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Damn This Recession!

The rise of the unemployees

Tim Cavanaugh
August 29, 2011

Only in a leisure-hating country like this one could unemployment become as stressful and exhausting as a full-time job. 

When she was laid off from her position as a financial analyst in July 2008, Westminster, Colorado’s Kelly Wiedemer expected the path back to her well-worn career track would be quick and easy. And as a gadfly for non-workers who have exhausted unemployment benefits, Wiedemer believes she is speaking for many who felt the same way when the recession began. 

“I don’t think anybody realized you had to recreate yourself out of the box,” Wiedemer says, noting that she has a BS in Finance and a dozen years of experience in the financial services industry. “If I had it to do over I wouldn’t climb the ladder in corporate America... Whenever I was unemployed in the past it was never for more than a couple weeks.” 

Kelley Wiedemer, Billy McKay vs. the damn recession. As a champion of the long-term unemployed, Wiedemer has had considerably more success over the last three years. Though she choked up twice during a phone interview yesterday, Wiedemer says her public policy work boosts the confidence and self-esteem that she lost to “the market.” 

This work includes reporting on unemployed issues for Examiner.com and organizing a petition against the job site Monster.com that has more than 88,000 signatures. Wiedemer recently got a sympathetic profile from Catherine C. Rampell in The New York Times

While you hear a lot about the powerlessness of the unemployed, movements like the one Wiedemer has organized against Monster.com are gaining traction. The petition calls on Monster to reject advertisements that prohibit currently unemployed job seekers from applying. New Jersey politicians are not waiting for this type of moral suasion to work and recently outlawed job ads that bar unemployed applicants. Similar bills—which have deep implications for free expression, anti-discrimination law, and freedom of contract—are pending in other states as well as in the U.S. Congress

It’s hard to feel sympathy for an employer who won’t even take a résumé from an unemployed person. But it’s harder to imagine how inveighing against a job search site will help jobless applicants or hurt those discriminating employers. (It’s also not clear how shaming or hurting employers is an effective job search strategy.) 

New Jersey’s decision to make unemployment a protected status for anti-discrimination claims is unlikely to achieve progressive goals of Economic Fairness or Social Justice. It seems intuitive that when you don’t work for a long period of time, your skills and work habits atrophy. Is justice served if an applicant gets turned down for work, but only after a laborious process? 

“I realize that you can’t legislate behavior,” says Wiedemer. “If people are going to eliminate the unemployed from the applicant pool, they’re going to do that. But by not doing anything to try and stop that, you’re condoning it.” Wiedemer believes Republican control of the House will doom the national bill, but she says that if passed it would “at least have some kind of deterrent effect.” 

What concerns me most, however, is that Wiedemer, who seems very nice on the phone, is pursuing political activism while allowing her financial status and fitness for employment to deteriorate. Having built her personal brand as a high-profile unemployed person (she was also in the news recently for having been jailed when she failed to pay some damages from an auto accident; she says the arrest resulted from a traffic stop for expired license plates), Wiedemer now makes good fodder for institutional journalists who need hard-luck stories. But is “unemployee” a career path?

As the popularity of defining, speaking for and trying to rejigger the economy to provide more support for the “99ers” (people who reach the end of extended unemployment benefits after 99 weeks) continues to grow, you might think jobless advocacy is a career path. I’m not so sure. Back in the lean and hungry 1980s, the comedian Martin Short played “Billy McKay,” a layabout scion who punctuated his lengthy idleness with curses against the damn recession, on SCTV’s parody soap opera “The Days of the Week.” Billy McKay laments his situation at around the five-minute mark in this video: "I've been all over town looking for a job. Think I can find one? Damn this recession!" 

But why should that process of adjusting to a lower full-time salary take a “couple years” rather than a few weeks? When I was also laid off from a job with an inflated salary in 2008, the fact that I would not be replacing that salary quickly became clear just from the room temperature at a few job interviews. 

Wiedemer takes a more expansive view of what a non-worker should expect, and seemed genuinely surprised at the idea that in a down market you’re better off lowering your asking price. 

“In terms of the American Dream, which I had, I took that for granted,” she said. “Now they want to take that away.” I asked Wiedemer to whom the pronoun they was referring. Her response: “If nobody will interview me or give me a job because I’m still unemployed, if they won’t even grant me an interview for a job, then I’m being denied the opportunity to rebuild.” 

This shade of Billy McKay is to be avoided always and everywhere. It’s not just motivational speech to say that you need to create your own opportunities rather than waiting for opportunities to be provided or denied by others. It’s not just job-guru-speak to say that most private sector employers are looking to hire self-starters. Wiedemer seemed to grasp this last point: “The whole entrepreneurial thing has become more of a focal point, sadly, in the last couple years.” 

So I’m happy for Wiedemer’s sake that she is supplementing her advocacy work with a temp job that starts next week and has given some consideration to a plan to get into the thrift store business (though that plan was dashed, she said, when the Small Business Administration failed to provide a loan). We differ on the best way to help the long-term unemployed, and whether you should even be in the business of trying to help a group that contains millions of otherwise unrelated people. But it’s common sense that ending your own unemployment is the first step toward addressing the unemployment problem. 

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Tim Cavanaugh is Managing Editor, Reason.com


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