati, was a construction company office manager until he and almost everyone else at the firm were laid off in December 2007. He’d known the business was in trouble and says he actually turned down another better-paying job earlier, out of loyalty.
It took 18 months to land part-time work as an insurance agent’s assistant at $240 a week — a dollar less than his unemployment checks.
A year later, Creek was stunned when a certified letter arrived with his final paycheck and notice that his job was over. Again, it was the economy. To add to the injury, his boss had posted the news on her Facebook page before telling him. “Everybody knew but me,” he says.
And since she hadn’t done the proper paperwork, he couldn’t file for unemployment.
That was August 2010. Creek — who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration — has been looking since, worried that as time passes, someone unemployed for, say, six months may seem more appealing.
“I worked hard. I did everything right,” he says. “Now I’m at the point of asking myself, ‘Will I ever be able to get anything?’ It’s not just about a salary. It’s about being able to go out and say, ‘I do this. This is my identity.’”
On occasion, Creek, now 35, has become so discouraged, he’s temporarily quit looking. “If you send out your resume so many times, every employer in the city has it,” he says. “If you take it out of the mix for a while, perhaps you’ll get noticed next time.”
Being unemployed not only hurts financially — Creek has an $11,000-plus student loan — it leaves emotional scars, too. “The only people I talk to during the day are my wife, my dogs and service people,” he says. “It’s very isolating, very lonely.”
His wife, Leslie, a financial analyst, is a constant comfort. “She tells me I’m smart, that I have a lot to offer,” he says.
Creek is considering returning to school this fall to get a master’s degree in accounting.
“Sometimes you feel like playing the victim card,” he says, “but you really don’t want to. It tells the employer you’re not very confident. I tell myself good things are to come … but it’s hard to remain hopeful.”
Jean Coyle knows it’s ironic that long ago, she taught college classes about retirement planning.