A lot of things havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t fallen the right way for Brian E.,
but failure isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t an option.
Another rejection letter came in the mail today. This one from the local government, a job only requiring a high school diploma. My current job is more challenging and stressful, yet, someone
didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see my worth. While in the lobby area waiting to be interviewed for the
position, I sat across from a scruffy white male wearing a t-shirt and blue
jeans (at an interview). He was competing for the same position, and I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t
help but think that the job went to a less qualified candidate.
The rejection letter before that came from a major local university. I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t name the universityÃ¢â‚¬â€but I will say that it is the oldest Catholic university west of the Mississippi River. Again,
I applied and was interviewed for a position that only required a high school
diploma. The pay was very modest but was a little more than I currently make,
and it would have allowed me to tackle student loan debt and stay above water.
And the job would have provided excellent benefits. Earning less than a livable
wage and having no real health benefits (my plan basically only covers
checkups) I thought this position would be a step up.
I nailed the interview and was well qualified for the position, but management went with a less qualified
candidate. When I called to follow up with the HR representative, I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t told
that I was not among the most qualified; she admitted that there was no way
that she could tell me that. I have an advanced degree and almost 20 years of
experience in the field applied for, with roles ranging from line employee,
trainer, and supervisor.
Instead I was told that I Ã¢â‚¬Å“was not the best fitÃ¢â‚¬Â. Not the best fit? What in the world does that mean?
Unbeknownst to the HR representative and the interview panel, I had a source
inside the department who was able to confirm that the people they hired pretty
had qualifications well below my own. Maybe it was not meant to be. If they
arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t able to see the worth in a good applicant, then it was probably not the
best place for me.
This is a situation that has replayed itself at least a half a dozen times since the spring of 2011. The
rejection letters seem to come by the bucket load, sometimes several a day. So
I am used to it at this point. But the stress of it all has reached levels that
I could not have imagined 10 years ago. I am not sure what role, if any, race
may be playing in my struggle to find meaningful employment, but I suspect
being a black American male plays some role. It definitely isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t an asset, just
as in other parts of my life. I see it as a hindrance in many situations. But I
am also one who believes that hard work, education, and experience should
overcome all those barriers. I hate to use race as an excuse, although the numbers on minority unemployment and under-employment are real and consistent. Instead I have been looking at other things that may be the cause of so much difficulty.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been a strong-willed, hard-working, go-getter since the age of 16, but I hit a brick wall. I realize
that even a hard-working, go-getter spirit has its limits and can only take you
so far in this economy. I have been chronically under-employed for several
years, but I have never dealt with the kind of adversity that has come my way
My student loan debt has skyrocketed to at least $75,000, and the creditors want their money. I have no way to pay them, and I want to. There have been major staff shake-ups at work. I have
survived the ax so far, but my position is not as secure as it was before. I
landed my first job days after my 16th birthday in a federal
government summer work program when I lived in Europe. I have worked
continuously for the past 20 years. I toiled for years, working full-time while
going to college, taking classes both full-time and part-time. I am used to
taking care of my financial obligations. So this experience is wrecking my
psyche. Not having a good family bond or support network has made things worse.
But failure is not an option.
Over the past few months I have hit bottom, like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. I have had my
subway station bathroom moment, although I am not homeless. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the fear
and hopelessness, the idea that I have run out of options, having no idea what
to do next and what will come next. I have punched walls and fallen to my
I have stared death in the face a couple of times in my life. I survived abuse in my youth. I can recall going to bed cold and hungry in my early childhood, not having a competent sober mother
to take care of me. I survived an experience with a kidnapperÃ¢â‚¬â€successfully
talking him out of getting rid of meÃ¢â‚¬â€and had at least one other close brush
with death in my lifetime. But I can honestly say, the past several years,
particularly the last three, have been the worst years of my life.
Being under-employed for so long has had a negative impact on every aspect of my life. I have become even more withdrawn from familyÃ¢â‚¬â€and from life, for that matter. I was always the
withdrawn family member, but I have added more layers to my shell. I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t
spoken to my brother since September 12, 2001, and have not seen him in 19
years. I have two sisters who I have not seen or spoken to in at least four
years. There is a stepmother (the only surviving person besides my grandmother,
who has taken any part in raising me) who I have not seen or heard from in
years. And my grandmother, the woman who basically raised me until age 11, I
havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seen since around 2004. I rarely even see my own relatives right here
in St. Louis.
Part of this has to do with the fact that my relationship with family is dysfunctional, and I have a job that does not afford me the opportunity to get time off for myself. But a large part of
it has to do with shame. I am ashamed that I have not succeeded in accomplishing
most of my life goals and that I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a successful career. My stepmother
and other relatives came to visit other family members in St. Louis over the
Fourth of July, and I did not go to see them because I was too ashamed. I did
not want them to see me this way. I did not want them to see the under-employed
failure. I did not want them to know that I had not moved on from the same
crappy job that I had the last time they saw me.
I am the only one out of four children who went to college after high school and the only one with any
degrees. I expected to be a success story at this point in my life: a positive
example to others in the family. But I have even failed at that. It turns out I
am doing no better financially than they are. In fact, a few are doing better
than me. I used to preach the importance of educated to my two younger
siblings, and now I feel like a fool.
Being under-employed has challengedÃ‚Â my life in other ways. It has made me feel less than a man. During the recent Arab Spring protests, the common theme among young men being interviewed seemed
to be a sense of profound hopelessness, a struggle with poverty, the lack of employment opportunities for college graduates, and the inability to find a partner and start a family as a result.
Basically, their lives were on hold, frozen as they sought work, leaving them unable to enjoy the rites of passage of manhood. For much of the past decade, my life has been on hold for many of
the same reasons. I have been unable to step into my manhood. Being
under-employed has meant that dating, finding a suitable mate, and starting a
family have not been options for me. I have not had a date in over eight years,
nor have I sought one. I just donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see any point in even trying to enjoy that
part of life because my financial situation creates so many limitations. The
kind of partner that I want would require a man who is more financially secure.
The inability to claim my manhood, enjoy dating and build a family in my prime years is probably the hardest thing that I am dealing with at the moment. I get a sick feeling in my stomach
whenever I see men in their mid to late 30Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s out with their beautiful families.
It makes me sick because a part of me wants what they have, but it is out of
reach for me. I cannot have what they have. I know that I am not likely to ever
find a partner and start a family because soon I will be too old for even
child-bearing partners once I enter my 40s (something that will happen in just
a few short years).
For men, under-employment also has a negative impact on intimacy. At least this has been the case for me. Intimacy is something that I have never been able to experience. At age 38, I have never
asked a woman outÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ because I never saw any point in doing so. Rejection fears
aside, I have always understood that even if she says yes, my financial
position would only allow me to carry things so far. I am old-fashioned in the
sense that I believe lives of men should be built in a certain order: high
school, college, job/career, financial security and stability, date, get
married/engaged/or at least maintain a long term responsible relationship, then
build a family. Things just have to go in that order.
As I mentioned, under-employment and unemployment strikes a blow to every aspect of life, especially for men. It prevents you from developing the kinds of social circles that you want (which
often lead to finding partners). It limits the kind of networking that you can
do. It ultimately limits your dating options. All of the things important to
manhood are negatively affected.
My hopes for the future have been scaled back quite a bit. I now realize that a wife and family, or even a normal relationship, will probably not be a part of the picture. Unless I can build a
middle class life for myself, my dreams will have to wait, and they will
probably die when I die. I may not necessarily want to get married anytime
soon. What eats at me is the fact that I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have the option to explore
marriage and family because of financial limitations and the lack of adequate
Kate Bolick, the author of the Atlantic article Ã¢â‚¬Å“All The Single Ladies,Ã¢â‚¬Â basically describes men
who are in their 30Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s and still single, and those who have fallen on hard
times, as unmarriageable leftovers. They are the men that she encourages women
not to Ã¢â‚¬Å“settleÃ¢â‚¬Â for. Her idea of a Ã¢â‚¬Å“good manÃ¢â‚¬Â or a Ã¢â‚¬Å“marriageableÃ¢â‚¬Â man is one
whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worth is quantified almost exclusively in financial terms. For many
women, Bolick suggests, character doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seem to be on the same terms as money
or class status when they are sizing up potential mates.
Men impacted by the economy are seen in her eyes as losers, despite the fact that a good match may be found among men who are underemployed or temporarily unemployedÃ¢â‚¬â€many through no fault of
Bolick goes on to actually make some good points on how cultural changes have altered gender roles and marriage in American society. Since there is more economic parity between the genders,
women donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have to marry men for economic security. This is probably true in
some cases, but even women who are financially independent tend to want men who
earn more money. Women who have their own careers at least want a financial
equal. One would think that more economic parity would make it easier for men
to date and marry, but that hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been what I have seen.
Dating for men is more complicated than ever. With incomes rising for women and stagnating for men, it is harder to meet financial expectations. The pressures on men have gone up, not down.
Men now have to earn more money to match what women earn. A decent job 20 years
ago, earning 30-35k with decent health benefits would probably be enough to
meet the standard. That is no longer necessarily the case today.
I wish I lived in times that were less complicated, and where relationships with the opposite sex were built on love, trust, companionship, and character. Dating today is mainly class based,
with larger barriers between levels as you move up. With a working class
income, I am locked out of middle class and upper-middle class social
circlesÃ¢â‚¬â€and that includes dating. DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get me wrong, there is certainly
nothing wrong with the working class, but such circumstances mean that dating
options are extremely limited.
There have been many instances where I just wanted to give up. Sleep is a luxury; I usually get two to three hours of sleep at a time. I wake up several times during the night and struggle to
get back to sleep. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m constantly worried about what the next day will bring.
My view of life, my country, and the world has changed profoundly over the past
decade. I no longer believe in Ã¢â‚¬Å“The American Dream,Ã¢â‚¬Â as it
was packaged and sold to me earlier in life. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a fairytale at best.
I once believed that through hard work you could achieve anything and you could be successful. But no one told me about all the other uncontrollable variables. No one told me about the big role
that luck plays in turning Ã¢â‚¬Å“The DreamÃ¢â‚¬Â into reality. Like most Americans, I
became conditioned and fell for the notion that Ã¢â‚¬Å“The American DreamÃ¢â‚¬Â was
something obtainable, as long as I kept up my end of the deal. I was basically
sold a lie.
In terms of career and financial security, we are supposed to do better than our parents. At least this is what we are told. But I am doing far worse than my father when he was my age, and he
never graduated from high school. I am worse off even with a Masters degree.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure that part of the reason has to do with my fatherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tenacity.
I got my go-getter spirit from him. He left school at 18 to join the U.S. Army in the mid 1960Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s during the Vietnam War. He would later earn his G.E.D. He became an Army Ranger and jumped out of
helicopters in Vietnam, surviving two tours. By the time he reached my age, he
was a drill sergeant and was just about to meet his second wife. He built a
life for himself and his family through the militaryÃ¢â‚¬â€a route that he said he
took so that his children wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have to.
But how could it be that I am having a more difficult time? With a MasterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s degree, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m earning what a high school graduate earns. But IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not alone. Fifty-five percent of respondents in an April 2011 Gallup poll believed that it was unlikely that their standard of living would be better than that of their
Some of my co-workers think that college degrees and a good work history should make job hunting should be easy. But there are tons of people in my hometown of St. Louis who have BAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and
Masters degrees who are waiting tables. St. Louis is a great town, but there is
very little industry here. St. Louis met the same fate that Detroit and other
industrial cities have met. It used to be our second Motor City and was also a
defense industry behemoth. But over the past 20 years or so, St. Louis has seen
the loss of over a half-dozen Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies, along
with the loss of corporate headquarters including TWA, McDonnell-Douglass, and
Anheuser-Busch. There are just not as many options for College graduates today
as there were in the past.
So how does a man maintain his manhood and dignity while living under-employed, especially when manhood and dignity are tied to Ã¢â‚¬Å“workÃ¢â‚¬Å“ and being the provider? How do you do it when
unemployed for that matter? I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know. I have not found the answer. I have
not been able to claim my dignity in the way that I should, and I certainly
have not been able to claim my manhood. But I believe in picking myself up and
dusting myself off no matter how many times I get knocked down. Keeping myself
busy seems to be an effective way to cope. You have to find what works for you.
I am about a year and a half away from earning another MasterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s degree and six months from earning a graduate certificate. I am hoping that a combination of these new approaches will yield
better results in the coming new year.
Failure is not an option.