To search for a job in America’s current economic climate is to be met again and again with failure, indifference, and derision. Failure because unemployment is high and jobs are scarce, indifference due to employers’ dedication to their own survival, and derision due to the prevailing American belief that the unemployed are simply lazy or otherwise intrinsically flawed. You are lazy, or you failed to educate yourself thoroughly enough, or you are unforgivably stupid, or you dress poorly, or you need to pluck your eyebrows. The one unifying factor in the thousands of reasons the average person will tell you you’ve had no luck finding a job (and tell you they must) is that each and every reason is laser-focused on a choice you must have made, and made poorly. No one is ever laid off or refused a job due to circumstances they themselves could not control. To admit that the individual is not in complete and utter lucid, knowing control of his fate is to dismiss one of the most fundamental aspects of modern American (and, increasingly, Western) thought: That we are the masters of our own destiny. If you happen to be a fortunate person with numerous contacts and a fulfilling life, this can be a very comforting and fortifying notion. It can make one feel quite puffed up and important to have gotten to a comfortable place all on one’s own.
A woman in a comfortable office job is not taught by our culture to think first of the friend who recommended her for the position, but to focus instead on the qualities she must have possessed to be recommended in the first place. A man who, at 35, owns his own profitable business has not been socialized to remember the terrible first six months of the venture, during which his landlord waived two months worth of rent for the sake of keeping the space occupied and livening up the town’s shopping district.
As a corollary, those who are unemployed, underemployed, or even impoverished are bombarded at all times by blame and derision. The poor do not deserve our concern since, after all, they at some point made the conscious decision to be poor. We ascribe to their situation no other contributing factor than personal choices made poorly. We believe that each and every person lives in a vacuum within which their own agency is the only meaningful force. If poor people didn’t want to be poor, if they truly couldn’t stand it, then they could very easily decide to stop being lazy and start being normal and productive members of society.
Searching for a job in this environment when it’s been further corrupted by the economic crisis is a uniquely soul-siphoning experience. the pool of applicants is immense, the jobs scant, and the prevailing attitude toward those seeking employment by turns distrustful and frigid. It is a long trudge through shame and indignity, a continual succession of humiliations and uncomfortable compromises. Perhaps most insultingly and tellingly of all, many Americans are (sometimes willfully) ignorant of the situation.
Our culture raises us to believe that we are the ultimate masters of our own fates, and the fragility of our self esteem prevents us from accepting any other possibility, lest we face the fact that we could easily fall as low as the man we see shuffling from place to place in the rain, his hungry eyes scanning storefronts and bulletin boards for help wanted signs.