On a recent sunny morning, Norm Elrod was standing in front of the freezer case of a little market near the Jackson Heights apartment he shares with his wife, Amanda, a graphic designer, and their two cats. He was having trouble deciding between two bags of frozen edamame: one 40 cents cheaper, the other an ounce heavier. He surmised, correctly, that the smaller bag was a better deal, then repeated the process with tortilla chips.
Mr. Elrod, 38, a former marketing manager who is currently unemployed, now does most of the grocery shopping and other household stuff. It just makes more sense, he explained.
When Norm returned to his apartment, Amanda quietly explained he got the wrong kind of edamame-these are shelled, and she wanted the whole kind. Not to worry, he told her. He was planning on going to get an iced coffee soon, and he can pick up the right kind. It’s no big deal. He has time.
Pretty soon after this, Amanda bustled off to her office in midtown Manhattan. Norm had mentioned earlier that he sometimes waits, June Cleaver-style, for her to get home. “I don’t lack for things to do, but I do notice when it’s, like, 7:15 and she’s not here yet,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, let’s go on IM, is she still at work, oh, she logged off, I wonder when she logged off …’”
‘I have a lot of shiny surfaces in my apartment, and they really show any kind of smudges and stuff like that.’ —Robert Barr, unemployed New Yorker
Welcome to the Problem That Has No Job: a kind of upside-down Mad Men meets Mr. Mom where wives and girlfriends are out all day making money while the city’s unemployed guys mop floors, cook dinner and experience all the attendant ennui. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s germinal study of the restless American housewife, the author singled out 1960 as the year when women began to realize in droves that something was wrong with their domestic lives; she called it “the year American women’s discontent boiled over.” A half-century later, three years into the most recent recession, the tables seem to have turned. Men have been disproportionately affected by layoffs; they make up anywhere from 70 to 82 percent of those laid off, according to government statistics. The average length of unemployment is more than seven months, which Congress acknowledged last month by passing a benefits extension allowing those who have been out of work for more than six months to continue to receive unemployment pay.
Meaning that Norm, and guys like him, have had a lot of time to settle into a new kind of routine.
Robert Barr, a 47-year-old in a black V-neck who was carrying a baguette and some leafy greens at the Lower East Side Whole Foods the other day, proudly told The Observer that he’s learned to poach eggs. “When I was in New York and I was overemployed-really, really busy-I definitely ate a lot more takeout food. And if I did shop, it was always specifically for that night,” he said. “I’d say now, I think a little bit more ahead. And I probably will end up buying stuff that’s going to take longer to prepare, because I’ve got more time.”
Mr. Barr, who has worked in publishing and public relations, added that he also cleans more thoroughly than he did when he had a job: “There is a weird little sense of accomplishment that you get, cleaning up the space around you. For example, today, I got up and-I have a lot of shiny surfaces in my apartment, and they really show any kind of smudges and stuff like that. They don’t even have to be that dirty to look kind of bad. At one point, I was just like, ‘O.K., I don’t like this, I want to clean the space around my computer and I want to clean off that countertop.’ And I felt good. I felt very organized.”
To quote from Friedan’s chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available”: “The more a woman is deprived of function in society at the level of her own ability, the more her housework, mother-work, wife-work, will expand-and the more she will resist finishing her housework or mother-work, and being without any function at all.”
It’s true of unemployed men, too, for whom the little chores they’d normally get done in 15 minutes on a Saturday afternoon become all-consuming tasks.
“I’m a compulsive cleaner anyway … and when I was home all day, that’s basically what I did,” said Brad, a 28-year-old lawyer who was out of work for six months before finding a job earlier this year, and who requested his name be changed for this article. “If someone called me and said, ‘What are you doing right now?’ I would be like, ‘Oh, I have so many chores to do today.’ You make something out of nothing. I had one friend who, if you called him and asked him if he could hang out, when he was not working, he would be like, ‘Well, you know, I had a few phone calls to make, and then at some point I wanted to make a sandwich. …’”
Mr. Elrod told me he’ll spend two or three times as long as he reasonably needs to on, say, vacuuming.
“I love having errands,” said Sam Biddle, a 23-year-old recent Johns Hopkins graduate who has blogged about his unemployment for the Awl. “When I have an excuse to like, Google Maps something and figure out how I’m going to get there, I’m just filled with … I cherish it!”
Excited by Betty White
ONE HOUSEWIFE IN The Feminine Mystique cites “times of anger, bitterness and general frustration too numerous to even mention,” and concludes, “I felt so completely alone.” Friedan’s subjects are also listless, sad and anxious. She called it “the problem that has no name.” (Brad had a rather more manly name for the phenomenon: “The 800-pound gorilla in the room.”)
Mr. Elrod, who has been laid off four times in the past nine years, definitely understands irritability: “I find myself very-I get angry much more quickly. Little nothing things trigger it. I’ll get pissed off about something that honestly doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, who cares?” he said. “But it’s because I’m feeling bad about myself.”
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