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Job Insecurity: It's the Disease of the 21st Century -- And It's Killing Us

A massive, Xanax-fueled public health crisis driven by chronic employment worry is headed our way.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is the first in an ongoing series on job insecurity. 

Remember Dilbert, the mid-level, white-collar Cubicle Guy of the '90s who could never seem to get ahead? In the 21st century, his position looks almost enviable.

He has been replaced by Waiting-For-the-Other-Shoe-to-Drop Man.

Across America, freaked-out employees are coping with sweat-drenched nights and heart-pounding days. They’re reaching for the Xanax and piling on the work of two or three people. They’re running the risk of short-term collapse and long-term disease.

The hell created by three grinding years of 8 percent-plus unemployment brings us plenty of stories of what people suffer when they lose their jobs. But what about the untold millions who live in chronic fear that tomorrow’s paycheck will be their last?

Research shows that the purgatory of job insecurity may be even worse for you than unemployment. And it's turning the American Dream into a sleepwalking nightmare. From young temporary workers to middle-aged career veterans, Americans are being pushed to their physical and psychological limits in what has the makings of a major national public health crisis. 

The New Insecurity

We’re supposed to be a nation of cockeyed optimists. But many feel like haunted wanderers in a dark forest, knowing that the slightest turn of the foot could fell us. Just ask Alan L, a 32-year-old from Queens, New York.

The path ahead should have been bright for Alan. After several years as a music industry publicist, he took the ubiquitous advice of the mid-noughts and went to back to school for a bachelor’s degree. Yearning to do something more meaningful, Alan imagined teaching or perhaps working for a non-profit, a job that would put his double major in history and political science to good use.

Today he wakes up in the middle of the night, gripped by fear. He checks his email compulsively, and suffers from the strange sensation that he is invisible, that his body is floating in space.

Alan has a job. But not in a school or a non-profit. In fact, he can’t even score work as a publicist, or even a position at a local bookshop or music store. Since getting his degree in 2011, Alan has bounced from one temporary assignment to the next, always aware the next quarterly budget could send him packing. The specter of $40,000 in student debt is his constant companion.

When Alan decided to go the college route, his parents and friends cheered. Little did they know that a train wreck was coming. During his second week as a full-time college student, the economy crashed. Still, Alan worked hard. He made the Dean’s List. He won awards. “I wasn’t some goofball, flaky student,” he says.

Now he has a constant sense of failure.

The temporary office jobs he lands offer no real path to full-time employment. Tied to budget decisions, they frequently vanish with little or no warning. “You begin to hear rumors that your job is going to be cut,” Alan says. “People get passive-aggressive. It’s stressful.”

During what would be his lunch break, Alan runs a mini-command center on his laptop, scanning job sites and sending out hundreds of resumes. He’ll have three or four browsers open at one time, constantly hitting the refresh button on jobs listings to see if any new posts come up. Trying to look for a job while trying to keep a job is a frantic enterprise.

Alan has started to experience the weird uncanniness of the New Insecurity. He feels like someone on the outside of society, looking in:

 
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