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February 02, 2014 5:52 PM New research reveals that unemployment is especially hellish in the U.S. — because unemployed Americans blame themselves for their plight

By Kathleen Geier

Via Mark Thoma’s indispensable Economist’s View I stumbled across this fascinating article about a new book that examines how Americans experience unemployment. Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at MIT, compared unemployment in white collar labor markets in America and Israel.

What he found is that unemployed workers in the U.S. often experience much more personal distress over their joblessness, because they tend to blame themselves, and not the system, for their plight. From the article:

In the U.S., Sharone says, job hunts emphasize the presentation of personal characteristics; job seekers play, in his terms, a “chemistry game” with prospective employers. In Israel, by contrast, the job-placement process is more formally structured and places greater emphasis on objective skills.

Obviously, it is bruising for job seekers to keep getting rejected. But according to Sharone, the American self-help industry, with its emphasis on individualism and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, tends to make things even worse “by encouraging unemployed workers to believe they entirely control their job-search outcomes”:

Often, job-hunting Americans soon find fault with their own personalities, networking skills, or lack of career direction, and become distressed by the “emotional labor” of looking for work.

The cycle of self-blame that results can destroy the job-seekers’ confidence and wreak havoc with their personal lives. Sharone talked to people who said their self-esteem was destroyed, who came to believe there was “something wrong” with them, and who lost their marriages. At least one of them even attempted suicide.

Sharone’s findings are consistent with other research documenting the catastrophic impact of long-term unemployment on well-being, which I wrote about here. His research also jibes with many of the points Barbara Ehrenreich made in her great 2005 book about white collar unemployment, Bait and Switch. Ehrenreich’s trenchant critique of the self-help industry for the unemployed is echoed in Sharone’s analysis.

Finally, on a personal note, I will, at long last, out myself here: I am one of those long-term unemployed you keep hearing about, and Sharone’s research rings painfully true to my own experience. I’ve attended sessions at one of those self-help centers for unemployed workers of the type Sharone refers to. Those sessions helped me in important ways — the videotaped mock interview, with feedback, was especially useful. But the philosophy there was that finding a job is largely under your control, and that did tend to exacerbate my already robust penchant for self-blame. It also left me with a gnawing sense of perpetual guilt that I’m never doing enough in my job search.

“I’m not spending enough time on my job search” is one category of unemployment self-blame. The other kind comes when you land an interview, but not the job. There have been times I’ve raked myself over the coals: why did I never think to learn skill X that they are looking for? Or, God, I really blew that question! Why oh why didn’t I do more practice interviews?

I’ve interviewed for some great jobs, and I’ve made it to the final stage several times. A few weeks ago, for my dream job, I was one of the final two people considered — but then of course, they decided to go with the other person. I always hear, “We really liked you!” “We were so impressed!” But someone else always turns out to be a “better fit.” Always! It’s beyond frustrating. That’s why Sharone’s findings about the emphasis on “the chemistry game” in the U.S. job market hit home for me. “Someone else was a better fit” — story of my life.

I realize, of course, that I’m far more fortunate than most in that I have years of experience, a great education, valuable skills. I pull in strong traffic here at the Monthly, and my writing has earned praise from no less than Paul Krugman, who, last year, called me “the excellent Kathleen Geier” and wrote, “someone give this woman a bigger job!” But that was almost a year ago, and I still don’t have any job, other than freelance gigs like this one, and low-paid, low-level temp work, which isn’t even steady. Making my rent continues to be a struggle, month after month.

I’ve been through depressive episodes and panic attacks related to this, the likes of which I have never experienced in my life before (and I say that as a lifelong depressive). Some day, somewhere else I will write about it all at length, but the Catch-22 is that I don’t want to do so until I find permanent work. I mean, I don’t want to become the internet’s poster child for unemployment — otherwise I’m afraid the stigma of being unemployed will stick and I’ll never land a job. I survive the horror day to day by keeping myself busy with other things, and by trying not to think about it too much. Denial is a coping strategy, people! Also, “one day at a time” may well be the best life advice anyone has ever given me about anything.

But this stretch — going on 18+ months now — of long-term unemployment is by far the most shattering, soul-destroying, traumatic thing I’ve ever experienced in my adult life. I hope, one day, to write more about my personal story and explain just why long-term unemployment is so devastating. But for now, please take my word for it. Most important of all, please understand this is not just about me. There are millions more like me, who are experiencing mind-boggling levels of psychic distress in this labor market, and who are financially just hanging on by a thread. The suffering caused by this economy has been immense. It inflicts deep damage and it leaves scars. You can trust me on that one.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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