April 23, 2015

The Secret to Surviving Long-Term Unemployment

Author: Dr. Janice Harper

It never occurred to me that I would be unemployed in mid-life. Well, yes, it had occurred to me when my tits were still perky and my mind malleable, so I went to grad school, got a Ph.D. and embarked on what was once a promising and stellar career. But after I found myself in the cross-hairs of those in institutional power, my carefully-constructed career came tumbling down and before I knew it, I was a single mother out of work in mid-life, heading straight for a cardboard box in some downtown doorway where a pint of spirits in a brown paper bag might be my only hope. Life gets that way sometimes.

While I haven't yet fallen that far through the cracks of life, I have learned a few things along the way. The first is that once the paycheck goes, so, too, do the friends and colleagues. Next to go are the designer clothes and unscuffed shoes, and after that, the high credit score and weekly pizzas. Soon it's socks and underwear and not long after, food for the kid and gas for the car. Before you know it, phone sex and drug dealing sound like wise career moves, and pre-demise estate sales are just another way of rejecting life in the material world while tiny homes parked in someone's driveway become retirement aspirations.

Let's face it. The number one reason people find themselves stuck in the muck of the long-termed unemployed is because they're too damned old. The likelihood that anyone would hire an extremely qualified person over 40 who has been out of work for more than six months is far less than the likelihood they'll win the MegaMillions. Indeed, my guess is that the editors of this very essay have never interviewed, much less hired, anyone who has lived more than four decades, or if they had, they've concluded they just weren't a "good fit."*

It's time to have a bad fit. It's time to throw one big, everlasting, global shit fit over the fact that anyone out of work and born in the 20th century is not going to be hired in this 21st century effervescent-youth-trumps-all-economy.

But having such a fit won't get anyone very far. All it will do is prove that the old and unemployed can't handle daily stress. So, in the spirit of self-renewal and nauseating optimism, here are my top 10 tips for finding work when work won't have you.

First, look good. No matter how dismal your hopes, keep the hair cut, the nails manicured and the clothes pressed and cleaned. Never let yourself look as dismal as you feel. Stay clean and mowed and preferably, tanned if you're white, lightened if you're dark, and adorned with something pricey, like stolen cuff links or glittering but understated earrings that scream, "Kept Woman."

Second, pretend you like it. There's no sense acting like this unemployment thing is something you don't welcome. The older you are, the more likely you "retired early." Bask in it, like the undeserved heir you wish you were. Better yet, own it. Turn unemployment into a social science experiment and consider yourself a research subject. See what happens to your ideology when you don't get out of bed and make rolling over a form of stress-resistant exercise. You just might learn something. Or not.

Third, eat well. Even if you can't afford anything more than beans and rice, make them Cajun beans and rice. If all you can afford is broth, then make it consomm√©. Stock up on some decent spices and oils and turn anything you're eating into a foodie's wet dream. No sense in putting something bad inside your body when your body is all you've got left. And don't forget the chocolate.

Fourth, consider drugs. Why experience the painful emotions of depression, anguish, rage and misery, when you can easily destroy them? Whether alcohol, marijuana, narcotics, television or a socially acceptable script for psychotropics, there's always something to blot out reality and numb the pain before it ever has a chance of reaching your troubled neurons. Don't turn to drugs you cannot handle, but find those you clearly can. If that means a good anti-depressant or a bad baggy of weed, find it, consume it, and tell yourself you're self-medicating. It won't solve the problem and it will probably make it worse, but at least it will dumb it down, which is the best that you can hope for. After all, let's face it, you're heading straight for a green apron at Starbucks if you're lucky, so might as well have some fun until you get there.

Fifth, lie to yourself. Tell yourself over and over that it will get better, even when all the evidence proves it won't. The more you convince yourself that your long-term unemployment is just a detour on the road to finding your bliss, the more you can put off the inevitable, which is the harsh reality that the world no longer wants you. Don't go there. Lies have value; embrace them.

Sixth, get a website. Put your face out there with a halfway decent slogan, and before you know it, people will think you're worth something. There's no need to tell them that you're unemployed if you can rebrand with a photo-shopped image of yourself as some sort of expert, sage or guru. There's nothing you haven't done or didn't do that you can't turn into a victory for self-rejuvenation; even serial killers have followed their passion and gotten things done. Treat yourself like the latest bacon novelty and you'll be surprised how far you'll go. You'll at least get as far as Kansas, if not Mississippi.

Seventh, get stupid. There's nothing to be gained by introspection, especially when it leads to the inevitable conclusion that you really blew it. Better to convince yourself that people are beautiful and so are you and in no time you'll have your own Ted Talk and become an internet billionaire. Stupidity is bliss and what that means is that if you don't think about anything for any length of time, you will by default find yourself content. Go with it. Denial brings you far more than awareness ever will. Be smart, which is to say, get stupid. You'll be better off without the brain cells.

Eighth, become a cobbler. Cobble together an income from an array of sources.  Write how-to ebooks, coach people on how to organize their closets, and give piano lessons.  And if you can't play piano, figure out what you can do. Sell home-baked muffins, sew designer clothes for spoiled pets, clean your neighbors’ toilets.  And whatever you do, teach something, even if it’s just how to add and subtract or how to change a tyre. It will help pay the rent when the paychecks are gone, and if the paychecks do by chance come back, it will give you some income to pay off the credit cards you racked up during those dark days of unemployment. Most of all, it will remind you that you do have worth even while the world tells you otherwise. Teach something, even if you do it for free. Teaching saves lives, and yours needs saving. Just do it. Preferably with a candelabra and three-piece suit made out of rhinestones.

Eighth, serve soup to the homeless. Or drive cancer patients to their chemotherapy. Or plant flowers for the elderly who can no longer get down on their knees. Find someone who is worse off than you and use your spare time to help them survive. Get out of yourself and before you know it, you'll realize other people are in even worse shape -- and you're in much better shape than you know. Help others. They need it, as much as you do, if not more. Get humble. It does wonders for the ego.

Ninth, turn to magic. Whether that means religion, psychics or plain old fashioned hocus pocus, place your bets on the improbable, because the probable is a losing hand and that's the last thing that you need. Pray for a miracle, wager on the stars or buy the occasional lottery ticket (not more than a buck a week), and you'll have everlasting hope. And hope is what you need when reality tells you otherwise. Believe in magic and you're bound to survive. Believe in reality and you'll jump off a bridge. Don't go there.

And finally, never forget that it only takes one. For all the times you've tried to find work, connived for work, and begged for work, you only need one person to give you a shot at survival. No matter how many hundreds have turned you down, ignored you, denied you, or turned rabidly against you, the cold, hard truth is that you only need one. You only need one person to give you a shot, so never lose sight of that one. And never let that one down. No matter how humble the work or how beneath your qualifications, give that one person your very best. And believe that that one person is out there, to give you that one hand that you need, to pull you out of despair. It's your choice, to drown or reach out a hand. Reach your hand out, and maybe, just maybe, that one person you don't yet know, will grasp it and pull you to shore.

I've been a long time unemployed, and in that time, I've survived not by counting on friends (most of whom let me down), and not by polishing my resume or projecting a "youthful image." Those are lies fit only for the early unemployed. I've survived by pushing the worries aside, believing in miracles, and believing in myself. And most of all, by believing in that one person who will reach out their hand and pull me out of the quagmire of demoralizing long-term unemployment.

It's unfair, it's unjust, and it's a disgrace that our society discards its own in middle-age. But if there's one thing that I've learned by being unemployed it's that one way or another, I and my family will survive. And so will you, if you do nothing more than reach deep inside yourself, and pull out all the laughter and joy and magic you've long buried, hurl it far into the universe and scream, "I belong!" Because you do, and one way or another, you, too, can and will survive.

But until then, let's tell everyone we know, and everyone who's listening, that the long-termed unemployed should move not to the back, but to the front of the employment lines—because they are the ones with experience, they are the ones who've endured, and they are the ones who will stick with the job, long after youth will flee. Anything less is discrimination and anything less is folly.

But for those standing in line with nothing more than hope at the end of their sleeve, never forget that most will discriminate and most will cave in to folly from shear ignorance. But there's always one who won't. So for the long-term unemployed, the task is simple. Find just that one. And until then, stay stupid, stoned and strong.

*This essay was originally published in The Huffington Post, a publication which condemns any form of discrimination; any suggestion that they would not employ editors over the age of legal consent is purely mean-spirited and, while no doubt statistically defensible, is not based on any actual knowledge of their hiring decisions or mind set.  After all, they do include articles about hot sex for grandmas, and that should count for something.

Janice Harper ©2014

About the author: Janice Harper is a cultural anthropologist whose writing spans a range of topics, from workplace aggression to parenting to food. She is the author of Mobbed! A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing, and has ghostwritten several non-fiction books. 

An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Huffington Post, August 23, 2014. This revised version appears here with the author's kind permission.

Photo: by las via flickr


  1. Janice I loved reading this article. Everything you say really nails just what it's like to be out of work for a long while. And the same experience seems to be true, whether unemployed in the USA - Australia, or the UK. And thanks for the practical, succinct advice regarding how to remain sane, and boosting our unemployed "immune systems". Cheers, Jane

  2. Thanks for posting this article Carmen. Janice really nailed it in describing being middle-aged long-term employed, and gave practical advice to survive. My tip is to ask friends not to keep asking " Are you working yet?" To which I reply " No, and I will let you know when I get a job. In the meantime, please stop asking, as it's upsetting to me to be continually reminded of my unemployed status". Sometimes it's like walking around with a big neon arrow pointed at me that says "UNEMPLOYED". Hey, maybe that's an idea for an art installation. Now where's a Govt arts grant form...Nope.
    Keep strong, it only takes one job to make a difference.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Jenny.

    2. Janice just like you I have been unemployed for quite some time. I have been thinking of writing a blog like this now for quite some time. I myself have made a few changes like you have over the years. To look good and never be like a down and outer. I have made a copy of this blog. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. Hello hopefully my comment will go to Dr Janice. I've been mobbed hard last year - all year at work. Now I am out of work. Really its been very hard. Dr Janice's advice are healing - at least helped me understand what's happening to me. I think these things must be taught at University/ high school before you join the work world - just to help prepare psychologically of dangers ahead!!.

    1. Hi, Dr Janice writes for the Huffington Post, so more of her articles can be found there. And yes I found this piece really grounding and helpful too. It's nice to read a bit of non-judgementmental intuitive advice. And agree, with you, any help in the area of psychological support is key.