Job Hunting in An Economic Depression: A Changing Landscape

My young ward and I (along with DH) make an interesting contrast in job hunters. He, having dishwasher experience and a few other odd jobs under his belt, wants to find work that will pay him enough money to exist with an apartment, a few roommates, and public transportation. We figure, with his parent’s help with health insurance (for a while), he needs to make at least $9 an hour around the Boston area. This would provide him with practically no social life, except for television. He’s lived without TV here for the past two months, and after the first two weeks, (when he was afraid boredom would kill him,) I think even HE would admit that it is a luxury, albeit one that he doesn’t want to do without.

DH and I have amassed both more job skills, and more lifestyle “weight.” It is one of the greatest myths as a culture entering a Great Depression, that education and skill by themselves enables you to locate work more easily. What’s been closer to the truth in my research, is that in the past, one’s ability to afford a college education and obtain a higher social standing, was what buffered you from what was to come. In other words, if you came from a family of great wealth, they could help you out in bad times.

But there’s more: fewer people even attempted to climb the greasy pole to success back then, as it was more of an accepted “given” that the class you were born into was the best that you could hope for, and that you used your skills and talents at that level.

There were exceptions, and that’s what they were, which proved no rule.

It has been as difficult to shift social classes in the USA today, as in times past, but it is just harder to tell you haven’t done it. We’ve changed our collars from blue to white, we’re raised the standards needed for the jobs (from high school to college), and we’ve put quite a few people deeply in debt before they’ve even landed their first adult job. And we call that “progress,” or “shifting class.” It reminds me of the lyrics to the Billy Joel song “Allentown:”

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown

But they’ve taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I’m living here in Allentown
And it’s hard to keep a good man down
But I won’t be getting up today

Both my DH and I have been able to get ourselves an advanced education. I’m one of two in my large, extended family that have a doctoral degree. Mine was financed by the help of a dead relative (of my ex) who died at the hands of a lousy anesthesiologist. DH got his the hard way, by paying his own way through. Neither one of us would trade it, but we got them during a different time in US history. Both of us have been lone wolfs, really, and heading back into the “job hunt” is an odd process, that I wanted to write about here.

First, let’s just say that as Barbara Ehrenreich has put it, the 40-hour week job with full benefits and retirement has gone the way of the buffalo for most people. The few that remain have hundreds, if not thousands, and thousands of people wanting them desperately. The reasons are obvious if you think about them:

Why Full-Time Work with Benefits is Harder Today

(1) Benefits are often as expensive as salaries. Health insurance continues to climb from its already obscene levels to even greater heights. Sick days, vacation days, retirement, etc all accompany a full-time worker, and if employers can avoid them, they do.

(2) It is harder to get rid of a full-time employee, than it is a temporary one. While labor laws are exceptionally weak in this country, there is still some recourse to those who work full time, but one’s part time or temp workers often perceive themselves as helpless in the face of firing or lay-offs.

(3) Per-diem help makes it easy to cut labor costs,
(seen as employers most flexible and costly ‘expense’) when the need arises, and in this economy, one has to be on drugs not to imagine that the need, very much, is likely to arise.

(4) Paying-for-performance, such as a strictly commission job, puts all the responsibility onto the worker, and is no risk to the employer. If the salesperson succeeds, the employer succeeds as well. If the employee fails to prosper, there is no harm done (to the employer.) Hiring a great many more “independent contractors” than one can use, provides a useful pool of “survival of the fittest,” and improves ones chances that at least some of them will be able to generate revenues for the company.

This last point is worth elaborating on. DH is an extremely skilled salesperson, with a proven track record of success, and innovation in locating clients to sell to. Nevertheless, employers are no longer willing to take any chances. They don’t have to. This provides an interesting shift in politics that I think is important to emphasize.

Shifting from ‘Hiring an Employee’ to ‘Hiring an Employer.”

In the olden days, an employer had to choose their employees carefully, as they were making an investment in them–in training, benefits, etc. Today, the reverse is true. It behooves any of you to exercise your “due diligence” when investigating your employer, as YOU are now the one hiring out yourself to them. It is no longer enough to be “offered a position,” when that position is temporary, part-time, strictly commission, or otherwise without any promise of future income. You must choose your employer more carefully now, than at any time in the past. The job you take on today, poorly chosen, will not only deplete your savings and waste your time, it will also leave you in a worse position in the future, when even fewer good jobs will be available.

Here are Some Things to Pay Attention to in the New (Tough) Job Market:

(1) False or Misleading Promises.
One job, for example, promises “average salary” of $40-$50k. What they don’t mention is that 80% (that they admitted to) of their new hires dropped out, quit, or were ‘let go’ during the first few months. This means that few sales workers were able to find “customers” to sell, were unable to sell them, or both. It takes more than pep talks and sales skills to make a living at sales. It takes people needing and wanting the products you are offering. Before you accept a job, ask to speak to current employees, and ask the employer what the rate of attrition is for new hires.

(2) Dwindling Business Income Generate the Need for More Salespeople.
As employers face hard times, they are looking for more “motivated salespeople” to pull them out of their slump. They are in a race against the clock for the last remaining souls to buy their swimming pools, tanning beds, office equipment, advertising space, etc. If they can get 10,000 people trying to sell them nationwide, it beats 100 folks trying to do it. If they bear no risk, other than the training, they stand to gain, with very little downside. On the other hand, you stand to lose big-time.

(3) Dying Companies Sometimes Boost Temp Help Before They Go Out of Business.
Especially retail can need help taking in a new line of merchandise in a “bait and switch” scheme, that involves buying cheaper merchandise in their final days, to sell at “discount” prices to shoppers who are used to better products. While it is a desperate attempt, it can sometimes help a company hoping to stay afloat a bit longer, “putting lipstick on the pig” to sell to another business, or to file for Chapter 11 rather than 7. Markdowns, sell-offs, and “final sales” can also require additional help, but for only a very short time. Make sure you aren’t part of the “undertaker” squad, unless you know that’s what you are.

(4) Scamsters Make Money by Having You “Invest” in the Products They Sell Before You are “Hired.” What you don’t realize is that you are their income stream. People looking for something, anything to make money, will see hope where there is none in business that thrive on the worker’s intense need for work. These businesses make money as long as they continue to hire “employees,” or “franchisees.” Once hired, and after the initial “investment” in products, these same “independent contractors” are encouraged to buy “training tapes” etc. that keep the revenue stream flowing to the “employer.” Not successful in selling? You need to buy more tapes, trainings, webinars, etc, according to these scamsters.

(5) As you cut costs in your own household, Pay Attention to What You Still are Buying, and Look for Work in Those Industries.
Even if large businesses are going under in these areas, you might still be able to produce these necessary things cheaper, faster, or better than the bigger firms.
Dinosaur eggs made great mouse food. Large dying industries make room for smaller, more nimble ones, with lower overhead and no debt. Look not only at which companies are staying in business, but which ones are leaving because the profit margins are no longer as hefty as they once were. If it is a necessary commodity, and you can provide it better, cheaper, faster, more locally, you may have an income stream.

(6) Stop Thinking About a “Career” and Start Thinking of Being of “Service,” and Keeping Afloat

There will be many family who will sink very deeply into debt, because the workers in the household can’t find work “in their field” or “at their level.” By the time they are willing to shift their standards of what they will accept, they’ve dug a pretty deep hole for themselves. Pride will keep some people from accepting jobs that are “below their level” until poverty eats away at their pride. If you are good at what you do, keep looking for a job in your field, but work in something else until you find it. Look squarely at what you do, and ask yourself, unflinchingly, if that profession is likely to generate income in hard times, as it has in good times. If the answer is “no,” be flexible about finding other ways to make income.

(7) Don’t Stop Working.
Even if you are unemployed, do things. Volunteer at a food pantry, get active in religious or civic organizations, run for volunteer town office. Get out there and mix and mingle with people from your community. Even if it doesn’t land you a job, it may keep “the blues” at bay and will increase your friendship and support network. Those “poor families” you hand food out to in the food pantry, may someday be your own.

(7) Ageism, Sexism, Racism, Classism and Nepotism are Alive and Well.
If you are an poor, old black woman with few family or friends, you are going to have a harder time finding work than if you are a young white guy with a ton of family and friends that own businesses. But you knew that. The hype about the opposite being true, is just that.

When you are looking for work, start with the people you know and who know you. Tell everyone you know, including your family, that you are looking for work, and give them a broad stroke picture of the kind of work you are looking for. Check in with them periodically, to remind them you are still looking, and what you’ve found in your searching. Friends and family are much less impacted by the -isms, and can actually help you more than you might realize. I got a call yesterday from an employer who wanted to talk to me because we went to the same undergraduate college, and he wanted to know if he knew me! As we chatted, he took the time to look over my resume, and decided that we should talk. While I don’t know whether this consulting-type interview will turn into a part-time job, the interview happened because of the social network I was a part of, not because of my individual skills. This is the way it is for most jobs people land. They are part of a social network, and this serves them in their job search.

In the best of times, job hunting is an exhausting, anxiety-ridden task. In a crashing economy, it is downright scary. While mental attitude is important, the tough realities of how many employers are actually hiring has a bigger impact on your likelihood of finding work. Despite knowing that high unemployment figures aren’t your fault, or you didn’t cause your employer to close down, most people take being unemployed as a personal failure, and are reluctant to talk about it to others about it. Bad move.

(8) Be Skeptical of Articles Listing “Recession-Proof” Jobs.

One article I read boasted that the “trades” will always have work, but when you read the story carefully, it was comparing today’s economic collapse with the last “recession” that occurred during the housing bubble. My grandfather was a skilled carpenter during the last Great Depression, and while he often had work, he seldom got paid. While being able to be of service to his neighbors during hard times beat sitting around the house, his skill as a tradesperson was no ticket to success.

How do these writers figure out what’s “recession-proof” and what period are they comparing it to? Often it is by the number of jobs advertised and it’s compared to the last recession in 1990 during the ‘dot com’ bubble.

Top on their lists? Salespeople. If you’ve been following this post so far, you know why. Keep in mind that the people writing these articles are in the business of making money by writing high-demand articles. That’s no reason to ignore their advice, only to be skeptical, and check out the suggestions or “facts” for yourself. Talk to people actually IN that industry before you sink time and money into training and education.

(9) Consider all the Costs of a New Job.

Right now, it might be easy to forget that gas prices will rise again. If you pick a job that requires a lot of driving or commuting, you’ll need to figure out how lucrative it will be when the gasoline is once again quite expensive. Figure out the cost of “uniforms” (professional dress), grooming expenses, lunches, take-out dinners, childcare, pet sitters, taxes, etc when you are considering the shift from in-home work to a “straight” job. What will the “benefits” package, if they offer one, actually cost you? Wal-mart offers a benefits package most employees can’t afford. Before you say “yes” to a new job, figure out the actual costs, and how much you’ll actually “net” at the end of the year. Make sure you won’t be able to “make” the same amount of money by cutting back expenses, and working from home.

(10) Finally, Pay Attention to the Minor Income Streams and Costs of Living.

A friend of mine was counting out “stickers” she sells for $.10 a piece, and tallying them on a piece of paper. I asked her if this kind of effort was “worth it.” I’ve taken to heart her reply. She said “Never underestimate the small streams of income. When you have a number of them, they really add up.” This friend works from home, keeps her “carbon footprint” small, and is able to carry out her charitable organization caring for injured wild animals on these “small income streams.”

In the same way, pay attention to those “insignificant” expenditures, and actually compute what they cost you each year, and if there is another way you can achieve a similar outcome. Can you share the cost of a $15 Netflix subscription every month with someone else who has similar taste in films? Share the driving? If you haven’t been a ‘tightwad’ before, you’ll benefit from learning how to be one. Search for terms like “frugal” “frugal living” “simple living” and “tightwad” and read and join forums. It’s becoming “chic” to be frugal!

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. Good post. I have two things to add:

    1) At this point in the economic downturn, the focus seems to be on finding one of those elusive jobs. At some point, though, it’s going to become clear that a big chunk of us are not going to find stable or sufficient work anytime soon…what do we do then? A lot of us are going to have to learn how to make do in much less-comfortable circumstances than we ever thought possible. Focusing on finding one of the jobs that are still out there is good, but it also bears mentioning that you might need a Plan C…

    2) You say that your ward’s $9/hr. salary “would provide him with practically no social life”. I’ve run into this thinking elsewhere recently–my parents have friends, a couple, in which the husband has a well-paying job and the wife stays home. He just found out he is getting laid off this month, and over Christmas they mentioned that they worked out their minimum finances, at $X/month, and they’d need another $1,000/month if they “ever wanted to do anything fun”. (They don’t have any kids, either!) I’m going, “What do you do for fun, take caviar baths??”

    Fun is important, but you’d be surprised how much of it you can have without spending a dime. I spend VERY LITTLE money on entertainment. I invite friends over for a home-cooked meal–nothing fancy, just simple but tasty food (more expensive than feeding myself, but a lot cheaper than eating out!), and we’ll keep ourselves entertained the entire evening just talking. I take advantage of all the free things going on in my area–free nights at museums, free movies in the park, etc.–plus things that are always free or cheap, anywhere, like bike rides and small local concerts at coffee shops and stuff like that. I realize that it’s more common and acceptable to conduct a stingy social life at my age (I’m 26, and most of my friends don’t have a lot of money), but this is bound to change as more people are in bad financial situations. I told my parents’ friends, “There’s no shame in telling your friends, ‘We’re trying not to spend any money right now.'” I don’t think they believed me…but they’re going to have to learn.

  2. I make the little bucks. You know, .86 cents here and 1.34 there. I don’t figure out my “hourly” wage because I don’t care. I work from home, in front of my warm wood stove, minutes here, an hour there, 7 days a week, when I want. I make enough. I redefined enough a while ago and I work towards this miniscule “enough” number, below poverty level by quite a bit, but it works for my family.

    I always say that the dollar I make today is one I didn’t have yesterday. I think we get so caught up in making sure we make a “living” wage that we forget to define what a “living” is. For me it is NOT a nine to five job with pantyhose and a boss. It’s a 24 hour, seven day a week life that means pennies here and a few dollars there.

    When I add it all up, I make enough to pay the bills, a little bit to save and the occasional skein of yarn. If you try to figure the cost of the enjoyment of working for myself and having total autonomy? Priceless.

  3. I am job hunting in this current environment, but I have a very comfy and relatively secure part time job that is working well for me so I am under no pressure to leap into anything new. I put off looking sooner since I was waiting to see how bad the economic down turn would be. Well it appears the results are in and it is indeed going to be a doozy, which has colored my preferences. I was considering the mining and energy sector before but we have had thousands of layoffs recently as our boom busted.

    So while I will keep looking for a full time job worth taking a chance on I am also working to make better use of my long weekends. I have built up our food gardens over the last two years to the point where we produce all our fruit and veg, about a third of our meat and a quarter our starchy staples ourselves, so if we were pressed we could scale up things and rebalance to drastically cut our food bills. I have also put in extensive ornamental gardens with a view to setting up a small nursery as a separate income stream. People may be cutting back on spending, but my business model is to sell minimal rooted cuttings and divisions of hardy old fashioned plants at lower prices than the competition. This should give me an edge, and hitting the local markets will keep it all outside the formal economy. Running a market stall also gives me incentive to sell the modest amounts of surplus veggies from the garden (though most are preserved at the moment). People always find a few dollars for cheering things like chocolate, so I know passionate gardeners will do likewise.

    My next option is to do a one year teaching degree for highschool math and science, but the debt incurred would be substantial so I am not in a hurry. The desperation for teachers here continues to grow, so I will wait for them to sweeten the deal more. A state nearby has started a six week intensive course as an alternative but it is tied to a two year indebtured contract to dodgy schools in the middle of nowhere. Ill bide my time for now…

  4. This is a great post. We just got our green cards so I am suddenly “free” to go out and earn some money. As we’re only just making it, it would be great if I could bring in something extra with it having to cost (e.g., extra in childcare bills). DH is optimistic about my chances because I have a Ph.D. and a half in Philosophy, and two MA’s (got those in Belgium at no cost). I’m pessimistic: I have no work experience whatsoever. I was a grad student until my daughter came along, and after that I was a housewife and would-be-novelist. But I think I might do some freelance writing here or there, and I hope my novel will be picked up… To offset this, I am planning on making our new garden work well for us: if we could save $600 in food bills every month, that’s income too, right?
    Exciting times, but scary times to be excited in.

  5. I meant, of course, withOUT it having to cost.

  6. JohnSherck says:

    Sarah makes a good point about needing a plan C, as there simply won’t be enough jobs for everyone, but I think Kathy’s point #5 goes some distance toward answering that: the real “recession-proof” (and, really, we’re talking here about depression-proof and even collapse-proof) and the things that people need to matter what. I don’t think of this necessarily as finding a job in X sector of the economy (though that’s certainly one approach) so much as finding something to do that will always be useful to people. The most obvious is food production: if you can raise enough food to provide for your own needs as well as a surplus to sell/barter, for instance, you’ll be in good shape. Food production is probably #1 on my list of “things to do,” because it both provides you with a basic need and is such for others as well. However, this could be replaced or supplemented by other products or services that–if not as indispensable as food–are always in demand.

    The scale here can be anything from Annamarie’s pennies and dollars here and there up to a demanding, full-time “job,” depending on means, inclination, and needs/wants.

  7. I’m very excited about the return to reality that the “recession” is prompting. Kathy’s list does some myth-busting, shaking up in particular the construct of the “job” as we have conceived it, with benefits, hours, boss, blackberry, and – oh yes! – a paycheck that we must use to prove our worthiness of the job. For Annamarie and Katrien it’s not 9 to 5. For Shane and John it’s producing food. For all of us it’s using what we have. I am finding myself happier, more interested and invested in life, more in tune with myself, my family, home, and community as I accept that I don’t have and won’t have the things I’ve thought I had to have. Stopping the acquisition of things gives me time to enjoy – not just have fun, but enjoy truly productive work from gardening and baking to molding my business to serve real needs, mine and others’. I have hope that, as people join with Sarah to say, “we’re trying not to spend money right now”, there will actually be some reduction in stress for many.

  8. How are we doing today? How we doin’? Great, great. You’re looking good. Love the shirt. Let me guess: Christmas present? Knew it. Great. Hey man, whenever you get a sec—and it’s no biggie—I was hoping you could just pop on over to my office real quick so I can fire you.

    Nothing to worry about. Trust me. Just a short little one-on-one session about you being fired. We’ll have a bit of unnecessary and degrading small talk and then I’ll clunkily segue into terminating your position here. I’ll follow up by apologizing like I care and that’ll be that. The whole thing will take a second out of your day. Promise.

    You’ll be in and out and unemployed in no time.

  9. Thank you all for those great comments! Just an update: I WAS hired for that part-time job by the guy who went to the same undergraduate college as myself. I got a good wage for the day, as well.
    DH has been working terribly hard for a corporation, and I can tell you sincerely, it isn’t the worst out there, but none of them are “good.” His base salary isn’t “livable” so unless he continues to sell, sell, sell, he’s dead meat. He’s already watched a few of his “training classmates” from February fall away. It isn’t a ‘job’ if you make no money. The one that left most recently was a single mother with several children. How she lasted this long, I have no idea.
    Again, thanks for those great comments!

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