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Job Talk: One man's story of underemployment at age 57

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2010 - Monday was no holiday for this 57-year-old St. Louisan who talked candidly about his life in underemployment limbo, as he walked the two miles between his day job and his night job.

He said he works about 50 hours a week to make a quarter of the six-figure salary he lost in the financial services industry more than a year ago -- and he'd work a third job, if someone would hire him. He has applied for the graveyard shift at a casino and a convenience store.

He's desperate to see his college-age children through school and to save his house from pending foreclosure, but he is tired of the struggle.

"I am so depressed,'' he said. "It takes everything to get up in the morning and get to work. It's like putting one foot in front of the other, and kind of grudgingly dragging yourself to it.''

While the nation was noting Martin Luther King Day, this St. Louisan was putting in his hours -- grateful for his two jobs that pay just above minimum wage -- and hoping that tomorrow will bring a better one. The man, who has a graduate degree and more than 20 years of experience in his field, shared details of his career with a reporter, trusting that his name would not be published. It's not about protecting his pride or his ego; he is afraid of losing his current jobs, in retail sales and as a phone solicitor. And he wants to spare his wife and children.

"I've lost everything,'' he said. "And my family doesn't understand why nobody will hire me.''

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Technically, he isn't counted in the 10 percent of Americans who are unemployed. And he also may not be included in the broader number -- 17.3 percent -- that the Department of Labor considers "underutilized." That number -- about 27 million people -- includes part-time and temporary workers who want full-time jobs and also "discouraged" workers who have given up looking for work.

So, as telling as those numbers are, they don't include many of the countless well-educated and experienced workers who have lost good salaries and lucrative benefits packages and are grabbing any job they can.

The man says life is harder now than it was a year ago, before he applied unsuccessfully for literally hundreds of jobs.

"This is truly a depression for the percent that's out of work,'' he said. "It's very humbling. It's awful, and it just crushes people.''

Finding work in a jobless recovery

The man, once a vice president of development for a St. Louis firm, worked for a series of companies during a successful 20-year career. His string of good jobs ended with a telephone call one afternoon informing him that his division was being eliminated. An industry that was already consolidating due to advances in technology and shipping jobs offshore couldn't withstand the financial meltdown.

"My industry has been decimated. It's gone,'' he said. "Normally, I would have been picked up -- I'd always been either recruited or hired by the afternoon if I was switching jobs. But I could not find a job at all. I should have been tipped off as to how awful it was going to be."

He believes his sales skills could serve many employers, but he fears that his age is getting in the way. Although age discrimination is illegal, he has scrubbed his resume clean of years and dates.

"It's very subtle, but you have to change your resume,'' he said. "Your experience counts for nothing, no matter how successful you were, no matter how much industry knowledge you possess. They'd much rather hire somebody for less, who's younger.''

The nation is in a deep hole when it comes to jobs. Since December 2007, when economists say the recession started, the U.S. economy has lost about 8 million private-sector jobs, and it will take years to replace them, economists warn.

Speaking to the Economic Club of New York in November, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke noted that while the number of initial claims for unemployment insurance has declined since last spring, the claims still have not fallen to ranges consistent with rising employment.

"Although economic pain is widespread across industries and regions, different groups of workers have been affected differently,'' Bernanke said. "For example, the unemployment rate for men between the ages of 25 and 54 has risen from less than 4 percent in late 2007 to 10.3 percent in October -- nearly double the rise in unemployment among adult women. This discrepancy likely reflects the high concentration of job losses in manufacturing, construction and financial services, industries in which men make up the majority of workers.''

"Given this weakness in the labor market, a natural question is whether we might be in for a so-called jobless recovery, in which output is growing but employment fails to increase," Bernanke added.

'If I lose my home, I will have no place to go'

Despite recent rallies on Wall Street, this underemployed St. Louisan is pessimistic about the future. He predicts the beginning of the worst for Americans who, like himself, have managed to survive by stringing part-time and low-paying jobs together while bills continue to mount.

"And it is just beginning,'' he warns. "I'm just the harbinger of the awfulness to come to more people."

His immediate worry is that he will lose the home that his family has lived in for 10 years. He said he is now "under water'' on his mortgage and has been served with foreclosure papers. He has used every option he can think of to stave off foreclosure, including bankruptcy. He had pinned his hopes on the Making Home Affordable Modification plan announced by the Obama administration last February, but because participation by lenders is voluntary, his lender opted out of the program.

Although the housing bust began with the collapse of subprime mortgages, unemployment is the driving factor now. In 2009, there were 2.82 million foreclosures in the United States, according to RealtyTrac, which compiles foreclosure statistics. Despite a number of private and government initiatives to modify mortgages, Realtytrac forecasts 3 million more U.S. foreclosures in 2010.

At one point, this former St. Louis businessman says he worked out a trial mortgage modification with his lender based on income cobbled together from two jobs. That plan fell apart when he was laid off again. He found his current day job on craigslist in November.

"I'm so grateful to the people who hired me,'' he said. "They are wonderful people, and I really, really appreciate that. They didn't bat an eye, looking at me, saying, come on and work for us.''

He said he is able to walk to work, which is good, because the family has one working vehicle now. He has no health insurance, so he goes to a free clinic to help him deal with stress.

"I wake up at night with panic attacks -- I can hardly breathe. It's just horrible,'' he said. "If I lose my home I will have no place to go, I will be homeless. And I don't know what to do."

The man insists that he did not live extravagantly, that he always lived within his means. But he never expected -- or planned for -- extended unemployment.

"I had never, ever been unable to find work,'' he said. "I had such a great salary for so long I just figured I would be OK until I retired. Then I could sell my home and move to Florida and enjoy the sunshine. Unfortunately, life has a nasty way of ruining everyone's plans, be it illness or jobs or careers, or whatever.

Instead, his 50s have become the worst years of his life.

"This is awful -- when I thought it would be wonderful,'' he said. "It's brutal. It is just a crushing, crushing depression. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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