Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hope(lessness) and Change

H/T to Corrente for finding an oldie but goodie by Ian Welsh called the Personal Politics of Hopelessness. I'm sure many of our readers can relate:

As I write this I’m eating a sub I bought from across the street. While it was being prepared I chatted with the young woman making it, and she told me about moving from the Canadian Maritimes to Toronto, to, in essence, get a job that pays a little more than minimum wage. Because out in the Maritimes she had trouble getting even that.

I thought to myself that her experience is one that politicians need to have. Many politicians, of course, have never ever had a bad job. They went straight to a good university and from there to a good job or internship. They probably worked hard for it, and think they deserve what they have, never really seeing all the people whose feet were never on that road, who never had the same shot they did.

Then there are a fair number of pols, though less and less every year, who will tell you about the lousy jobs they had as teenagers, or maybe in their early twenties. But in most cases something is different between them and many working class and even middle class folks.

They knew they weren’t staying there.

When I was poor and working in lousy jobs I used to look in the mirror and see myself at 50, or 60. I expected to still be working at grindingly hard jobs, being treated badly by bosses (because there is no rule more iron than that the worse you are paid the worse your employer will treat you), and still being paid little more than minimum wage. That was the future I saw for myself.

And when I was on welfare, after having failed to find a job for 6 months, and even being turned down by McDonalds (in the middle of the early nineties recession) I wondered if I’d even ever have a shitty job again. I ate cheap starchy food, turned pasty and put on weight. My clothes ran down. When my glasses broke beyond the point where tape would keep them together I literally had to beg the optometrist to make me his cheapest pair and I’d pay him later. (I eventually did.) My life was a daily grind of humiliation.

And that’s what I expected my life to be.

When politicians participate in one of those “live on Welfare for a week/month” programs I’m happy, but I’m also dubious. The difference is that they know they’re getting out in a week or a month. They know it’s going to end. Much as I applaud someone like Barbara Ehrenreich, who lived for months working at lousy jobs, again, she knew it was going to end. She knew that, if push come to shove and she became seriously sick, she could opt out. She knew that if she really couldn’t eat for days, that was her choice.

Living without that safety net, knowing that if something goes wrong, that’s just too bad, changes you. Living without any real hope of the future, knowing that the shitty job you’ve got now is probably about as good a job you’re ever going to have, changes you.

And it changes your sense of what hard work is, of what it means to be deserving. I remember working on a downtown construction site as temp labor, and I’d watch all the soft office workers with their uncalloused hands come out for lunch, and I’d wonder why they got paid two or three times what I did for work that was so much easier (and which, of course, I could do, even if I didn’t have a BA.) At the end of the day they might be stressed, but I’d go home physically exhausted from hard labor and so would my co-workers.

Of course, I got out of that. I’d say “I went back to university”, but even though that’s true, it’s not what got me out, since I never finished my BA. Instead what got me out is that I finally got a couple chances to prove what I could do—I got a temp job in an office, and was one of their most productive workers (they measured it.) Later I got invited to blog, and hey, I can write, even if I don’t have a BA. I got lucky. Like most people who get lucky in work, that luck involved a lot of hard work, but it also involved luck.

But a lot of folks never get lucky despite the fact that they work hard. Perhaps they aren’t really all that bright (half the population, after all, is below average intelligence.) Perhaps they’ve got some personality issues or weak social skills. Perhaps there’s something not quite right in their brain chemisty. Or perhaps they just never catch a break because they aren’t lucky and their parents weren’t well enough positioned to help them get those breaks.

But still, most of them work hard and earn their money, whether it’s barely more than minimum wage or they did get a bit of luck and got one of the few remaining good blue collar jobs.

But when they look in the mirror, they know that the guy or gal looking in the mirror ten or twenty years from now is probably going to be doing the same thing. And they know that they’re one bad break away from losing even the little they have—one illness, one plant closure, one argument with their boss.

They don’t have a lot of hope for the future, except that it won’t get worse. The life they live now is the best it’s probably gonna get.

Living like that changes you. It makes you see people differently. You understand that there are a lot of bad jobs out there, and that someone’s going to be stuck with them. You know that most of those jobs are either hard or humiliating, and often both. You know that for too many people, a shitty job where they’re abused by their boss is as good as it gets.

If this depression and the "jobless recovery" has taught the educated underclass anything it is that connections and luck usually matter more than intelligence, hard work, and doing everything right to get into law school or even a top law school only to find yourself back in the same position you would have been in if you had dropped out of high school. Only now you have student loans so huge that it will take you the rest of your life to pay back.

This is especially painful to many of us who didn't come from a rich family. Maybe your mother was like the woman in Ian's post who moved to Toronto to find something better than a mininmum waged job. Or your parents struggled to pay the bills and the mortgage while putting aside money each month for your college fund. My mother bought used textbooks from the library so she could tutor me at home in addition to schoolwork. She always emphasized getting an education so that my life would be better than hers. Some of you might have had strict parents who forced you to take additional classes and extracurricular activities so you'd have an edge when applying to college.

Your parents or guardians did all of this because they held out hope that all of that hard work and education would someday pay off and you wouldn't have to struggle for the rest of your life or work in a demeaning and low-wage job. Hope for a better life for themselves but especially their children is what keeps most people going through the worst of times. Well, the light at the end of the tunnel has officially gone out and with it the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans who did everything right (emphasis mine):

Meeting 99ers is to tap into a deep well of anger at lives that have been knocked off course, shattering the enduring vision of the American dream that many had felt they had achieved. Just take Donna Faiella, a 53-year-old New Yorker who lives alone in Queens. She spent 28 years working in film post-production and video-editing. She was successful and had a career. Now she is desperate for a job, any job. But she cannot find one. "I will do anything. I will sweep floors. You think I look forward to collecting unemployment? It is fucking degrading," she said, almost quivering with anger.

Faiella is in dire trouble. Joblessness has eaten away at her sense of identity. "I feel like we are worthless. We are lost in the world. I don't know what to call myself. I don't have a title any more. What do we do? What do we do?" she implored. Faiella has one week of benefits to go. Then her 99 weeks will be up. She will have a title again. But not one she expected. She will be a 99er. "I am petrified. Do I become homeless?" she said, adding that she has begun making inquiries at local shelters.

Perhaps the most tragic is to see so many young Americans who have lost all hope and faith in a better future for themselves and for their children. It is tragic to see a generation who should be starting their lives having to move back home with nothing to give their parents - who may very well be struggling with unemployment or early retirement themselves - other than a worthless piece of paper that they and their parents had invested their entire lives to obtain.

I hope for our country's sake that someday we get a President who really had to struggle so they know what it is like to live on the edge with no money and no hope for the future. Someone who grew up on welfare and struggled to find a job during our generation's Great Depression will hopefully have at least a modicum of empathy to invest in job creation and finally end the total looting and destruction of this country by Wall Street and the student loan companies. I'm not holding my breath. Regardless, if or when we get out of mess, there will be inumerous casualties including many of our readers and scambloggers who are part of the Damned Generation.

Student Loans Scheme.

Infographic by College Scholarships.org


  1. Angel,
    Thank you for posting this. I have been contemplating my own hopeless feelings lately. Yes, my mother was one of those people who begged me not to have her life - she worked menial, crappy, minimum wage jobs and the customers and bosses treated her like shit. All she wanted was for me not to repeat her life and for me to make something of myself. I tried, I honestly did. I am so touched by the stories of the hopeless and if I ever get the chance, I really do want to do something to help the working poor. I now know that the way to do this isn't by being a lawyer/crusader, but I just don't know what to do. I do know, though, that there are SO many people like the woman working in the sub shop and that struggle every day. It makes me feel lucky to be able to earn $10 per hour.

  2. Hardknocks posted it! Thanks though.

  3. Angel, great post. My parents made it through high school but that's it. I'm the first person in my family to get through college. Between a scholarship and government grants I made it through undergraduate with only 4 thousand in loans. My mom has been a cashier most of her life and my dad worked various jobs that he did well enough in to be promoted to manager. He was an asst man. at Burger King, manager at Advanced Auto Parts, and finally today he runs his own Allstate insurance branch. He's doing well, now, but I remember a lot of lean times growing up. I was always on reduced (or free) school lunch.

    So, I can sympathize with that, but not so much with the unemployment. I got my master's in January and I've been part-time employed since Feb and full-time since March. I work as a chemist during the day and teach chemisty as an adjunct at a community college in the evening. $20/hr is solid for someone just out of school in a struggling econ.

    I'm so torn about law school. I don't like being a chemist anymore. In school it was pretty cerebral and I enjoyed learning and thinking about chemistry. But the work I do now is grunt work, I'm a glorified laboratory technician. I don't want to slog away in the lab anymore, but I'm scared to death of going to law school ITE. Even without debt at Franklin Pierce, I could waste 3 years of my life.

  4. Hardknocks! It was her, give her credit! Alton, I think that college can be a teaser for some careers... and law school for that matter. Frankly, work is work. It's boring and tedious and repetitive. And we all have such high thresholds for interest (because of our well rounded exercise). I know an IP lawyer that says that his job is so boring that it makes him upset to think that he'll be doing it until he retires/dies because it bores him to tears. I don't know if we should be looking for excitement in the work environment.

  5. Thank you Hardknocks :).

    Angel, I would rather read/write routinely than pour liquids and twiddle dials on a machine routinely.

    It seems that, as a patent attorney, there is a bare minimum amount of personal enrichment I could get from it. Namely, I would HAVE to learn about new chemical technologies in order to deal with the patents.

  6. Angel,
    You say you hope our country can find a President that went through these struggles.


    But I wonder what government can do? Government cannot solve this problem. Government has contributed enormously to the problem. Government created the artificial inflation of demand for college degrees that makes college so expensive. Government allowed the crony capitalism that makes student loans so predatory. Government overregulated industry after industry, making economic growth so difficult. Government is currently holding back growth because industry is afraid of getting screwed over by the government. Government has borrowed trillions of our grandchildren's money that we cannot possibly pay back, possibly creating hyperinflation or depression as far as the eye can see.

    How can you expect a president or any member of a government to be of any help?

  7. "Government overregulated industry after industry, making economic growth so difficult. Government is currently holding back growth because industry is afraid of getting screwed over by the government. Government has borrowed trillions of our grandchildren's money that we cannot possibly pay back, possibly creating hyperinflation or depression as far as the eye can see."

    Those cliches seem very familiar...

    I can tell you for a fact that industry is not "holding back growth" because businesses fear being screwed over by "the government." Also, stop talking about austerity as if our children or grandchildren demand it. Most young people want a more fair system. They don't want to see the budget balanced on the backs of millions of struggling Americans. Keep the Fox News tropes to yourself.

    As long as we live in a country that has higher income inequality than countries like Russia, Egypt, and Guinea, I would prefer it if you not act as though punishing the working class is somehow benevolent for the working class' children.

  8. "It's boring and tedious and repetitive."

    A large part of any job will be boring and repetitive; that's true even for brain surgeons and astronauts.

    That's why it's a good idea to choose a career that is intrinsically meaningful to you, for whatever reason - the bigger picture is what pulls you through the boring, tedious, repetitive bits. (And, in many cases, the crappy pay.)

    Alton, if you want to be a patent attorney, I'd urge you, before you go to law school, to do some research and make reasonably sure that (a) you'll be able to get a job as a patent attorney wherever you want to live and (b) make sure that there's a good chance that you'd really use your experience as a chemist - i.e., if the field is incredibly competitive where you are or want to be, or if 90% of the patent work concerns some other field, it might not be such a good dea.

  9. I think that was her point. All jobs are boring and tedious and repetitive.

  10. Why there are so few that understand the reality of the world is a mystery to me. Hard work is (usually) a necessary, but not sufficient condition. It takes luck too.


    "Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.

    Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he’s wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn’t really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall.

    If I had to do even five hours of that work today I’d bawl my fucking eyes out for a month straight. I’m not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress."

  11. Anonymous at 10:26:

    You wrote: I can tell you for a fact that industry is not "holding back growth" because businesses fear being screwed over by "the government." Also, stop talking about austerity as if our children or grandchildren demand it. Most young people want a more fair system. They don't want to see the budget balanced on the backs of millions of struggling Americans. Keep the Fox News tropes to yourself.

    As long as we live in a country that has higher income inequality than countries like Russia, Egypt, and Guinea, I would prefer it if you not act as though punishing the working class is somehow benevolent for the working class' children.

    Listen, we can give anything we want to the working class, the underclass or whatever. But we can only do so as long as the Chinese continue buying our bonds. Once that stops, party's over. To contradict my point, please explain how we can pay for the programs you propose?

    We cannot tax our way into the ability to do so. To prove this, I will challenge you to name a year (preferably a series of years) in which tax revenues exceeded 20% of GNP by a significant degree.

    We cannot grow our way out of the problem either. Growth is just too slow in an industrialized economy.

    Anonymous, you need to deal with reality.

  12. Thank you Anon 12:06.

    I understand that almost every job involves a measure of repitition and tedium. I also agree that it's the final result of what you're accomplishing, some inherent value, that motivates you to work through the drudgery.

    The problem is that, as a research chemist, I don't feel that. We get some result and I just feel like "What's the point?" People hear about the wonderful things that come out of research, but for every one amazing discovery there are probably over a million banalities. The vast majority of us doing actual bench-level scientific research are bored to death and will never discover or do anything of measurable importance. At least, that's how I feel about it. Obviously there are those out there doing the same thing(s) as me who feel differently.

    I hope that, as a chemical patent attorney, I'll get to

    1) Interact with people more.
    2) Read/think about technology more.
    3) Be involved with the most important/significant products of chemical research.
    4) Make a little better money.

    Number 4 is purposely at the bottom of the list because, honestly, if the other three are fulfilled to any significant degree I don't mind continuing to make around 50k/year. At the same time I'm hoping that the supply of J.D.'s with a BS in chemical engineering and a master's in chemistry is lower than the demand.

    My primary worry is that I'm stuck with 2 "half good" options:

    1) Go to Franklin Pierce and grad with no debt, but probably be stuck in NH/Mass. Not that NH/Mass isn't a wonderful part of the country, though.

    2) ED to Nwern, GULC, or GW, take on 150k in debt, be able to go anywhere in the country. But, if I can't get a job that's a lot of debt.

  13. Hardknocks, add my voice to the chorus -- this was beautiful. I see that hopelessness in members of my family (particularly my stepmother, who has a HS education and once upon a time had a "good" secretarial job -- at Enron). It is just soul crushing.

  14. Beware, beware, all ye who consider attending non-elite law schools!

    Not a good gamble, for ANYONE.

  15. Three or four million heads of households don't turn into tramps and cheats overnight, nor do they lose the habits and standards of a lifetime...They don't drink any more than the rest of us, they don't lie any more, they're no lazier than the rest of us....An eighth or a tenth of the earning population does not change its character which has been generations in the molding, or, if such a change actually occurs, we can scarcely charge it up to personal sin."
    – Federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins in 1933

  16. You can criticize his policies, but Obama spent part of his childhood on food stamps, and wasn't able to pay off his student loans until his book became a bestseller.

  17. Alton,

    I would suggest finding a way to expand on your chemistry background instead of law school.

    If you want to interact with people and "make a difference," maybe you can go into sales or non-profit work like fundraising for medical causes. You may need to get a business degree or some other bullshit degree, but its an area that can use people who know the subject matter and you won't have to waste 3 years of your life in law school and be laden with debt. You could actually work and go to school part-time.

    If you just said, "eww!" to sales, then you won't be too excited about the legal profession. You either sell your services, or you starve. Join the Peace Corps if you want to "make a difference."

  18. I don't say "ewww" to sales, I've actually been applying for every chemical sales position that I've come across. I haven't even gotten an interview. They all want sales experience and preferably experience working on the equipment they're selling. I don't know how I'll ever break into that.

    Not digging the whole fundraising bit. And if I go on a full ride I won't be laden with debt. I don't plan to waste those 3 years.

  19. Alton, 12:06 here.

    All I'm saying is, do your research. I'm not only not a patent attorney myself - I don't even know any patent attorneys. I have no idea how much interaction they have with each other or their clients. (I'm an appellate attorney who prefers to be left alone to read and write all day.)

    I just want you to make an informed decision about law school, so I hope you'll scare up a few patent attys and ask them a whole bunch of questions about your prospects, the job market, what an average day is like for them, etc. Good luck.

  20. I think we should call this blog "All About Alton".
    Alton, you have so many people here that care about your well-being. I would hate for them all to be right. Can you just delay your decision until you get a better grasp on your real prospects. Chances are you will find something in your current field and never look back.
    Just a suggestion, but I'll support you in your decision provided you follow my advise from a couple of days ago.

  21. Alton, the patent industry isn't doing well right now. The USPTO recently (within the last 2 months) had a recruitment for 40-50 patent examiner positions with 1+ years of patent prosecution experience.

    According to an official response from the USPTO, there were over 3000 applications for these positions (mostly from patent prosecutors that were laid off). I know one guy that had 5+ years of experience as a researcher, had a J.D., passed the patent bar, approximately 1 year (summer internships) of patent prosecution experience, and yet he still got rejected. Things may turn around in 2-3 years, but I wouldn't bet on it.

    Also, you'll most likely be working alone in an office all day as a patent attorney. It's almost impossible to make the required billable hours without doing so. As for becoming involved with research/technology, you won't have time to really understand a technology unless you become an in house patent attorney.

    If you're interested in knowing more about what patent attorneys do, read some posts on http://www.intelproplaw.com/ip_forum/index.php.

  22. By the way, if you're seriously thinking of going into patent law, I'd consider becoming a patent agent. The only requirement is that you pass the patent bar. You won't have to spend 3 years and $100k in law school. Your salary will probably be lower than people with J.D., but I hear starting salary is $80+ if you can find a position.

  23. Thank you everyone, I've gotten such a warm and helpful response here that I haven't seen so much on law school forums. Angel and HK are cultivating a good environment.

    I spoke to Paul J. Kroon yesterday, a chemical engineering patent attorney and a 2002 graduate of Franklin Pierce. http://www.gtpp.com/attorney/paul_jr

    His description of the work and the job sounded like what I have in mind. He acknowledged the terrible economic state, but also said that "now's the time to go to school" i.e. when the econ is bad. When I graduated NC State in 2007 I went to grad school b/c the econ was kinda bad. Now I've grad Hopkins and the econ is worse. Supposedly in 2014 when I grad Franklin Pierce it'll be on the upswing again? 7 Years out of undergrad?

    He had good things to say about the pay and the hours. He's at a relatively small firm (as you can see). He never wanted to work 70 hours a week for 150-200k, he works about 50 hours a week and is very happy with his salary. That sounds about right to me. He got a job at the end of 1L summer and got paid during 2L and 3L, those were good times. Not really gonna happen today.

    Friday morning I have a phone appointment scheduled with Stephen Finch of "Finch and Maloney". He's a chemist grad of Franklin Pierce now doing patents/ip. Really looking forward to that conversation.

    The good news is that I can grad Franklin Pierce with no debt, so as long as I get *something* that requires a J.D.+technical education I will at least be happier, even if I'm not financially better off.

    Technically I don't have to make any "final decisions" for almost a year. Unfortunately my wife will be picking pharmaceutical residencies in the location that I go to in December. So I kinda have to decide by then. Incidentally, my wife grew up in New Hampshire and her family's all there, so she's not exactly opposed to the idea of living there for 3+ years.

    I'm going to retake the LSAT, get a 170+, apply to a few places, and see where the market's at in a few months.

  24. A couple comments:

    Alton: try to get a job at a firm that will pay your way as technology specialist. You'll get experience while you're in school, and when you finish school, you'll be an associate with 4-6 years of experience (i.e., a whole lot more valuable that someone with just a JD). Most people that I know with a few years of legal experience and a strong scientific background have no problem finding jobs. I think the trick is getting your foot in the door. Thus, getting those first 3 or so years of experience are far, far more valuable than a law degree.

    If you aren't able to get a position now without the degree, I wouldn't bother with law school, unless you're able to get yourself into a real top-flight law school. Going to Franklin Pierce, by itself, won't open any doors, unless you're one of the top couple people in your class, which is will be very difficult to do, even for some very smart folks.

    My comment on the article:

    "I hope for our country's sake that someday we get a President who really had to struggle so they know what it is like to live on the edge with no money and no hope for the future."

    Would this really help? I often think that people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are wildly successful take the attitude of, "Well, I could do it, so you should be able to as well. " They often tend to be less sympathetic to their peers, rather than more sympathetic. Clarence Thomas comes to mind.

    Now this may not always be the case, but it does seem that some folks really go strongly the other way.

  25. That is a beautiful diagram. Sucks that I am being fucked by it.



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