The personal effects of joblessness

I was laid off from my job as a Washington news bureau chief five years ago this month when the bureau was closed after nearly eight decades. It remains one of the most painful experiences of my life.

With lightning rapidity, I went through every cliched reaction — numbness, a sense of unreality, anger, frustration, hopelessness, worry about money, determination to get past it and a profound loss of identity.

I didn’t know who I was. In America, we too often base self-identity on what we do for a living. It may be rude, and it may be stupid, but we are not comfortable meeting someone new until we know what they “do.”

Friends assured me I would have no trouble finding another job. But I knew journalism was changing. I knew the economy was changing. I told people I was the canary in the coal mine, which, of course, did not endear me to those who still toiled gainfully in traditional vineyards.

Eventually, I stumbled into part-time work that is wonderfully interesting and fulfilling although paying less than one-third of what I used to earn. Somehow, the children got educated and we haven’t lost the house, though not infrequently dipping into retirement savings.

I tell you this for no other reason than to impart some things I’ve learned.

I have written about and spoken with every president since Richard Nixon, and it amazes me how infrequently any of them said anything that truly resonated with real people going about their daily lives.

I wasn’t around for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. John F. Kennedy’s exhortation that we should ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country seems quaint, especially since our young men and women have been fighting, dying and being permanently maimed for years in at least two wars.

George W. Bush, who got us into those wars, talked about jobs as though they were turnips, not quite sure what they were or where they come from. President Barack Obama talks about joblessness with a kind of desperation. He “gets it” but doesn’t seem to be able to stay on topic long enough to convince us he knows what to do about the problems of millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans or what to say to inspire them.

It was Bill Clinton who told us two things that resonate for those seeking work. The first was that the “era of big government is over.” He didn’t foresee that we’d be in the dire straits deficit-wise that we are now, but he understood that we can’t sustain unlimited growth in entitlement programs. We do have to take responsibility for ourselves.

The other thing Clinton said about jobs is that most Americans will have eight jobs — careers — in their lifetimes. For those of us who assumed we’d be in the same job, working for the same company, for most of our lives, it is an astonishing figure. But it’s true.

We must teach our children to be resilient and innovative when it comes to earning a living. We should teach them to take educated risks, to be entrepreneurial and to expect to work harder than we did, often for less. We must convince them that their first loyalty must be to their own sense of self-worth and pride in what they do.

Brave new worlds don’t come without downsides, but there is reason to believe the future will bring good things for our country and prosperity for those who work hard and innovate.

All we have to do is stop exporting jobs, spend wisely, tax fairly, improve our infrastructure, educate ourselves to compete with the rest of the world and encourage research and development.

Painful, yes, but we’ve done it before.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

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