I am among the lucky.
After some three years of freelance-punctuated unemployment, next month I’ll be returning to work. And not only will I have a full-time job, I’ll also have the opportunity to work with people I really like on issues that really matter. As a member of the Harvard School of Public Health’s external relations team, I’ll have the privilege of supporting globally significant work in areas ranging from disease prevention to diet and nutrition to health care policy.
I feel both fortunate and grateful – especially given my apparent demographic handicap.
As the New York Times reported in May, “[a] worker between ages 50 and 61 who has been unemployed for 17 months has only about a 9 percent of finding a new job in the next three months.” (While I’m at the low-end of that range, I’m squarely within it.) And if that’s not enough: The number of unemployed people between the ages of 50 and 65 has more than doubled since the onset of the Great Recession.
“The result is nothing short of a national emergency,” the article continued. “Millions of workers have been disconnected from the work force, and possibly even from society. If they are not reconnected, the costs to them and to society will be grim.”
Given the focus of my new job, it seems fitting to point out that unemployment is a pressing public health issue. To wit, the Times cites studies linking unemployment to cancer, heart disease, and psychiatric problems. One study estimated a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for consistently employed older men immediately after a job loss.
While my own story has been less harrowing health-wise, these years have unquestionably been the most challenging of my life. And as I wrote in Salon last fall, “Coping with prolonged joblessness is hugely demanding . . . .Two years of job hunting has required infinitely more of me than any of my lauded past achievements.”
That said, while I wouldn’t have chosen it, I can’t say that I entirely regret the past three years. There’s something to be said for having been swept up in the larger story, for lessons that can come in no other way than living into them. For all my Harvard degrees and impressive resume, I was not immune – nor do I think I should have been. I’m reminded of an interview with the late actor Christopher Reeve after the accident that rendered him quadriplegic. Asked whether he sometimes asked “Why me?” Reeve responded: “Why not me?”
Cut loose from expectations, I also found a new voice as a writer – I stopped worrying about what people would think and started taking bigger risks. This was a tremendous gift and one that I carry with me. As I wrote here, blogging changed my life, and I’m deeply grateful to all of you who’ve shared this space with me over the past nine months. I can’t imagine the past year without Plan B Nation – or without you, its readers.
“Now that you have a job, will you keep writing the blog?” a friend asked curiously.
My answer: Absolutely.
Going back to work feels like reaching home in a storm. I’m grateful for the shelter, grateful for the sustenance. But outside, the gales are still blowing, and many more are homeless. We’re all still living in Plan B Nation, whether we see it or not.