Stuck, with nowhere to turn

I am getting old. At this writing, I am 54 years of age, middle-aged, and in good health, but very much at a point where I need to worry—a great deal, in fact—about my old age, about that not insignificant possibility that there will be a day when I can no longer work in a society that has eviscerated its social safety net.[1] I am also at a point where I have exhausted some sources of funding and no longer have enough income to reasonably get by.

It has also now been over four years since I was last employed at a job reflecting my level of education. That was a graduate student teaching associate job, teaching public speaking, that I loved, that I had to leave because I was graduating, and because I would no longer be a graduate student at that institution. That was in June, 2009, at, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the depth of the recession.[2] Because employment has generally become more tenuous and because social inequality has grown since neoliberal policies were adopted in the late 1970s that have eviscerated any balance of power between workers and employers and that have led to a race to the bottom among countries and regions in social and environmental protections,[3] and because a lot of people my age face the possibility of never working again,[4] probably but unprovably due to age discrimination,[5] I cannot be messing around. I need work—that is, a real job—and I need it now if I’m to have any hope of a pension.

But there are limits on what I’m willing to accept. My inspiration for writing this article is a series of articles detailing brutal working conditions for warehouse workers at Amazon.com and other warehouse operations for on line merchants that offer free shipping.[6] I’ve never worked at such an operation, but I have long experience with work for pay that declares the worker is not worth what it costs to live, with an attitude that workers should be infinitely replaceable, with an attitude that workers should be grateful for whatever crumbs they get, and with an attitude that exalts and exploits the imbalance in power between workers and employers to stroke management egos (and sometimes, other body parts). I know, all too well, that this is dead end work. It offers no hope for retirement, no hope for advancement, no hope for even being recognized as a human being with intrinsic worth. This experience is far from unique.[7] Economic insecurity, it seems, is now the lot of four fifths of adults in the United States.[8] With the bifurcation between the well off and the economically insecure, there is less and less middle ground from which a person can climb to that standard of living[9] to which we are taught to aspire, which offers the hope of a decent retirement, and which I am certainly qualified to earn.

I have a problem. I came of age at a time when the prevailing mythology was that if one works hard, one can succeed. So even though computer programming was the wrong career choice for me at a young age, and a choice I could not sustain, I believed I could, through sheer persistence, eventually find my way to a decent life even as a marginal member of the working class, a class that I never really fit in, in part because I did have some college, and an A.A. degree in Business Data Processing. Instead, it has led to a series of traumatic experiences that help me to know that those stories of conditions at Amazon are unlikely to have been exaggerated. It has also meant my work history is somewhat spotty, and I have decided not to include my working class experiences on my résumé because while they form a large part of my story, my record under such conditions says little about who I am and what I am capable of doing.

Having finally returned to school in 2003, earned a Bachelor’s degree, and earned a Master’s degree, I am now a Ph.D. student in Human Science at Saybrook University, am now entering the third year of that program, and am beginning the qualifying essays for candidacy. Hopefully, next spring, I will finish qualifying, become a candidate, and begin working on my dissertation. Most of my work in this program can be viewed on my Research Journal and my dissertation will almost certainly be an attempt to develop a taxonomy of conservatism by means of critical discourse analysis. It should be redundant to say this: I am not stupid and cannot be expected to last at any position where stupidity is to be tolerated, let alone required.

But regardless of my intelligence, I am not even being considered for the few job openings that exist. I am reliably being filtered out with the web applications that a great many employers, especially including the colleges and universities that could hire me and make decent use of my talents, use to screen job applicants.[10] There doesn’t seem to be a thing I can do about it. My only hope of employment is through networking, but my friends have let me down; this is something that hasn’t worked in twelve years, and also something I’m now too poor to effectively engage in (on line networking seems ineffective).

I am not an extrovert. I am an interdisciplinary scholar and a deep thinker in a discipline that calls for both, and which, I might add, enables me to do the quality of work I feel I should be doing (again, see my Research Journal). And among the many things I have attempted to do—and failed miserably at doing—in the long course of those many years since I was a computer programmer, was sales. I am not a marketer. I don’t even like marketing. The idea that I could be some sort of “entrepreneur” is a sick joke. And yet, anti-intellectualism, arguably a longstanding attribute of U.S. society, has come to prevail; and our society has come to value that which I find perverse over that which I could consider my ability.[11]

That leaves me stuck, with nowhere to turn.

  1. [1] Kristina Cooke, David Rohde, and Ryan McNeill, “The Undeserving Poor,” Atlantic, December 20, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/12/the-undeserving-poor/266507/; Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” Nation, September 6, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/169788/clinton-touts-welfare-reform-heres-how-it-failed; Bryce Covert, “This Is What Happens When You Rip a Hole in the Safety Net,” Nation, March 28, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/173567/heres-what-happens-when-you-rip-hole-safety-net; Democracy Now!, “As Lawmakers Target Food Stamp Funding, New Report Finds 1 in 6 in U.S. Are Going Hungry,” May 30, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/5/30/as_lawmakers_target_food_stamp_funding; Peter Edelman, “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” Atlantic, March, 1997, http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97mar/edelman/edelman.htm; Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society (Glendale, CA: Larkmead, 2011).
  2. [2] National Bureau of Economic Research, “Business Cycle Dating Committee, National Bureau of Economic Research,” September 20, 2010, http://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html
  3. [3] Associated Press, “80 percent of U.S. adults face near-poverty, unemployment, survey finds,” CBS News, July 28, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57595861/80-percent-of-u.s-adults-face-near-poverty-unemployment-survey-finds/; Michael W. Clune, “What Was Neoliberalism?” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 26, 2013, http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1445; Nithin Coca, “America’s problem with unions means that the poor are now considered greedy,” Quartz, July 16, 2013, http://qz.com/103694/americas-problem-with-unions-means-that-the-poor-are-now-considered-greedy/; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Stewart Lansley, “The Hourglass Society,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 28, 2013, http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1708; Barry Ritholtz, “Economic Inequality Is Not An Accident, It Was Created,” Big Picture, July 9, 2013, http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2013/07/economic-inequality-is-not-an-accident-it-was-created/; Scott Sernau, <em>Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy</em>, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, “Economic Restructuring and Systems of Inequality,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 16-19.
  4. [4] Alina Tugend, “Unemployed and Older, and Facing a Jobless Future,” New York Times, July 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/your-money/unemployed-and-older-and-facing-a-jobless-future.html
  5. [5] Susan Heavey, “Over 55 and jobless, Americans face tough hunt,” Reuters, May 15, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/15/us-usa-aging-workers-idUSBRE84E04Y20120515; Catherine Rampell, “In Hard Economy for All Ages, Older Isn’t Better … It’s Brutal,” New York Times, February 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/business/americans-closest-to-retirement-were-hardest-hit-by-recession.html
  6. [6] Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, February 27, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat
  7. [7] Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405,0,716422.story; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407,5976597,1009581,full.story
  8. [8] Associated Press, “80 percent of U.S. adults face near-poverty, unemployment, survey finds.”
  9. [9] Claude S. Fischer, Michael Hout, Martin Sanchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss, “Why Inequality?” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 9-15.
  10. [10] David Benfell, “Kicking job seekers when they’re down,” June 28, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5624
  11. [11] David Benfell, “Getting it backwards on a right to work,” March 13, 2010, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=1563; David Benfell, “The prospects of publicity and the prospects of qualification,” March 23, 2010, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=1649

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David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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