I have been unemployed (or gainlessly employed) for a long time

Dusk from the walkway to Limantour Beach, October 23, 2017Dusk from the walkway to Limantour Beach, October 23, 2017 I am no longer inclined to be polite about my job hunt, which has gone on fruitlessly since the dot-com crash in 2001, and during which I have finished a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree, and a Ph.D. I haven't really being keeping a systematic count, but I think during that time, I might have gotten all of five interviews. And only, at most, two of those five interviews followed from job applications (one on-line, one probably not). Further, it's difficult to say that more than one of those interviews can actually be said to have been serious interviews, in which the interviewers were seriously considering me and interested in me as a potential colleague, rather than seeking to claim they had interviewed some number of people prior to hiring the person they had in mind all along. However one accounts for it, I am being systematically refused employment despite what should now be eminent qualifications.

First, I am one victim of an onging crime. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,1 which the U.S. is nearly alone in having failed to ratify,2 is a pillar of International Human Rights Law.3  Here is article 7:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular:

(a) Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with:

(i) Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work;

(ii) A decent living for themselves and their families in accordance with the provisions of the present Covenant;

(b) Safe and healthy working conditions;

(c) Equal opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level, subject to no considerations other than those of seniority and competence;

(d ) Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays4

That the U.S. refuses to ratify this covenant indicates a U.S. refusal to be bound by its provisions, including article 7. But international law is international law and the U.S. broadly endorsed these same principles with the (non-binding) Universal Declaration of Human Rights.5 There is absolutely nothing unreasonable in article 7. The U.S. is simply, in this respect (as well as others), a rogue nation and this has consequences (see "Broader implications," at the conclusion).

What is a 'real' job?

When I speak of a "real job" or "gainful employment," I refer to all of the provisions in article 7. The "provisions of the present Covenant" mentioned in article 7 (a) (ii) include for everyone, not just workers, in article 9, "the right . . . to social security, including social insurance;" in article 11, "the right . . . to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions" and "the fundamental right . . . to be free from hunger;" and in article 12, "the right . . . to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," as well as other rights.6

And in failing to protect my rights and other people's rights under this provision (which probably should be recognized under the ninth amendment to the U.S. Constitution7), the U.S. has violated those rights, which are inherent to all persons regardless of country.8 This is a crime with real effects for many people, including "deaths of despair," from suicide and various forms of drug abuse9:

In an interview, [Angus] Deaton explained, “The cohort that entered the labor market in the ’70s on down, their jobs earnings and prospects are worse. That affected their marriage prospects. Marriages got screwed up. They had children out of wedlock. Their pain levels [are] going up.” All that contributes to the deaths of despair [from suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses, particularly from opioid painkillers].10

Silence. Silence from my (now former) friends. Silence from employers. Silence from everybody.

Second, imagine being sealed in a concrete tomb, buried a mile underground. No matter how loudly you scream, no matter how hard you pound your fists on the walls, no one will hear you. This is what my job search often feels like.

But in fact it's worse. Because some people do hear me. They have a fantasy that, countless thousands of utterly ignored applications notwithstanding, if I keep applying, something will surely come through for me. They have been saying this, in one form or another, since I lost that last real job in the dot-com crash in 2001. It never happens, but they just carry on with their lives, as year, after year, after year passes.

It is my problem after all, not theirs. But it is a problem I am incapable of solving on my own and because these people refuse to help see my value in the only terms that matter in neoliberal society, because they refuse to confront the reality that at some point in the not too distant future, I'm going to need to be able to pay rent, and because they refuse to address the fact there is nothing I can do to find a real job that might pay that rent, and because they were unwilling to help me in any way to overcome the obstacles (detailed below) I face in my job hunt, they are no longer my friends.11 Instead, the best I've been able to find for myself is work that fails to meet all the conditions in article 7, which is to say that these jobs are not "real jobs" and not "gainful employment."

What would I do?

This is actually a question that I have failed to answer since I was a child. My father was sufficiently alarmed that he directed me toward computer programming. That only worked for a while. Since then, I have worked as a computer operator (a step down, but I actually made more money), delivery driver, taxi (more recently Uber and Lyft) driver, taxi dispatcher, technical writer, and a college teacher of public speaking. But my interests are broad, which is one reason my Ph.D. is transdisciplinary (I prefer the term 'post-disciplinary') and therefore does not fit into the nice neat disciplinary boxes of academic departments. Still. . . .

The obvious path: Academia

Ph.D.s do have transferable skills — even desirable ones! — beyond teaching and thinking deeply about one topic for an extended period of time. The first step to a successful move outside of academia is identifying your transferable skills. The second, more difficult task is figuring out how you might use those skills in a future career — one that you might actually enjoy. And the third, probably hardest, step is making those skills obvious to those who might hire you.12

All of what Elizabeth Keenan says above, except the phrase (not even a complete sentence) about "teaching and thinking deeply about one topic for an extended period of time,"13 is a mystery to me—and in fact, I found the advice in her three-part series useless. She found joy as a real estate agent and her approach to identifying an "alt-ac" career choice depends on a reductionist self-inventory of transferable skills14 that feels profoundly unjust and extremely distasteful. On one level, I understand why she adopts this approach; it conforms to the predominant paradigm in our society. But it's not who I am. I'm post-disciplinary and my view of nearly everything in the universe, including every human being, including myself, is as a system, usually embedded in and embedding other systems,15 in each of which the whole does not equal the sum of the parts (with emergent properties comprising the difference),16 so on another level, this entire approach is so profoundly wrong it actually defies my comprehension.

I really want to be a professor and that's what career aptitude tests say I should be. It's just not realistic; academia increasingly hires only adjuncts, who may effectively be paid less than minimum wage and who enjoy no job security. Tenure-track positions are rare and getting rarer.17 And as Kelly Baker realized,

the faculty job market is not actually a proper market but an illusion of one. Academia projects the illusion while relying upon the casualization of labor for universities and colleges to run. Just-in-time labor becomes preferred, and graduate students and contingent workers fill the gaps in teaching demand.18

Searching for work, not exploitation

So I honestly have no idea what I should do and the tale of my job hunt is a sad one. The mismatch between social expectations and my talents, abilities, and expectations appears extreme. Further, at my age, I am well past the point where I need to start worrying about a time when I can no longer work. I need stable employment with decent pay, in accordance with article 7, in part to help pay down my student loans, and benefits, including retirement. Bullshit jobs simply won't suffice.

In neoliberal society, it is increasingly expected that while the wealthy may enjoy considerable financial security, everyone else must content themselves with jobs, if they can even find them, that offer no security whatsoever, preferably as "independent contractors," but often temporary or part-time, that last a couple years or less, culminating in the "gigs" of Uber and Lyft style companies.19 To rise above this level, even with a Ph.D., requires an ability to market oneself which I simply do not possess, but which I am assumed to possess by so-called "career coaches"20 with the same arrogance that some Silicon Valley folks assume everyone can learn to code. And the lack of that marketing ability compounds my difficulty when I do find myself out of work, for I have been unable to find gainful employment since the dot-com bust in 2001.

One problem is that I am post-disciplinary, which is to say, I understand the "disciplines" of specialized academic labor, such as communication, sociology, anthropology, economics, and the like, and see them as blinders. I noticed, even while still an undergraduate, that scholars in the social sciences would make bonehead mistakes when, inevitably, they crossed interdisciplinary boundaries. These boundaries are arbitrary, so scholars really can't avoid crossing them, but they are much too often ill-prepared when they do so.

But more than that, even with a Ph.D., my education is, by contemporary standards, inadequate. In neoliberal society, rather, remember "jobs of the future?"

Increasingly, however, employers have discovered a way to offload the nettlesome cost of worker training. The trick is to relabel it as education, then complain that your prospective employees aren’t getting the right kind.

"Business leaders have doubts that higher-education institutions in the U.S. are graduating students who meet their particular businesses’ needs," reads the first sentence of a Gallup news release issued last year. Barely a third of executives surveyed for the Lumina Foundation agreed that "higher-education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competences that my business needs."

Bemoaning the unpreparedness of undergraduates isn’t new. Today, however, those complaints are getting a more sympathetic hearing from the policy makers who govern public higher education.21

This is a scam that bears on the career-oriented focus of for-profit schools and an "anxiety-driven preference for career-focused classes and majors." This scam is accompanied by an expectation that universities will perform research and development not for basic science but to "keep university researchers involved in product development but off the company payroll." This scam blames "’60s-vintage faculty radicalism or political correctness run rampant" when what education is in fact supposed to be is broad and humanistic.22

I couldn't help but go for broad and humanistic, even as my then-favorite professor warned me that the higher up I went in education, the more I'd have to specialize. Instead, I wound up doing a Ph.D. in Human Science at Saybrook University, which decided to cut off admissions to and "teach out" the program in 2015 (allowing me and other existing students to complete our degrees).23 Human Science is an example of the very sort of program that is in fact unacceptable in neoliberal society and Saybrook was both betraying its own heritage and acquiescing to that reality in shutting down the program. But the degree I earned points to my true value, a value which the present job market refuses to recognize.

I've just never been interested in specializing. Even when I was a computer programmer, what I prized most was not the craft of programming itself, but rather my exposure to other fields of knowledge. My first two jobs took me into the casino industry and into ecological land management. However, my third job, the one I burned out on programming in, was strictly business application programming. And it must be said that I have absolutely no interest in the business of other people's money.

When, having fallen out of high technology for the third time in the dot-com bust, I returned to school in Fall, 2003, I was coming to understand that whatever line of employment politicians call the "jobs of the future" only works until capitalists figure out how to export those jobs. Then, of course, I would have to return to school, rack up more student loan debt, acquire those skills, hope those jobs actually materialized, and that they didn't disappear overseas before I finished acquiring those skills. This led me away from anything I was raised to understand as "real work" and along a social science path culminating in human science and a pragmatic critical theory. To my initial surprise, this path has helped me to understand, in great detail, much of why my life has worked out the way it has.

People say things, and often believe things, that sound good, but if you look closely at their behavior, you’ll see that either they are being dishonest or they don’t believe it all the way down. When employers say they want people who are well-rounded, you can see who they actually reward when they hire. I don’t see any signs of rewarding the well-rounded people. They’re rewarding people who do the job well and make the employers money. Employers want to sound like nice, open-minded people. They don’t want to say, "I don’t care if you’re a troglodyte as long as you bring in money." Ultimately, that is what they’re thinking.24

The academic path I would wind up following meant I had to hope that employers would indeed value skills they claim to value, like critical thinking and communication.25 In fact, as Bryan Caplan noted in the passage above, they do not.26 Instead, it is increasingly apparent that they are willing to hire only people who already possess extremely specialized skills needed in their niche and that they are unwilling to invest in training for those skills.27 And even when people with such skills exist, employers are determined to pay them as little as possible.28 This is what is really meant when we hear about "structural unemployment"29 and it is employers' unwillingness to pay people well that underlies H-1B visa abuse on their false claims that they cannot find skilled workers.30 And as it turns out, employers do not value the skills they claim to value.31 Instead, I find myself in a similar situation to others who have been discarded in the job market:

Discarded by the corporate state, dispossessed of social provisions and deprived of the economic, political and social conditions that enable viable and critical modes of agency, expanding populations of Americans now find themselves inhabiting zones of abandonment marked by deep inequalities in power, wealth and income. Such zones are sites of rapid disinvestment, places marked by endless spectacles of violence, and supportive of the neoliberal logics of containment, commodification, surveillance, militarization, cruelty and punishment.

These zones of hardship and terminal exclusion constitute a hallmark signature and intensification of a neoliberal politics of disposability that is relentless in the material and symbolic violence it wages against the 99% for the benefit of the new financial elite. Borrowing from Hannah Arendt, one could say that capitalist expropriation, dispossession and disinvestment has reached a point where life has become completely unbearable for over half of the American public living in or near poverty.[footnote elided]

Evidence of such zones can be seen in the war against immigrants, poor minorities, the homeless, young people living in debt, the long-term unemployed, workers, the declining middle class, all of whom have been pushed into invisible communities of control, harassment, security and the governing-through-punishment complex.32

The H-1B situation dovetails with my experience of working class life in between my high tech jobs; employers revel in a freedom to treat workers as infinitely replaceable. Worker vulnerability (social inequality) is the inherent outcome of any economic system of exchange,33 as the unemployed are compelled to accept lower pay and worse working conditions and the employed fear losing their jobs to those who will accept those conditions.34 The problem is not limited to less-valued workers. High tech firms allegedly agreed not to "poach" each other's employees in an illegal attempt to keep salaries down in the very field most often used to justify H-1B visas.35

Under conditions of deregulation that have prevailed since the 1970s,36 jobs are increasingly abusive37 and it turns out that the entire job market itself has become abusive except for those who happen to possess the arbitrary attributes that make them in demand. These attributes are not simply about the skills that enable one to fit nicely and neatly into disciplinary boxes ("specialized niches") marked by arbitrary boundaries. While race and gender discrimination unquestionably persist, one also needs to be young,38 have good credit, a solid work history, not to have been unemployed for very long,39 and preferably not to be unemployed at all.40

How does one find work?

At this point, it is apparent that the probabilities that work for perhaps even most people do not work for me. It's been, as of 2017, sixteen years and countless thousands of applications made at varying levels of education clear across the U.S. and internationally. I'm not even hearing back to even have a chance to find out what is wrong. I've had my résumé evaluated by multiple people who all call it a good résumé. But my experience of multiple approaches has been of consistent failure.

On-line job application systems

Matthew Yglesias offers a hypothesis that "it's too easy to apply for a job these days" because, he claims, "the internet has dramatically decreased the cost of identifying an open job listing and sending in an application. But digital technology has done essentially nothing to make it easier to evaluate candidates."41 Bullshit. First, apparently Yglesias has never met an on-line application system; if he had, he wouldn't be nearly so dismissive of the effort required to submit an application on such systems. These systems exist to handle the massive quantities of applications that Yglesias sees as unmanageable. They are pervasive at colleges and universities that would be my most obvious employers, but I have also seen them at—surprise, surprise—high technology companies that used to be my primary prospects for employment and at other employers whom, often in desperation, I have applied for work with.

It is not hard to understand that the way that these systems manage the vast, purportedly unmanageable quantities of applications is to filter them. Now, I can't say what criteria these systems are filtering based on because I don't really know. I obviously suspect many of the multiple forms of discrimination noted above and what I do know is that in the many years that I've been seeking work, I have not gotten one single interview as a result of an on-line application. I have no doubt that I have reliably been getting filtered out over a timespan including when I had only negligible education (an ancient A.A. degree in Business Data Processing, if you must ask), through a return to school in which I completed degrees all the way from a Bachelor's (B.A. in Mass Communication, M.A. in Speech Communication) to a doctorate (Ph.D. in Human Science) and during which I have had multiple people review my application materials. Nothing I have done in all that time has made any discernible difference.

On-line job search sites

I have heard back on résumés and job histories I've posted on sites such as Monster, CareerBuilder, Idealist, and Indeed. Each and every one of these responses has been some form of scam intended to prey upon desperate jobseekers who might be persuaded to take a risk they can't afford and shouldn't accept. I've even seen these scams when I listed myself as a tutor (and, still, not one legitimate response). I am also listed on academic job sites such as Chronicle Vitae, Higher Ed Jobs, the Versatile PhD, and the California Community College Registry, all to no avail.


If one indeed understands job-hunting as an insiders' game, in which jobs are listed publicly only to serve institutional or legal requirements, but almost never for actual hiring, then it follows that I should be seeking jobs through friends and family connections. This is, in fact, the only way I've ever found a good job (even when my friends have thought the job wasn't so good). Since the dot-com crash, their silence has been deafening despite multiple pleas and their only answer has been to continue in patterns that have only failed me.42 (It is getting awfully hard not to take this personally.)

Networking would not, in any event, be my strong suit. I am an introvert and my purported "intelligence" (which is not always an advantage) imposes an additional distance between myself and most other people. I am bored to tears by and cannot feign an interest in the sorts of things that most people find interesting, like popular entertainment or sports. At the same time, I am more likely to be interested in a conversation in an area relevant to my studies and less interested in that we might both be unemployed (the 'networking' I've seen offered at Sonoma County's Job Link), or both be vegans, or both be any particular thing else.

Broader implications

It has been a long time, probably since the 1980s or 1990s, since I heard the nostrum that in an organization, no one is indispensible. Allegedly, everyone from the chief executive officer on down had to continuously demonstrate their value to the organization or be let go. Which is to say that the organization became more valuable than the human.

So how has this worked out? First, the power relationships in an organization being what they are, we see a self-interested and an intrinsically incompetent clique bent on preserving its own position relative to and at the expense of workers and society at large empowered to determine who will be promoted, who will be sidelined, and who will be fired.43 Just as in an era of slavery, women as chattel, and American Indians as targets for extermination, powerful white men chose the standards by which to judge the worth of all others and just as the imposition of these standards on all others often economically benefitted those same powerful white men,44 we find that in fact it is not the rich who are disposable, but rather workers and the poor.45 And in the intentional discrepancies between wages, the availability of work, the social safety net, and living costs,46 we see a determination that many people, apparently including myself, even with a Ph.D., are simply not worth the money it costs us to live and that consequently, we are to to be despised, scapegoated, incarcerated, and otherwise deprived of fundamental human rights.47

The consequences of this wholesale dumping of entire classes of human beings can be seen on the median strips of our streets, in the freeway underpasses, in "deaths of despair," and in the myriad other ways that poverty manifests itself. But as a society, we have decided that making the rich richer is more important than taking care of our fellow humans. And yeah, I'm pretty furious about that.