FOR A PERSON from the educated middle class who is going to pieces spiritually from lack of employment, often the hardest thing is maintaining appearances. Practically every cent and reserve of dignity is diverted into the illusion of gentility. Your clothes, technology, home, and public habits cannot be shabby. If a professional acquaintance suggests an expensive lunch, there is no avoiding it. If he or she says, “I’ll just message you when I’m leaving for the restaurant,” you must possess the proper gadget for receiving messages while in transit, for you can’t await word on your home computer when the acquaintance expects to meet 10 minutes later.
Accompanying this financial shadow play is the anguish of what to call yourself. Diplomas, publications, and authenticity of intellect don’t define your status—credibility comes from your institutional base. Establishing this base is increasingly difficult. Look at the appellations people use when they publish little essays and commentaries: There are an astonishing number of fellows, advisers, experts, strategists, associates, analysts, and specialists, not to speak of freelancers and of course consultants, whose titles are not linked to any institution. Despite privileged backgrounds, this group’s privilege is now almost entirely theoretical. Lack of property, land, stock, and savings point to the decline of their class and status. Still, their most sickening fear comes from finding themselves marooned outside institutions, with little hope of climbing back in and no skills on which to rely when their ideas and insights are of no monetary value.
Surprisingly few people are aware of how things have changed. The difference between my generation—I am 37—and baby boomers is that in their day a person who was between things, stranded, or just wanted to be a hippie could go to an employment office in the morning and have a job in the mailroom of the Metropolitan Opera by the close of work. (A terrific essay called “1968” by the writer Andre Aciman illustrates this point.) What that generation did not grasp is how their sometimes sniggering attitude toward work was emboldened by an abundance of jobs.
Today, an un- or under-employed person is routinely told by people of means—including friends and family—that if work is unavailable in his or her profession, certainly low-wage retail or service jobs in a bakery, hardware store, café, boutique, or construction can be obtained. The advice-dispensers imagine the labor market as a ladder where you merely slide to lower rungs if your usual perch breaks. But this is oblivious to laws of supply and demand (too many people, too few jobs); that higher education is a disadvantage to securing manual employment (why train somebody who wishes to leave?); and to, in some cases, the availability of lower-cost migrant labor.
This obnoxious dismissal of economics is easy to understand: Systemic poverty terrifies people. The closer it comes, the more they resist facing the cold statistical reality that fate alone shelters them from similar descent. It must be something they are doing that keeps them employed—something the down-and-out are not doing that explains their misery.
Explaining my attitude toward this issue involves a certain amount of autobiography that I am reticent to write for precisely the reason already mentioned: By revealing my circumstances I will break the custom of maintaining appearances. Candidly, I find this terribly frightening, and I would probably not do it except that I am convinced my experience is sufficiently typical to have symptomatic importance. I don’t see many others in my situation speaking freely of their circumstances. This taboo must be shattered. Because our meeker caste is terrified of speaking truth, we accept the shame and humiliation of our idleness in isolation, where our loneliness tells us we’ve sinned.
For the last few years I worked for the World Bank, the Canadian and U.S. governments, three universities, and a multinational company. Before this, I wrote a doctorate on environmental issues, financed with a swanky U.N. consultancy I held for a couple years. Being a Ph.D. and working for these institutions seems prestigious enough, but my average annual income was about $18,000 before taxes.
I often waited long stretches—once five months—for payments to arrive. There were gaps of five, six, or seven months between assignments; after the first year I burned through my savings. I considered jobs in western Newfoundland, southern India, Mongolia, and the Northwest Territories and would have taken any of these had they materialized. In three years, I lived in seven sublet apartments because I could not afford the startup costs of deposits and furniture. I lived in fear of medical calamity, and when this finally did happen to my partner, the consequences were disastrous. I survived only with the help of a generous grand-uncle and dear friends. Shortly before he died last March, my grand-uncle whispered, “It’s the people who do not have anybody to help them who really suffer.”
Perhaps the only advantage to being so unhinged these past years is that it permitted me to peer into many lives of equal disrepair. In every flat I had neighbors who were unemployed—a 35-year-old construction worker living with his mother; an engineer and father whose job was outsourced. We never commiserated or kept each other company. During a period of residence in Queens when I was “employed” for five months without pay, I overheard a nasty quarrel between the couple across the hall: She was tired of supporting him while he waited five months to be paid for services rendered. “That’s just how it works,” he defended himself. “Do you know how hard it’s been? I don’t want to owe you money!” Through my door I heard rustling as she reached for her coat. Then they were both screaming and swearing, stinging each other in the most painful ways. Their lock turned and as she fled down the stairs I could hear him crying, alone, in the apartment.
My grand-uncle was of course correct. I was never hungry, filthy, or naked without shelter. What crippled me was the disgrace of being a drag on my family and the spiritual weakness I discovered in myself when I could not transcend my circumstances. People would say I should use the time to write a book. But a person needs more than just time to be productive—you also need peace of mind. Tranquility is hard to summon with the “deadening,” “debilitating,” “dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.”
This phrase belongs to George Orwell, my inspiration for this essay. You might presume I am referring to Down and Out in Paris and London, his fine book about extreme poverty. That book’s focus on tramps was so taboo—in the heart of the Great Depression, mind you—no publisher wanted it until the socialist Victor Gollancz bought it in 1933. Orwell, aka Eric Blair, claimed his pseudonym a few short days before its publication, fearing his fall from the “lower-upper-middle class” would dishonor his parents before their friends. Poverty is embarrassing.
But the quote is from The Road to Wigan Pier. In 1936, Gollancz sent Orwell to northern England to report on the poverty of coal miners, which he did, splendidly. But he also enraged Gollancz by taking aim at socialists for obsessing over things such as drinking fruit juice, vegetarianism, and wearing sandals, that is, their aesthetic humanitarianism and palliative programs that they suggested would help the working class. What outraged Orwell was the socialist middle class’ failure to grasp the change affecting the “private school master, half-starved free-lance journalist ... jobless Cambridge graduate, ship’s officer without a ship, clerks, civil servants ... and thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns”—the “sinking middle class.”
To underscore the point, Orwell opened his personal accounts to reveal that his income was only slightly higher than a miner’s, in effect showing that rather than studying the poor and the proletariat (them), socialists should accept that they are them. This insight is perversely modern. I assure you: There are people of tremendous success—senior political advisers or celebrity columnists—whose kin and friends are losing homes to foreclosure and jobs to the economic crisis. It is just not talked about.
Nobody is suggesting this struggle is worse than extreme poverty—“It’s the people who do not have anybody to help them who really suffer.” What it does suggest is how high and deep this depression reaches. We are in the midst of epidemic institutional failure; people whose fate placed them outside of institutions when the collapse happened may never scratch their way back to security. This is a grim future.
For now, my story concludes gracefully. By hook and by crook and a turn of great fortune, I landed in a job where I am compensated and appreciated. I could not be happier. The first time I used my key-card to access the elevator on a late night, I felt a mysterious, nearly delirious satisfaction that all my permits were in order—I was back inside and the doors opened for me without having to kick them down. But there were costs, some too painful to share, and preachers of petty teleologies such as “it was all worthwhile because it all worked out” ought to be ashamed, especially with all the others still on the outside looking in.
Shefa Siegel is associate research scholar at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment, a joint center of the Earth Institute and Columbia Law School, and a contributor to Haaretz Books and the online magazine The Mark (www.themarknews.com).