Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
One evening after work, or at least the hours during which most people engage in employment-related activities, Lat and I sit in his office, contemplating an evening stroll. The office has the deserted feel that settles over most workplaces as the summer winds down, and I find myself waiting for a tumbleweed to blow by, rattling gently past the empty desks and rustling the leaves of the donut plant, which droop with late-season crullers. At some point, when we weren’t looking, August slipped away and turned to September, announcing its presence with cold evenings that jolted us from our summer reverie. Fall, I think, is like a cruel gym teacher, snapping our unguarded bums with a wet towel.
“How did this happen?” I wail plaintively, shivering. “I want a few more months of sunshine and warm weather.”
Lat strokes his chin thoughtfully. “Well,” he says absentmindedly, “I guess it has something to do with the tilting of the earth on its axis, relative to the sun. But I was an English major, so I’m just guessing.”
We spend a few minutes lamenting the advent of fall. No more seminude Hollister hotties, I remind Lat. No more flip-flops, he counters. Though the loss of these small luxuries is predictable, it is no less painful. We sigh glumly.
The end of summer is always wistful, like the day after Christmas or first love. One moment the world glitters with warmth and possibility, and even the air around you seems kinder. But when you look again, these pieces of ephemera — drooping stands of tinsel, the giddy thrill recorded in your diary — stare back, nothing more than frail relics of passing brightness. The most radiant instants slip away too fast, laying bare the impermanence of magic.
Usually, however, the sadness of summer’s end is offset by the renewed energy of fall. Fall is when things begin again: vacation ends, judges return from their summer travels, and cases resume. People have purpose! Having rested and loafed, they are ready to face the tasks at hand with renewed vigor, attired in new clothes. Perhaps this is why, this year, summer’s passing seems even crueler. This year, I have nothing to go back to.
Dragging your sweaters out of the closet and shivering through colder weather sucks, but it’s easier to bear when you’re absorbed in work. Without productive activity, it is hard not to focus on the indignities, from the ridiculous to the sublime. (No more ice cream cones on our favorite park bench! No collectively dorky First Monday excitement to share with colleagues!)
“Well,” Lat finally says, “it could be worse. In fact …” I see a familiar gleam in his eye, and sense a suggestion brewing. He begins to dig through a precariously stacked pile of paper of his desk, which, predictably, teeters and cascades onto the floor. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “Paper avalanche.” Eventually, he pulls out an article from the New York Times, entitled “Middle Aged, Laid Off, and Losing Hope: At 58, a Life Story in Need of a Rewrite.”
The subject of the article is Michael Blattman, M.B.A. and former executive at a student loan company. Blattman, who is 58, enjoyed a successful career, and “at his high point, earned $225,000 in salary and bonuses…. He also taught business courses at the Univeristy of Maryland; lived in a 4,000 square foot home in upscale Potomac, Maryland, and drove a Mercedes.”
But those days are past for Blattman, who lost his job in January 2008. Although he received a handsome severance package ($188,000), his is not the story of a man who is walking in high cotton. Rather, after more than eighteen months of unemployment, he is still without a job, and appears to be losing faith in the possibility that he will find one. Indeed, despite his impressive credentials, Blattman’s search has been fruitless:
[A]fter applying for 600 jobs, he’s had just three interviews — two of them over the phone. At the only in-person interview, for a position supervising international admissions at a Westchester County college, he was asked about salary. “I said: ‘Whatever you’re paying, I’ll take it. I understand it’s a different world now, I can adapt.’ ” The job went to someone half his age, he says.
Although Blattman has savings that will last him for two to three years, making him luckier than many, his current financial security feels illusory. Still, according to the Times article, “he wakes in the night, scared. ‘If I don’t find work by then,’ he says, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do.’”
Middle-aged workers like Blattman are experiencing the highest rates of unemployment since these statistics were first collected 60 years ago. Although these workers are still employed at a higher rate than their younger counterparts, they have a harder time finding new jobs once they are laid off.
“I know that things are grim for you in the breadline,” Lat says, “but don’t you think that being jobless, and afraid that one has no translatable skills, must be exponentially more terrifying at age 58 than it is at thirty-something? Maybe you younger breadliners shouldn’t feel so bad about your situations.”
Sure, I tell him. As thirty-somethings, we would all do well to remember that things could be worse. We should keep in mind that, while we may not have jobs (or identifiable employment prospects) at the moment, we at least have more time to prepare for retirement and the complications of old age than, say, Mr. Blattman.
But, while there are certainly differences between a situation like mine and the pickle Mr. Blattman is in, I am more struck by the similarities. Sure, there are singular aspects of being a laid-off lawyer (or banker, or auto worker, or store clerk), but life in the breadline is, in the end, strangely egalitarian. It’s a uniter, not a divider.
For example, Blattman talks about being part of an industry (financial services) in which “entire companies and divisions collapsed and disappeared. ‘It wasn’t anything about me personally,’ he says. ‘The world around me just changed. Like East Germany, one day it was there, next day gone.’”
Sound familiar? Perhaps you once toiled in your firm’s structured finance or real estate practice group, or worked at a venerable firm, like Thelen Reid. Maybe you thought your firm was doing well just before you and 46 of your friends and colleagues were laid off. Of course, we’re not the auto industry, but “wholesale collapse” is a concept whose time has come to the world of Big Law.
Also analogous is Blattman’s job search, which reminds me of countless others I’ve heard about — not to mention the one I’ve experienced first-hand:
Mr. Blattman has many people to commiserate with, but few to network with. “Ninety percent of the people I worked with lost jobs,” he says.
After his layoff, he bought two suits, “to be prepared for the glut of interviews.” He’s never worn them.
Companies insist applications be sent via e-mail. “I’d say 95 percent never even acknowledge receiving my application, let alone telling me I was rejected. No letters, no courtesy, everything is so chaotic and rude.”
Even headhunters stopped responding. “One tried to help for a few weeks, but disappeared and didn’t return phone calls or e-mails.”
“I’d see ads for business jobs, teaching jobs, that were my exact résumé and not even get a call. So many are out of work, if they want a guy with polka dots on his head, they can find polka dots.”
And, not surprisingly, Blattman’s description of daily life in the breadline — the aimlessness; the tedium, punctuated by pangs of financial and career-related terror; the paralyzing guilt; and the struggle to maintain perspective — sounds like many of the stories I’ve heard, and probably a few I’ve told:
Being single, [Blattman] wants to be in New York City, but lives in a studio apartment in this middle-class suburb, because rents are cheaper. He let his online dating membership lapse because, he says, once women figured out he was unemployed, it killed things. He can walk to shopping, but often drives his secondhand S.U.V. to a grocery store two towns away just to have someplace to go. “If I walk to the store, I’m back in 10 minutes, and then what?”
“Here’s the reality,” he continues. “I used to be somebody, I had a job. Not anymore. Everything ground to a halt. No sense of purpose. No self-esteem.”
Filling the days is a chore. He goes for the $2.99 breakfast special at a nearby diner every morning, just to get out and be around people.
A few times a week, he rides the train into Manhattan, to a museum or street fair, just to be out. “I’ll walk from Union Square to the Upper East Side, walk through Central Park and just get lost and see where I come out.”
His father, a truck driver who survived the Depression, instilled the importance of hard work in his children by planting the fear of homelessness, and Mr. Blattman cannot walk by a street person now without wondering if this could be him.
When he’s out, he feels guilty he’s not home, hunting the Internet for job prospects.
After discussing Mr. Blattman’s story, Lat and I come to several conclusions. First, we determine, he has confirmed my suspicions: stupid polka-dotted lawyers are taking all the good jobs. Second, we decide that — given the long holiday weekend and the unmitigated sloth that you, dear readers, probably have planned — a small homework assignment is in order. You can thank us later for breaking up the tedium of your days — sort of like Sudoku!
First, we want to hear from ATL/Notes from the Breadline readers over age fifty (give or take a few years) about your experiences — past or present — with being laid off, being unemployed, and searching for a job. (If you are too young to fit into this category, but have parents who have been laid off/unemployed/looking for work, feel free to tell us about their experiences.)
Second, dear readers, we want to hear about what you are doing to fill your days in the breadline, especially if you are among the long-term unemployed (six months or more). Are you writing a novel, like Mr. Blattman? Purchasing each item on your grocery list at a different store, thereby prolonging the (time-sucking) magic of shopping for food? Polishing up your Match.com profile, in the hope that you can successfully DWUI?
Finally, we’d like to hear your opinions about (a) the very worst part of prolonged unemployment (the drift from hope to despair? the disillusionment? the financial strain? the fact that your first-grade teacher has taken up residence in your head in order to remind you that “idle hands do the devil’s work”?) AND (b) the parts — if any — that are not so bad. Hell, there might even be some that you consider downright good, like never having to wear panty hose or high heels.
Please send your responses to yours truly, Roxana St. Thomas, by email. You can also post in the comments, but email is preferred.
With that, Notes from the Breadline friends and family, we wish you a very happy Labor Day. Rest, loaf, and return ready to face the tasks at hand with renewed vigor, attired in new clothes.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at email@example.com), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline