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On Labor Day: The Indignity of Unemployment

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In the 1970s, one of my earliest jobs was in the fund raising department of a non-profit employment agency that specialized in finding work for those who were then still called “the handicapped.” Our pitches for support always emphasized the importance of “the dignity of work” for those who were in some way limited, yet longed to be self-sufficient. I was a young wage-slave consumed with fantasies of fame and fortune rather than guided by clear career goals, so naturally I hated having to get up early in the morning and schlep to an office bathed in fluorescent light where I performed largely dull, clerical tasks and often spent the day waiting to leave.

But I loved getting that paycheck every two weeks (paltry though it was), contributing at home, and sustaining at least some of my necessities and all of my indulgences. So I totally understood the dignity of work, and was continually amused by the irony that our supporter base was comprised largely of the very rich, extremely social, and primarily female — a population that for the most part had never worked a day in their lives and were preoccupied with the dignity of shopping, grooming, and supervising their housekeeping staffs.

More than 30 years, numerous jobs, and 11 years of self-employment later, I find myself among those whom we now call “the differently abled.” I’m reminded daily of the truth of the dignity of work and miss my capacity to be part of the full-time work force. As I used to say when I was making a halfway decent living, “I like to know where my next soft-shell crab is coming from.” These days, I take pride in coping with a fixed income and trolling three different supermarkets for sales. I haven’t had a soft-shell crab in years.

But I’m still among the lucky ones, because I still enjoy the dignity of supporting myself in some way. On this, the first Labor Day since the nation fell off the edge of our flat economic earth, millions of Americans can’t say the same. According to today’s New York Times, reporting on statistics from the Labor Department and a Rutgers University study, the dignity of work is in outrageously short supply. We’ve reached 9.7% unemployment nationwide, based on an irritating scale of miscalculation – meaning that unemployment figures are based on the number of people receiving unemployment insurance benefits, and employment figures include those in the military, who are underpaid for their national service and, in the main, have no civilian jobs to come home to.

The real numbers show that 17% of the population is unemployed, severely under-employed, and/or have reached the point where they are “discouraged from seeking employment” (English translation: exhausted, defeated, and out of viable options). A full 20% of Americans work only part-time, although the majority would prefer full-time work. And 11.3% of veterans (those who survived their military “jobs”) are unemployed. These are the folks who used to know the dignity of work and who now live with the crushing indignity of unemployment.

Some of them also know the misery of homelessness and the insult of public assistance. In New York City, for example, those on welfare get their rent paid and receive $67.00 every two weeks for all their other expenses. They also receive food stamps in peculiarly-calculated insufficient amounts and the ordeal of health care via Medicaid. This is the gravy train of entitlements that conservatives begrudge the men, women (and their children) who would give their right arms for the dignity of work – but that would put them in the disadvantaged population of the differently-abled who, along with both younger and older workers, have been hardest hit by this brutal recession the pundits have started telling us is slowing down.

To those of you lucky enough to be employed, I wish you a much-deserved happy Labor Day. To those of you still mired in the quicksand of unemployment, I wish you a swift rescue by the marketplace and government that, to a great extent, are enjoying the Indulgence of Indifference and Delusion.

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About Jeanne Browne

  • Gentlemen, I agree with your lofty comments, but I must say that I find it interesting that you’ve both talked above, behind and around the simple subject of making a living. Of course being better human beings is important, both within ourselves and in relationships with others. But I wrote this article in honor of Labor Day, a day that used to celebrate the dignity and contributions of American workers (and is now just an excuse to go shopping). We are at such an interesting juncture in this country: we’re re-evaluating what we believe in, what we care about, what we do and don’t need, will and won’t support. For a lot of people, the only issue they can see is JOBS, and of course there’s more to living and being a society than JOBS. But the need to cover the basics of survival color everyone’s lives and for the 15 million Americans who are unemployed, that color is Gloom. FYI, I am by inclination a creative writer and have been since childhood. But I’ve used my talent to make a living by writing [largely] for business. It’s often made me feel that I was betraying my “gift,” but in more rational moments, I’ve appreciated that I’ve had the opportunity to bring excellence to my assignments, and have been fortunate to be able to support myself by doing what I love most: working with language. Many people are not so fortunate; my father was a waiter and later a skycap; my mother was a bookkeeper and office manager. I assure you, this work did not nourish their souls. But it kept a roof over our heads and food on the table – and they nourished their souls with books, music and travel, all of which they could afford because they had jobs. Do you have jobs? If not, don’t you need them? That was the subject.

  • Zedd


    “finding a sense of self-respect in being able to support yourself and your family.”

    That is indeed a distiction.

    However lets hope that even more self respect will come from how kind you are to your family and humanity in general.

  • How can anyone disagree with that? But I believe that the state of postindustrial societies is such that this is no longer a social value: performativity is. Or to put in in other words, instrumental reason. Which is to say – what can this gadget or technical innovation bring about. Even the scientists are caught in this dilemma insofar that technoscientific knowledge is no longer an end but a means to other ends.

  • And that’s all it ought to be, Jeannie. One shouldn’t have to jump through the hoops to make a decent living, because I’d like to believe that, given opportunity, we should all aspire to more noble pursuits.

  • Zedd


    What I find particularly interesting is that those who have contributed the most to the diversion from individualism to corporatism are those who see themselves as being the greatest champions for those individual liberties.

    The answer in my mind is not in capitalism or communism but in the support for the expansion of the mind.

    What we’ve missed is that the mind is the most important asset that needs to be protected (or allowed to flourish). The spirit, creativity, ingenuity, and everything that has built this nation and all of humanity’s progress, comes from the mind. It doesn’t come from pit bulls with lipstick or flags or capitalism or communism.

    I know I’ve gone on a tangent but only slightly….

  • Thank you, Zedd and Roger. Just last night, I watched [another] History Channel program on the apocalyptic possibilities of the year 2012, especially as reflected in the predictions of Nostradamus. After nearly two hours of essentially-doomsday commentary, the tone/message changed from “this is the end of the world!” to “this is the end of things as they are,” and it’s up to us to decide to build a more sane, humane, cooperative world based on shared core values rather than waste, greed and haute couture (haute everything!) — or not. But whether our values are cheap or genuine, there’s a difference between seeking one’s identity in work, and simply finding a sense of self-respect in being able to support yourself and your family. What Bush, Madoff et al did, was make it hard to make a simple, decent living — and on Labor Day, that’s worth remembering.

  • Zedd

    Perhaps the real problem lies in the devaluation of individual pursuits – curiosity if you will. As the promotion of corporate interests expanded, the value for the individual spirit diminished. Corporate interests were disguised as patriotism or love for American ideals. What was really happening is dumbing down, a fast degeneration and loss of the love for liberty or the pursuit of it.

  • Oh, yes, the idea of human emancipation.

    What has become of thee?

  • Zedd

    I hope this time affords us the gift of appreciation for our humanness. Our transfixed state on the diversion that corporate worship is has robbed us of the beauty of appreciating the human experience.

    We’ve been so consumed with appearing a certain way- as if we earn a great deal- (even those women in your piece who don’t know what work is) that we’ve missed what being human or humane is. Perhaps the awareness that any of us (thanks to Madoff) could find ourselves without earnings to flaunt, will cause us to slow down and perhaps be fonder or even appreciate each others uniqueness as just individuals.

    Perhaps Paris Hilton, George Bush,the economic situation, et al occured at this point in history so that we would realize how stupid our worship of certain ideals really is. Paris – skinny, blond and rich, Bush – American blue blood, and the banks, oh and Madoff -the capitalist of all capitalists… they all let us down. We found out that there was nothing there. It as all a silly fantasy. All of the images in our society of the ideal collapsed. – Just people who may or may not get it right. We are now relying on clunkers or those who posses them to save the economy.

    Maybe soon enough the amount of dignity that one possesses will be discovered in his characteristics and not his job.