Doing the Limbo

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

| January-February 2011

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.