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Everyone I Know Is Unemployed

A while back I was sitting with my father in St. Louis, lamenting the end of my head writer gig with BET's "Don't Sleep" and having to retreat back to the homestead when the conversation was interrupted by a phone call from my friend and old NYC roommate. The conversation was short (because my dad and I were going pretty deep and I wanted to get back to it), and afterwards I remarked that my ex-roomie was looking for work and had been out-of-work for a year. Then my father said, "Man, do any of your friends have a job?"

Good question.

July's unemployment numbers were a touch on the shady side as Mother Jones reveals here. Sure, unemployment is "down," but actually employment numbers remain flat, meaning a lot of people are still unemployed, but their unemployment insurance ran out or they gave up looking for work. Because unemployment numbers only count people who file and I've got a few friends who haven't seen an unemployment check in a year or more.

All my closest friends (save one) are unemployed, some recently and others going on years without a job. And some are single, others divorced, some have kids, others are child-free, everyone has a degree or two, some have written books, some have worked for some large firms and in high-powered places, but all of us are unemployed, living the unemployed life of filing for unemployment assistance, applying for jobs, waiting for phone calls that never come, going through interviews where you, your friends and everyone else you know is up for the same gig and then none of you get it because it's about who you know and even though you know everybody you also know no one at the place you just applied.  

The only thing we have going for us is that none of us are addled with college debt. Credit card, housing and other kinds of debt, sure. But hey, no student loans. Going to Budget University does have some perks, at least in my case. 

Whatever work any of us can get is "freelance." And "freelance" is great if you can cobble together enough freelance jobs, ghost-writing deals, Macys sweater folding gigs to cover the rent. My friend, author Amy Alexander, calls us all "The Cobbler Class." All of us overly educated trying to put together enough projects and temp jobs to stay above water until the writer's market changes for the better. All of us trying to create patchwork careers out of nothing because the jobs we used to have either don't exist anymore or there are so few positions left that it's a dogfight to get to be senior associate editor at No Name Magazine paying an illustrious $35,000 per year.

I guess some of us could go back to school, learn a new trade, but then there's that being student debt free part that no one wants to ruin while unemployed. So short of us all marrying rich tomorrow, it's back to trolling the internet, friends, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mediabistro and all our employed second cousins twice removed for a clue, a tip, a hook-up, a gig, a something that pays sooner rather than later. 

Remember when I was a daily reporter in Bakersfield, Calif. for five years until I left ahead of the looming lay-offs. And how I couldn't appreciate that period of steady employment because I spent most of my 20s fighting depression and Bipolar Disorder. That was the moment, after I left The Californian, I entered the Cobbler Class, 2007, where I took freelance jobs, found jobs that were seasonal, lasted only at places long enough for the non-profit to run out of money and lay me off or long enough for the TV show to make it on air only to not get renewed for a second season. My only steady constant was and the work it helps generate. Everything else seemed to last for six months, then crumble due to forces beyond my control. And I wondered, is this my new life? At first, it was terrifying, but it's amazing what you can get used to. Since the economy tanked in 2008-2009 I have had a job for half a year every year, with my unemployed portion of the year supported by freelance work, unemployment insurance and whatever ad revenue I could generate from the blog. Let's just say, it's not the most predictable, let alone most stable way to make income. 

I'd love, more than anything, to be a writer again somewhere, full-time, like I was in my 20s, still maintaining this blog but to be able pull a reliable, not-going-anywhere, won't-suddenly-disappear-or-downsize, job. TV show or web site, newspaper or magazine, I'm just tired of the $100 per story freelancer lifestyle. A life where I have an easier time getting on CNN than getting a steady job because the job I always wanted doesn't really exist anymore. Nobody is looking for a black, female Dave Barry, writing a syndicated newspaper column because ... what newspapers? What columns? Columns are content for the web and they're $100 per story now, not a full-time gig with benefits.

This blog, arguably, is the best thing that ever happened to me professionally, but at the same time, even when I was updating it six times a day, it wasn't always profitable. It made some money, but it was really more of a platform, a way for me to communicate, a way for me to do what I loved even if I was stuck in a job or position I hated. The blog was the constant. I knew I could write. I knew I was funny. And I knew I could get readers. But everything else was cobbled together.

Still, at least I (and by proxy my unemployed friends) could cobble. I don't know what people who only have one skill set do, or people who don't have experience or don't have degrees, or who worked at one place for a billion years to get laid off at 55 and find that no one wants to hire anyone older than 45. All of us, every last one of us, believe in our talent and ability. We just don't believe there's a market to support it anymore. Or at least not this month. Maybe next month will be better. 

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Reader Comments (14)

Just want to say thank you for writing this. I am currently in the same position and living with relatives who hate me but i have no place else to go. I have a part time job in education and after working all school year and begging, hustling, dropping clues in peoples ears just so I could even work the summer session. The summer session ended this past friday and this morning upon seeing me home, said relative asked why I was there. I said well summer school is over, I have a 2 week break before the new school year starts, the relative then says, well you should have a full time job by then. Ive been underemployed for a while but managed to stay afloat, I have only been living with said relative for 3 months and I pay a small portion for letting me stay here and everyday almost its like why dont you have a job? why can you find full time work? etc etc. I am a loner and dont have many friends so I often dont know what is "normal". I say all this to say it just makes me feel defeated and like maybe they are right, i hear that unemployment is down so I question are they right? is everyone else working except me. Im glad to read its not just me.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterK

Thanks for the comment, K. And don't feel bad. It is not just you. A lot of people are still unemployed or under-employed, the numbers don't really reflect what's actually happening on the ground.

You are most certainly not alone.

August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

This post was definitely a refresher! I can't tell you how many times I have read headlines that state "unemployment numbers are going down", "it's looking a lot better out there"...REALLY!!! I am a social media marketer and in an industry where marketing budgets are the first ones to get cut or are the most undervalued I sometimes wonder if going to school for marketing was the wisest decision. I do projects here and now, work part time jobs and get unemployment insurance. Although I am able to stay afloat its so nauseating.

Sometimes I just want to float on the water and bask in the sun as opposed to always having to paddle my way to the top knowing I'm about to get taken down by a tide at any moment.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJasmine B.

I wanted to thank you for this honest, heartfelt post. As an older, aspiring writer, I suppose I should be glad I have a "day job," even though like most (all?) writers I dream about the big break, the la la land dream of being discovered. Your words were a dose of reality, when I see that even someone as accomplished as you struggles, living the "cobbler" lifestyle that as you so clearly render, is the new norm for so many in today's economy. I wish you less cobbling, and more hearty, stable work real soon.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWendy Jane Grossman

You have to take a job your overqualified for, only thing is depending on where you work you may zone out your skills meaning if you are working at a deadend job and you are not advancing when you leave you are further away then before so im like i have to deal with the hate and stigma but i suppose a job is better then no job but sometimes i wonder if working for free in my field and prayer may b the solution

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterp


Thanks for this piece. Even though I am not a writer, I can defintely relate. Although I am employed, I am severely under-employed. I have been looking for work for more than a year and feel angst daily about the fact that time is not on my side. I am 40, have worked in construction for many years, got a masters to help me make myself a bit more marketable and its so disappointing to have found absolutely nothing. I am truly miserable at my current job but... I am "lucky to have a job" (really sick of having to say that). I keep thinking things will get better but nothing seems to change and I often think about starting my own business. I wish you the best in your search.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjp

"I'm just tired of the $100 per story freelancer lifestyle. A life where I have an easier time getting on CNN than getting a steady job because the job I always wanted doesn't really exist anymore."

This right here says it all. Thanks for such an eloquent column.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAfi Scruggs

$100 a story? That's why some call blogging sharecropping. And what happened to the big black book craze from a few years ago, hello we are still here and we still read. The publishers have stopped making books for the black female audience?

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpoliticallyincorrect

I work in social media and for a community newspaper and I am closer to 50 than I am 40. While I am fortunate to have steady employment, when you work for a small company, you feel the pressure of a lost contract or declining ad sales.

My dream has been to launch a blog but when I hear your concerns and as a long time fan of yours, it makes me wonder how smart a choice that really is. In the end I guess I will move forward because of the other oppts it offers. But I am convinced there is no such thing as a "permanent job" anymore and we must remain vigil in branding and marketing ourselves continually.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Ferguson

Hi Danielle,

I've been fortunate to have been steadily employed for 20 years (except for the 2 years I took off to get my MBA) in a career in line with with my education and background . . . but . . . I sometimes think I would trade it all for what you have accomplished. You've created a great brand, have become a sought out thought leader in radio, TV, and print, and, of course, have fabulous hair. :-)

Maybe you and your friends could get together and start a company? Perhaps a media company for people of color that produces books, plays, films, etc., that reflects a point of view that is often overlooked by big media corporations? I'm thinking a more educated and cultivated version of Tyler Perry, Zane, Issa Rae, etc. Maybe the job you guys are looking for is within yourselves.


August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnjuan

I have to agree with Anjuan. You have skills, ideas and a point of view. That's a hell of a lot more than most people have. Have you considered doing something outside of the Black Snob/Danielle Belton brand? A few graphic novels? Maybe a few nonfiction and fiction ebooks? I know you have a idea book or digital folders with a number of ideas you can to expand to 10000 to 15000 words. Have you considered creating artwork for iPhone and other smartphone cases. I'm not even a "real artist" (I'm a bootleg photographer) and I've been able to earn royalties selling designs on zazzle. You have some training, I'm sure you can use your art background to generate multiple income streams.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

@ Anjuan & Monica

I am actually working on a lot of different projects. What's tough is making enough money to keep those projects going in hopes they will eventually make money. I have everything from a book I'm shopping to the two other books I'm writing to a graphic comic to various versions of TV pilots floating around, but it all takes time. What I'm struggling with is the lack of consistent funds which can be a soul-crushing endeavor. I'm a creative person, it's just everything I do takes a while to turn into a check. I do make some money, I just don't make enough money like a lot of creative types, but I'm good at creating things. I always thought I'd have a newspaper gig to rely on while I worked on other things, but when that went kaput, finding reliable income to fund my creative endeavors just got harder to come by,

August 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

A friend shared the following with me : Everlasting Realities of the Bohemian Lifestyle This section popped out at me:

We are witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing a sharp
de-classing of intellectuals. Our precious credentials are
increasingly useless for generating income and -- let us hope -- social
prestige, too. This should mean that most intellectuals view ourselves
as sinking, economically, into the lower-middle or working class, and
that "meritocratic" markers -- the contents of our bookshelves and
iPods; our degrees -- accord us less and less social status in our own
and others' eyes. Not to say there won't remain a self-protective
cultural elite hoarding its prestige: the hostility to criticism among
mutually appreciative writers, artists, and academics -- an aversion to
meaningful disputes -- is contemporary evidence of such a siege
mentality. But we can also hope for something else: perhaps
intellectuals' increasing exposure to socioeconomic danger will give a
new political dangerousness and reality to what some of us produce.
Might the continuing commitment of de-classed left intellectuals and
radical artists to their vocations, in spite of withered prospects and
eroding prestige, give our work an antisystemic force, and
credibility, it has lacked?

I would love to know your (and any commenters!) thoughts on the article and how it impacts (or doesn't) "The Cobbler Class."


August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTallulahBankhead

Thanks for sharing this. I can definitely relate to being underemployed. I am going through that now while trying to search for something more in line with the degree that I have. It's so frustrating because now I'm seeing a lot of jobs are cutting off benefits, yet they aren't paying the salary that makes up for this type of loss. It makes you feel stuck.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterQueen of Spades
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