Thursday, June 24, 2010

Being Unemployed Makes it Harder to Work

I had to repost the following comment from Robert in response to the On Point broadcast, "Dangerous Economic Fault Lines".

Dear Tom Ashbrook,

I’ve been an unemployed PhD Engineer for 20 months, so I’ve been listening to you a lot; although my unemployed (job-seeking) experiences do not always coincide with your shows on this issue. (I’ve started lots of my email experiences to you…maybe will finish some). I don’t agree that the new economy (in the US) wants more more-well-trained employees, maybe because I feel I am proof of what technical needs have gone overseas. But the social issues seem even more depressed and divided than the financial ones.

I just had a bad day (or was it bad year). I had an argument with a customer in a local-chain hardware store. The customer is always right; I’ve always known that even when I had 6-figure jobs working at national research labs or teaching at Harvard. No, I wasn’t working at the hardware store, I was another customer waiting in line, as a man was irate and rude to two of the store attendants about a mistaken price quote on an unmarked item. I finally snapped and told the man to be more polite to other human beings even if he was the customer. He told me it was none of my business and told me to “go to H…”, to which I replied, “I am already there because I am right next to you”. And I followed up that he should move to Nebraska where he could belittle cornstalks if he did not want to interact with our human frailties in a (crowded) civilized society. As I continued to argue (loudly) back with him, but refused to step outside with him, his language got more foul until I told him his foul words were inappropriate. This was followed by another customer saying similarly, that there were women and children present; …which woke me up to my being wrong.

I apologized to the man with the boy…and he later made a laughing comment to me…and 2 of the hardware store employees reached to shake my hand before I left the store.

But 2 hours later I am still in tears over having been so wrong in my interaction with another person.

You are mistaken if you interpret that I was “standing up” for the store employees, who had clearly been well-trained to treat the customer as right in each of their ignoring of the customer’s rudeness. I did it for myself for 2 reasons.

I saw myself (I have seen myself for the past year) in the elderly (over 50, or over 60, or over 70) white-male chain-hardware-store employees. I have wondered if I could do that job…if not this year, then next as my chances of being an engineer/scientist again continue to diminish, and my need to subsist increases…and so you see I failed even at that minimum wage job. I am not sure I could cower to the customer more than 3 rude comments in a row. One of my early jobs cleaning toilets in an ivy league college taught me well the importance of being the invisible man in my interactions with customers be they male or female. But having no work for a year I see how I am losing my skills, including these people skills requiring submission (as well as lower wage). I would be (will be, and so I cry) unemployed again.

And as I have spent more of the waking hours of the day not interacting with other people (as I had behaved in so many high-tech, high-finance, high-profile meetings), I find myself less willing to accept many of the less-civilized interactions that many (more-successful) humans exhibit toward other humans that (often) comprise the service economy. Being unemployed it is easier for me to avoid interactions, whether it be rush-hour traffic, store lines on weekends, etc…or even meetings and work emails. And with over a year of this nonconfrontational noninteraction, I am beginning to doubt my ability to be nonconfrontational (again?) if I do get a job with meetings and interactions.

Friends tell me that with my skills, experience and creativity (you can look my work up if you ever wondered what may follow the “nanostructures” of this emerging technology); that I should use this career change to start my own business (noting that owners do not have to put up with rudeness of coworkers…but they still must treat all customers as always right). But I have always worked for others, in a “service lab” even when I was a professor. I have been proud to have famous scientists or oilrig toolpushers or Alabama farmers all tell me they have never had anyone do as good work for them as I have provided.

I want to work, and I want to work for others in society. But as I spend more time not doing so, it makes me wonder if I can again. I am not ready to retire, and yet I feel I begin to understand why elderly scientists and engineer do retire. Not working certainly has given me a different outlook on how I view those of more unfortunate classes who maybe have never had a chance to work for others, and why they often have a harder time getting/keeping a job. When you are unemployed, it becomes harder to work.

Posted by Robert, on June 17th, 2010 at 11:55 AM


Anonymous,  10:17  

I totally understand what this man is saying. The longer someone is out of work, the harder it is to believe in yourself.

I have not had a full-time job in years, and I can't even picture myself doing what I used to do so well. It's almost as if that person is not me.

It's very hard to articulate but Robert put into words what most would find difficult.

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