Shelf Life

EXCERPT: Pinched

Christina Huh Aug 5, 2011

The following is an excerpt from Pinched: How the Great Recession has Narrowed Our Futures.  Listen to an interview with author Don Peck here.

Especially in middle-aged people, long accustomed to the routine of the office or factory, unemployment seems to produce a crippling disorientation. At a series of workshops for the unemployed that I attended around Philadelphia in late 2009, the participants–mostly men, and most of them older than forty–described the erosion of their identities, the isolation of being jobless, and the indignities of downward mobility. Over lunch I spoke with one attendee, Gus Poulos, a Vietnam-era veteran who had begun his career as a refrigeration mechanic before going to night school and becoming an
accountant. He was trim and powerfully built, and looked much younger than his fifty-nine years. For seven years, until he was laid off in December 2008, he was a senior financial analyst for a local hospital.

Poulos said that his frustration had built and built over the past year. “You apply for so many jobs and just never hear anything,” he told me. “You’re one of my few interviews. I’m just glad to have an interview with anybody,” even a reporter. Poulos said he was an optimist by nature, and had always believed that with preparation and steady effort, he could overcome whatever obstacles life put before him. But sometime in the past year, he’d lost that sense, and at times he felt aimless and adrift. “That’s never been who I am,” he said. “But now, it’s who I am.”

Recently he’d gotten a part-time job as a cashier at Walmart, for $8.50 an hour. “They say, ‘Do you want it?’ And in my head, I thought, ‘No.’ And I raised my hand and said, ‘Yes.’ ” Poulos and his wife met when they were both working as supermarket cashiers,
four decades earlier–it had been one of his fi rst jobs. “Now, here I am again.”

Poulos’s wife was still working–as a quality-control analyst at a food company–and that had been a blessing. But both were feeling the strain, fi nancial and emotional, of his situation. She commutes about a hundred miles every weekday, which makes for long days. His hours at Walmart were on weekends, so he didn’t see her much anymore and didn’t have much of a social life.

Some neighbors were at the Walmart a couple of weeks earlier, he said, and he rang up their purchase. “Maybe they were used to seeing me in a different setting,” he said–in a suit as he left for work in the morning, or walking the dog in the neighborhood. Or “maybe they were daydreaming.” But they didn’t greet him, and he didn’t say anything. He looked down at his soup, pushing it around the bowl with his spoon for a few seconds before looking back up at me. “I know they knew me,” he said. “I’ve been in their home.”

A 2010 study sponsored by Rutgers University found a host of social and psychological ailments among people who’d been unemployed for seven months or more: 63 percent were suffering from sleep loss, 46 percent said they’d become quick to anger, and 14 percent had developed a substance dependency. A majority were avoiding social encounters with friends and acquaintances, and 52 percent said relationships within their family had become strained. Like other studies of long-term unemployment, the report describes a growing isolation, a warping of family dynamics, and a slow separation
from mainstream society.

There is unemployment, a brief and relatively routine transitional state that results from the rise and fall of companies in any economy, and there is unemployment–chronic, all-consuming. The former is a necessary lubricant in any engine of economic growth. The latter is a pestilence that slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, society itself. Indeed, history suggests that it is perhaps society’s most noxious ill.

Copyright @ 2011 by Don Peck. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Trade, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

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