A lot of things haven’t fallen the right way for Brian E., but failure isn’t an option.
Another rejection letter came in the mail today. This one from the local government, a job only requiring a high school diploma. My current job is more challenging and stressful, yet, someone didn’t see my worth. While in the lobby area waiting to be interviewed for the position, I sat across from a scruffy white male wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans (at an interview). He was competing for the same position, and I can’t help but think that the job went to a less qualified candidate.
The rejection letter before that came from a major local university. I won’t name the university—but I will say that it is the oldest Catholic university west of the Mississippi River. Again, I applied and was interviewed for a position that only required a high school diploma. The pay was very modest but was a little more than I currently make, and it would have allowed me to tackle student loan debt and stay above water. And the job would have provided excellent benefits. Earning less than a livable wage and having no real health benefits (my plan basically only covers checkups) I thought this position would be a step up.
I nailed the interview and was well qualified for the position, but management went with a less qualified candidate. When I called to follow up with the HR representative, I wasn’t told that I was not among the most qualified; she admitted that there was no way that she could tell me that. I have an advanced degree and almost 20 years of experience in the field applied for, with roles ranging from line employee, trainer, and supervisor.
Instead I was told that I “was not the best fit”. Not the best fit? What in the world does that mean? Unbeknownst to the HR representative and the interview panel, I had a source inside the department who was able to confirm that the people they hired had qualifications well below my own. Maybe it was not meant to be. If they aren’t able to see the worth in a good applicant, then it was probably not the best place for me.
This is a situation that has replayed itself at least a half a dozen times since the spring of 2011. The rejection letters seem to come by the bucket load, sometimes several a day. So I am used to it at this point. But the stress of it all has reached levels that I could not have imagined 10 years ago. I am not sure what role, if any, race may be playing in my struggle to find meaningful employment, but I suspect being a black American male plays some role. It definitely isn’t an asset, just as in other parts of my life. I see it as a hindrance in many situations. But I am also one who believes that hard work, education, and experience should overcome all those barriers. I hate to use race as an excuse, although the numbers on minority unemployment and under-employment are real and consistent. Instead I have been looking at other things that may be the cause of so much difficulty.
I’ve been a strong-willed, hard-working, go-getter since the age of 16, but I hit a brick wall. I realize that even a hard-working, go-getter spirit has its limits and can only take you so far in this economy. I have been chronically under-employed for several years, but I have never dealt with the kind of adversity that has come my way recently.
My student loan debt has skyrocketed to at least $75,000, and the creditors want their money. I have no way to pay them, and I want to. There have been major staff shake-ups at work. I have survived the ax so far, but my position is not as secure as it was before. I landed my first job days after my 16th birthday in a federal government summer work program when I lived in Europe. I have worked continuously for the past 20 years. I toiled for years, working full-time while going to college, taking classes both full-time and part-time. I am used to taking care of my financial obligations. So this experience is wrecking my psyche. Not having a good family bond or support network has made things worse. But failure is not an option.
Over the past few months I have hit bottom, like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. I have had my subway station bathroom moment, although I am not homeless. There’s the fear and hopelessness, the idea that I have run out of options, having no idea what to do next and what will come next. I have punched walls and fallen to my knees.
I have stared death in the face a couple of times in my life. I survived abuse in my youth. I can recall going to bed cold and hungry in my early childhood, not having a competent sober mother to take care of me. I survived an experience with a kidnapper—successfully talking him out of getting rid of me—and had at least one other close brush with death in my lifetime. But I can honestly say, the past several years, particularly the last three, have been the worst years of my life.
Being under-employed for so long has had a negative impact on every aspect of my life. I have become even more withdrawn from family—and from life, for that matter. I was always the withdrawn family member, but I have added more layers to my shell. I haven’t spoken to my brother since September 12, 2001, and have not seen him in 19 years. I have two sisters who I have not seen or spoken to in at least four years. There is a stepmother (the only surviving person besides my grandmother, who has taken any part in raising me) who I have not seen or heard from in years. And my grandmother, the woman who basically raised me until age 11, I haven’t seen since around 2004. I rarely even see my own relatives right here in St. Louis.
Part of this has to do with the fact that my relationship with family is dysfunctional, and I have a job that does not afford me the opportunity to get time off for myself. But a large part of it has to do with shame. I am ashamed that I have not succeeded in accomplishing most of my life goals and that I don’t have a successful career. My stepmother and other relatives came to visit other family members in St. Louis over the Fourth of July, and I did not go to see them because I was too ashamed. I did not want them to see me this way. I did not want them to see the under-employed failure. I did not want them to know that I had not moved on from the same crappy job that I had the last time they saw me.
I am the only one out of four children who went to college after high school and the only one with any degrees. I expected to be a success story at this point in my life: a positive example to others in the family. But I have even failed at that. It turns out I am doing no better financially than they are. In fact, a few are doing better than me. I used to preach the importance of educated to my two younger siblings, and now I feel like a fool.
Being under-employed has challenged my life in other ways. It has made me feel less than a man. During the recent Arab Spring protests, the common theme among young men being interviewed seemed to be a sense of profound hopelessness, a struggle with poverty, the lack of employment opportunities for college graduates, and the inability to find a partner and start a family as a result.
Basically, their lives were on hold, frozen as they sought work, leaving them unable to enjoy the rites of passage of manhood. For much of the past decade, my life has been on hold for many of the same reasons. I have been unable to step into my manhood. Being under-employed has meant that dating, finding a suitable mate, and starting a family have not been options for me. I have not had a date in over eight years, nor have I sought one. I just don’t see any point in even trying to enjoy that part of life because my financial situation creates so many limitations. The kind of partner that I want would require a man who is more financially secure.
The inability to claim my manhood, enjoy dating and build a family in my prime years is probably the hardest thing that I am dealing with at the moment. I get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I see men in their mid to late 30’s out with their beautiful families. It makes me sick because a part of me wants what they have, but it is out of reach for me. I cannot have what they have. I know that I am not likely to ever find a partner and start a family because soon I will be too old for even child-bearing partners once I enter my 40s (something that will happen in just a few short years).
For men, under-employment also has a negative impact on intimacy. At least this has been the case for me. Intimacy is something that I have never been able to experience. At age 38, I have never asked a woman out… because I never saw any point in doing so. Rejection fears aside, I have always understood that even if she says yes, my financial position would only allow me to carry things so far. I am old-fashioned in the sense that I believe lives of men should be built in a certain order: high school, college, job/career, financial security and stability, date, get married/engaged/or at least maintain a long term responsible relationship, then build a family. Things just have to go in that order.
As I mentioned, under-employment and unemployment strikes a blow to every aspect of life, especially for men. It prevents you from developing the kinds of social circles that you want (which often lead to finding partners). It limits the kind of networking that you can do. It ultimately limits your dating options. All of the things important to manhood are negatively affected.
My hopes for the future have been scaled back quite a bit. I now realize that a wife and family, or even a normal relationship, will probably not be a part of the picture. Unless I can build a middle class life for myself, my dreams will have to wait, and they will probably die when I die. I may not necessarily want to get married anytime soon. What eats at me is the fact that I don’t have the option to explore marriage and family because of financial limitations and the lack of adequate employment.
Kate Bolick, the author of the Atlantic article “All The Single Ladies,” basically describes men who are in their 30’s and still single, and those who have fallen on hard times, as unmarriageable leftovers. They are the men that she encourages women not to “settle” for. Her idea of a “good man” or a “marriageable” man is one who’s worth is quantified almost exclusively in financial terms. For many women, Bolick suggests, character doesn’t seem to be on the same terms as money or class status when they are sizing up potential mates.
Men impacted by the economy are seen in her eyes as losers, despite the fact that a good match may be found among men who are underemployed or temporarily unemployed—many through no fault of their own.
Bolick goes on to actually make some good points on how cultural changes have altered gender roles and marriage in American society. Since there is more economic parity between the genders, women don’t have to marry men for economic security. This is probably true in some cases, but even women who are financially independent tend to want men who earn more money. Women who have their own careers at least want a financial equal. One would think that more economic parity would make it easier for men to date and marry, but that hasn’t been what I have seen.
Dating for men is more complicated than ever. With incomes rising for women and stagnating for men, it is harder to meet financial expectations. The pressures on men have gone up, not down. Men now have to earn more money to match what women earn. A decent job 20 years ago, earning 30-35k with decent health benefits would probably be enough to meet the standard. That is no longer necessarily the case today.
I wish I lived in times that were less complicated, and where relationships with the opposite sex were built on love, trust, companionship, and character. Dating today is mainly class based, with larger barriers between levels as you move up. With a working class income, I am locked out of middle class and upper-middle class social circles—and that includes dating. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly nothing wrong with the working class, but such circumstances mean that dating options are extremely limited.
There have been many instances where I just wanted to give up. Sleep is a luxury; I usually get two to three hours of sleep at a time. I wake up several times during the night and struggle to get back to sleep. I’m constantly worried about what the next day will bring. My view of life, my country, and the world has changed profoundly over the past decade. I no longer believe in “The American Dream,” as it was packaged and sold to me earlier in life. It’s a fairytale at best.
I once believed that through hard work you could achieve anything and you could be successful. But no one told me about all the other uncontrollable variables. No one told me about the big role that luck plays in turning “The Dream” into reality. Like most Americans, I became conditioned and fell for the notion that “The American Dream” was something obtainable, as long as I kept up my end of the deal. I was basically sold a lie.
In terms of career and financial security, we are supposed to do better than our parents. At least this is what we are told. But I am doing far worse than my father when he was my age, and he never graduated from high school. I am worse off even with a Masters degree. I’m sure that part of the reason has to do with my father’s tenacity.
I got my go-getter spirit from him. He left school at 18 to join the U.S. Army in the mid 1960’s during the Vietnam War. He would later earn his G.E.D. He became an Army Ranger and jumped out of helicopters in Vietnam, surviving two tours. By the time he reached my age, he was a drill sergeant and was just about to meet his second wife. He built a life for himself and his family through the military—a route that he said he took so that his children wouldn’t have to.
But how could it be that I am having a more difficult time? With a Master’s degree, I’m earning what a high school graduate earns. But I’m not alone. Fifty-five percent of respondents in an April 2011 Gallup poll believed that it was unlikely that their standard of living would be better than that of their parents.
Some of my co-workers think that college degrees and a good work history should make job hunting should be easy. But there are tons of people in my hometown of St. Louis who have BA’s and Masters degrees who are waiting tables. St. Louis is a great town, but there is very little industry here. St. Louis met the same fate that Detroit and other industrial cities have met. It used to be our second Motor City and was also a defense industry behemoth. But over the past 20 years or so, St. Louis has seen the loss of over a half-dozen Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies, along with the loss of corporate headquarters including TWA, McDonnell-Douglass, and Anheuser-Busch. There are just not as many options for College graduates today as there were in the past.
So how does a man maintain his manhood and dignity while living under-employed, especially when manhood and dignity are tied to “work“ and being the provider? How do you do it when unemployed for that matter? I don’t know. I have not found the answer. I have not been able to claim my dignity in the way that I should, and I certainly have not been able to claim my manhood. But I believe in picking myself up and dusting myself off no matter how many times I get knocked down. Keeping myself busy seems to be an effective way to cope. You have to find what works for you.
I am about a year and a half away from earning another Master’s degree and six months from earning a graduate certificate. I am hoping that a combination of these new approaches will yield better results in the coming new year.
Failure is not an option.