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I work as a substitute teacher at a public school district in Western Massachusetts. It’s one of the more cash-strapped districts in a relatively affluent rural area in the Northeast. In this position, I have had the responsibility to, on short notice, fill in across all grade levels and subject areas. Much of the time I do enjoy the work—I like children, and sometimes I get to teach interesting material, especially at the high school level. Even so, over time I’ve come to the overall conclusion that I hate my job. A primary reason for this is that I have a naturally late sleep cycle; hauling myself out of bed at 6:30 in the morning is a genuine, physical hardship for me. But there are other factors too. As a substitute teacher, there are hardly any avenues for advancement that don’t require expensive, time-consuming certifications (in addition to the master’s degree and professional certification that I already have); I barely receive any feedback on my work as a sub, and it’s difficult to remain motivated when there’s no way of knowing whether or not I’m good at it; finally, it’s often more time- and labor-effective for me to come up with money in other ways, such as translating Japanese J.R.R. Tolkien fan comics on the internet or (I’m ashamed to say) getting fronted money by more fortunate relatives. All attempts to find more stable and respectable work have, so far, proved fruitless, and I’ve been looking for almost two and a half years.

The United States has recently developed a new macroeconomic measurement called the Job Quality Index, which is a comparison of the number of low-quality (short hours, low pay) vs. high-quality (full-time, high pay) jobs in the American economy. The business news magazine Forbes, which under normal political and economic circumstances has a strongly market-liberal ideological stance, recently ran an article advocating this new measurement.[1] According to Forbes, it helps explain why, despite America’s superficially excellent economy (low unemployment; strong stock markets), many people’s lives aren’t actually improving. I can attest to this: because I have earned money for providing goods (the fan comic translations) and services (substitute teaching) within the recent past, I am “employed” by the standards of the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.[2] There’s some small pride that I take in this in spite of myself, given how coldly and sometimes cruelly the unemployed are treated in American society. What I would not say I am is sufficiently employed. That is to say, I am not employed in a way that pays a high enough wage and takes up enough of my time to provide a social orientation towards “productivity” and–hopefully, in the future–family life. According to the academics who developed the JQI, I am—and this is, I believe, accurate—simply not living in the same “sort of” situation– I almost want to say the same state of life–as somebody who works 35-40 hours a week in a job with obvious expectations, parameters, and avenues for advancement.

Is this a more widespread problem among younger people than among older people? As the Magic 8 Ball used to say, all signs point to yes. The youth unemployment rate in the summer of 2019 was, in the United States, about 9%, and significantly worse among black and Hispanic Americans than among whites and Asians. This is bad, but not catastrophic, given that people just beginning their careers will naturally have a somewhat harder time finding trusting employers than people with twenty years in the workforce. When one begins looking at the statistics for underemployment, however, the bottom falls out. “The jobs [young people] are getting don’t pay much,” says an Atlantic article from 2015, “and their wages aren’t growing.”[3] Four years later, very little has changed. Between myself and five or six close friends–all of whom have at least some college–only two are working in jobs that actually require a college education. (I am not one of these two; substitute teachers in my school district don’t need to have had higher education.) “A four-year degree,” the Atlantic goes on, describing the outlook facing young people who “did everything right” as it was presented to us, “confers economic benefits relative to your less-educated peers among a young cohort that’s facing absolute declines.”

Why am I discussing this situation in the “Loneliness Today” series (as opposed to, say, an “In Defense of Things Eugenio Scalfari Claims the Pope Said to Him” series)? It has a lot to do with the way long-term underemployment affects young people’s relationships with their social surroundings. Even compared to my friends who are underemployed but have full-time jobs, I feel lastingly alienated. I don’t like to admit it, but I am profoundly envious of them. Compared to older people who are likelier to have jobs doing what they actually studied in college or trade school, the feeling is even worse. The  cross-generational alienation and envy is not helped by the uncomprehending attitude of many older people to situation that young workers face. I’m lucky enough not to have encountered this incomprehension from my own family, but many of my loved ones have. The “ok boomer” meme (which is mildly ageist and obscures social class relationships by mystifying them as pseudohistorical generational divides) exists in response to a real conversation, almost a script, that many young people have had with those who experienced young adulthood in an earlier era.

Thirty to fifty years ago, most of the popular sitcoms on television had to do with family relationships–The Waltons, The Jeffersons, All in the Family (I have it on good authority that this was the best one), and so forth. Then came the yuppie friend group sitcoms–Seinfeld, Friends, and their imitators. The most popular type of sitcom among young people today is the middle-class workplace sitcom–the white-collar private sector (The Office), local government (Parks and Recreation), or emergency services (Brooklyn 99). There has to be something faintly ludicrous about any sitcom as a core feature of the genre, but for that reason much of televised comedy has a vaguely aspirational tinge to it. The ideal of stable middle-class employment in a workplace in which one has warm, supportive, genuine relationships with one’s coworkers is as aspirational for young people today as the ideal of family bliss was in the early stages of what’s been called “liquid modernity.”[4] Catholic readers will note that at each stage of this progression the ideal moves further and further away from vocation in the religious sense and closer and closer to what the secular market wants “vocation” to mean.

While I plan to discuss disability more in a future essay in this series, I want to point out that success in a modern workplace, at least in my country, involves social graces and psychological grit that disability makes much more difficult. American work culture revolves around various forms of polite dishonesty—padding résumés, cramming talking points and buzzwords into cover letters, “spinning” job interviews, flattering bosses once hired. For people who are, for example, autistic, or who live with chronic pain or chronic physical illness, maintaining the awareness and sheer energy necessary to navigate these norms is a daunting undertaking. I truly believe that ingratiating oneself into this culture can deeply harm many disabled young people. In particular, it can cause moral harm. As I’ve pointed out before in Where Peter Is, young adults today are extremely sensitive to moral harms. Combined with good old-fashioned straightforward discrimination from potential employers, this results in a community of disabled adults with unclear but staggeringly high employment and underemployment rates. This leads to false narratives, such as widespread rhetoric about certain disabilities being more debilitating than they actually are, or stories about disability “cures” that are biologically impossible. These reinforce the sense of self-hatred and alienation that many disabled people feel.[5] I’ll talk about loneliness among people with disabilities more later in this series.

I don’t mean to complain overmuch. I didn’t begin this essay with a description of my own situation to suggest that my problems are unique or even particularly severe in the grand scheme of things. However, I can speak, on a personal level, to youth unemployment and underemployment as a serious social evil and vector for loneliness, alienation, and self-loathing among young people today.

 

[1] Steve Denning, “Understanding the U.S. Economy: Lots of Rotten Jobs,” Forbes, December 5, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2019/12/05/understanding-the-us-economy-lots-of-rotten-jobs/?fbclid=IwAR35yLXu0RQk62GhuZzBYT5Mh0JoRQzFHtxvlUemKgYmSsE4FxZDoDC1QL4#239e64a22d97.

[2] “How the Government Measures Unemployment,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed December 19, 2019, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cps_htgm.htm.

[3] Derek Thompson, “The Youth Recession: The New Normal for Young Workers,” The Atlantic, May 15, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/the-new-normal-for-young-workers/393560/.

[4] The term was coined by the late Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2000).

[5] The American NGO Autism Speaks is widely loathed among autistic adults for taking this attitude towards problems facing autistic children and families, although they’ve cleaned up their act to at least some extent in recent years.

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