Over the past year, as the economy has continued to struggle, I’ve increasingly heard a new term used to describe the lives of the long-term unemployed. The term, the “new normal,” speaks to how we are currently living as compared to three years ago when unemployment was lower and many of us had jobs and a different outlook on life.
For my family, the new normal is a way of life we’ve been forced to adapt to as I struggle with being out of work for 41 months. It involves not only a significant loss of income and what I can provide for the family, but also a change in roles.
A major part of our new normal describes what we can’t do because we no longer have the money. For example, we aren’t saving anything for my retirement because I’m not employed. This worries me because at 54, I’m years away from drawing Social Security.
We also can’t save any money for emergencies and the peace of mind a small nest egg would provide. All of our purchases — large and small — are paid for in cash or debit cards. We have to save for any larger purchases. We no longer believe in using credit for anything except our mortgage.
Lack of money also means that we are only buying what we need, which includes only the basic necessities of life. There is no longer extra money for clothes, or eating out at fancy restaurants or vacations (which, if millions of Americans are doing the same thing, bodes poorly for the economy).
Our new normal also means ratcheting down our expectations about how we’ll live in the future. Instead of going to state universities, my children will have to attend community college before moving on. Any dreams about selling our house and moving to the beach have been put on hold indefinitely. Vacations will be something we save for after everything else is paid for. More than likely, it will be somewhere we can drive to in the family minivan.
But what our new normal contains most of all is worry.
There is continual worry about whether at my age I will ever work again. There is also worry about what the future holds for our children: Will they be able to get an affordable education and find jobs that can earn them a middle-class standard of living? And what about health care? When my wife retires in a few years, will we be able to afford health care coverage at the level that we have grown accustomed to? What if either of us gets really sick?
Our new normal would change dramatically if I were able to go back to work at a level even half of where I was before.
But until then, as I continue to look for employment and have hope that I’ll work again, I worry about my future and the future of my family. Reluctantly, that’s our new normal.
Daniel Joyce, a 54-year-old former financial marketer from San Jose, Calif., has been unemployed for three years. Read more about him here. Read about the “Help Wanted” project here. Visit the project home page here.
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