Not Working: The Stories Behind the Unemployment Statistics

Not Working: The Stories Behind the Unemployment Statistics


Author D.W. Gibson (2012, Penguin Books)

Reviewed by Theresa Forsman

         More than 12 million Americans are unemployed today. That’s 12 million stories of being laid off, fired, riffed or downsized, 12 million stories of what happens when the job goes away. Sixty of those stories, from Southern California to Upstate New York and many spots in-between, make up the new book Not Working (Penguin Books, 2012).

         More than a generation after Studs Terkel’s classic book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, author D.W. Gibson, a freelance writer, traveled the country with a small film crew during summer and fall 2011, asking people who had been laid off in recent years to tell their stories. Each first-person narrative is its own chapter. Some people have moved on, many are stuck. Some are still hopeful, many have given up. What is common to almost all of these stories is anger, specific anger at their former employer and general anger at the shifting tide of politics and economics that has ejected so many Americans from the workforce. Also common is bewilderment—“How did this happen to me?”—and a struggle to hold on to self-esteem.

         Doug Messenger, 54, of Des Moines, Iowa, installed drywall as a young man before an aching back sent him to school to learn how to draft blueprints and he started working for architects and builders. Messenger’s employment rested on the waves of the building industry. The first job lasted seven years before the layoff came, the second 14 months, and the third 15 months. Four years into the biggest construction slump since the Great Depression, Messenger accepts that he will not be hired to draft blueprints. He is part-time produce manager at a grocery store and part-time salesman at a hardware store, jobs that pay less than $11 an hour and carry no benefits. “I’m not asking to make the $45,000-$50,000 I made at my other jobs—those days are over,” Messenger says. “But at the same time, I just don’t feel like having to work 50-55 hours to make half of what I was.”

         Some of the laid-off who tell their stories here apply for hundreds of jobs, go through their savings, cash in their 401k’s, and give up their houses before coming to the conclusion that they’ll take the job at the grocery store—if they can get it. “I’ve run into guys that are selling shoes at Dillard’s and so forth, and just thinking, That can’t happen to me. That’s never going to happen to me,” says Dominick Brocato, 58, of Kansas City. He was laid off in 2010 from his 20-year job in the Human Resources Department of a large corporation. After a determined but fruitless 17-month job search, and facing the end of his COBRA health benefits and unemployment benefits, Brocato applied for a job at Trader Joe’s. Like most of the other 800 applicants, he did not get hired..  “…for someone who has always been in control and educated and so forth, you never imagine that these times are happening,” Brocato says, “but they are.”

         The author stops by St. Vincent’s Food Pantry in Reno, Nevada, where Scott Cooksley, distribution manager, tells him that in 2010, the food bank distributed twice as much food as it did in 2008. “A lot of these people used to be what would be considered the middle class, which in my own personal opinion, we don’t have in America anymore,” he said.

         As I was reading this book in September, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced the third round of government bond-buying–$40 billion worth—to help prop up the economy. The timeframe for this government injection of money—“until the unemployment rate improves”—says a lot. Bernanke made no mention of any strategies for fostering that improvement, giving the impression that the country’s leaders are as bewildered about joblessness and how to fix it as are the laid-off. Washington, like the unemployed, is waiting for something to happen.

         The notion of chance in the employment market comes up more than once in Not Working. When Jessica Smith, 32, who has two master’s degrees, was laid off from her teaching job in Upstate New York, she moved back to Alabama with her husband and new baby. Smith, who was recently hired as a librarian at a private boarding school, compares the job market to a casino. “…the other thing that unemployment reveals is how people who are employed basically are very just lucky…you can apply for literally hundreds of jobs, and it has nothing to do with you, whether you get it or not, and it’s very hard to learn that lesson. You just have to keep pulling the lever and hoping the quarters come out.”

       Among those pulling the lever and telling their stories:

  • Wendy Hamilton, 32, of Omaha, who has a master’s degree in arts administration and has been laid off twice in 18 months. She is trying to stay positive and is heeding her sister’s advice to be sure to shower every day to help keep depression at bay.
  • Mike Numella, 60, of St. Louis, who was the first in his family to go to college and used to make a six-figure salary as a retailing executive. Today, he is losing the house that he and his wife have lived in for 20 years.
  • Randy Badman, 62, of DeWitt, Nebraska, who had worked 36 years for a company that made vice grips. Nearly everyone in town worked for the same company, which a local family had opened in 1924. The company was sold in 2001, Badman lost his job in 2005, and the plant closed its doors in 2008.
  • Dawn Eilers-Dunn, 54, of Irvine, California, a UCLA graduate who was laid off—by email—from her 22-year job in the Human Resources Department of a major bank.
  • Roni Chambers, 55, who was laid off after 20 years at Anheuser-Busch, a company sold by its shareholders, against executives’ wishes, to the Belgian-Brazilian company InBev in 2008. She observes: “If I go back and look at…the landscape of St. Louis in the last 20 years, Ford’s gone, and Chrysler’s gone, and Union Pacific’s gone and Southwestern Bell is gone, and Anheuser-Busch is almost gone, and hundreds of people have been put on the street. And their jobs are never coming back.”


          Some themes crop up time and again in these stories, including job automation, job deportation overseas, the shift to contract rather than staff labor, strained municipal and state budgets, upheaval in the mortgage, media and manufacturing industries.

       A few of the laid-off are looking at this landscape and deciding to create their own jobs. Christine Zika of St. Louis, a 40-year-old former office manager, has started her own concierge-services business. Companies hire her to do the day-to-day time-consuming errands of their executives so their top people are less distracted. When Paul Humphreys, 32, of Columbus, Ohio, lost his job in construction sales, he thought of his recent honeymoon in Italy and Greece, where he had enjoyed crepes made from little carts on the street. Two days after his job ended, he drove to New Jersey to pick up a used crepe cart that he had found on Craigslist and before his six weeks of severance had run out, he was selling crepes on the street in Columbus.

       “Yeah, some people lose their jobs and it becomes a call to re-invent themselves,” Elliott Parker, chair of the Economics Department at the University of Nevada in Reno, tells the author. “but I would argue that for every one of those, there’s probably five people where the consequences of  losing their jobs long run are huge. Maybe they wind up losing their wife, they lose their home, they lose their self-respect.”

       Parker said most people don’t realize that what the country is going through is not a typical recession, but a depression. “The president doesn’t want to say it, other people don’t want to say it, because they don’t want to do things to undermine confidence because an economy works on confidence…but it’s still a depression,” he said. “I think right now we’re about 1935. And I’m hoping that 1936 doesn’t happen.”

       Few people are unaffected by today’s job market. The person who has not been laid off very likely has at least one relative or friend who has lost a job in the last four years. But still, there’s this: When Apple recently introduced its new iphone, costing $200 and up, 2 million people placed orders within the first week. This news reminded of a friend’s reminiscences of her mother’s days in New York City as a young woman in the 1930s. When I expressed surprise that anyone was enjoying herself in the ‘30s, my friend replied, “If you had a job during the Depression, you were fine.”

       Judging by the stories in Not Working, the great majority of the 12 million people who are unemployed today in America are not fine.

Theresa Forsman is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.


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