By Joel Hagen
My wife, Becky, and I have spent 90 percent of our six years together with one of us either underemployed or unemployed. We’re now six months into our longest stretch of full-time employment for both of us. But we are still dealing with the scars.
When we were growing up, we were told that the great Baby Boomer exodus would start happening at just about the time we were to enter the job market, and there would be opportunities for us that weren’t there for our parents.
This was a lie.
The Battle for the Job
We are still fighting each other in the great Hunger Games of life, scrambling for scarce job openings that pay us a fair wage. In some cases, we returned to graduate school: partly in order to give the Baby Boomers a bit more time to retire, partly because we were drilled with the belief since elementary school that higher education was the key to a life worth living. We left owing more than we can make in many years of full-time work. And we left unable to find work with employers who only care about experience, not degrees.
There were no jobs to be had.
We fought on. Job hunting is an all out battle you have to fight every single day. We sent out up to 30 resumes a week. Some weeks we had three interviews, others none. But we were averaging enough to know that the résumé and cover letter were working. Thank goodness we could at least open doors.
The Hassle of Recruiters
We would meet with recruiters, who are people that will try once or twice to get you a job. But if that fails, they move on without a call. They made sure we felt worthless. Becky met one recruiter who said her résumé was complete garbage. Becky informed him that it was getting her three interviews a week and that several employers had asked if they could use it as an example for future applicants. He backed off that assessment.
And why, now that I have a job, am I getting more calls from recruiters than when I was unemployed? Maddening. I am the same person now that I was several months ago, yet somehow they think I’d be interested in getting something I already have.
Frustration of Interviews
During the job hunt, you become Da Vinci when it comes to interacting with interviewers: you paint genius with your answers. Over time, it becomes a script you act out because they all ask the same questions you’ve heard 50 times. But the same script has varying degrees of success. The interviews that have the best outcome are the ones that are treated like a conversation and where human connection in the workplace is clearly valued. I crave these rare interviews. But those rejections also hurt the most.
My wife and I learned that 90 percent of the trite advice we read on job forums was complete crap. We know this because we A/B tested every version of our resumes and cover letters and we used every possible variation on suggested interview responses. Nothing seemed to work.
The Bane Of Computers
Whether we spent three hours fine-tuning each résumé or spent that time sending a standard copy to ten openings, we got the same results: a computer that took two seconds to reject us for being unqualified. Absurd. I was found to be unqualified for the same exact job I’d been doing for five years (and earned national awards while doing so) when they were only asking for two years of experience.
We gave up on getting anywhere with Target, or United Health, or General Mills, or 3M, or the University of Minnesota. No matter how well we matched their job descriptions, their computers would reject us. TALEO is our mortal enemy, and seeing that word made us simply move on to job openings with employers who don’t use such a draconian and wrong-headed system that looks for keywords rather than a human being.
Wearing Down of the Soul
Over time, this daily fight with recruiters, with interviewers, with dumb computers, wears on your soul. You become willing to take on any job. You read advice columns with horrible titles like, “10 Things You Are Doing Wrong in your Résumé,” or, “5 Reasons You Blew Your Interview.” You can’t find any of those things in yourself and you still can’t land a job. But it must be your fault because all the job advice columns say so. Even though there are hundreds of applicants for every job, it must be your fault you weren’t the one chosen. Every article about people trying to find work has a comment section full of reasons why that person didn't get a job -- he stupidly got the wrong degree, she obviously has a bad attitude -- because lord forbid that anyone playing the game according to the rules and working hard comes up empty in the job search. There are now companies that take advantage of this mentality of self-doubt by offering you their services to fix your résumé after you applied to one of their fake job postings.
(I will say in answer to those who say you are doing it wrong that I did nothing special to land my current position that I hadn’t already tried a dozen times with others.)
You take whatever contract, temp, random work comes your way in order to support yourself while you struggle one more day to find a job, any job. After months of searching, you have switched from trying to find the right fit to trying to find anything. You try to overcome the knot of frustration and depression that threatens to overwhelm that voice that says maybe it’s not all worth fighting for.
Every day, you wonder if you will land your next job before or after losing your home. You wonder if you will be able to save enough to even file for bankruptcy if it comes to that. You wonder how to pay the $1,000+ per month in student loans for the degrees that no one wants. You wonder what else you have that might get you $5 on Craigslist so you can buy gas to get to the next interview. You wonder if the next person who harangues you for being lazy since you “do nothing” all day will be the one that sends you into the abyss of despair.
So many articles about the difficulties of the job market end with the exemplary person happily employed after overcoming the particular unemployment problem the article describes. The hero’s journey is so appealing. It’s human to want to end such articles with hope, yet they end up just working for the false narrative – that all you need to do in America is work hard and long enough and you will get the perfect job. Fact is you may end up having to take the first thing that comes along. And two months later the elation and new job smell has worn off and you find you are just in a different pool of despair, yet now you know how hard it is to find anything and are much less likely to even try.
Anger and Love
That’s the job market of the past six years for two people with two decades of experience and several advanced degrees between them. And we weren’t even fighting the stigma of being older or a recent college grad.
Here’s what worked for us to mentally get through all of this: anger and love.
Anger at the computers that match keywords instead of searching for people who can grow to meet any challenge they need to face for an organization.
Anger at having to fill out another online form with the same information that is easily found on your resume, and then reading how HR professionals have so much trouble finding people who stand out in the generic crowd that they themselves created with their forms.
Anger at interviewers who have you come in twice, take competency tests, and then never speak to you again except through a generic form letter emailed five weeks later.
Anger at the people who say if you don’t have a job, you are doing it wrong, even though you have done it wrong, right, and every possible permutation in between.
Anger at people who say they could get a job by next Wednesday, so what could possibly be your problem besides the fact that something is wrong with you.
Anger at all the people who have jobs who are so utterly unqualified for them you wonder what on earth they did to get them.
And love works.
Love for the person you have chosen to spend your life with.
Love that helps you to sit up late into the night with your spouse, finding and applying to new jobs, filling out forms, scanning networking events and job fairs (both useless) for the next possible opportunity.
Love that your network is sending out your resume to everyone that might have a lead on a job.
Love that you are doing everything you possibly can.
Use that love to get you out of bed in the morning when everything else fails and you can’t otherwise find the strength to keep going as visions of Don Quixote tilting at windmills flood your head. I’m not ending this piece with hope. But I can end it with some love, which is what every job seeker could use a bit more of these days.