The Year.

The reality of a twenty-something with a specialized degree, or, how I found wisdom on a sandwich shop wall Vitals: Name: Jessica Edens Age: 25 Education: BA in History, Master’s in Heritage Preservation Occupation: Marketing Administrator for a tech start-up selling business intelligence tools to software vendors

I’m approaching a significant anniversary. Last year, I woke up on August 1 unemployed and with no imminent plans for anything in my life, for the first time ever.  It was not by choice. It was terrifying.

The position I’d been in up to then was contingent upon being a student and, as I’d graduated a few months earlier, I was no longer qualified. Since it was also a federal institution, it was under a strict hiring freeze, and still is today.

experienceI would tell myself, and others would reiterate the thought, that this would be a rare moment of peace in my life. Here I was given this unclear amount of time, days or perhaps weeks, stretching into months, to just do less. I was not bound by a job or a degree program to show up anywhere, and any time.  My response to myself and others when presented with this lovely idea of endless freedom was that it would be a lot easier to enjoy a two-month sabbatical if I, in fact, knew that there was an end-point already comfortably situated out there in The Future. That there would eventually be some kind of plan, and equally important, a source of income.

I had already spent the first half of 2012 submitting my resume and applications to about sixty jobs, scattered in cities and towns across the country, each selected because I fell into the category of “qualified” or “almost qualified, a.k.a. I’ll-give-it-a-shot.” From these six months of work, I got only rejections, or no response at all. Then in July, I finally got one phone interview with a non-profit oral history initiative that would still be my top choice today—dream job kind of territory. (Oral history is one of the best things about my entire field of study.) And I didn’t get that.

Of course, the market is bad, it’s a bad era for non-profits, and the museum and archival field is facing significant budget cuts. They even threatened to shut down the Georgia State Archives entirely, but enough people reminded the legislature that history, um, kind of matters. So one might easily write all this off to bad timing. This was the reason I decided to go straight to graduate school in 2010, as I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history facing the worst job market in a generation. I often question this decision. I do not regret it, but I question whether I really made the best call on that one.

But more than a failure of the job market, it felt like my failure. Here I was, always finishing projects and papers early, leading group presentations, working two jobs, and getting excellent feedback from professors and colleagues in the real world about my work, skills, and potential. I never imagined myself unemployable.

And the fact was, I didn’t have the option anyway. My parents ensured, by selling their home and making plans to work abroad in their retirement, that we would be truly independent young adults. We would not be leaping back into our parents’ home after college, waiting for dream jobs or even kinda-good jobs—the far more realistic ones, as every generation learns—to lay themselves at the doorstep, all the while eating free food and paying no rent.

Life would not stop just because I hadn’t gotten a job, and now it was August 1, and no one had expressed any interest in hiring me.

Oh, except for the slew of insurance sales companies lurking all over Monster.com, waiting for job-hunters with liberal arts degrees. There’s no shortage of openings with them.

But in such a moment of quiet panic, I took a look at my skills. I have always sewed for pleasure, though most bags and garments and home decor projects only seem like a lot of work and at the end, it’s obvious I’m wearing a home-made skirt. Quilting is what I truly love, a flat canvas where you make art with fabric rather than paint. My friend at the neighborhood quilt shop was doing some freelance work for another local quilter and blogger, and I inquired in case she needed some extra help. I completed the binding on at least six of her quilts, all of which are featured in her second book, out this September. I spent some time at my home, with my cats, hand-sewing the binding onto these lovely, inspiring quilts, thankful that my circumstances led me to the pleasant work. It was a crucial bit of income, and I would never have even thought of asking, or of using that part of me, had I not been faced with this blank time. (Plus, now quilts I helped finish are being published in a book, in which I'm listed as a resource - pretty cool.)

In the same time, the months of August and September, I also conducted research for a National Register nomination being completed through Kennesaw State University, and archived and digitized an Atlanta society woman’s collection of personal mementos and photographs from her high school and college careers.

Even with these odd jobs, though, the epoch of NO PLAN was extending far longer than I had even imagined when I woke up August 1. People were telling me to check out job fairs in September and October, and in my head I was saying, “Yeah right, if I don’t have a job by October, I’ll be on the street anyway…”

I went to a job fair in mid-September, which lead to a staffing company, which lead to two contract-based, temporary positions that got me through the next series of months.

Finally, by word of mouth, by the strength of an old Kennesaw connection, I got the job I have now. Not in history or museums or nonprofits or anything remotely related, but as a marketer for a business intelligence software company.

An aside here: It is significant to me that in all my job applications, all the cover letters I’ve written, the jobs I have gotten were the ones I was not required to write anything for. [Read: word of mouth is stronger than any cover letter anyway.] This was true of my current position. It makes me rather sad to know that all the hard work I’ve done in two degrees and all former jobs, everything I list on my resume and say in a cover letter, really has no bearing on anyone; if someone will vouch for me, I’m hired.

Anyway, my work now is not anything I envisioned in any kind of “plan” or idea I may have had in mind. But I am tired. I am tired of the time-consuming act of proving myself again and again to no avail. I’m okay with rejection, believe me. And as a person who’s spent decades writing, I am unabashedly confortable with constructive criticism. It’s not these things that have worn on me. It’s the much larger, sadder thing that wears on me. It’s the adult reality of a regular, non-glamorous job that pays the bills but does not relate to what you studied. I am tired of that searching, so for now, I've mostly stopped doing it.

And I also remember that I’m still using relevant skills everyday. Not to mention, I’m now highly versed in all things ASP.NET and Microsoft, write about programming languages and business tips for software companies, and use Subversion and Notepad++ to edit multiple websites. My technical abilities prove essential every day, and I've learned an enormous number of extra computery skills I never dreamed I would know or care about. (I know all software people are so happy to hear me use the word "computery" to describe skills in their field.)

There’s a sign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop near my office that says, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Jimmy John’s, a place for more than just a sandwich; now also serving wisdom.

That’s what this year has been. Experience, stacked on uncertainly, smothered with a year’s worth of temporary jobs. Honestly, my favorite thing about my job now is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. I do good work, they keep me around. I’ve heard the line too many times before, at part-time jobs and internships and college positions: “Oh, we’d love to keep you, if we could!” This time, they can.

Last week I interviewed for a wonderful, meaningful position at a suburban, university-affiliated history museum in the area. While doing the intense preparation work for the interview, I couldn’t help but ponder the auspicious time of year, that I could potentially begin this position—if I were to get it—on the very day that I so badly needed a job one year before.

August 1.

It was almost as perfect timing as the oral history job from last year. It would make a tidy end for this story.

But I didn’t get it, and the story isn’t ending here. This wasn’t an anomaly in my life, a year of unexpected trials and many random jobs. It’s life. That is every day. And that is, really, every job, too. But this year, while interviewing for that job, I already had a job, one where my time isn’t up July 31, and so I was not walking into an abyss of uncertainty and disappointment.

And so the first year of this real life stretches into the second, and I march forward, picking up a little more experience with each step.

Dispatch from the edge of recession: eight long months, and counting

I'm a real-life Hannah Horvath (from Girls), sans the dramatic friendships, awkward sexual relationships, and hopefully, without the terrible decision-making. I've got too much education and student loan debt, and not enough experience in anything to qualify me for any job. Oh, except retail -- Hannah's own post-liberal-arts-education job is as a pretty awful barista in a coffee shop. I work part time as a sales associate at Gap. As is the new game, I had an amazing full time job for ten weeks. It ends tomorrow, and I have no plan. I really really hoped, back in October when I began the seasonal gig, that by this time in the year, I would have found another opportunity and had something lined up for the New Year. I have my job at Gap; don't get me wrong, I am thankful for that.

This week, I've gotten two notices on jobs I've more than qualified for, that they are moving ahead with another candidate. Three weeks ago, I inadvertently turned down a job offer by honestly responding in a phone call that I could not leave my current job with only three-days' notice. By the time I called back a few hours later, to see if there was any way we could make arrangements due to a two-week overlap in work, I was told they had already moved ahead with another candidate. Another candidate, someone else, someone clearly better for this job. Don't worry, there are other opportunities. Let me know how I can help. 

I'm tired of false promises, and I'm filled with regret over graduate school. What was the point of training myself for a career field that has absolutely no job opportunities  while I could have gone straight into the work force and at least got some actual work experience? Now I'm stuck with a master's degree, but everyone wants that plus years of other accolades and experience. And I don't have what the hiring managers see as real-world real-work skills to even be an editor, or marketing or PR manager for a company. More and more I doubt the choice I made back in the summer of 2010, even though yes, the job market for new grads then was possibly even worse than now. But when you're down and out, you doubt and wonder.

I've been applying to jobs in earnest since January 1, 2012 -- a full year of exhausting, depressing job searching. Being on this side of things, I have so much sympathy for those who have been out of work for many months and years, because I understand how absolutely disheartening it is to hear rejection after rejection, if we hear anything at all. It's enough to make you throw in the towel and sit depressed on the couch. I honestly never, in a million years, saw myself as the graduate who would be in this position. I've always had multiple part-time jobs and worked hard for good grades in college. If there were idiots and slackers all around me, I was in the ten percent who was not. But it looks like I am still not out of the rough post-graduate phase.

I am not under any illusions: I don't expect to be in charge, have my "dream job" or be a shoe-in for a position. I just want an interview, a chance to prove my skills and articulate my passion. And I just want a job that remotely relates to my career field (seriously, I could argue almost any kind of work) for a pay rate slightly above the poverty rate. I would like to be above the poverty level in 2013. I've been out of school now for eight long, confusing, disheartening, scary, real months. And counting. Floating between part-time, contract stints, full-time temporary.

 

"If I was noticing, then I was working." I am working.

This describes so perfectly how I approach this time in my life. One writer to others, young: [quote cite="George Saunders" url="http://writeliving.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/writeliving-interview-george-saunders/"]

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
Although it can be really hard to be a young writer, I’d advise trying not to think in terms of “overcoming adversity” but, rather, trying to use those experiences to train oneself in learning to think like a writer.  So, I can remember times when I found myself in a strange or difficult or even somewhat degrading work situation, and writing was miles away – but I always felt (or tried to feel) like if I was noticing, then I was working.   That is, the young writer can do a little mental switch, and think: “Ah, so this too is part of America,” or “So this too is part of life – these feelings that I’m having and all of these physical details I’m seeing around me, and the reactions of the other people in this situation – are all interesting.”  Not easy to think that way, but if you can nurture that tendency in yourself, it becomes a sort of armor.

[/quote]

From the blog Writeliving.

Stephen King and Tina Fey both also talk about jobs in their early adulthood and the impact it's had on their perspective as a writer.

I am using all of these experiences, storing it in my brain, making meaning. It'll come out in my words someday.

Dispatch from the Edge of a Recession: Hit Me When I'm Up

After eleven weeks out of the workforce, I started a job this week and got slammed with a $100-boot on my car (for the first time in my life) all at once. Way to get hit when you're (almost) up. On the way up, we'll say. The most painful part of this incident: I was parked for about 8 minutes to get a $1 sub sandwich. I haven't received a paycheck in eleven weeks, have been barely hanging on, relying heavily on my credit card to make end's meet. Then I get my measly weekly unemployment check the same day I park in the spot that gets me a $100 boot. (I actually didn't even apply for unemployment until about three weeks ago, didn't even realize I could get money to help me during this phase. Man, it would have helped the whole time... but oh well.)

I'm rationalizing the sickening amount of wasted money by not getting a few other things. I've lost some weight since I've started running, and the actual width part of my bras is too loose. I really need new bras, to be perfectly honest; they're already a old. Instead, I've taken them in, with some unprofessional-looking, but very effective seams on both sides of the clasps at the back. I was going to get a desperately-needed haircut--my bangs are so long their not bangs anymore--but I'll keep the weird hippie look for a few more weeks. Hey, they already hired me, right? I could always use my old, dull barber scissors and take to my own hair.

I will be getting my first check at my new job (which is full-time but temporary up to the week of Christmas) next week. So that's a good thing. It was just so painful to have this incident now, as things are looking up. Why me, why me?

I was angry. I was yelling, and shaking, and sobbing, and cussing at these two men--all of these things, except the sobbing, are quite unlike me. And I was wayyyy late getting back to my new workplace, which is awesome. 

But then I had to get back into my cheerful elf voice, writing on the marketing team at the Christmas publishing company where I work. I honestly felt like calling it a day. But I kept it together because, first, now I needed all these hours more than ever, and second, these people are still getting to know how I operate, and it is imperative that I not fall apart and seem like one of those people who always has drama and is always crying at work. I am not one of these people, so today, when I get my first car boot, would not be a day to appear to be one of them.

Every time I thought about what happened this afternoon, my eyes would well up and I would feel sick. I thought about it over and over, what could I have possibly done to make those guys' jobs the absolute worst? I hope they really hate that job. Because if I had to stand there while some woman lost it--truly lost it--in the parking lot, and scream at me, I might hate my job.

I'm still not over it, but as the day has worn on, this raggedy, awful, headachy day, I just had to let it roll off of me. Ok, so it hurts now. It won't hurt forever. It's like back when overdraft fees were at their peak, and I was an undergrad, getting hit with fines multiple times a year. Nothing brings naseau faster than not having money you thought you did and seeing that red balance, or walking around the corner to find a $100 fine attached to your car. I hope there is a time in my life when I'm not at the bottom of the barrel scratching and can pay my monthly bills without my account balance zeroing out around $6 when they're all paid. I'm thankful to pay my bills, but even these last few months, that has been hard.

Honestly, I didn't see myself becoming a victim of the current economy: one of those recent-grad, lots of student loans, can't-find-work demographic that is touted and studied and reported on. With a boot. Today was a reminder that yes, you might be seeing some good news, some professional success come your way, but don't think that means this is the end of the roadblocks. They are all over, they are hidden and often conniving to stack up all at once, and they will never let you off the hook. I resign and concede to the inevitability  of the occasional really awful boot.

Dispatch from the Edge of Recession: Job Market Moment... the Elusive Excitement

I have that sick, nervous feeling right now. I just came across a job posting for a place I desperately want to work, here in Atlanta, with an amazing mission and unbelievable combination of my passions, skills, and beliefs. And every single thing they list on the job description I can do now, and would dominate in that position. Writing for the web and published media sources, networking, working with the press and local organizations, planning and organizing in-house documents and memos, social media management,  photography for events and media, group and project work, and a boatload of other exciting things--and above all, believing in the mission of the organization. Seriously, I would rock this job and every responsibility I am given, because it's things I excel in already and have done in many capacities before, but also because it's in a field that I have dedicated two degrees to so far, and both of them fostered my concern for the mission of this organization as well--civil rights, human rights, communication along cultural and racial lines, understanding of one another. I am riddled with excitement, to put it mildly. Suddenly, I have gone from a regular night of searching job listings and imagining my near future in retail once more (and working for seven bucks an hour, woo!), to imagining something far different and much more exciting--working in a meaningful position for a purpose, putting my skills and work ethic to the test and building them further. I desperately want to pour myself into a job. And I really want it to be something I care about, though I have had to make sacrifices in this portion of my goal, because employment is more important than holding out, unemployed, for a noble goal. I am realistic if nothing else. (Hey, it might take a few years of crap to get back to the noble goal. And student loans don't pay back themselves.)

So I have been applying to various clerical jobs, submitting my resume to staffing agencies, saying I'm looking for administrative work. And the recruiters ask me what kind of work I am looking for. The honest answer is any work, at least at a rate to cover my bills. But perhaps that sounds desperate, not ideal--so I'll say admin work, sure! The job fair I went to today had many openings for health care workers, police officers and security professionals, warehouse workers, and for those seeking employment in the fast food industry. It was a depressing picture for someone with a niche degree like Heritage Preservation. Try throwing that one on a staffing recruiter. I try to emphasize my strong administrative skills in the conversation, too.

In the nine months during which I have been applying to jobs, this is only the second one to arise that is here in the city I love, which I am qualified for and which truly, makes me utterly breathless with excitement. I immediately bound ahead in my brain, to having the job, making positive improvements, wearing my beautiful skirts and blazers and representing well everyone who has helped me get to this point. I have had days where it has been impossible to imagine, to conceptualize, my future--what job would I even be doing, and where, and for whom? It is a fast downward spiral when you can't conceptualize whether you will be folding clothes or doing data entry or answering phones, or changing the world in my own small way for an employer I love.

This is only the second job to send electricity down my spine. I read the long description over and over, and each time, I am more confident that I can nail every single bullet point. I am a master of so many of these things already. And when I am on paper, the only thing people see is that I'm a recent grad with no full time work experience, even though multiple, simultaneous part-time jobs have earned me all the skills I have and use in what equals a full-time commitment of my time--and which make me exactly the person for the job. But my mind has already blown past this more realistic doubting part of my brain, because, of course, you're made for this! They'll see that!

That is what I really believed about the singular previous position that I desperately wanted and felt highly qualified for. I didn't get that job. I got an overly formal and way-late e-mail response from some lady I had never spoken to, saying they had chosen someone else. Now, in nine months of scores of job applications and submissions, I am quite used to impersonal rejections and regrets, but this one hurt. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't get it, but I also thought there was a good chance I could. The experience has made me thoroughly exhausted with employers not wanting to take a chance on a passionate, young professional. Heck, I'll work for next to nothing and I really care about the job! And I work hard to boot! And communicate well! What on earth more can you want from a candidate? Idealism? Creativity? Tech savvy? Perseverance? Amiable personality? Strong leader? Organizer? Oh, wait -- I am all those!

This is a public website, and I am fully secure in posting my thoughts publicly, because you know what? I'm a frustrated twenty-something in a tough transition, in a terrible economy, in a niche industry. And I am not going to hide that from employers, professors, parents, friends, strangers. The excitement I feel right now is very real, and I risk heartbreak and sadness all over again for what could become a missed opportunity to perform above and beyond in an excellent position for a great company. I really need to share that feeling with you, because it is the tiny little glimpse of the future -- of producing great things and of the potential I have sitting right here at my desk -- that keeps me from giving up.

Dispatch from the edge of recession: the in-between.

The in-between: in which I have an emotional breakdown and lament on the trials of the day

I hope that years from now this phase of my life seems really carefree, days upon days of taking time at my own pace, and that my worry and fear will appear silly in the face of the career I am in. I will be able to look back and laugh confidently, wondering why I ever doubted myself, my goals, and my hard work and perseverance, because, of course, it would all work out. It will seem funny, youthful, and I will wonder how I didn't enjoy all that freedom a little bit more.

It is hard to enjoy freedom when you haven't figured out the end game. Bills need to be paid. I love the life I have and the people and pastimes and little bits in it, and I want it to be able to continue; that means, employment.

That's a lot of pressure. Days tick away, one after the other, and I have no resolution, no out to save me at the end of this little game, of this not-working thing. I have been blessed with a connection that lead to the current project I am doing, archiving the 1960s-era falling-to-pieces scrapbooks of a woman who lives in Buckhead, which has gotten me through August.

On top of that, I've been working on the bindings of some quilts that a local woman (Ellen Baker) is featuring in her forthcoming quilt/sewing book, and I'm even getting credit in the resources section. Had I not been in this in-between situation, I never would have approached others for outside-the-box ways to use my skills to earn money, and I wouldn't have been involved in this project at all. Instead, I have done two quilts and am working on a third.

When I think about opportunities and the proverbial doors and windows opening and closing, I know (well, I really hope) that this period of pause is really because the right thing hasn't arisen. Maybe I still have to work a few more shitty jobs in order to really appreciate the life that is ahead of me. But that doesn't make it any easier for my pride or confidence when I ponder walking into restaurants and the mall to inquire about minimum-wage work. I have two degrees. As I said, maybe someday this will all be funny. I can write about it in my memoir, laughing lazily on the other side of all this, a la Stephen King and Tina Fey. It was immensely pleasing to listen to both their memoirs on audiobook, as each of them reads his and her own to you--it's like having a conversation with them--and hearing them recount the jobs they had on the way to their lifetime jobs. Stephen King did the laundry for hospitals and restaurants--all blood and maggots and old food--and it truly calmed me down. At the time, last summer, I was working at the worst job I've ever had, in miserable conditions, and I was probably truly depressed (a first in my life). I just hated my job so much, I was viscerally angry at work. It helped having Stephen and Tina to remind me that, yes, when life sucks, you do appreciate the good so much more when it comes along.

Likewise, as I am facing now, when life is a giant, enormous question mark with a blurry and mysterious future beyond that, I will appreciate the security and steadfastness of the next chapter when it comes along. It is a luxury like no other to receive steady paychecks; what a peace of mind that is. I miss it. But, there is also liberation and sweetness in this edge of the comfort zone; nothing is stopping me from exploring other possibilities, in terms of what I want to do, what kind of work I like or want to try, and considering routes I might never have imagined if I had been able to hop cozily from school to professional life.

The in-between.

(Because did I mention, there are no jobs to hop into? I fit in no easy categories like "Healthcare" or "Engineering." Try finding the Public History category on a jobs site.)

It is easy to wax about how everything will work out, this too shall pass, take it one day at a time, relax, it will all work out. That doesn't make reality any easier though, really. Not right now, with no end game. Having a month of not working would be seriously excellent if I knew I was starting a job September 1 or something like that.

The stress of it all reached a head yesterday, quite unexpectedly and quite publicly. It began with something entirely unrelated to the terrible economy and the miserable job hunt.

I had to mail two packages, for Ben, because yes, he is employed (ugh). I do not to go the U.S. Post Office enough to ever remember that they do not share free tape and use of scissors with you. So if you don't have boxes in your homes to prepare before you leave, you must bring your own tape and scissors. The man at the counter was so rude to me, unwarranted, that it kind of spiraled out of control from there. I was pulling and ripping and finally tearing the tape with my car key, making a huge scene because I was so annoyed with this rude man. I used a pair of my own pants as packing material for this expensive package, because darned it anyone was going to provide any old newspaper for me there. By the time he was chastising me for having used the wrong type of tape on the wrong type of package (the tape he gave me!), I actually yelled back at him. If you know me, you know how surprising this is--it was surprising to me. I am very non-confrontational and I really try hard to give people in crappy jobs the benefit of the doubt. I am never rude to people even when I am really angry in a store; I just feel it leads all of us nowhere fast. I've been yelled at before working retail, and there's nothing to be done by it, no resolution. I am kind and helpful, but some people are just awful people who are angry. Not my problem. But I defended myself about this ridiculous issues with the tape. And immediately after speaking my mind, I broke down. Slow at first, but then I could not speak, and then, as the woman, the other postal worker, tried to fix the wrong-tape issue for me, the tears ran down my face and I was just outwardly crying. At the post office. Over tape and a mean man.

I should have known then there was a lot of emotion right at the surface, and it would have been best to just head home and call this day shot. But the tape thing didn't seem at all related to the job hunt, and it probably isn't, so I drove to do my next errand: return some public library books and then walk to the Georgia State University campus to utilize some of the resources of their Career Services Center.

Three minutes into a conversation with one of the career services counselors, I'm literally sobbing. Heaving. We're sitting at a long conference table in their open offices, and a couple of undergrads are waiting in their hoodies and sandals for their own resume help after me. Oh, but I am a mess, and they nervously sit there as the counselor ushers me off to a private little table where I can recollect. She had simply asked me why I was there. My own explanation was so depressing, so disheartening, so hopeless, I couldn't even explain myself without breaking down in tears, voice cracking, nose sniffling. Oh, how professional, Jessie; just put on your cute clothes and bring your cotton-paper resume down to the Career Services center and cry like a friggin' baby. I felt utterly ridiculous. I was also acutely aware of frightening the undergrads, who are still in that nice little coccoon of school, not a worry or care about how impossible it will be for them to find a job after graduation. Yes, guys, I've been applying to jobs and networking and tailoring my resume to every single job for nice months now, and applying to jobs I really felt qualified for, and I've had one phone interview.

Maybe the economy is always something people complain about, but I would like to submit a formal complaint to it right now. This sucks. Generation Screwed, as we were recently called. Maybe in ten years this will all be hilarious, and we will all be stronger and better-adjusted for it. That would be the least it could do, for all the underemployment it breeds now. It was never unemployment that scared me--I have always held down multiple part-time jobs and gotten top grades in school, finding a job wouldn't be too hard. Finding a job that is neither food services nor insurance sales--now that is the real and true challenge.

The staff of the career services center were all wonderful and helpful, and the woman in particular who helped me was very kind and supportive during my meltdown. I'm meeting with a guy later this week who will help me nail down some sort of plan on applying for jobs. Because apparently the plan I've been mentored to take for the past nine months is absolutely worthless. I do not feel confident that this will make much difference, but I damn well need to try it anyway, because October rent is calling already, etched out there in the not-so-distant future. I salvaged the day after a chat with my mom, as I just wanted to hear about someone else's life, and not think about my own for awhile. We eventually got on the subject of my two very public breakdowns within an hour of each other, and she suggested I also set myself up with career services at the Georgia Department of Labor. So I went to waited in line and got myself into their system of job postings and referrals. There are a lot of insurance sales positions on their job lists, too. Ugh. But there are a few tiny hopefuls too.

Leaving the Department of Labor office, I stopped at a trifecta intersection that has a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Caribous all facing one another and got myself a chai tea, which was my greatly needed sweet heaven and relaxation. (I went to Caribou, the one I find least often.) And I got in my car to drive back home and NPR was there with my daily reminder, my essential perspective on this wide world. I kid you not this is what I heard:

A 14-year-old girl in Afghanistan was recounting her plight: sold to another family when she was eight to pay off a debt, and married to a boy from that family at around ten, while being sexually abused by uncles and others in the family. A few years later, she is drugged and wakes up married to a different man in that family, and the assault continues. She tries to kill herself in the street at age fourteen, but someone stops her and takes her to a shelter for young girls and women. This girl is living in a culture where even when you work up the courage to defend your rights as a woman, the men in your family will strike down harder and with more violence for your wanting to defend yourself. It is a real and dangerous conundrum. While my problems are real to me, they did seem so small comparatively. Yes, that is true, I still have my freedom, I can speak my mind, I can even blog about it online, with my high-speed internet access in my own home. I can drive my car down to the resource centers that have been created to help people find work. And in a few days, I will be fortunate enough to be able to pay my own rent, with money I earned. That is quite a lot to be thankful for. Leave it to NPR to shake me back into a larger perspective. This too shall pass. One day at a time. Someday you'll back back and laugh.

If the Chinese middle class permits

Bill Saporito's October 31 Time article said it best: "Consider the cosmic irony: wobbly Western economies are depending on the Chinese Communist Party to save their capitalist bacon. Likewise, the Chinese government's grand scheme to rebalance its economy hinges on Western-style materialism." "Shop 'til you drop" probably isn't what Mao Zedong had in mind during the years he was in power, as Saporito points out in his piece on the Chinese middle class, a spending class that precariously faces what could wind up saving the global economy--or busting it even further.

What China is planning is a shift away from export-based industry to a consumer-spending based system, but it will not be easy and there are plenty of potential hiccups involved in fundamentally shifting an economy of 1.7 billion people. But the middle class of that country, which they are projecting to be 70 percent of the population by 2020, could be the saviors of the global economic structure; they have immense capacity for spending, a huge group like that.

The American century, the twentieth, is over. It's been over for awhile, and there's no stopping the growth of India and China now. It will be interesting to see what does happen in the Chinese economy, in the next fifty to one hundred years. Right now, we cannot predict which way it will go, but the result will be felt greatly worldwide, whichever way it swings. Spending too much time focused so exclusively on the United States means Americans, I think, are not thinking quite so realistically about the end of our own era. Not that we're going away, it's just not going to be our job to be Mister #1 anymore; that's not a bad thing. China, if it takes over that spot, certainly has plenty of its own issues--inherent in its government system--that its leaders will need to sort out, not least of which includes their rough human rights record.

Companies have known for years that the developing world was an important place for them to seek new markets for their goods. Couple that with a recession across the West and other developed nations, and you see a kind of exodus now, towards those booming, growing, expansive markets--the new consumers who have their eyes on fancy goods. Gap, the American jeans company, is closing twenty percent of its U.S. stores and tripling the number it has in China.

Saporito's most memorable bit:

If successful, the shift to consumer spending will take a good chunk of the weight of the global economy off the shoulders of American consumers and make China a gotta-be-there market for everything from video games to surgical tools to potato chips. "This generation, these strivers, they will be the saviors of the global economy," says Tim Minges, chairman of the greater China region for PepsiCo, which is pouring billions into China in anticipation of that growth. "I really do think the Chinese middle class will be like the U.S. baby boomers."

I, for one, am putting my faith in this Chinese middle class, as the new version of the U.S.'s baby boomers, to save us all.

To combat a recession: retail tactics and the mall wake-up call

For most large retailers, the last thirty years has been about stretching as far across mid-land America as possible, opening stores in malls on the fringes of big cities and in mid-size towns and communities, homogenizing the landscapes and centralizing decisions so that in most of the country, men, women, teenagers, and children could enjoy a huge selection of... the same stuff.

If the east and west coasts lead the trends, then middle-America picks them up a few seasons later, from the mall or from any department store, in their homogeneous packages, and with the stores using the same marketing techniques in Boise, ID, Topeka, KS, and Charlotte, NC. One group of people decide what should be sold and how it should be marketed, and in an era when people are spending less time buying high-prices clothes while munching on Auntie Anne's pretzel bites, this is an obviously outdated approach.

I worked as a sales associate in the Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, GA for almost three years, from the fall of 2007 to the summer of 2010, during what some might say was a pretty interesting time to be in that industry, watching from the inside as many companies began to crash and burn, when a store might make its monthly sales goal once in a year, maybe. The claws come out, to say the least. The first thing that happens is a flood of suped-up (read: desperate) sale promotions.

Buy jeans, get a shirt half off!

Spend $50, get $10 off!

All shirts, jewelery, shoes (insert your product here) BUY ONE GET ONE HALF OFF!

In the retail world, that last one is an actual term, BOGO, which might sound nicer if it was actually "buy-one-get-one," except that it usually means "buy-one-get-one-half-off."

I was never a fool walking into the mall, but after three years working in that grinding place, you learn all the tricks. You'd think people would realize that they're still spending more when they do the BOGO thing, and sometimes, if you are looking for two shirts or two necklaces, that can be handy. In most cases, people should more likely keep their wallet shut and bee-line it for the door-- especially when managers are training their sales associates to get you to add on items to your purchase, apply for a credit card, and even track you down in the fitting room to suggest additional items you might like to go along with the lot you've already hauled in there. It is oft-repeated to associates that the customer is three times more likely to buy something once they've tried it on.

If you've walked through the mall recently, you know how desperate people are. Those kiosks in the hallways are traps of awkward refusals; even I have trouble with them, and I am pretty immune to the tricks of the trade (sometimes I wish I could just write on my forehead, "Hey, I know your schemes, don't even try your open-ended questions on me, just let me shop," to shake them off as I enter a store.)

How refreshing, then, that some big-box department stores have finally admitted that maybe there is a better way to reach their nation-wide markets than by offering the same exhausted polo shirts and ripped jeans and bejeweled belts to everyone. From yesterday's article in the New York Times:

After decades of acquiring, consolidating and centralizing, the department store chain is rediscovering — and financially exploiting — its multiple local roots, advancing a trend that is quickly being adopted by other retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Best Buy.

It is a lesson many companies overlooked in the last 30 years as they rolled smaller stores into huge national brands, and headquarters mandated what the outlets in Biloxi or Boise should sell.

But years of economic turmoil for the retail industry have helped refresh memories. While many national retailers continue to see sales declines in a sour economy, Macy’s says its first full year of “going local” has helped increase sales significantly and “lifted the entire Macy’s performance,” according to its chairman and chief executive, Terry J. Lundgren.

Hallelujah, someone is paying attention to the markets. It does retailers no good anymore to continue to push from above the same tired tactics that were in place before the recession of circa 2008. Instead of desperately reaching with ever-greater numbers of promotions to try to get that same product out the door, perhaps the product must be changed, be more in tune with the market. People want to buy things that are specific to their area--like clothing based on school colors, and climate-appropriate jackets, for example--and money will always be spent on things like that.

In the case of these Macy's stores, the article points specifically to the Cumberland Mall in Atlanta, and their expansion in the last year of their hat department, whose sales have doubled accordingly, as they sought to give their southern and urban market what it wants.

“We have research information, and we think about household income and population size, but I think it’s much more accurate to have people living in the marketplace tell you, ‘This is who’s shopping in my store,’ ” Mr. Lundgren said.

I always thought it was silly to carry the same coats and sweaters at the Georgia September floorset switch as in the Ohio season switch, when it's still so hot out; accordingly, people in Cincinnati are not looking for bathing suits in January (nor, really, are Atlantans, but even less so for the mid-westerners). Yet this is taking the whole approach to the American market to a new level of regional consideration, for the better. There are plenty of arguments out there for "going local" for environmental reasons; how about going local for the sake of making a bigger buck on your market? When you have a strong East Asian community, offer more extra smalls; when you have a large Indian clientele, tweak your jewelry spread to include more gold items, less silver.

From the same article:

“In prior years, with the recession, it became all about cost-cutting no matter what,” said Esteban Bowles, a retail consultant with A. T. Kearney. “Now companies are seeing the light and looking for the rebound.”

If my years folding clothes at the mall taught me anything, it was that the whole bottom-line, make-every-last-dollar-we-can mindset is just as prevalent as you hear, and those retailers, they're all fighting--viciously--to win those economically wounded customers from each other. What hurts the most for sales associates is that they get grief, and pressure, from their managers, who get it from their regional managers, who get it from district- and national-level bosses. Everyone is trying to illustrate that they have what it takes to make money in retail, but maybe they need to start all over with their definitions of "retail." People will always need to buy things that they need and that appeal to them. Now, start from there.