If the unemployment rate dips by a decimal or two in the upcoming employment report, it’ll be seen as an indicator that the economy is improving. But millions of Americans will remain without work.
Journalist and documentary maker DW Gibson set off from Orange County, California to New York City last summer on a sort of unemployment oral history project. He interviewed dozens of Americans who have found themselves out of work in the past five years.
They included a human resources director who was laid off herself after dismissing hundreds of her colleagues, a real estate agent who arrived at work one morning to find his office empty, and a college graduate who was fired one week into her first job. DW Gibson’s project has resulted in a book called “Not Working,” and an upcoming documentary of the same name.
"I went into this project hoping to let the people who experience this terrible epidemic speak for themselves, and to get pundits and stats out of the way," Gibson says. "I think that that unfiltered experience is what I was looking for, and was what I got."
The journalist recalls Dewitt, Nebraska, a small town of 517 people that was centered around a single factory. "The fact that the loss of that plant wasn't about the loss of jobs, it was about the decimation of a community," Gibson says. "Virtually the entire town worked there, and virtually the entire town was put out of work." After the plant closed, other auxiliary businesses like grocery stores began to close their doors, too. "You really see a community hollowed out, and the breadth of that effect of the layoffs is what really, really surprised me."
As he worked his way across the country, Gibson was surprised to find a common thread of an almost existential feeling that comes along with losing one's job. "I set out expecting the conversations to be about foreclosures and money, and indeed these are real concerns all over the place, but at the end of the day, [I saw] the experiences about losing your sense of identity, about losing dignity, about that experience of getting up in the morning and putting on your clothes and having nowhere to go."
From this depression, however, Gibson found that a feeling of community arises. One man he interviewed, Doug Messenger, talked about how it made him feel to hear about other people being laid off. "That doesn't make me feel good to hear that," Messenger told Gibson, "but it makes me feel better that I'm not in the boat rowing all alone."