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.”
He rattled off his routine: Get up, go to the gym, have lunch, take a shower, surf job sites. “The one thing I didn’t include,” he said, “is the lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for a half-hour, going, ‘Dear God, do I have to get up again and do this again?’”
Howard Young, 57, a purchasing manager who had been at his company for 13 years before being laid off last year, was out of work for six months before finding a new job in January. “I know that my mother was home a lot during the ’50s, and she was the type of person who liked to work a lot. She would watch TV … sort of get into a rut, get very depressed. I found myself getting into a rut, too,” he said. “The only thing that saved me from getting into a worse rut is the fact that I consumingly hate morning television. That absolutely helped.”
What was before a warm and welcoming place to look forward to going at the end of the day is now a prison. “I want to think of my home as a relaxing place where I’m not subject to … stresses,” Mr. Elrod said. “Since I don’t have a job, a lot of the stresses about finding a job-I suffer that at home.”
When he was still in college, Mr. Biddle used to regard coming home as something of a reward. “Now it’s an endless plain of getting out of my bed, sitting on the couch. And we don’t have any chairs, really, so it’s always a constant state of like, reclining. There’s nowhere to be, like, upright and uncomfortable. So yeah, it’s a lethargic daze all the time.”
Back in Queens, Norm told The Observer he’d heard about a job at a major international corporation. He sat down at the table in his airy, open-plan living space and opened a pristinely white MacBook, which he operated with a wireless mouse. A few minutes later, he looked up from the screen and remarked that Betty White is starting a new clothing line.
The void created by unemployment is easily filled by the Internet, and unemployed men seem to devour blogs in much the same way as ’50s housewives devoured Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. Mr. Young said he spent quite a bit of time reading blogs about depression and anxiety. “They were almost in a way self-fulfilling,” he said.
Brad described his own and his friends’ unemployment as being “kind of like, ‘All right, something new just came out on iTunes 30 seconds ago, and I know because I’ve been sitting at my computer refreshing the screen all day long; there’s nothing else to do.’”
Mr. Elrod prefers Salon, and The New York Times‘ Economix blog, but isn’t sure all the extra time he spends on them has actually made him better informed. “I remember when the airplane crashed in the Hudson, I didn’t know about it until my wife mentioned it that night, and I was on the computer all day!”
He eventually clicked over to the hiring site, laughing when he espied the front page. “I love corporate job sites,” he said sarcastically, gesturing to the blandly attractive, ambiguously ethnic woman welcoming him to the site.
THERE ARE WAYS that men make domestic malaise feel a little more masculine. Nearly all the unemployed men we talked to made sure to emphasize their regular workouts. (Friedan wrote of housewives’ meticulous beauty regimes: “The strained glamour is in itself a question mark: the lady doth protest too much,” which may or may not apply here.) For some men, child care is apparently still a pleasant novelty: The Observer encountered John Harvey, a 35-year-old surgeon who’s between jobs, having a water-balloon fight in Central Park with his 5-year-old son, Somers. Both were eager to tell us that Dad’s time not working has been a “lovely summer holiday.” “We’ve been spending a lot of time together,” John said. “It’s been really nice.” Somers agreed: “It’s been really good, yeah!”
And then there are the spectator sports! “World Cup pretty much dominated my life for about a month,” Mr. Barr said. “So there was someplace to go every day in the middle of the afternoon, and I pretty much hit half the bars/restaurants on the Lower East Side during that period. When World Cup ended, I kind of looked around and was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to come up with things to do.’”
Like the middle-class women who populated Friedan’s opus, this new mystified class expresses a dissatisfaction more existential than financial. Mr. Elrod has health insurance through his wife’s job. Mr. Biddle is getting by on savings and help from his parents. Mr. Barr can, well, afford to shop at Whole Foods.
But they keenly feel the unfulfilled promise of their expensive educations.
“Part of the frustration is this incredibly long build-up to nothing,” Brad said. “Like, ‘Why did I spend 22 years getting A’s and studying for the chance to eat canned chili?’ … I was in the airport watching people move bags from the curb to the curbside check-in, thinking, ‘At least they do something all day long, and I have $450,000 in education and fancy everything, and I’m sitting around all day and watching 2.5 movies a day?’”
One of Friedan’s most enduring observations is that her society defined men by personhood and women by gender: “barred from the freedom of human existence and a voice in human destiny.” Arguably, the same can be said for the unemployed men of New York.
“I guess there’s a certain feeling of a wholeness when you have work and you have a schedule to maintain, and when all that’s thrown in the crapper, it just puts you in a tizzy,” Mr. Young said.
“For me, the problem was always just a lack of identity,” Brad said. “Like, what am I if I do nothing all day long?”
“When you don’t have an activity with a capital A, yeah, you’re sort of like a cipher,” Mr. Biddle said mournfully.
In the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan suggested an elegant way to end housewife malaise for good: Women ought to work. “One sees the human significance of work-not merely as the means of biological survival, but as the giver of self and the transcender of self, as the creator of human identity and human evolution,” she wrote.
Unemployed men know their feelings of depression and anxiety are caused by not working, and they want nothing more than to work, but the economic obstacle is obvious and always present.
Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate who knew Friedan (their grandmothers were cousins), had an idea. “Men could wake up and retrain themselves-they could become teachers and nurses,” she said tartly. “And this whole notion we have that once a profession turns pink, it can never turn back, I mean, that’s a choice that people make. Nowhere is it written in stone that, like, men shalt not be nurses in large numbers.”
There’s a teacher shortage in math, reading and science, too. “We now know that the same range of potential ability exists for women as for men,” Friedan wrote in 1963. In 2010, if they’re dissatisfied, maybe men need to work like women.
“Obviously, I’m not communing with her ghost,” Ms. Bazelon said of Friedan, “but I imagine she might just get a chuckle out of this recent discussion that the era of men is over and that they’re in trouble.”