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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Unemployed And Suicidal

In a press conference today, Jefferson City police revealed the contents of Spence Jackson's suicide note. His mother had asked them to release it because there so many unfounded rumors going around regarding his death five weeks after his boss, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, put a gun to his own head and killed himself.

Jackson's suicide note was short and to the point: "I'm so sorry. I just can't take being unemployed again." Which he would be, since it's unlikely the new state auditor would hire him. In the political world, once your boss is no longer in office, you're usually no longer in office. I'm sure Jackson, as Schweich's media director, was looking forward to the upcoming primaries and gubernatorial campaign, but now, that's not going to happen.

At 44 years old, that's a horrible conclusion to come to about your life, particularly in a field where you're going to run into unemployment a lot. You're not always going to be working for a winner. In politics, some of the candidates have to lose, and the staff who worked for the losers then must pick themselves up and find someone else to go work for.

There's a parallel in the radio business. I say this as a person who has been unemployed a time or two.

There was a point in my life, thirty years ago, when I took a job in a big city and it became evident to me after the first month that the job was not working out. I had a contract for a couple of years and I was absolutely miserable. I started having thoughts like, "I don't know if I can do this." They never veered into suicidal thoughts, but I was damned depressed. I don't mean medically or clinically, but professionally depressed. But at the time I had my beautiful wife, and we had just started our life together a couple of years earlier, and I was relatively young. So I thought well, just work your way through this hell, get through this tunnel, dig yourself out the other side, and you'll find something better. A few months later, I did exactly that and had one of the best experiences of my career.

That's more easily done at 28 (my age at the time) than at 44. During the recession, lots of people, particularly between the ages of forty and sixty-five, found themselves pushed out of a job that they loved. Maybe they'd been doing that job for ten or fifteen years when, for economic reasons, the company they were working for had to cut back. They suddenly found themselves forced to find a new job during a very tough time. A lot of people who fit that demographic are, to this day, still trying to get their lives back on track.

In many cases, they are part of what we now call The Underemployed. These are people who used to have a pretty good job with a pretty good salary, who have spent the last several years making a lot less -- if they were able to find any work at all. Because when those companies did rebound, when it came time for them to expand after the contraction of the recession, did they look to rehire the highly-paid middle-aged people they had let go? Perhaps. But more likely, they took people who were closer to the beginning of their careers, whose salaries were much lower, who hadn't been promoted up the scale to make more money and earn more benefits.

"I'm so sorry, I just couldn't face being unemployed again."

I guarantee you, that exact sentence has been said at the dinner tables of tens of thousands of Americans in the last seven or eight years. They did not all kill themselves, obviously, but I bet that many of them found themselves with the same depressive thoughts I did in 1986: "What am I going to do now? How am I going to get out of this hole? How am I going to provide for my family? How am I ever going to get another job commensurate with my skill again?"

When the economic recovery is discussed, some people look at the stock market as proof that America's doing much better -- but there are still a lot of people who have been left behind. Many people who are on the job have found their wages stagnant, even as companies have expanded and their earnings grown. Some of the reason those profits are so good is because they propped up the bottom line by cutting out of the equation a lot of those humans who cost so much.

So what are those humans to do? Hopefully, they don't come to the same conclusion that Spence Jackson did. I didn't know the man, and I'm sure he and I were not politically aligned on most issues. But I do know that feeling of having poured your whole life into what you do for a living, and it defines who you are, and when it's so connected to the person you work for, and that person has killed himself.

The Tom Schweich story was sad enough. The Spence Jackson story is just as sad, or maybe sadder.

There will still be people who believe there's more to the story, who speculate on his personal motives. I harbored many of those doubts myself, but after some reflection, I'm not so sure there is an untold story. Spence Jackson may have been killed by the bullet that he put in his own head because he couldn't face trying yet again to talk somebody else into hiring him to do the job that he probably loved very, very much.