'I Played By The Rules' -- 'The Rules Have Changed'

On July 17, 2009, Terry Harris of Jonesville, S.C., lost her job as an executive assistant at a promotional products company. The company, she says, went belly up.

"My boss actually cried when I was let go," she says. "I have an excellent letter of recommendation from him."

In other words, Harris says, "It was purely an economic thing." She lost her job through no fault of her own.

What she doesn't understand is why she's still unemployed and why her husband's been bounced from one wretched low-paying job to another. Why, she asks, if they both finished high school, got some post-secondary education, have solid work histories and held off on having kids, is it such a struggle to pay for things like getting the car fixed and visiting the dentist?

"I think the thing that keeps me going is knowing that we are really lucky, even in spite of the challenges that we are facing," says Harris in an email. "I can't help but feel badly for those that I know are worse off than we are. And I am truly grateful. And knowing that we are not alone helps a great deal, too. But it seems to be getting harder. Harder not to worry, not to cry, not to give up hope. We did everything right, I thought."

She's right: It is getting harder.

President Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union address, talked about how most people could remember the good old days, when getting a job meant showing up at a factory after finishing high school. "If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion," the president said, adding that he understood "the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear -- proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game."

"They’re right," Obama continued. "The rules have changed."

Indeed they have. And for many who have been out of work for a long time and are willing to share their thoughts with a reporter, the new rules are merciless.

"Good, decent people who worked hard, did everything right, believed in the American Dream have been destroyed," writes a Californian who said her brother killed himself after job loss collapsed his financial situation.

"On the eve of my 60th birthday and without marketable skills I have no chance of ever finding a job again in the traditional economy," writes a North Carolinian who's been out of work nearly two years. "I am determined to survive this horror show. But my survival will not be determined by our broken economy. It’s 'think outside the box' time. Traditional methods obviously won’t work for people like me."

“I did everything right, I played by the rules, I got skills, I excelled in my job, all to no avail," writes a New Jerseyan who said he lost his job in 2010. "I don’t know what I’m going to do. All the years of both parties talking about free trade agreements and how we will retrain America was just a bunch of BS; it was easy to say all that when times were good."

And so on. By the way: Just what the hell are the new rules? What follows is a brief handbook.

Don’t Be Old

Harris suspects age discrimination is a big reason why she can't find work. She's not even 40, but she's keenly aware of her years. She says she and her husband didn't have children because they wanted to wait till they had a more secure financial situation. Under the old rules, after all, age brought economic security for decent people.

"We wanted to wait till we could afford it, and now look -- I’m 39 last month."

And when she applied online for a job at Bojangles Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits earlier this year, the application form required her to disclose her date of birth. Several big companies, including Target, Kroger and Home Depot, do the same thing. It's illegal to discriminate by age and to specify an age preference in a job ad, but it's not illegal to ask about age, though employment law experts say doing so does bear a whiff of discrimination.

Workers older than 55 are less likely to lose their jobs, but the average jobless spell for older workers lasts longer than a year, compared with an average layoff of 39.5 weeks for workers younger than 55.

Age discrimination is unbearably obvious to anyone over 50 who's been in the job market for more than a short time, but it's impossible to prove. You can't beat it. That's why it's a rule.

Don't Be Unemployed

Employers openly discriminate against the unemployed in job postings on sites like craigslist and Monster every day. A May 16 craigslist posting for a restaurant manager in Salisbury, Md., for instance, specifies that applicants "must be currently employed or recently unemployed." Last year, after reporters asked, global phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson claimed its ad that said "NO UNEMPLOYED CANDIDATES WILL BE CONSIDERED AT ALL" was a mistake.

It's not illegal to have such a rule, but in response to stories about the phenomenon on The Huffington Post, state and federal lawmakers in the past year have tried to ban overt discrimination against the unemployed.

Don't Pin Your Hopes On College

The unemployment rate for college grads is 4.5 percent, and it never got much higher than that during the Great Recession. For high school dropouts, it's 14.6 percent. So finishing college pays.

But this old rule's been bent. New college grads these days face a huge pile of debt and an unemployment rate near 10 percent. And among people who've been out of work 99 weeks or longer, a college degree doesn't mean anything. High school dropouts and grads were equally represented among the 1.4 million people out of work that long as of last October, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Don't Expect To Make More Money At Your Next Job

Sure, the private sector's been adding jobs, but they're crappy jobs. The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, reported in February that low-wage industries like retail and administrative support via temp agencies account for 49 percent of job growth in the past year. The same sector only accounted for 23 percent of the jobs lost in the recession. By contrast, higher-paying industries constituted 40 percent of job losses, but just 14 percent of growth.

Bob Poropatich of Pittsburgh has been working part-time as a barista since he lost his job as a manager for a major clothing retailer in 2008. He says he'd been with the company for six years and had 30 years of experience. He has a master's degree. He'd been making $65,000 a year; now, he says, he makes about $180 a week.

Did he do something wrong in his life, or is he falling backward by chance?

"This is random and pointless," Poropatich says. "I didn’t choose to age. I didn’t choose to be 59. I didn’t choose to be laid off. Every decision was made by a higher power and an HR director."

Poropatich says that in the five job interviews he's had, he has tried to get around the rule against being old by promising his hiring won't raise a company's insurance premiums. It hasn't worked.

"I said, 'By the way, I won’t be applying for health benefits and things like that since I already have my own coverage.' They say, 'Okay, thank you.' Nobody is impressed by it. I would think that’s the biggest thing."

He says the worst moment was when his former employer came to his coffeeshop.

"My ex boss, the one who laid me off, came in and ordered a venti mocha," Poropatich says. "It didn’t faze him at all. I felt like I was two inches tall. I wanted to say, 'Excuse me,' and run into the bathroom."