Unemployment: Dispatch From Among the 9.4%

A week ago, I found myself surrounded by a room full of strangers listening to confident young man expound on the dos and don'ts of resume writing and acing a job interview. Ok, so "found myself" isn't exactly accurate. In truth, I was required to be there by the Department of Labor, as were my classmates who, like me, had all been collecting unemployment for at least six months, most of us more.

We were a diverse group, united by the fact of being out of work for longer than the higher-ups at the DOL believe we should be. A little guidance was what we needed, our Job Search Follow-Up summonses explained, in the form of a mandatory hour-long workshop on the myriad ways in which the Department of Labor is here to help -- preceded by 60 minutes of waiting in an unstaffed windowless room wondering if anyone actually knew we were there. If we failed to attend, the letters said, we would risk losing our weekly unemployment benefits. The room was full.

The workshop was led by a deep-voiced 30-something man in a standard-issue jacket and tie. I had to give the guy credit. Day in and day out he stands before countless representatives of the disgruntled formerly-employed and manages to maintain both professionalism and a sense of humor while doing so. Ironically, as jobs go, telling people how to get one -- especially people who didn't ask in the first place -- is probably not high on anyone's list. Among our instructor's words of wisdom was a warning: "Showing up for an interview 15 minutes early is appropriate -- showing up an hour early is desperate," and an existential question to ponder: "People put on masks every day -- to the employer, are you the true you or are you the interview you?"

My classmates and I listened dutifully to our leader, hopeful that if we just sat quietly and let him do his thing, we could be out of there in less than the proscribed hour. But he wanted class participation, and so, ever covetous of our weekly $405 checks, we participated.

From their replies to questions about the average length of a job interview and the proper timing of a thank you note, I learned a few things about my classmates. My neighbor to the right was a former professor of Russian history so concerned with following the letter of the law that he didn't file his claim during the week he spent interviewing at a University in Florida because he wouldn't be able to answer truthfully that we was "ready and able to work" in New York. On my left was a former Human Resources manager with whom the instructor frequently checked his facts, in front of her a client services type copiously taking notes, and behind me a media Jill-of-all-trades not unlike myself, a writer and editor whose position was "eliminated" in a company reorganization after I loyally and enthusiastically put in over a decade at what I had once considered my dream job.

In the 19 months since I was laid off (19 and a half, but who's counting?), I've experienced many "firsts": first time filing for unemployment, first time going into double-digit credit card debt, first time dipping into my rolled-over 401K. Withdrawing from my retirement savings more than two decades before I was technically eligible was something it never occurred to me I might do, let alone do again and again. In the past year alone, overdrawn checking accounts have forced me to tap those once-taboo funds three times, diminishing my meager nest egg nearly by half. Last year's monetary gifts from relatives earmarked for my kids' college accounts went instead to bills and rent.

On a more positive note, being "downsized" has meant not being a full-time working parent for the first time since I became a mother. This too has led to a number of unexpected firsts: first time picking up my kids at dismissal time rather than from after-school (I actually had to ask someone where in the building I would find them at 3), first time accompanying them on a field trip without nagging guilt about skipping out on work, first time staying home with a sick child without furtively checking my email while playing Connect Four.

I'm 40-years-old and for the first time in my adult life I honestly have no idea what the future holds in the way of a career or overall financial security. Still, I know I'm among the lucky ones. Just as my severance was ending a year ago, my husband -- who had been laid off from his own publishing job two years earlier -- miraculously landed a long-term freelance assignment and is now slated to become staff. Rather than how we'll pay the rent or make our car payments, our worries are now of the slightly less dire "How will we pay for summer camp, let alone college?" and "Will we ever get out of debt?" variety. We are resigned to having no washer-dryer, dishwasher or second bathroom for the foreseeable future. Having lost faith in the concepts of job security and financial stability, it's the unforeseeable future we worry about now.

While continuing to plug away at freelance work, peruse the industry job sites and pound the pavement for interviews, I've gone back to school for yet another degree. This time I'm studying to be a teacher, one of the most underrated jobs one can have in this country, but also among the most rewarding. I have no illusions that I'll ever be able to kick up my heels and relax into retirement. But if I have to be working for a paycheck into my old age, at least as a teacher I'll be doing something positive for the world, rather than promoting products I no longer believe in that this planet doesn't need.

Of course, no one's hiring teachers around here right now either. But a girl's gotta have a dream.