Brian Shea has seen a recessionary job market before, and knows he’s lucky to have come through it, and learned from it.
Driving to work not long ago, I passed a car with out-of-state plates. Two proud parents traveled I-95 with their son in the back and all his earthly belongings stacked to the ceiling. Judging from the university stickers on the rear window, it appeared another September had arrived.
“I don’t envy that kid,” I said to my wife. “He’s on his way to college.”
With long-term unemployment the new normal, legions of young people with dreams of a career are frantically going straight to Plan B, which often involves moving back in with parents and taking whatever odd jobs that turn up, if any.
Watching the college-bound car pull ahead of mine, the limitless hope I felt so many Septembers ago returns to me vividly, tempered by the disappointment that followed. Both were formative emotions and remain with me to this day, re-ignited by small moments like these that I don’t see coming. If the young man in that car in any way resembles me at his age, his pride and even sense of identity may be in for a brutal beating.
Like many young men starting out, I was in search of more than a career when I finished college in 1991. Then as now, the first two questions at any respectable cocktail party in America were, “what is your name?” and “what do you do?” in that order. The younger man I was at 22 would dread the question, worrying that my answer betrayed the fact that I had not yet achieved sufficient professional rank to answer with pride. It mattered, at least to me.
The answer I give now would please my younger self. I have “made it” by the standards I held myself to back then, establishing myself professionally just as I’d hoped. But the cumulative experiences that got me here demand that I qualify my response by adding that if I lost it all tomorrow, my pride and identity would survive fully intact. That would shock my younger self. The man I am now knows better.
American men often measure their self-worth by their employment, leaving their pride at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control. When I graduated from college, I was no exception. I couldn’t even enter a movie theater without popular culture reminding me that the job made the man. I recall being about 19 years old, James Bond on the silver screen in front of me, being told that disobeying orders could result in his dismissal from the Secret Service. “If they fire me, I’ll thank them for it,” Bond responds.
I was startled. James Bond quit? What would he do? Find work at Goldman Sachs? It was like watching the Pope shrug off religion or Julia Child deciding she didn’t care for cooking after all. James Bond wasn’t cool because of who he was. He was cool because of what he did. In another occupation, he was just another tired playboy. But I was about to learn that my opinion on this matter said more about me than the fictional character who apparently believed he was more than the sum of his career.
Many now forget that in 1991, newly-minted college graduates faced a grim economic horizon. The United States was in recession and the job market was gasping for breath at precisely the moment I was trying to enter it. Diploma in international affairs in hand, I spent five months looking for a job, any job, to no avail.
By September, I was glad to find myself behind the cash register at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in my native New Hampshire, albeit for an hourly wage that did not cover rent. I was lucky to get full-time hours and insurance; the company was giving my part-time colleagues 39.5 hours a week, allowing Barnes & Noble to forgo benefits but not allowing them enough time to work a second job.
In the particular bookstore I worked in, the management required us to wear shirts and ties while working, an unusual convention for retail. On a bright fall day, I was shelving business books when a familiar face approached. The young man was well dressed and extended his hand in greeting. I hadn’t seen him since high school–he had dropped out–but was now a successful businessman.
We chatted for several minutes but as we did, I felt my shoulders slowly slumping. His questions to me assumed I was in the business section of a bookstore as a customer, not an employee. I glanced downwards and noticed I had forgotten to put on my name tag, which would otherwise identify my occupation. He thought I’d been as successful as he was.
As we talked, I waited for the moment when I would have to correct his mistake. As a college graduate, I was making less money than his executive assistant and lived with my mother. I spent the rest of the day reminding myself, imploring myself, that you take the work you can get and do what you must to survive. But the fact that I had to repeat this mantra to myself several times a day exposed the fact that I still felt like a failure. I had gone to college to live, not just survive. And I was barely doing even that.
I never believed that any job was below any man. Several of my bookstore colleagues chose this path and enjoyed the trade they had chosen. And I envied them. They had the relaxed confidence of someone who had made it. They had realized their dreams. They just weren’t my dreams.
Sharing my hopelessness and stress born of debt were several colleagues with similar stories. A laid-off teacher. Another who had made it through several years of college before his father lost his job, requiring my co-worker to leave school and come home. We all lived with our parents. We would stand behind the cash registers telling each other our stories while accepting resumes from PhDs, to whom we’d have to apologize and explain we were no longer hiring.
After four years, I would leave Barnes & Noble. The economy had greatly improved, but my prospects remained stagnant. I would drift for several more years, incur more debt by attending graduate school, and live in Asia for another three years working at more odd jobs.
I had been raised to believe that hard work paid off, but I had also developed a new appreciation for the role chance plays in our lives. My eventual career in government was not borne of luck or even persistence, but tragedy. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks reversed a decade-long hiring freeze in government and I joined the ranks of thousands descending on Washington trying to make a difference. And I was hired over others whose talents equalled or surpassed mine. I did not deserve success any more than they did.
Chance, spawned by national calamity, simply picked my name at random and elected me to have a career alongside my new colleagues, most of whom were ten years younger than myself. For many of them, it was their first job out of college.
Twenty years after I left the bookstore, a lot of what I hold dearest is born of those times of injured pride and professional “failure.” Some of my closest friends were made in the bookstore and I still see them regularly. Every Halloween, I meet men I’ve known since I was 15 at the base of a mountain in New Hampshire. We hike to the peak, camping and catching up on each other’s lives.
While at Barnes & Noble in the 1990s, I invited my bookseller friends to join me and they’ve been coming every year since. This year will be the 28th year of our hike, though my bookseller friends have been coming for less than that. But they have joined the original group of hikers, all fusing into one fraternal group who can barely remember a time in which they were not all friends.
A year ago this month, my mother died unexpectedly. During my years of underemployment, it embarrassed me to still live with my mother. I should have made it on my own and I had failed. But now, in the comfort of my own home all these years later, I close my eyes and return to those lucky days when I could talk with her every morning and evening, stealing cookies she’d left by the window to cool on my way out to the bookstore. My wife, whom I met later while drifting in Asia in search of a future, has been a source of loving comfort to me when I have one of her cookies, made in our own kitchen from my mother’s recipe, that reminds me of days long ago.
My younger self would likely fast forward through this long road to our career, skipping to the part of the movie in which I achieved success in the end. I don’t know how he’d react if I explained to him that he would spend a decade in the professional wilderness before he got there. I’d probably spend more time describing the friends he’d make in the process, friends who would be his companions for as long as he lived. I’d tell him that his aimless drifting would lead him to a woman on the other side of the planet who would become his wife. I would tell him it would be the last chance to spend time with his mother before she was gone.
Most important of all, I’d tell him that was the kind of failure he could take pride in.