2,015 comments. That's how many people weighed in with their thoughts within the first five days since Laurie-Ellen Shumaker's story ran on Huffington Post. This is in addition to the almost 100 comments that came in from the post about it on the American Bar Association's blog. The almost 1,000 people who tweeted the story, or over 200 people who shared it on Facebook. Unemployment, in this economy, for lack of a better term, sells.
Overwhelmed by the lack of interviews that came after applying for 1,000 jobs, Laurie-Ellen agreed to have her story told by the Huffington Post. The article itself was simply the first chapter. It's the aftermath that is more interesting, as well as the discussion it has kicked off on how social media is being used in unique ways within this economy. Her daughter, Calliope, a good friend of mine and fellow BlogHer, gave me a head's up that the story was going to run, unsure of how stepping forward would change her family's luck with the long string of non-responses on the job front that has stretched back to 2009, when Laurie-Ellen first lost her job as in-house counsel for a shopping center.
Unlike those 2,015 commenters, I've watched the story unfold from the front lines. The comment section reveals exactly what you'd expect: Everyone has "good ideas" when they're comfortably employed. But as someone who knows them personally, it has been terrifying to watch their situation continue week after week. It has been a reminder of how thin the line is separating the employed from the unemployed. In this economy, there are no guarantees for employment. Top-tier education, excellent references, years of job experience -- none of these things ensure that you'll move easily to a new position once downsized.
Back in 2009, when Laurie-Ellen was first laid off, she assumed she would have a new position in a matter of weeks based on her work experience and background. But as she applied to jobs, her applications were met with silence. Though the Huffington Post exaggerated with the statement that she never received one interview in 1,000 job applications, the reality is -- as she is quoted within the piece explaining -- that there were a handful of phone and face-to-face interviews (six in 2009 and eight in 2010). Laurie-Ellen describes the experience of going from employed to unemployed:
It is very lonely to go from productive member of the workforce to trying to connect with jobs in the faceless, isolated way that most searches happen these days. The lack of response to my heartfelt applications was surprising to me. I am used to having a connection with people to sort out answers to issues. Most of the job postings were crafted so that one cannot find The Person to reach out to for that personal spark. Often the companies are "confidential" in the postings.
In other words, she became invisible as potential employers hid their own identities. It's one side to this story: the way the job market is become depersonalized and distanced by computers. Job seekers are throwing up their resumes of job sites such as Monster.com or banking connections on LinkedIn, but more often than not, computers are allowing employers to hold the workforce at arm's length. Analogous to warfare, just as guns and bombs depersonalized war and made it easier to pretend that something other than killing was happening on the ground, computerized applications and email has made it easier for employers to ignore the desperation that exists within this job market. They don't need to look the person seeking work in the eye nor even bump into them around town. Instead, people are reduced to a single page view on a computer screen.
The story focused on the fact that she is female and over 50, but we've also seen the statistics where the young are struggling to gain employment, with as many as 53 percent of Americans under 24 currently seeking a job. In fact, only 6.4 percent of women over 50 are currently unemployed, as opposed to 8.9 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds. Men over 55 also carry a higher unemployment rate at 7.5 percent. These numbers, of course, only tell part of the story, because those who cease to actively seek employment are no longer counted as unemployed.
But why step forward with her story, especially in a medium as visible as The Huffington Post? When she agreed to be interviewed, she thought her story would be a few quotes within a larger article about the state of employment in America. Instead, it became a piece focusing solely on her story, one which wasn't entirely portrayed accurately. A mild form of Multiple Sclerosis was elevated to a problematic level, becoming the red herring within the comments section. The facts about her handful of interviews were dropped in favor of the more sensationalistic statement that no interviews were offered. Still, she doesn't regret telling her story or even wading through the comments, some of which were helpful, but many of which were cruel or thoughtless.
I think mostly I wanted to share what can happen, has happened to ordinary, hard-working people who WANT to work but are stymied by the circumstances our country faces. It had hurt to see the political statements that everyone who was on employment was drunk, drug-addicted, and making a luxurious living from unemployment. How could anyone believe that when so many were struggling to find a way back onto their feet?
I find I often step forward and advocate for those who need a voice; and while I was not trying to assume that role here, it did turn out my story gave many a chance to chime in with their challenges in similar circumstances. This adds weight to our reality that we are Americans in need of a way back into the workforce.
The problem, of course, with social media and the numerous Internet archiving monsters is that there is no way to unring the bell. This article, as well as the Huffington Post article, could be found by any employers who Google her name while looking at her resume. That potential Googleability was the thought that her daughter struggled with when she debated whether or not to tweet and blog about the article. On one hand, it got the story out to a larger audience, which might lead to connecting her mother with a job. On the other hand, it broke down the fourth wall bloggers often keep between readers and the writer in terms of sharing personal information, and her wall was built years earlier when she wrote about her reproductive struggles.
The financial situation was something Calliope had only hinted at within her blog, and if she linked to the article, it would be laid bare. Her family name would be out there. It was a lot to lose, but Calliope also saw that there was a lot to gain:
When this Huffington Post story came out and it revealed itself to be much larger than we had anticipated, I was so surprised. My gut instinct was to run to a mountain top and scream for everyone I know to come rally to the support of my mother. I wanted to blog about it, but knew that in doing so, I was eliminating an assumed buffer between my true self and the virtual self that I had established nearly six years ago. I called a good friend to talk it through and was surprised by how emotional I was about the idea of linking this story about my mother to my blog. I realized as I talked with my friend that I wasn't afraid of my readers knowing about my family's story -- in fact if anyone in the world knew about the struggles we have been through it would be the people that have followed my blog -- but I was emotional because of how truly vulnerable this made me. How exposed it would make my family.
In the end, she decided to step forward and tweet the article, because the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. What has come out of this is the more interesting discussion kicked off by the article; the aftermath of using social media to seek employment. As much as computers can distance the employer from the potential employee, social media also has the possibility to tap connections at a greater rate and distance than could be achieved in the face-to-face world. Calliope explained during our interview:
I really hope that social media is something that eventually can connect the unemployed with employment. In my mother's case, she has a Twitter account, and she actively follows many job feeds. There is another, and much faster, level of community within social media. You know someone that is hiring, you put details on your Twitter feed or blog, and within an hour, I imagine, the applications are rolling in. For a person seeking a job, it is good to stay connected ... On the other side, it does feel like it is making the actual connection of people to people become more digital and less human. It isn't, "pick up a phone and call this person I know." Instead it is, "follow this person's feed." It feels less, for lack of a better word, civilized.
Laurie-Ellen is still looking for a job, one that will utilize her optimism, persistence, curiosity, and efficiency. All she wants to do is find work where she can contribute her "background, experience, and hard-earned life lessons, empowering and opening doors for others." The question is which will win out first, the persistence of continually putting her heart and resume out there, or leads that come in via social media.
Have you ever used social media to get a job?
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