It’s not something most people in my life know about. My friends, acquaintances, the parents of kids on my son’s soccer team that I coach — none of them know.
I have a whole spiel worked out when the question comes up. I say that I’m thinking of changing jobs, or I mention that I’ve been spending my time organizing our house since we moved, or that I’m a “consultant.” Anything to avoid talking about what’s really going on.
I’m 47 and I’m unemployed. I’ve been in and out of work for seven years now. This latest stint without steady work has lasted for almost two years. After submitting what feels like hundreds of applications and going through multiple five-hour interviews only to be rejected, I am plagued every day with the fear that I’ll never find a full-time job again.
There are many men out there like me. 9 million prime-age working men in our country are out of work. 7 million of them have stopped looking for work completely.
Some economists point to the recession and the slow job market recovery as the source of the problem. This has certainly been the case for me. I was born and raised in Silicon Valley, and have ridden the waves of tech growth in this area. Since various companies I worked for shuttered during the recession, I haven’t been able to reenter the job market, finding the career skills I had honed no longer relevant.
Every day I go without a job widens the looming gap of unemployment on my resume. While my family is managing financially due to my wife’s job, the stress of uncertainty has taken its toll. The sense of shame, that I’m not providing my family like I’m supposed to be, continues to deepen. For this article, I’m not using my full name — I really don’t want my friends to know the truth about my life right now.
Sometimes, I feel like I want to give up completely. And I’ve gone through periods, months at a time, where I have.
Things didn’t used to be so bad
Work wasn’t always so hard to find. After graduating college in the ’90s, I was snapped up quickly by a young software company. While I majored in the humanities, I was still able to get customer support position quickly, learning skills on the job. Later, I started working in IT. Those were the optimistic days of the dot-com boom. There was plenty of turnover with companies moving out of Silicon Valley, but I didn’t worry back then — I was always able to land another job easily. Money flowed in the Valley, and I assumed that the future would take care of itself.
I never thought I would one day be in my 40s and struggling to stay afloat.
The first time I got laid off, in 2002, my wife was pregnant with our first baby. It was the most stressful time in my life. On top of the endless list of job applications, my wife and I would spend our evenings hunched over bills, discussing the logistics and finances of how we could pull off raising a child on my wife’s income alone. I eventually did land an IT job at a local company, only to find myself let go again when the company shuttered at the peak of the recession in 2009. Companies all over Silicon Valley were closing up shop. My wife and I, now with a second child and a mortgage to deal with, braced ourselves for financial stress once again.
And again, and again. I continued to get hired and laid off four or five more times over the next seven years. My background in IT and customer support, both considered the bottom rung at most tech companies, meant that I was expendable at all of these places, especially those struggling financially. Companies that hired me would shutter, taking me down with them. The only work I could get became contracted, temporary or part-time, offered with vague promises of a full-time option down the line that never came to fruition.
It became a cycle of unemployment followed by bouts of work. The issue was never performance. Often, the jobs I could get were so disposable that I was never given responsibilities that could help me grow into a promotion, no matter how hard I pushed. And my skill set continued to age; IT is a job that relies on managing whatever software the company happens to have, and with each layoff, I found myself turned out with experience managing a software that had already grown obsolete.
Eventually, the combination of companies going out of business and my fading skill set meant that I kept getting the axe. That pattern of joblessness and applications began to feel eerily familiar. I wondered why I was getting so used to it. Right now, the central issue is that I’ve tried to transition into a new software skill set, but without enough experience. What you’ve done is not nearly as important as which “buzzwords” you know, but if you don’t have the experience, you might as well be completely untrained. It’s a Catch-22.
Budgeting has become a well-rehearsed drill
Since my last lay off in early 2015, the cycle seems to have reached a standstill. I haven’t been able to find full-time work since. It’s been hard. Even though my wife works a steady job, money has been tight — we’ve gone through periods where we’ve had only $30 to support a family of four for a whole week. Slipping into neurotic budgeting mode has become a well-rehearsed drill at this point. We cancel our retirement contributions, downgrade our cable, cell phones, internet packages, cancel our gym membership. We stop hanging out with more prosperous friends to avoid expensive dinners, awkward conversations, and the occasional glint of latent jealousy.
We learned to pay in cash whenever possible to avoid overdraft fees. I’ve memorized the cost of our grocery store list, going through combinations of items in my head so that each trip is as cheap as possible. I’ve stopped taking my kids to the store with me. I hate having to turn down buying that cereal or lunch snack they might see and want.
There have been times where I’ve wondered if I should just get a temporary service or manual labor job to help out with extra cash. But I’m worried about getting stuck in a position with even less room for growth than my previous jobs. And to be honest, I would be too humiliated. Our social circle, made up of mostly well-paid tech workers and professionals, has no idea how bad our situation has been. It would be exceptionally difficult to work eight hours a day hoping with all my might that a neighbor or friend wouldn’t swing by to see me working the cash register or pumping gas. I’m already demoralized. I didn't need any additional anger toward the world.
Since moving to my mom’s old house after she switched to a retirement home, our living costs are considerably cheaper than the mortgage we once paid. And since our kids have gotten older, now 14 and 10, we no longer have to worry about child care. Things are better, but we’re still living paycheck to paycheck. We’ve cashed out most of our savings accounts, including retirement, and haven’t been able to replenish them. I worry sometimes if we could weather an unexpected expense like a medical emergency.
Now that we’re in a better situation, I’ve been able to pick up a couple of hours doing software consulting every week at a local company. It’s not steady, but it gets me out of the house, and might lead to something more permanent. At this point, it’s better than nothing.
The job hunting process is pure drudgery
Every day involves endlessly scrolling through a list of jobs on Indeed.com and applying here and there with full knowledge that 99 percent of the time, I’ll never hear back. I often wonder if anyone is even on the other side, reading the cover letter I crafted before hitting “submit” into the void of the internet.
There have been quite a few times over the past two years that I’ve gotten really close to getting a job. I’ve been invited in for on-site interviews that last a grueling five hours. One of them went with someone else, and the other hasn’t contacted me since. I’ve wondered if it’s my age — I’ve come to strongly believe that age discrimination is a real and pernicious issue here in the Valley.
After each rejection, I would spiral into negative thinking, wondering how long I could keep doing this dance. What did I do wrong? What was it they didn’t like about me? I replay every hour of the interview over and over in my head, wondering if it was my personal presentation or some little thing I said that destroyed my chances. The self-doubt starts to creep in. After those interviews, I stopped looking completely for a few weeks, thinking I would never get a job. Why should I even keep trying?
I’ve had phone interviews with five different companies since the beginning of November. None of them has invited me to meet with them face-to-face.
The days are long and boring
I miss having somewhere to be every day. I miss interacting with adults other than my wife. I miss having a productive day scheduled out in front of me. Some days, I don’t even get out of the house, spending most of time reading online job listings and getting distracted by the internet.
Lately my thoughts have morphed into something resembling an existential crisis. What is the point of my being here on this earth? If I get a job, I will be able to afford a higher standard of living, I will return to the higher social status of the employed, and my family will respect me more — would all of that really be enough to justify my existence? Or would nothing really change? This alarmed my therapist when I mentioned it to him, although I am a long, long way away from self-harm of any kind. This hasn’t been a question I had ever concerned myself with previously; now I’m interested to see how I will answer it when I’m working again.
There is a perception that being unemployed means having free time to explore interests or get in shape. The reality is that it’s pretty hard to find the mental space to do that. I don’t want to get involved a hobby because it feels like a distraction. It would make me embarrassed if I felt like I was spending my time learning how to pilot a drone or something when I really should be looking for a job. I made a promise to myself not to watch any daytime television. It would feel shameful to find myself wasting away in front of the TV at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. While I’m good about avoiding television, I still find myself not being as productive as I want to be.
Instead, I wake up, crack open my laptop fully intending to spend a day applying for jobs and sending reminder emails. That’s when the distraction starts. I promise myself, just a quick glance at Twitter to see what’s going on in the world, and then I look up and it’s 1:15 in the afternoon. Twitter is my heroin — it’s endless content, and if I’m bored by one tweet, I just go on to the next one.
For someone like me, a humanities major who loves to read, the internet is a dangerously absorbing environment. I’ve become incredibly well-read on the election, spending hours tweeting with strangers about esoteric political topics. I’ve started reading books about economic theories to help me better understand my daily news reading. At times it’s felt almost productive, but in the end, I recognize that it’s a waste of time. I could tell someone extensive knowledge about the composite of the 2016 electorate, but it won’t help me get a job. None of this stuff will ever help me become more employable.
There’s social stigma
It’s hard not to worry about what others think about me and why I haven’t been able to find a job. I can sense disapproval coming from my mother and brother, who tell me I should just try harder to not keep getting fired. I rarely socialize, both because I’m ashamed and because dinner with friends is a luxury I just can’t afford, and I don’t know anyone else who is in my situation that I could commiserate with. I’ve lost touch with former co-workers who might be in the same position as me.
I fret that I’m setting a bad example for my kids. I’m afraid that they see me as a cautionary tale, not a role model. When I talk to them, I try to emphasize the importance of hard work and being careful with money. I hope this is the side of me that gets through to them, not the man on his computer, endlessly clicking through applications, unable to muster up the courage to even tell most people the truth.
Most of all, I worry about my wife. I worry that I’m burdening her as the sole breadwinner of our family. Sometimes when she comes home from work, stressed by a bad day at the office, she sees me sitting on my computer in the living room and tells me she’s jealous that I get to stay at home all day. I tell her that she’s the lucky one, waking up and going to an office that needs her, taking home a paycheck for her efforts. But she can’t relate to my day-to-day frustrations, and I can’t relate to hers.
I’ve taken on way more cleaning, cooking, and chore responsibilities since I’ve been not working. I’m not really any good at it. I now have great sympathy for all the housewives out there expected to cover those duties: Housework categorically sucks. No one likes to do it.
There’s a sense of embarrassment that goes along with it too. It’s more socially acceptable for the wife to stay at home and do chores while the husband works. While I’m not ascribing gender roles, it’s safe to say my wife and I both feel somewhat uncomfortable that the situation is reversed in our case. She tells me she’s always pictured herself being the one to stay at home, which is hard for me to hear. I worry that she thinks she married a loser.
It's less the fact that I became unemployed that I want to hide from people. There's no shame in losing a job. The real embarrassment is when I can't get another one, especially in a thriving area like Silicon Valley. I worry that my gainfully employed friends will think there's something wrong with me when they realize how long I’ve been fruitlessly searching.
That’s where the irony lies. I know that the way you get jobs is by getting out there and telling people you’re looking. Using your acquaintances as a network and strengthening social connections is the best way to eventually land employment.
One day I’ll work up the courage. For now, my desperation is a quiet one, hiding behind school soccer pickups and the glow of a computer screen. For now, it’s still my secret.
– as told to Karen Turner
Andy Williams lives in California with his wife and kids.