Doing the Limbo

In Middle America, the middle-aged struggle to stay middle class

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Sometime in early June—he’s not exactly sure which day—Rick Rembold joined history. That he doesn’t remember comes as little surprise: Who wants his name etched into the record books for not having a job?

For Rembold, that day in June marked six months since he’d last pulled a steady paycheck, at which point his name joined the rapidly growing list of American workers deemed “long-term unemployed” by the Department of Labor. In the worst jobs crisis in generations, the ranks of Rembolds, stranded on the sidelines, have exploded by more than 500 percent—from 1.3 million in December 2007, when the recession began, to 6.8 million in June 2010.

Rembold, a 56-year-old resident of Mishawaka, Indiana, embodies the unnerving mix of frustration, anger, and helplessness voiced by so many other unemployed workers I’ve spoken to. “I lie awake at night with acid indigestion worrying about how I’m going to survive,” he said in a brief bio kept by the National Employment Law Project.

In early August, I hopped a plane to northern Indiana to visit Rembold. I arrived around lunchtime and was driving through downtown South Bend when my cell phone rang. Rembold’s breathless voice was on the other end. “Sorry I didn’t pick up earlier, man, but a friend just called and tipped me off about a place up near the airport. I’m fillin’ up my bike and headin’ up there right now.”

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a modest-sized aircraft parts manufacturer. Rembold roared up soon after on his ’99 Suzuki motorcycle. Barrel-chested, with a thick neck, he has short black hair flecked with gray.

His black leather portfolio in hand, Rembold took a two-sided application from a woman who greeted us in the tiny lobby. He filled it out in minutes, handed it to the secretary, and in a polite but firm tone asked to speak with someone from management. When the manager finally emerged, Rembold rushed to explain that he’d been in manufacturing practically his entire life, a hard and loyal worker who made his way up from the shop floor to sales and then to management.

If the company’s interested, the manager responded formulaically—and it felt like a kiss-off even to me—they’ll be in touch. Back outside, Rembold tucked his portfolio into one of the Suzuki’s leather saddlebags. “Well, that’s pretty standard,” he said, his tone remarkably matter-of-fact. “At least I got to talk to somebody. You’re lucky to get that anymore.”

 

The 6.76 million Americans counted as long-term unemployed in June were the most since 1948, when the statistic was first recorded, and more than double the previous record of 2.8 million in the recession of the early 1980s.

Long-term unemployment doesn’t discriminate: no age, race, ethnicity, or educational level is immune. According to federal data, however, the hardest hit when it comes to long-term unemployment are older workers—middle aged and beyond, folks like Rick Rembold who can see retirement on the horizon but planned on another decade or more of work. Given the increasing claims of age discrimination in this recession, older Americans suffering longer bouts of joblessness may not in itself be so surprising. That education seemingly works against anyone in this older cohort is. Nearly half of the long-term unemployed who are 45 or older have “some college,” a bachelor’s degree, or more. By contrast, those with no education at all make up just 13 percent of this older category. In other words, if you’re older and well educated, the outlook is truly grim.

It’s hard, even for the long-term unemployed, to grasp how drastically life can change without work. Studying past recessions to discover just what does happen, researchers often focus on the collapse of the steel industry in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s, which turned a once-thriving region into a landscape of shuttered factories and ghost towns. In the 1940s, 80,000  people worked in steel; by 1987, 4,000 remained.

In one study, male Pennsylvania workers with high seniority experienced a 50 to 100 percent spike in mortality rate in the first year after job loss. The life expectancies of those laid off at age 40 decreased by one to one and a half years. In the long run, these laid-off Pennsylvanians suffered a 15 to 20 percent reduction in earnings. Those hardest hit in terms of lifelong earnings, economists found, were not low-skilled laborers or highly skilled wealthy elites, but workers who had managed to forge a middle-class lifestyle.

Suicide rates also increase, researchers found, when unemployment rises. In Elkhart County, near where Rembold lives, suicides exceeded the annual average by 40 percent in 2009.

 

Rembold calls himself a Democrat—“not the peace sign, hit-the-bong type,” he hastens to add, but “a tear-off-your-head-and-shit-down-your-neck Democrat.” He cannot stomach Glenn Beck or talk radio here in the Land of Limbaugh, and with equal zeal he watches MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and FX’s Sons of Anarchy, a gritty, violent series about outlaw motorcycle gangs.

One evening, Rembold and I holed up in his office, a small room off the main hallway with a computer, two desks, and countless framed photos. Rembold clicked open a folder on his Internet browser labeled “Careers” and walked me through his daily job hunting routine. He checked half a dozen job boards regularly, though openings tend to pay only in the $8-to-$10-an-hour range. He rejected most of those out of hand.

“Wouldn’t that be better than no job at all?” I asked.

Rembold gnawed on the question. “I can’t afford my home at $8 or $10 an hour,” he finally replied. Right now, he’s getting by on unemployment checks, a small inheritance from his mother that’s rapidly dwindling, and loans from family members. Still, he’d rather keep trolling the job boards in the hope of finding something offering a living wage.

Unlike his father, Rembold never went to college, and doesn’t consider himself too good for service-sector jobs. But he visibly agonizes over the fact that, as a 56-year-old man with decades of experience, he’s competing with people half his age for low-wage jobs.

His friends have suggested selling his house and moving somewhere smaller and cheaper, maybe renting for a while, but that’s the last thing he wants. “Why should you have to give up your home?” he wants to know. “It’s so unbelievable to me that I don’t even want to think about it. I’m in denial.”

 

What’s to be done about the unemployment crisis? As in most economic debates, the answer to this question divides economists and policy makers. On the left are those who lobby for more aid to jobless Americans, including another extension of unemployment insurance beyond the present cutoff date of 99 weeks. That same camp supports a one-time “reemployment bonus,” a lump-sum payment that unemployed workers would receive to reward them for finding a new job and leaving the unemployment rolls.

Another idea gaining traction in policy circles is “wage insurance,”  a government supplement to the income of workers rehired at lower-paying jobs. Consider Rembold, who, in his prime, earned $25 an hour. He says he can’t live on a $10-an-hour job, but if that were to become $12 or $15 an hour, thanks to a government subsidy, he’d be much more interested.

More conservative voices believe cutting benefits for the jobless will force people back into the workforce. The Rembolds of America will then scramble harder and take those low-wage jobs faster. Of course, those who can’t find work at all will be left adrift with no safety net. What’s more, the cost of such cuts to taxpayers might actually prove higher, economists note, because without those benefits the jobless might instead apply for disability or other support programs and give up the search altogether.

Ideally, of course, employers and governments should avoid widespread layoffs. One option that is sometimes suggested is a “work-share” program. Imagine a factory of 100 workers with a boss looking to cut costs. Instead of laying off 25 workers, the boss would reduce all of the workers’ hours by 25 percent. The government would then step in to fill the earnings gap. Think of it as the equivalent of collecting unemployment before you’re laid off, a preventive measure to avoid the trauma—to income, health, and family—of job loss.

None of this is likely to happen soon, unfortunately, which is little consolation for the long-term unemployed. In the end, what we may be seeing is the creation of a graying class of permanently unemployed (or underemployed) Americans, a genuine lost generation who will never recover from the recession of 2008. As Mike Konczal and Arjun Jayadev of the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, recently wrote, unemployed workers today are more likely to abandon the workforce than find work—a phenomenon never before seen in four decades’ worth of labor data. “These workers need targeted intervention,” they concluded, “before they become completely lost to the normal labor market.”

Excerpted from TomDispatch.com, a website dedicated to alternative news and independent views that are not available in the mainstream press. Andy Kroll’s story was written with research support from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. 

Panel image by ciccioetneo, licensed under Creative Commons.

jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.