Monday, November 14, 2005

The Two Takes: From the Under-Employed Files

Some of you know that I am a micro-budget filmmaker. The thought's been brewing in my mind lately about making a doc about the under-employed. Here're the reasons:

1) Dumbya's (and his pundits') "robust economy". The lay-offs are only the most obvious manifestation: Kodak and HP were just the most recent. 'Nuff said.

2) The realities from an anecdotal perspective: Like probably all of you, I know folks who are under-employed - my hand's raised. The government doesn't keep stats on them/us. They/we exist on the fringe - bored at our jobs and worn out from the "maintain a pre-bust lifestyle on $15 an hour", now it's all about energy; energy's at a premium.

3) The untold story of the untold side of the untold story: Those who still have "real" jobs - those that match the qualifications of their education/experience, now look at work forces slashed and doing the work of 2, 3 or more people and upwards of 65 hours a week.

4) Connecting the dots: It all comes back to health and welfare, doesn't it? What are the results of this stressful lifestyle on health and the strains it places on people and families without healthcare or minimal recourse?

5) Perhaps most astoundingly of all, credit card debt is at historic levels. I've heard a wide disparity - from $800 billion to $2 trillion. It's pretty horrific, and it's a worldwide phenomenon. Check this out:

6) The new bankruptcy laws. Half a million peeps filed in the ten days before the 10/17 deadline.

7) I did a quick experiement: I Googled, "underemployed" and perused the list. I didn't find any articles from any American mass media, but I did find one by the Christian Science Monitor that's two years old, and a take from The Guardian that posited the "happy side" of being underemployed, albeit with a dark ending. They follow below.

The under-employed are growing and with it, the "American Dream" begins to fizzle. I know folks on both sides - underemployed and employed, who are just plain fed up with the way life's going.

Sounds like a movie, but a pretty damn depressing one. Too bad it isn't "just a movie."

From the sunny side of the street,

ps: Remember, knowledge is power only if you DO SOMETHING with it...

from the September 30, 2003 edition -

Underemployed: a euphemism for violent lifestyle change

By Barbara Card Atkinson

ARLINGTON, MASS. - In our house, Bush's child-tax rebate checks went to past-due utility bills, groceries, and a full tank of gas. So much for stimulating the economy.

My husband and I are two of the almost 1 million "underemployed" in this country - a demure label for a violent lifestyle change. We, with our college degrees and previous incarnations as latte-swilling yuppies, are now attempting - and failing badly - to keep our family of four afloat on an average combined income of substantially less than $1,000 a month.

Like those others, we're holding our breath, waiting for the economy to rebound. For us, it's been more than a year. Our personal trajectory in the high-tech flameout happened to so many others that it's now cliché: the faltering of a dotcom job, the bankruptcy of a software company. We had great connections, my husband and I, so finding another job wouldn't be a problem, we thought.

We thought wrong. We're now far below the poverty line, both working entry-level jobs. But we stagger along, aware things could be much worse - they are, currently, much worse for others. There are families living in their cars, single parents holding down two jobs while raising their children, folks on the streets while we own our home and we own our cars. We're paying for a cable modem. We're, for now, solvent, still holding onto some of the vestiges of our old lives - broke with an equity safety net.

We're a legion of misfits, my underemployed brethren and I. We're workers with superfluous skills in need of jobs when there are no jobs to be had; generally too old and too smart to be making so little and doing so little; fighting pride and snobbery while wiping counters, flipping burgers, selling shoes.

I was horrified for a long while that working at a local movie theater was the best I could get, with my college degree and my years of publishing experience. I thought, "These people don't know who I really am, how much better I am than this." Which, of course, meant better than they are.

The other night I stood on a high ladder to change the letters on the theater marquee. The weather and passing traffic made me feel vulnerable, and I threw a little tantrum in my head. I was so ready to walk away. Who did they think they were, asking some 38-year-old mother to risk her neck for $6.75 an hour? If their $2 suction-cup device hadn't fallen off the broomstick, I could have changed the letters from the ground, like a normal person.

This wasn't a corny Hollywood movie about the soccer mom who learned humility by working with the regular folk. This was my life.

I held onto the industrial-orange ladder as cars whizzed by and the wind blew trash. I picked off the titles letter by letter and slapped up new ones and I didn't look down because ... I wasn't better than my high school age co-workers, and why shouldn't I be up on that ladder?

As much as I hated to admit it, we were all equals, and this was the best I could get. And that really threw me.

I walk in the door to my home and my husband walks out, part of our swing-shift parenting. Last year he was a top executive for an international software startup, and now he's trying to sell motorcycles in a market where even the top salesmen are down 25percentto 50 percent from last year's sales. He's not alone - none of my husband's former colleagues are doing much more than trying to keep their homes while waiting for the economy to pick up. We're part of the new demographic: middle-aged professionals losing our credit, our savings, and our homes. The Foreclosure Generation.

Our president just asked for an additional $87 billion to continue his antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other "hot spots" around the globe. I'm not disputing his goals, his claims, or his motivations. Right now I don't have the energy.

I'd like this to be a treatise on how misguided President Bush's "war on terror" is. But in truth, I desperately want us all to feel safe. I'd like to rattle off with conviction that we'd be better served by solid economy-boosting measures and the generation of jobs. But right now, I'm spending all my attention, all my energy taking care of things at home. I wonder when George W., chin out, brashly taking on the world, will look back over his shoulder and do the same.

• Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer and the mother of two small children.
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How low flyers dodge the flak
The 'happily underemployed' are not slacking off, says Ian Wylie. They have simply decided that their real lives matter more than shinning up the greasy career pole

Ian WylieSaturday October 8, 2005

When Eve's boss asks her to fetch him a cup of tea, she manages to smile sweetly. "I make him tea because it's my job. But tea-making doesn't require a degree in French and linguistics."

Eve's degree comes from Oxford, but the 29-year-old has been working as a PA for the past five years. "I work mostly for people who have fewer academic qualifications than me and much of what I do is menial. But I have an active life outside of work - I'm very involved in amateur dramatics - and I get very annoyed if I have a job that means I can't attend rehearsals.

"I once had a job in banking, which was great until 18 months down the line I quit because I was so exhausted. I managed to fit in only one play in that time and even then I couldn't remember my lines because I was so tired. Now I work just to pay the bills."

She is not alone. There are many well-qualified, intelligent people who spend their 9 to 5 working in clerical posts, sales, bars, call centres or restaurants. But some, such as Eve, choose not to moan about their dull, menial or repetitive work because they simply don't see the attraction of a prestigious, high-paying career. They - let's call them the "happily underemployed" - reject the idea that their work is their "calling". They work only to live.
When it comes to underemployment, Britain is a world leader. UK workers are some of the least engaged and emotionally attached to their companies in the world. A survey of 15,000 workers by research firm ISR reckons a third of all workers are indifferent to their work and employer. It's not just a British condition, though. A quarter of Americans show up at work "just for the pay cheque", says research group TNS.

But the happily underemployed are not slackers. They go about their work honestly and professionally. They don't "goof off" on company time. "Conducting market research interviews is like a factory job," admits Michael, a 29-year-old English graduate from a top university, who previously worked in paralegal and teaching jobs. "But I have a gene that takes satisfaction from being able to point to a physical product I've made. Feeling like a cog in a machine is not necessarily a bad thing. I don't have existential crises at my desk."

Being happily underemployed runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that passion should be as common in the workplace as in the bedroom. These people are passionate - just not about their work. They reserve their passion for pursuits outside of work, whether it's amateur dramatics, playing in a band, film-making, painting or rock-climbing. So long as they earn just enough to service their debts and finance their hobbies, the happily underemployed are willing to forgo working a "fulfilling" 80-hour week for fun, satisfying lives outside the office.

"The happily underemployed are actually often fully employed - but not in the course of their paid work," says Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College, London. "They're often very busy with hobbies and passions that are intrinsically motivating."

These people are dropping out of the rat race - except they're doing it at work. They don't feel compelled to imprison the meaning of life in their careers. "An outside interest give structure and meaning to their lives," explains Furnham. "It gives them a friendship and social support network and a sense of identity too."

Of course, few people leave university plotting a career in underwhelming jobs. But student debt and "degree glut" have precipitated a shift from graduate unemployment to underemployment. In the early 1960s, the percentage of young people going to university was 5%. Today that figure is closer to 45%. And since the number of "graduate jobs" has failed to keep pace, up to 45% of graduates from some disciplines are destined for menial work, says the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Saddled with debts of, on average, £13,000, an increasing number of graduates relegate chasing their perfect job behind getting themselves back into the black. But escaping "transitory" non-graduate roles can be as easy as climbing out of quicksand. Seven years after leaving university, one in 10 are still in "non-graduate" jobs, according to the universities of Warwick and the West of England.

But the happily underemployed are, in fact, exercising choice. "I chose in my mid-20s to buy a house, when I had a job with a dotcom," explains Eve. "It's my choice to keep that mortgage rather than sell up and pursue a career change. I don't deny that I'd like to have a job I love, but to work in theatre I'd have to take a 50% pay cut."

A decade ago, in a tract for thinktank Demos, David Cannon described what he saw as a different work ethic among Generation X - those born between 1965 and 1978. A decline in loyalty to employers meant young workers saw work in purely transactional terms. What's the deal? What's in it for me? Why get saddled with a stressful job?

The happily underemployed are less likely to channel their passions into a job. The purpose of the working week is to get them to the weekend, when the fun begins. While their friends in investment banking or law will spend much of today flaked out in front of a TV, Eve and Michael are ready for action.

Where the office zombies roam
There's another group of workers not so happy in their underemployment. Like the happily underemployed, their abilities are completely wasted. But these people have no outlet for their passion. No outside interests. They're not being fulfilled in any area of their lives.

David Bolchover, author of new book The Living Dead (Capstone), reckons he did no more than six months' work in six years working for a City insurance firm. The implications, he says, are grave.

"Being bored at work inevitably affects your relationships, energy levels outside of work and self esteem. Not much good can come from doing nothing for long periods of time."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005