Fired at 59: Lessons on Job Insecurity in the U.S.
Kai Wright: A lot of you will right away recognize this voice.
Ray Suarez: Good evening, I'm Ray Suarez.
Kai: Ray Suarez spent years as an anchor and host in public media. Then at almost 60 years old, he got laid off.
Ray: Suddenly in that very moment, I became the person that I used to cover. I did personal finance stories. I did economic crisis stories. Now, there I am sitting on my living room couch in the predicament saying, "How did this happen to me?" [laughs] I just thought that I had built in enough bumpers around myself and there I was.
Kai: Coming up, Ray tells his story and we consider the lessons it has for all of us. About job security as we age, and about how we see each other across class lines.
Regina de Heer: At what age do you anticipate being able to retire?
Erica: Probably like around 70, which is a stretch. I have a lot of student loans.
Regina de Heer: Do you think that it was a part of the American promise that there would be something there for people for when they are older and want to retire?
Erica: I know that for sure my mom and my dad, that's the reason why they came to this country is because of the benefits that you would receive for being a US citizen, but they're talking about how Social Security's going to run out. For our generation, we would definitely have to reform all of these social programs in order to even have the possibility to use it to the extent of the generations before us. It'll take a lot of work, definitely getting rid of a lot of the older generation in the government because they don't realize how much we are struggling just to be able to live.
Kai: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright. Let me tell you that probably the primary anxiety of my life these days is how I am going to afford everything about my life as I get older. Look, don't get me wrong, I do all right these days, but I have certainly been broke many times in my life. I have seen in my own life and in the lives of many others that the bottom can fall out. I'm old enough now that if the bottom falls out again, I don't think I'll have a lot of options, and I don't even have kids. I can't imagine the anxiety, if I was staring down the cost of college and all the rest of it. Anyway, this anxiety, which I think is pretty widespread in the United States, this is why Ray Suarez's story, so shook me when I first heard it.
Ray is a famous guy in my line of work. Among many other accomplishments, he's been a host in correspondent, in public media for many years. You'll remember him as a regular face on the PBS NewsHour, as a host of NPR's Talk of the Nation, and as a marquee host, when Al Jazeera America launched its cable channel. Then when Al Jazeera America closed, Ray found himself out of work for the first time in 30 years, and unable to find a job, the bottom can fall out even for someone with Ray's remarkable credentials. He has responded by covering the story. He has written about it, and he has now launched a new podcast called Going for Broke, produced by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project in The Nation Magazine.
It's a collection of stories about people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, and as Ray puts it, even lost the narrative thread of their lives. It's also about what they're learning from that experience. Ray Suarez joins me all this hour to have that same conversation here with all of you, and Ray, it is an honor to have you on the other side of the mic with me.
Ray: Thanks a lot, Kai. Good to be with you.
Kai: Let's start at the beginning for you. Your Twitter bio includes Brooklyn Boricua. That's one of the first things you want people to know about you. Tell me about that, you grow up right here in New York, a Puerto Rican kid in the '60s and '70s?
Ray: Right. I guess it's fair to say that it wasn't the most logical career choice, certainly from the vantage point of the late 60s, when I decided I'd like to be a reporter. There weren't a lot of models in English language media that I could look to and say, "Yes, I could be that guy. I could be like that guy. I could be like that woman." I knew somehow deep down that it was going to take some fight and some struggle, but that ultimately, it might give me the kind of life thought might be exciting, interesting, and get me out of Brooklyn. When I say get me out of Brooklyn, I don't mean because I wanted to leave, because I didn't like it or anything like that. Get me out of Brooklyn to see the rest of the world.
Sometimes in a working-class neighborhood, your life can be very small in geographic terms, bounded by a fairly small set of frontiers. I knew that I wanted to get out there and see more of it. In those ways, those dreams that I had at 13 and 14 years old, I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, so I'm not complaining. I'm just observing that it can get tough in your late 50s and early 60s.
Kai: You were inspired by one as a kid, one local broadcaster, a guy named J.J. Gonzalez. Tell me about him. What'd you see in him?
Ray: J.J. Gonzalez was like me, a New York Puerto Rican guy, and one of the few day in, day out Puerto Rican correspondents on local TV. Which, think about it, even back then New York was one of the capitals of Latino life in the United States, but you could turn on local news and just not see very many. We were reported on and didn't get the opportunity to do much reporting.
Kai: Yes. Our Engineer Kevin is nodding along, he's of your generation New Yorker, to the idea of J.J. Gonzalez, so he touched some folks and that's before me, but he touched some folks in your generation apparently. You also have this great line in the podcast, when you get to your first gig as a desk assistant, and I have to say, my first paid journalism job was as a desk assistant on the NewsHour. Shout out to NewsHour alums. Anyway, when you started as a desk assistant, not there, but somewhere else, you say you walked into your job and see "a sea of white guys in white shirts named Bob and Dick". How did that shape your thinking about the viability of this as a career in the first place?
Ray: It confirmed my suspicion, that it wasn't going to be very easy, and they were experienced, talented men. I think some people might hear that line and bridle a little bit. Like I thought this was some sort of terrible injustice. I figured that there were structural problems with the way the pipeline was getting filled, but that's no-knock on those guys, the Dicks and Bobs. Many of them had worked at big radio stations across the country. They knew their business. They did it well. It was no-knock on them. It was maybe more of a knock on the organization where I was working, that they were not taking a look at who lived in New York and who lived in America with a broad enough lens.
Kai: I ask all of this because you've said in your podcast that it does shape the choices you made in your career growing up in the '70s in New York City, Puerto Rican kid seeing all of this, and it gave you this sense that, "I got to work." Like, "I got to be working." Tell me about that, and what it meant in practical terms for you?
Ray: Look, if you grow up working class, and it's no shame in that game. It was just my life circumstances. You don't grow up with the assumption that there's going to be much cushion. That if things don't work out, you could take some time to figure out what happens next, as I sometimes hear people describing, or that if you put all your eggs in one basket and it just fails miserably, no problem, you'll just do something else. I had a feeling, right or wrong, but I had the feeling and acted on it that there wasn't that much room for error for me. What I chose had to work out.
I went at it with the idea that I had to build in enough protection around myself, enough of a bumper around the possible headwinds in a career that I would always be employable because I had to always be employable. When I was working for NYU's student-run radio station. I was the only person who worked at WNYU, who also worked at the newspaper, the Washington Square News, because I thought, "Well, hell if I can't get a job in broadcasting, I'll work in print. If I can't get a job in print, I'll work in broadcasting."
The people at both ends of the hall, in that NYU student center building, thought I was a little crazy, but I think I had a very prescient idea about what it would take to remain employed no matter what parts of the business were seeing downturn or going through bad cycles or whatever.
Kai: At what point did you feel like, "I've done it. I've made it"? As I said in the introduction, you've had an esteemed career. For you at what point did you look up and say, or did you ever look up and say, "I've done it, I'm good"?
Ray: I thought by the late 90s when Talk of the Nation was a hit, that was doing well in a very tough time of day in public radio, middays is not a great time of day because so many listeners are in the car, on their way to and from work.
Kai: Try Saturday night, Ray.
Ray: Yes. It was a tough time a daypart. I was doing very well, very high average quarter-hour listenership, very long TSL time spent listening, a very important metric in radio ratings. At the same time, I was starting to get feelers and people sniffing around for me to go back to television because I had worked at the NBC O&O in Chicago before coming to public radio. I was writing a book for Simon & Schuster and I thought, "Yes, all right, I'm in play." I had a side hustle going along with the book and the radio documentaries I was doing. I was also hitting the lecture circuit and visiting colleges and universities across the country speaking at annual meetings of non for profits. I was extremely busy.
Kai: I got to say, listen, even listening to you say all that, Ray, you're saying that the moment you felt like "Oh, I've made it, I'm successful" was when you had multiple jobs, all of this work, not one stable job.
Ray: Yes, at the same time I thought, "I'm in play in a way that if anything goes south, I'll be okay." I was working, 50 to 60 hours a week at that point. I had two and then three little kids, but I figured I would be able to take care of them and prepare them well for life and give them a comfortable growing up if I worked like that. That's how I worked. I also felt that I couldn't take anything for granted. I didn't think that that was a privilege that I could look at and say, "Yes, yes, sure. I got it now. I don't have to worry."
I always had it in the back of my mind that this could all unravel. I worked like my hair was on fire for a good 15 years straight, from 1995 to 2010. Sometimes I have to think hard to remember those years because in some ways they're like a blur.
Kai: Yes. Listening to you in your podcast, it sounds like also a moment that felt a peak for you was when you got the job hosting your own show at Al Jazeera America.
Ray: Yes, they shared my vision for the show. They allowed me to try things out and try different approaches to dial it in, in effect. I thought, "Yes, I'm in a good place now." The money was good, the conditions were good. I had great people to work with, and they were giving me my due as far as recognizing that I could bring a lot to the table. Yes, that was fulfilling. I thought, "If this works, if this network makes it, I'll be in great shape entering the final chapters of my career." At that point, I had been working for 40 years and thought, "All right, if everything continues as it seems to be going, I'm going to be all right."
Kai: It didn't continue in that way.
Ray: That's right.
Kai: Tell me about losing that job. What happened?
Ray: That was your Peter Coyote moment to come here to the American experience, but it didn't go that way. One morning, my production assistant in New York, the most junior member of my staff sent a text saying "All-staff meeting at one o'clock. I hear they're going to shut the place down." I talked to my executive producer, the highest-ranking editorial person on my staff, and said, "Hey, are they going to shut this thing down?" "No, no, no. There's going to be a big layoff. It's going to be really bad, but we are going to be okay." At one o'clock, I tune in to a mandatory all-staff meeting, find out that by the end of April we'll be out of business.
It was sad, I was be very disappointed, I was unhappy, I was shocked, but I thought well, "As sad as this is, I'll be all right because I have this resume. I have these things that I've done. I've maintained multimedia footings. I'm good and have good contacts and a good track record in multiple ways of making it in the business. I'll be all right." I really wasn't worried.
Kai: I'm talking with Ray Suarez, who has spent decades as a well-known and well-respected journalist about the experience of being out of work for the first time in his life at age 60. He's got a new podcast called Going for Broke, which tells stories including his own of people trying to make it in an often unforgiving economy. Our phones are going to be open for the rest of the hour. If you've got a question for Ray Suarez, feel free to chime in. I want to hear your experiences too. If you've had the experience of the bottom falling out because you lost a job, particularly later in your life or career, how did you handle it? How has it changed you? We'll take your calls and we'll hear more of Ray Suarez's personal story after the break.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. I'm talking with Ray Suarez, who was for many years a host and anchor in public media. You saw him on the PBS News Hour. You heard him as the host of NPRs Talk of the Nation. Now he's got a podcast in which he tells stories of people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, had the bottom fall out, including his own story of being laid off and having to recreate himself in his 60s. Our phones are open if you have a question for Ray and I want to add tonight is a bit of a first for us, I don't know, maybe for live radio in general, I don't know.
We're live streaming this show on Discord, brave new digital world out there, let me give a special shout out to the over-employed community listening in from Discord and chatting with us in real-time. We appreciate you all listening, trying out this new thing with us. We'd love to hear from you alongside our radio callers. If you're listening on Discord, put your comments in the chat. Ray, in the podcast, you say that you were totally unprepared for how hard it would be to find a job once you got laid off. Tell me about that.
Ray: The whole way I had structured my career up until then was to be always employable. I recognized how risky, how capricious, how unpredictable the business could be. I try to insulate myself against that, but there's been years of drastic, business change in the news business itself. There's been years of downward pressure on the workforce. There are fewer people earning a full-time living as journalists today than there were 20 years ago. The combination of the turbulence in the business model, the downward pressure on the size of the workforce, the pressure to diversify, a lot of things were in play all at once.
Retrospectively, I guess I didn't count on these things affecting me in the way that they did, but in every single circumstance, when I applied for a job or responded to a one ad or heard of an opening and saw the qualifications being sought, saw the qualifications being demanded and only applied for jobs where I thought I would be a good fit, in every single case, a much younger person was hired with significantly less experience and often not even the experience that was called for in the job listing itself.
Ray: Over time, I realized this was not going to be easy. That marketplace conditions had changed in a way that perhaps I was still struggling to understand, but that really qualifications were only one of the variables that I had to be thinking about because even if you had them to a tee, even if you looked at that listing in Current, the newspaper for people in public broadcasting. If you were looking at one of the job boards for people in the news business, you could have everything they wanted down to every semicolon and parenthesis, it just wasn't going to matter because they were other things in play.
Kai: You told the story to our producer about this time, that also gets to the emotional reaction to it, and I think that a lot of us would relate to your book launch for a friend that you went to and had this odd experience. Can you tell us that story? What happened?
Ray: Sure. I was still on a lot of mailing lists, even though I didn't have a regular job anymore. A friend, someone I had known over the years in Washington news circles, was having a book launch. I thought, "All right, that'll be great. I'll hear him give a reading. Maybe I'll buy a copy of the book. I'll get it signed. I'll see how he's doing." I get to this thing, and I'm at the front door, in one of my swell suits from my old life.
I look at everybody in the room, and I thought, "I may be the only person in this room without a job." Did I really want to go in there and encounter people that I've known in some cases for decades, and have them so "Hey, what y'all up to?" Have to give him a whole hem and haw song and dance about not really being up too much. It made me pause. I swallowed hard, and I went in. Not that that's any big profile in courage, but it was a reminder of how much we build and these wes, our various wes. Men, people of my age, people in my generation, people in that business, build our sense of who we are and what we do, and where we fit in the world around what we do for a living, and who we've worked with, and all that.
It was one of those moments where suddenly you get this flash of self-recognition, "Maybe I'm not that guy anymore. Maybe I'm some new guy who can't really identify in that old way around what I did for a living and around where I did it. The way I was seen and the way I was perceived in the world. I may have had that swell anchorman suit on, but I wasn't that swell anchorman anymore. Maybe I'm just another scuffling, unemployed guy who has to explain in some long torturous explanation how he's putting bread and margarine on the table."
It's one of those moments that you think, "Should I be at this point? What's the move now? Should I be running hard to get back on the train? It's starting to pick up speed, but if I run hard, I can get that little step and pull myself up through the doorway, or am I just watching it pull out of the station, and I'm just not on it anymore." I have to accept that, and that's who I am now.
Kai: It's a lot to chew on. It's a lot to chew on when you confront that, particularly at later in your life and career. Let's get some calls in here, Ray. Let's go to Aaron in Schenectady, New York. Aaron, welcome to the show.
Aaron: Thank you. Thank you. I'm honored to be first. Ray, nice to speak with you again. Nice to hear your voice, I was your waiter. I actually was a temporary waiter between jobs. I was assigned all over the city of Chicago. When I was assigned to the University of Chicago, to journalism school, several times you were there. I've kind of followed you a little bit.
Ray: Oh dear.
Aaron: I saw things as a waiter, things that you might like to cover as a journalist, but I'm not going to get to tell those stories. I see our world falling apart. I see division all over. I feel like journalism has let us down. We haven't heard the stories, were not prepared. Now, don't you feel that there's still stuff to tell? It's a little late, but we got to explain what's going on in this divided world.
Ray: Aaron, thanks a lot for your call. That's a terrific question because the business has let us down in a lot of ways. Certainly, it gives us a vision of America that is slightly distorted because so much of the business depends on advertising revenue, and the placement of visions of a valorized consumption, where people will see it and hear it. You would never get the idea that as many Americans are having a tough time right now as are having a tough time right now if you just watched television, where hour after hour after hour, people are watching swell, very expensive televisions.
Climbing in and out of swell, very expensive automobiles, and SUVs, and pickup trucks, where people are getting on to airplanes and flying to exotic, wonderful places in the country and the world. The vision that's given to us by a lot of our media, of frankly, a country where obviously, half the population lives below the median income is not one that you'll see, and when you do see it, it's often well-off people describing poor people to others. Rarely are people who are in these terrible economic predicaments given the privilege, the grace of self-description, the ability to say to an audience, the ability to say to readers, "Here, let me take you into my world."
Kai: Let's go to Jackie in New Jersey. Jackie, welcome to the show.
Jackie: Hi, thank you.
Kai: Thank you. Do you have any experience with losing your job or losing your work late in your career?
Jackie: Yes, absolutely. I'm a bit younger, I'm a 45-year-old woman, but I feel like all industries are more forgiving towards men, but now I lost my job due to COVID, which ended up working out well because I was able to stay home with my son for his remote learning, but now I've been out of work for a year and a half. I'm having a hard time getting back. Every interview I have, I'm overqualified for. Even though I'm asking for the correct amount of money, I can't get anywhere. I don't understand why they wouldn't want someone who's overqualified if I'm willing to take what they're offering in terms of money.
Ray: Because I don't think you're going to stay, Jackie. That's part of the problem.
Jackie: No, it's a double-edged sword, though. We get to this age where you need health insurance. That's the problem in this country is that health insurance is tied to jobs, but I need health insurance. Quality of life is what I'm looking for right now. I can't find anything. It's so frustrating. I had a series of interviews last week, actually, four days consecutive of just non-stop. They were calling me, emailing, and then radio silence. I have no idea what happened, but I'm overqualified.
Kai: That's the take home. Jackie, thanks for your call. Ray, one thing that Jackie is talking about there with health, this has come up a lot in your own story, and that you've talked about a lot in terms of what we should take away from this is that so much of what goes on in terms of the safety net in this country is tied to having a job, is tied to having a W2 employment and that you came across that yourself.
Ray: It is true that many of the things that are currently embedded in full-time work as a staff employee are available in other ways when you're self-employed, when you're getting 1099 income, but it's just so much harder. I don't think we're being honest about how much harder it is. To give you the example of health insurance, there is not that much comparison between the coverage you get and the coverage you're able to apply for, able to sign up for on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. It is a very important development because it was even worse before the Affordable Care Act.
Let's be honest, if you weren't in a qualifying group for coverage, you are in a world of hurt if you were self-employed before the Obama administration put the final touches on the ACA, but it is much easier to just get the staff coverage. Yes, you can save for retirement. There are programs that exist, but after you pay for your own health care, and after you pay for both ends of your social security through the self-employment tax. It's tough to find the quarters and dimes in the couch cushions to also fund your own retirement at the same time and as far as an employer match, well, you are the employer, so there's not going to be an employer match either.
Life insurance, a lot of jobs provide at least a basic level of life insurance or give you the option of augmenting it by paying a little more yourself. Again, you can get this on your own. If you're self-employed, it's just harder. It's more expensive, it's more complicated and you become the administrator. You weren't the administrator for your company's healthcare plans, you weren't the administrator for your company's disability tax payments so that if God forbid you have an accident while you're working and need to go on disability you have to take care of it yourself.
All of these things that come along with employment, we are extolling, we're celebrating. There's so many people gushing about gig work and talking about the freedom it provides workers and the flexibility it provides for both workers and employers gig work definitely has its downside when it comes to this for older workers, it's really, really difficult.
Kai: There's a couple of people calling and asking about the skills, talking about the skills that you have to acquire after being laid off. One of our folks on Discord, let me relay a little bit of what he said, Marcos is his name and he said he had a well-paying job as a maître d at a restaurant, was climbing through the ranks of the business, but had to quit because of a bunch of stuff happening in his life, the job just didn't fit anymore, but he didn't have a college degree, so he went through this crazy regime of studying and testing to get into a tech job and that worked for him.
Once he was in the door, he spent nights learning programming and transition to an even better tech job. It all just sounds very heroic, but I just wonder about how much we hear these kinds of heroic stories and doing all the right stuff and whether or not it really matters.
Ray: What gets you into that fit is often something of higher-up responsibility, corporate responsibility, but the burden of getting out of that fix falls squarely on your own shoulders. We have a long tradition in the United States of placing the burden for success or failure directly on individual pluck, individual ambition, individual skill, and very rarely do we concede that sometimes you can do everything right and still end up screwed. We created this chasing your tail, a society of everybody chasing their tail, where once you are in that position it is a judgement on your own character if you're having trouble getting out of it.
GM may close down the Lord's town plant, but somehow it's your fault that you're out of work. It's your burden to reskill and upskill and retrain and head back to school. If you make a go of it, well, good for you, you had pluck and determination and ambition. If you don't, if you were caught adrift at 48 or 52 years old, do we say, "Man, GM shouldn't have done that. GM should have found a way to handle this better." Or, "The government programs that GM worked out with local jurisdictions should have been more effective." No, we say, "Boy, Bob's just a loser. Jane should have been in much better position by now."
We place the burden for lack of progress on the individual in a way that sometimes is just mean and it is very revealing I think. The number of Americans entering their 50s and entering their 60s still with college debt, obviously, a large number of them are parents who cosigned for children's loans and are the guarantor of their children's debt. A tremendous number are people who hearing the siren song of reskilling and upskilling and retraining went to the DeVrys and the Capella Universities and these other places and paid the money often money that they borrowed and ended up either with a new credential that didn't get them very much of anywhere or no credential and just the debt and it's a widespread problem.
In a world where we are taking a lot of workers out and just tossing them away at 54, 55, 58. This is not something that, that guy who worked at the same place since he was in his early twenties has to somehow feel, "How did I mess up? What did I do?"
Kai: I've got to take a break. I'm talking with Ray Suarez, who has spent decades as a well-known broadcaster about the experience of being out of work for the first time in his life at age 60. Stay with us.
Kousha: Hey everyone. This is Kousha, I'm a producer. Two things, first, I hope you're enjoying this episode and I'd love to hear if it sparks anything in you, do you have a story like Ray Suarez, have you ever had a career setback? How did you recover? Record a message and send it to us. Our email is email@example.com. Also, as you may have heard this episode was streamed live to a community on Discord. It's one of the ways we're trying to reach new audiences. If you are on Discord and if you're part of a community that you think might enjoy listening and talking to the show live, let me know. You can email me at the same address, firstname.lastname@example.org. All right, thanks for listening and talking to us, enjoy the rest of the episode.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. I'm talking with Ray Suarez about his own experience learning what it's like to lose your job late in your career and what you can learn from that. Ray, we have a lot of folks who want to chime in, so I'm going to move through a few calls at once here. Let's start with Jennifer in East Harlem, Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Jennifer: Thanks so much for taking my call, Kai. Thank you so much Ray for your candor, for raising such important and relevant, and timely issues. I'm a woman in my 50s, I'm college and graduate school educated and I'm kind in a mode of reconfiguration, but I said to the screener is, what I don't understand is the paradox is that we are living at a time of-- we're an aging population, we're in an aging world. If anything, this crisis has shown, we have a dearth of workers and we need older workers to still to fill these positions.
Increasingly, I see it in terms of my own orientation, many people my age are re-educating in fields where there are dire needs, for example, healthcare and the subspecialty of gerontology to meet the needs of an age population and further with respect to what you touched upon regarding benefits and such, gig versus being part of a regular full-time position. All financial advisors are saying we have to anticipate. As a society, we need to be working to age 70 to maximize our social security benefits so that ageism really flies in the phase of where we are as a society and what our needs really are.
Kai: Thank you for that, Jennifer. Let's go to John in Milburn, New Jersey. John, welcome to the show.
John: Hi, it's John. Thanks for taking my call. I just want to relate, I was laid off at the age of 54, back in 2009 as a part of the great recession there. At the time I had worked for-- In IT, doing software development and software architecture for a very large company here in New Jersey for 19 years and had all the intention of continuing working for them. I learned at least at the age of 54, I felt like at that age everyone has a bit of a target on their back when it comes to who a company should let go.
Mainly because even though I was doing my job competently, I was highly paid, and in comparison to other reasonably skilled workers, people coming into the market, you could probably hire two people, maybe at the same salary that I was making or one and a half people. I was out of work for about nine months. As far as what I did to keep myself in the game and stuff was I did take some part-time work during that-- Actually, it was a year, which made a total of nine months out of work. I also tried to keep my head in the game of IT by going to groups in New York City, that met after work. Meet up at the time was one of the big things I could join, Java, but that's my story. I ended up after a year finding work, but that's where my story is. Thanks.
Kai: Yours was getting your hustle on. Thank you, John. Ray, a little bit related to that, Isaac in our Discord group asks, "What do you think about people particularly in tech like John that are taking up multiple remote jobs now. Is it the natural escalation of this broken social contract between the employer-employee that you were talking about?"
Ray: You're excellent calls have brought up a couple of issues and I want to respond to them. The trajectories of men and women in the workforce are in some ways similar, but when we're talking about late-in-life workers, they are different in a couple of ways. Women earn less throughout their careers, but men start to have far less stable, far more fragile work lives in their late 50s than women, so that every subsequent job takes longer to find, when you find it, you have it time and the dissent of your wages, your gradual downgrading of your wages in those older years is more severe than women.
Yes, through the 30s and 40s, women are structurally handicapped by making only a certain percentage steadily of what men earn in those same years. When the wheels come off for men, usually after 55, they start to lose jobs more frequently, have a longer period of unemployment between jobs, and then have the next jobs for a shorter amount of time at a lower level of pay. As one of your callers mentioned, even at the same moment when the big voices in the culture are saying, "Look, you are going to live longer. You have to work longer.
If you haven't saved enough for retirement, you better use those later years in your career to make up for lost time and start socking that money away." Even while they're saying that out of one side of their mouth, out of the other side of their mouth, they're making it very hard to do exactly that. Using these job sites to gather applications and gather resumes is a way of sorting the herd, culling the herd that sorts out older workers. If the dates on your college degrees are too old, you get spit out by the algorithm. If your work history goes back too far, even if you don't fill out your birth date on the application, you get spit out by the algorithm.
A lot of places have stopped, taking applications in person have stopped, interviewing people in person have stopped, narrowing down the field of qualified candidates in person using machines to do it. In many cases, that's all a dodge anyway, they don't fill the position. Older workers are in a real jam and we are being totally disingenuous and dishonest about the jam that they're in.
Kai: In the few minutes we have left, I want to ask you about one specific episode in the podcast. You talked to a woman named Ann Larson. She's in her middle age years as well. She's worked as a cashier in a grocery store through the pandemic. She tells you a story. She was ringing up a guy and the person bagging the groceries was an elderly woman, about 80 years old. The guy looks agitated and he starts yelling at her about, "Don't you know that this is a pandemic? Don't you get that we're in a pandemic?" She says back to him, "Well, I'm working in a grocery store here. I'm the one that knows that we're in a pandemic. I can't believe you would have to ask me that."
The whole point in that episode of the podcast, and what you're talking about is something that Ann calls class blindness, in that interaction she saw something that she called class blindness. Can you explain what it is she's talking about?
Ray: I really hope people listen to that episode of Going for Broke with Ann Lawson, because it is a beautifully observed story of the class stratification that goes on in service employment, the cashiers, the butchers, the stock clerks, the people at the loading dock, every person who entered the supermarket thinks, "Oh, here I am taking a risk being exposed to all these people." While the low-wage workers, the service workers who make that supermarket work day in and day out are exposed to countless members of the public every single day of the week, but the myopia of those customers, "How dare you be touching all my groceries in that way?" Well, those groceries weren't going to magically leap into the bags and then leap into your car.
We exist. We are here to do these jobs for you and you're getting mad like, "I'm going to give you COVID. You're like the 500th person I've seen today. You think I worry about getting COVID? You bet." It's a fascinating essay. It's a great immersive slice of life look at essential work, what we started to call essential work during the pandemic, but we didn't pay for it very well either.
Kai: Well, she also tells you this story about, and this is thinking about one of our previous callers, the point, that she made that she would read the newspapers, and she would read all about how-- the tips for going to the grocery store safely, but not ever read any tips for her about how to work at the grocery store safely. It said something to her about where she fit in society and whether she was part of the conversation. I guess just to end with thinking about how someone like Ann, who is similarly in middle-aged, similarly facing these difficult times and saying, "You can't even see me." You guys kind of struggled with how to see each other across those lines. Where do you land on? Is it possible?
Ray: Well, we need people to be a little bit more onto themselves and not so self-obsessed. We have to see those meatpacking plant workers, we to see those people who make it possible for us to take the subway and the bus. By putting door dash to work, bringing you your food, you get to turn away from a whole world of relationships and connections that hooked up in this one moment to bring you a cooked meal. Because of your perception of risk, you're getting your supermarket groceries brought to your doorstep and left there, but that didn't just happen because you went online or you picked up a phone. There's a long chain of relationships and of people who you have chosen not to see.
Ann's conversation with me is a clarion call to remember and using the pandemic, especially as a way to say, "We really do need to see each other." We can't keep going down this road where if you are a low-status worker, if you are a low paid worker, you become just some screw, some gear, some cog in a whole bunch of relationships that makes your life easier while you don't get that low pay.
Kai: Ray Suarez was a trailblazing voice in public media for many years. His new podcast is called, Going for Broke telling the stories of those who have gained insight after losing jobs, homes, and life narratives. It's produced by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation Magazine. Thanks to all of you who called in. A very special thanks to our over-employed community on Discord for hosting us in their community, for listening in and engaging. We hope you enjoyed it. The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band.
Mixing by Jared Paul. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright or by sending me voice email@example.com. As always, please do join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
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